THE RISE OF THE BRAND ASSASSIN

SERIAL ENTREPRENEUR

AFTER receiving a healthy sum of birthday money from his rather indulgent grandparents, my son resolved to spend it on an Xbox 360. PC World was a full £25 cheaper than my usual first stop shop, Amazon. Deal done, order placed, but no item arrived. Days passed, phone calls were made, confusing emails received and a seemingly endless merry-go-round of broken promises from customer services.

The final straw came when a promised call back never materialised. I took my ire to Twitter:
“If you ever want to see a dysfunctional organisation at work try ordering from the PC World website. Nothing’s arrived and no way to track.”

It was duly retweeted, but not nearly enough to satisfy my anger; so I continued.

“Are you listening PC World. #ecommercefail! I will go to my grave before I order from you again. #votewithyourfeet.”

This attracted more attention and I was made aware of a representative on Twitter from the Dixons Group – owners of PC World. I directed a tweet his way, and to my surprise he made contact and apologised. My order was cancelled and he offered a full refund.

Amazon got my son’s business that evening, and the Xbox arrived next day. I await my promised refund from PC World.

I have subsequently told this story to the 350 heads of the ad agencies that make up one of the largest advertising networks in the world. As you read this you are one more person who knows this story, amplifying my voice to tens of thousands who have gained a negative view of PC World online.

Last year I spoke at length about social enterprise. There was an upsurge of interest by people who attended School for Startups events in starting a social enterprise. Most were very clear on their social mission but only a few had realised that the emphasis in the phrase “social enterprise” is on “enterprise” not “social”. Social is the adjective in that sentence.

To be a successful social enterprise you must first be a successful enterprise. You have to do well to do good.

Over the last few decades, new stakeholders have appeared as they have acquired a voice to which companies have had to respond.

If you run a social enterprise you intentionally add a voice or amplify one that exists. What concerned me last year was that the idealists who were attending my course were like kids in a candy store. They would line up every social good along the path to profit, but with so many hands stretched out on the path to profit by the time the revenue stream reached the profit, there would be no profit.

The challenge I asserted is that a social enterprise is doubly hard to run: it asks for two bottom lines or, more precisely, it asks for a bottom line despite an intentional diversion on the path from revenue to profit. You must be even more focused and efficient than a normal business if you intend to serve two masters.

Increasingly, this is a challenge facing not only those who choose to be social, but every company with a reputation to protect. Historically, the challenge facing those who want to hold a company to account is that they could not create awareness. They could not get attention.

But something radical has happened recently. The rise of social media has amplified the individual voice and equally importantly has provided the means for individual voices to become a collective at nearly no cost: we are all one Facebook group or one hashtag away from aggregating protests of a similar kind.

It is not that power has been redistributed. It’s just that there is more power around.

Every customer with a grievance is a guerrilla and every person who has been driven mad by a bad customer service experience is a brand assassin. Each individual has the potential to tell a story – to push a domino that will cause a revolution. There is simply more power around and the amount the company has hasn’t changed: which means that they are no longer so powerful.

In the new world order, every CEO must ask if it’s worth angering a customer.

A smart CEO is always assessing risk versus reward. And the only rational response to the potential for embarrassing failures or intentional evil is to reappraise the risks of doing so in a world where everyone is a whistleblower.

The question is no longer whether we can afford to make a profit for profit’s sake. Rather, it is becoming evident that, just as social enterprises must do well to do good, so too every business will have to do good to do well.