Does brand authenticity die when you get big?

Brand bloggers have been busy over the last couple of weeks reflecting on the customer service nightmare suffered by US airline Jet Blue, during a weekend of horrible weather conditions. The service screw-ups were made all the more newsworthy by the carrier’s reputation of being a customer champion.

Many bloggers picked up on and applauded the response of CEO, David Neeleman. He wrote a heartfelt apology to customers, and even posted an emotional video on You Tube. And the company quickly created and launched a customer charter, making public commitments to fix the problems. What is impressive about the Jet Blue response it the authenticity of the brand’s leader. (More on the use of social media by Jet Blue over at the Church of the Customer.) It seems he genuinely cared about what had happened, and was personally committed to fixing it. You feel like the letter and video came from the heart, not from the pen of a corporate PR person.

A smaller example is the email response I got within 24 hours from Julian Metcalfe, the founder and CEO of Pret a Manger, when I sent him details of my post about Pret. I commented on the way they had used customer feedback on their soups, improved them and then told the story on the new soup cups. 

Dear David,

Thanks for the note.  I’m flattered, especially about your comments regarding my work on the soup cup.  Thank you!  We should fight on!!


Contrast the Jet Blue and Pret communication with the average email I get from British Airways. These look like they have been written by a computer, and I guess CEO Rod Eddington doesn’t even know what’s in them. When BA was in dispute with cabin crews over sick-pay, I got several BA emails which all seemed to try and shift blame to the unions before the expected strike happened.

So, does getting big mean its inevitable that brand authenticity is lost?

Perhaps not, if you have the right person leading the brand? I’ve had first hand experience of the Unilever people who led Omo/Dirt is Good (David Arkwright) and Dove (Silvia Lagnado). They are what I call "Brand CEOs". They were passionate about the cause they were championing, and stayed on the brand for 5 years+. On a bigger scale, you get the impression Steve Jobbs at Apple cares passionately about innovation and customers. And you get the same feeling about Starbuck’s founder Howard Shultz’s leaked email where he regrets some of the service short-cuts taken that have diluted brand experience (Starbuck’s insider John Moore thought it was fake memo, but has now changed his mind), saying:

"In order to achieve the growth, development, and scale necessary to go
from less than 1,000 stores to 13,000 stores and beyond, we have had to
make a series of decisions that, in retrospect, have lead to the
watering down of the Starbucks experience, and, what some might call
the commoditization of our brand."

Interested to hear of other examples of big brands that have grown big, but stayed authentic.