Brand Lessons From the Best (and Worst) of 2016

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Tesla retail store, Century City, Calif.
Tesla retail store, Century City, Calif. Credit: Courtesy Tesla

Last year was rocked by brand scandals. Whether these were related to safety, deceitful practices, or just downright bad CX, it's no surprise that some of the most well-known brands saw huge variability in customer approval and loyalty in 2016.

In our latest Customer Quotient (CQ) research, this rang true, especially for automotive brands. CQ was developed to assess the relationship between customers and brands, from the customer's perspective; it is a customer's emotional buying criteria, a blueprint of what draws customers to certain brands. And this year, automotive brand scores ranged from -6.91 to +6.03, demonstrating that even in a category where all products meet some fundamental measure of quality, relationships and emotional connections matter. Consumers want to feel confident that manufacturers mean what they say and follow through with actions. Companies that betray consumers' emotional faith pay a heavy price.

By the same token, the high-performing companies -- both in the automotive category (Subaru, Lexus, Tesla) and outside of it -- have paved the way for what companies can and should do in 2017 to generate trust. Beyond providing great customer service, what makes or breaks consumers' experience with a brand is not horsepower, torque, or technology. Rather, it's these five things:

  • Transparency;
  • A deep understanding of customers;
  • Respect;
  • Authenticity, and
  • A willingness to be open and honest about both its strengths and weaknesses.
Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif.
Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif. Credit: Courtesy Tesla

Take Tesla, for example. In 2016, consumers praised Tesla not just for its electric vehicles, but for its willingness to remain transparent in acknowledging mistakes (such as paying outsourced workers below minimum wage) and correcting them. Equally powerful is a brand's understanding of who their consumers are, and AN ability to make them feel a part of a larger community. With Subaru's gay and lesbian-focused marketing campaign that launched in the spring of 2016, the company took an underrepresented group of customers who often feel unnoticed and created ads for them.

Beyond owning mistakes and understanding customers, there are other qualities that engendered trust in high-performing companies and round out the five key attributes.

Reciprocated respect

Ccompanies that aroused the greatest positive passion were those that not only earned their customers' trust, but demonstrated that they trusted their customers in return -- whether in relation to transactions like payments and returns, or in regard to corporate challenges and policies. For instance, when REI announced that they were closing their stores on Black Friday and encouraged employees and consumers to spend the day outdoors or with their families instead, they not only demonstrated a keen understanding of their customers' values, but also trusted that those who might have chosen to shop that day would not abandon REI out of temporary frustration.


As the 2016 election campaign so startlingly revealed, voters place tremendous stock in their sense that a candidate is "telling it like it is." This perception of authenticity trumps the actual capability, record, or experience of the candidate. The same holds true with consumers. While some basic level of quality is table stakes, Consumers place a premium on brands like Chick-fil-A or Ben & Jerry's because they believe them to be plain-spoken, forthright about their values and behave in a fashion that's consistent with those values.

Unilever's Dove brand remains a stellar model of these relationship behaviors in action. The brand makes consumers feel respected in its messaging, promoting their customers to "love the skin you're in." It's relatable and they use all body and skin types to empower women rather than boasting thin, photoshopped supermodels. Most importantly, Unilever not only displays authenticity, they ensure it through their innovative approaches to infusing the company with the consumer voice and perspective.

Companies that truly put customers at the heart of their business by incorporating the elements of trust, respect and authenticity will see continued success in 2017. By getting at the core who the customers are and what they care about, and then integrating those emotional elements into a brand experience strategy, companies will be able to bolster customer loyalty, strengthen their reputations and realize bottom-line results.

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