Global Service Branding: Let the Seller Beware

It’s only fitting that my first post since heading off to Europe 3 weeks ago should discuss international branding. Bear in mind I’m a career marketing and business professional who has lived in Paris for 5 years so these aren’t just the idle rantings of a frustrated American tourist. Well, actually they are. But at least they’re the idle rantings of a moderately well informed and business-savvy American tourist.

Today’s question is why do American service-industry firms use the same branding in Europe as they do in the US when the consumer experience they deliver is not at all the same? Do they think they’re leveraging their global brand? Do they think they merit kudos for global consistency? I think all they’re doing is under-cutting their brands, irritating most customers, and potentially badly alienating their best customers.

For product companies, I think things are bit different. A BMW’s a BMW no matter where you put it. So is a QuickSilver t-shirt, or a Nike soccer ball.

But when the product is service, well, if you’re going to call it McDonald’s, the coffee better be lawsuit hot, the quarter pounder (or metric equivalent) better taste like a quarter pounder, and there better be a moderately clean bathroom in the vicinity.

Similarly, if you’re going to call it Starbucks, then I better be able to order my half-caff, extra-hot, no foam, no whip, peppermint, skim mocha.

Now, I’d say that McDonald’s and Starbucks actually deliver quite well on the global experience consistency promise. (Except that I’d rather not pay the same nominal amount in pounds-sterling as I do in dollars when I order my latte, but that’s a different problem.)

My wrath today is aimed at two global brands who don’t deliver consistency: Hertz and Hyatt.

Two summers ago when we visited France, Hertz kept us three hours at the airport waiting for a minivan that I’d reserved months in advance. “We don’t have any cars. Sorry. It’s not my fault. It’s not possible to do anything. I don’t care if you ever rent from Hertz again for the rest of your life. It’s not my fault. You and your kids can just wait 3 hours for a minivan in 90 degree heat after getting off a twelve-hour flight.”

It was legendary French indifference, non-empowerment, and incompetence. Is that endemic in France? Sadly, in most service industries, I’d say yes. But that’s not the question. I knew that already. The question is why would Hertz want their brand slapped on that customer service experience? The answer is they shouldn’t.

This year’s nightmare was a repeat of one two years ago at the Hyatt Charles de Gaulle. We typically stay there the night before returning to the US, because the flights leave early and you can (theoretically) reduce stress by staying overnight at the airport. We typically arrive around 7pm, after a long day’s drive, want a quick dinner, and then want to retire early before heading off the next day. Nothing special or surprising, I’d imagine, for an airport hotel.

This year, as was almost exactly the case two years ago, the dinner part of the equation was a disaster. (So much for giving service providers second chances.) Skipping the myriad details, it took over 2.5 hours and numerous requests in various languages with various intensity to be served green salads (whose dressing was seemingly forgotten) and some plates of penne pesto.

“It’s not my fault. We only have two cooks. There are several big tables here. It’s not my fault.” Overall it was a total mess — many other American customers cancelled their orders and left — and a mess on which Hyatt absolutely should not want its brand.

Some people at the Hyatt Charles de Gaulle were nice; some people were competent. Some were both nice and competent. But that’s the trick in service industries: you’re not a good as your best person; you’re as bad as your worst.

In branding, so much is about expectations. If the sign on the door said Sofitel or Mercure, I’d have thought “heck, we’re in France, it’s normal that things take forever.” But the sign didn’t say Mercure. It said Hyatt. And when I’m in a Hyatt, I expect a Hyatt experience. And if you can’t deliver that, well, then don’t call it a Hyatt.

Delivering consistent global servce can be done — it just takes a work. A good ex-pat friend in France once quipped that he loved Disneyland Paris because it was the one place you could see French employees smile.

The moral: either do the work to ensure service consistency (e.g., Starbucks, McDonald’s, Disney) or put another brand on the experience. But don’t, don’t, don’t promise one brand experience and then deliver another.

One response to “Global Service Branding: Let the Seller Beware

  1. As a 2 year resident of Paris, I’d argue that Mercure and other hotels even undercut the “high” standards for French service ;-)

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