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Ready to get real? Captivating customers now means authentic connection—flaws and all.
by : 

Sara Wiseman

July 1, 2012

Yes, your customers still want you to have inspiring products, great value, and extraordinary customer service. But they also want something that might make you feel squeamish. They want you to be human. They want you to be real. And if you mess up, they want you to acknowledge it—just like anyone else.

It’s a big change. And if you’re a retailer who’s been around for a while, it might seem scary—after all these years of trying to present a perfect face to customers, it seems risky to show our true, imperfect selves. But change has arrived, as it always does. The invasion of social media into almost every aspect of daily life has shifted the old paradigm of you behind the counter, your customer safely on the other side.

Your customers want to connect. And they demand that you connect, too.

Getting real

For five years, Erin Donley wrote the weekly e-newsletter for New Renaissance Books in Portland, Ore., one of the largest and most successful body-mind-spirit retailers in the Northwest.

“I started out not being a writer at all and not being sure how to connect,” she notes. “Over time, I found that transparency and using stories that showed vulnerability were the keys to connecting and selling products effectively.”

In fact, the more Donley revealed of herself and her personal struggles, the better the newsletter did in terms of response and sales. “I began to realize people craved this kind of communication.”

From this understanding, her business, Marketing Your Truth (www.marketingyourtruth.com), was born—a consulting firm that teaches entrepreneurs how to use language and create branding that authentically connects with customers.

“I started to look around at the type of communication even the most gifted folks in the (holistic) industry were doing, and I realized it lacked authenticity.

“Spiritual teacher Gangaji hired me to refine [her] marketing. What we found was the way [the previous messaging] had been speaking about her work was talking over people’s heads. We came up with language that helped connect on things that really mattered to the everyday person.”

So often in the holistic field, Donley explains, we follow what everyone else is doing because it feels right. “We use these old, canned phrases like ‘achieve your dreams,’ ‘find your infinite potential,’ ‘activate your intuition.’

“But, if we return to beginner’s mind, we find what people really want is a new language. We need to anchor the benefits in the real world—what really matters to people, like ‘take care of your family better, build better relationships, build a more satisfying life.’”

In other words, get real—and meet customers where they are.

Own your authenticity

Donley also hosts “Reveal What’s Real,” a Portland, Ore., cable TV show that interviews entrepreneurs, authors, and thought leaders about the “real stuff” these folks went through to achieve success.

One of her recent guests was Kenneth “Cat Daddy” Pogson, owner of the iconic Voodoo Doughnut—a tiny shop that’s achieved a cult following in Portland and has expanded at a rapid rate.

“He broke free of his upbringing and found his authentic vocation—the work he was meant to do. And this became his message,” she explains.

Instead of following the likes of the other doughnut leaders (e.g., Krispy Kreme, Dunkin’ Donuts), he went his own way.

“It took him a while to stand on his feet, but he did it by being 100 percent himself. Authenticity made him grow. He didn’t follow anyone’s model; he followed his own,” she says. “He owned his flaws and moved forward without apology.”

Social media brings transparency

If you’re going to make it as a business today, you have to use social media, says Donley. “It’s not just the language, it’s the way it’s delivered. The online community is this great equalizer.”

Mobile devices are especially key—if your customers can tweet from their phone in your store, they will. “Your customers are out there, and they are commenting on everything they come across, good and bad,” she says.

Instead of being afraid of the exposure, think of it as an opportunity. “Have your customers help build your brand by providing social media comments on what you’re doing right,” she suggests. “Each comment is like a testimonial for your store.”

And what you’re doing wrong? Look at how a few brand leaders dealt with mistakes (see sidebar at right), and take your cue from them. In a nutshell, acknowledge the goof quickly, apologize, fix it, and move on.


Eight Ways to Get Real

After years of hiding your flaws under the proverbial rug, it can be scary to imagine being transparent with customers. Ease into it by trying a few of these tips for connecting more authentically.

  1. Get active in social media—if you’re still not into it, don’t delay a moment longer. This is the best place to regularly connect with your customers. You can’t afford to miss out.
  2. Mobile is the new … well, the new everything. Make sure your website and other outreach is mobile optimized.
  3. Welcome comments, reviews, and feedback via social media; set up a Facebook page or a forum. Don’t censor it—if you get a bad review, jump in there and respond publicly.
  4. Build a culture of openness. Look at your staff/team and ask yourself, “Who will speak the truth here?” If you’re the boss/owner and everyone is always agreeing with you, you’re not getting the true picture. Dig deeper.
  5. Use beginner’s mind to look at the language you use to brand your store and products. Is it anchored in relevant, everyday benefits that your customer really wants? Get rid of the fluff and canned stuff. Get real.
  6. If you use Constant Contact or another newsletter service, consider doing a survey, asking customers what they think and want. The results may surprise you and certainly will be informative.
  7. If you’ve been in business awhile, use beginner’s mind again to question everything you do, from the days and times you’re open, to the employees on staff, to the merchandise you sell. Notice what needs to change.
  8. If you make a mistake, own up to it right away and fix it. Your customers will respect you for it and come back over and over.

Flaunt Your Flaws

Take a look at these recent cases of how big companies brand themselves with flaws and all, or how they recovered quickly from big mistakes using authentic and transparent branding. Sourced in part from Trendwatching (www.trendwatching.com), most of these cases also use humor.

  • Lululemon (www.lululemon.com), a Canadian yoga apparel and accessories manufacturer, released a funny YouTube video called “Sh*t Yogis Say.” You may have seen it, since it went viral with 1.5 million views. It makes fun of yoga lovers—the company’s core customers. Making fun of your customers? It works because everyone’s in on the joke.
  • Dave’s Killer Bread (www.daveskillerbread.com): A former convicted felon and meth addict creates bread with the provocative tagline, “Just say no to bread on drugs.” No apologies for the founder’s criminal past whatsoever; in fact, he gives a full history of his addictions and struggles right on the website. People can’t get enough.
  • Want to know how a Boden (www.bodenusa.com) dress or pair of pants fits? The apparel company’s very vocal customers will tell you the good, bad, or ugly in uncensored reviews posted right along with the product. Lots of companies do this, but Boden has created a culture of readership—the reviews are part of the shopping experience. If you’re brave enough to let your customers do this on a Facebook page or forum, you’re going to get invaluable feedback.
  • Many people were turning up their noses at the idea of Miracle Whip, a tangy mayonnaise alternative, without ever having tried the product, and some vehemently disliked it and preferred regular mayo. Kraft took the problem head on and ran the recent campaign, “We’re not for everyone,” which let consumers say whether they loved (or hated) the condiment. Sixty thousand loved it. The bold approach is helping reestablish a polarizing product among younger consumers who appreciate straight talk.
  • A FedEx employee was caught throwing a video monitor over a fence during last year’s busy holiday season. FedEx responded immediately with a blog called “Absolutely, Positively Unacceptable,” an instant apology, then fixed the problem publicly by replacing the monitor and firing the employee. All was forgiven.
  • The airline Virgin America upgraded its reservation system last year, and many passengers complained of difficulties via Twitter and Facebook. Rather than delete the posts, Virgin sent 12,000 direct messages to customers, apologizing for the inconvenience.

Sara Wiseman’s new book Becoming Your Best Self has just released. She is an intuitive, branding expert and author of Writing the Divine and Your Psychic Child. A top contributor to DailyOm, she hosts the radio show “Ask Sara” and has released four healing CDs with her band Martyrs of Sound. For free resources, visit www.sarawiseman.com.