Circos Brand Karma

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Liar Liar Pants (Eventually) On Fire

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Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an in-depth article about the doping controversy surrounding Lance Armstrong.  In the article, Armstrong’s former teammate, Floyd Landis, described the doping that was done in the 2004 Tour de France (which Armstrong won) as being “…part of the sport and, if he joined a top team, would be part of his job.”  Landis subsequently won the Tour in 2006 but was stripped of his win when he failed the doping test after the race.

In response, Armstrong, as he has always done in the past, denied the allegations and instead focused on supporting his cancer foundation, Livestrong.

Today’s Wall Street Journal article is full of false accusations and more of the same old news from Floyd Landis, a person with zero credibility and an established pattern of recanting tomorrow what he swears to today… For years, sensational stories based on the allegations of ax-grinders — have surfaced on the eve of the Tour for publicity reasons, and this article is simply no different.  Lastly, I have too much work to do during this, my final Tour, and then after my retirement in my continued fight against cancer, to add any attention to this predictable pre-Tour sensationalism.

Steven Levitt, author of one of my favorite books, Freakonomics, had this interesting observation on his blog in The New York Times:

I’ve never studied lying versus truth-telling academically, but I have thought a lot about creativity.  And one thing that I have come to believe is that people – virtually all people, including me – are really bad at coming up with new ideas and insights.

That is why I find the Floyd Landis allegations so compelling.  He describes in great specificity and detail scenarios involving refrigerators hidden in closets, and the precise temperature at which the blood stored in those refrigerators had to be kept; and faked bus breakdowns during which Lance received blood transfusions while lying on the floor of the bus, etc.  To make up stories of this kind, with that sort of detail, strikes me as a difficult task.

If indeed the stories Landis tells are not true, my guess would be that these incidents actually happened, just with a different set of players, and then Landis switched the names.

Levitt has a point: sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, however unbelievable it might be.

In the social media world, the equivalent of doping is fraudulent engagement.  “Engagement” includes reviews, fans, posts, likes, views, etc.; basically any activity that elevates a brand’s rank unnaturally.  Recently, someone told me that you can hire villages in China to enhance a brand’s reputation and attack a brand’s competitors.  These activities then lead to fierce exchanges on Chinese BBSs that cause more confusion for consumers.

I don’t know if fraudulent engagement in travel is as systemic as Landis alleges for cycling, but I do know that many of my friends and colleagues think that it is — particularly those whose businesses have been impacted by hacked social media rankings.  While cycling has a governing body that conducts random tests for doping, there is no governing body in travel to evaluate the truthfulness of user generated content.  This responsibility falls largely on the social media site operators and their users.  Truthful or not, whatever is posted becomes a part of the brand image mosaic, which is further consumed by prospects and the general internet population.

However unethical, these opportunities exist, and travel executives often ask me how to combat such practices. The most basic thing is to not engage fraudulently; two wrongs don’t make a right.  A brand must have a corporate policy that prohibits employees from artificially enhancing the brand’s reputation or harming that of a brand’s competitors, even if you know competitors are doing it. Eventually, the Floyd Landises of the world get found out, and the fallout is most certainly not worth the possible short-term gains.

In addition, brand owners should have a plan that develops an army of customer evangelists who are passionate about their brand and who will defend the brand if it comes under attack.  Apple has been good at achieving this in the past.  Apple’s customer evangelists incorporate Apple products into their identity, and are constantly selling Apple products to their friends, family, and colleagues without receiving any commission from Apple.  They will also defend Apple when people attack their products – both online and offline.  As a result, Apple has been virtually bulletproof against attacks against its products.  Its market value has increased over 1000% in the last 10 years, surpassing Microsoft as the largest publicly traded technology company in May.

However, recently some of Apple’s evangelists have turned against Apple, over what they consider to be deceptive explanations about iPhone 4’s reception bars and Steve Jobs’ response to a customer complaint.  Now there’s a class-action lawsuit filed against Apple in the United States, where it sold over 1.7M units in the first 3 days.

Why?  Because the ex-evangelists felt Apple broke their trust.  And once trust is broken, the thin line between love and hate disappears.

So while having customer evangelists is important, what’s even more important is delivering on your brand promise consistently and truthfully.  If you do, customers will follow, and they, along with you, will breathe continuous life into the evangelization of your brand.

Whether Lance Armstrong will be exonerated or go the way of many famous athletes/role models/celebrities/politicians/brands and fall from grace remains to be seen.  But one thing is for certain though: in this era of hyper transparency, brand integrity must never be compromised.

(this post was original written as a feature post for Web In Travel)

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