How to Ruin Brand Love with Poor Customer Experience

A case study on what not to do if you want repeat customers

Photo by Nubia Navarro (nubikini) from Pexels

We all know who our favourite brands are. And when I say ‘brand’, I’m referring to the nebulous concept of how a company makes us feel.

This is so much more than a fancy logo and expensive marketing campaigns. We select brands on the basis of whether they align with our core values. Does the brand inspire us? Does the brand do good for society?

Whereas we might select products based on our needs, how we feel about a brand is bigger than our needs. It touches at the core of who we think we are. And who we want to become. Brands we admire the most are often those that we can only dream of buying from.

Luxury car brands are aspirational for those of us who equate success with material gain. Others make us feel reassured through their dependable service, such as Amazon.

Here are my top 3 favourite brands. Diverse companies across clothing, beauty and technology.

Lululemon: for their quality of sports and leisurewear. It appeals to my desire to be fit and healthy. Their brand portrays an aspirational lifestyle of yoga and personal growth.

The Lululemon vision statement is

“to be the experimental brand that ignites a community of people living the sweat life through sweat, grow and connect.”

They are making the point here that they want to differentiate their brand from other sports clothing companies through the local communities they set up.

Beauty Pie: This is the first-ever luxury beauty buyers’ club. They use the same labs as luxury cosmetic brands but without the expensive advertising and fancy packaging.

The Beauty pie mission is

‘to deliver the best luxury beauty products, from the leading labs, directly to members at transparent prices’.

Their point of differentiation is to offer the same beauty products as luxury brands but without the luxury prices. The buyers club model enables them to keep their prices low for members.

Apple: This company needs no introduction, I’m sure. Their latest mission statement is

‘to bring the best personal computing products and support to students, educators, designers, scientists, engineers, businesspersons and consumers in over 140 countries around the world’.

What would your list look like? Is yours also a diverse list?

Is there anything common to your favourite brands?

What makes a brand appealing?

A minimalist aesthetic always draws me into a brand. As well as a sense that the company is design-led. That they want to make beautiful products that are pleasing to look at and to touch.

Apple is well known for being a leader in designing beautiful technology products. Maybe they don’t seem quite so leading edge these days because they have historically set the standard that others have followed.

Lululemon makes simple clothing with clean lines. Yoga leggings without seams in beautiful fabrics. Their accessories range, including backpacks, are simple and functional.

Beauty pie focusses on their product ingredients. The packaging is a departure for the beauty industry which traditionally use ostentatious bottles for perfumes and moisturisers. Gold lids are a particular favourite of luxury brands. Presumably gold colour persuades customers that the product is worthy of the $100+ price tag.

So it’s no surprise that I am also drawn to luggage (baggage) company ‘Away’. The company was founded by Steph Korey and Jen Rubio in 2015. They have to date raised $31m in financing and sold 300,000 suitcases making it one of the largest funded female-led startups.

The suitcases and bags they make are simple and well designed. Their best selling product ‘the carry-on’ was the result of extensive focus group testing to determine what travellers really wanted from a suitcase.

Through clever marketing, they targetted celebrities and built somewhat of a cult following. Their products and customer service received praise and adulation in the mainstream press such as this one from 2015 in CNN

‘Instagram’s favorite suitcase is a surprisingly great piece of luggage

Everything from the design of their products to great customer service is praised in this write-up. One of their USPs in the no-questions-asked 100 day returns policy. No matter what state your purchase is in, no matter how many airports you have been through, if you no longer want your suitcase after this time, they will give you your money back. No questions asked.

That’s an example of good customer service that tips customers over into making a purchase. Especially when they don’t have an extensive retail network, with only a handful of stores in the US and elsewhere.

I’ve visited their London flagship store several times. To drool over everything. Dreaming of the lifestyle I would have with the suitcase. It’s a beautifully designed space that nicely complements the products.

But given it’s difficult for many people to see and touch their products before buying — they have a direct to consumer model — then the 100-day no-quibble returns policy demonstrates customer focus.

For a while between 2017–19, Away seemed to be all over my Instagram feed. Meghan Markle reportedly ‘gifted’ each guest at her baby shower with one of their suitcases. The tabloid media photos at the time featured stacks of Away branded boxes arriving at the hotel where Meghan was staying.

A smart celebrity endorsement marketing move. The ‘free’ media coverage for Away was worth considerably more than the cost of the suitcases.

But I wouldn’t call their products ‘affordable’ at $225 for the carry-on. This is out of the range that I wanted to spend on a suitcase.

Instead, I simply continued to covet the lifestyle that the Away crowd appeared to have. Imagining myself sitting in a first-class lounge with one of their ever so-chic suitcases next to me.

Yes, I was well and truly sucked in by the brand and marketing. But not so much that I bought anything from them.

Along came the sale

And then came my opportunity to finally buy myself a piece of the Away dream! In early September 2020 I received an email from that Away were about to do something that they had never done before.

A 50% off sale.

For a limited time. Starting on 9th September 2020 for just 6 days.

Finally my chance to buy a piece of the Away action!

And then it all went wrong….

My terrible customer experience

Having the benefit of being in the UK and ahead of the US waking up, I got up early on 9th Sept, knowing exactly what I wanted to buy in the sale. I selected my items and added them to the shopping cart.

All going well so far.

Looked at my shopping cart. Empty.

Try again. And again.

After about 12 attempts, I finally had the products appearing in my shopping cart.

Then the same problem with the completion of the purchase.

No matter how many times I tried to complete the transaction, it would fail. An error message every time.

After countless attempts, I eventually gave up.

Oh well, I guess there was so much demand for their sale, I’ve missed out this time.

One more try

Not being one to give up easily, I tried again on the second day of the sale. This time the transaction went through smoothly and I got an email confirmation.

Whoop whoop!

Then I looked at my credit card. To my horror, 3 transactions from the previous day were showing on my card totalling over a 1000 dollars.

This was despite the fact that I hadn’t been able to complete a single transaction.

The events that followed illustrate what happens when a startup places all their efforts into a building a great brand while forgetting what customer experience really means. That the scales will quickly fall from customers eyes if the whole experience of dealing with a company does not live up to the brand promise.

It was as though the Away marketing team had forgotten to tell their IT support and customer operations teams that they were having a sale. And even if they did they were woefully underprepared.

Away have no customer service support in the UK. Only an email address to contact. With no response. For days.

They took my money for items I had no intention of buying with no idea when or what I would receive.

In the end, I got a response only after I found the name of the UK Managing Director on LinkedIn and guessed her email address.

I no longer loved the brand.

The appeal has totally gone.

Conclusion of this sad tale

Instead of six suitcases turning up on my doorstep, thankfully just one did. Which is what I wanted. So it all ended well from that perspective.

In a world full of choice, consumers will see straight through a shiny brand that doesn’t put customer experience first. A company that doesn’t build a robust digital experience such that they take money for non-completed transactions. Or doesn’t have anything like the level of customer support that it should have in accordance with the demand.

We can all forgive unexpected events — such as their website not coping with unprecedented demand. But taking money from customers who haven’t been able to complete a transaction will make people think twice about buying from them in the future.

The suitcase sits in the corner of my bedroom. Instead of looking at it full of hopes of adventures to come, it represents how easily duped I am by good marketing.

What a sucker I am for clever branding.

I won’t be fooled again.

Curious Creature. Voracious learner. Scientist turned writer with lots in between. Obsessed with running and personal growth.

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