Groupon: No harm was intended

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Ill-defined traits lead to marketing missteps

Like many folks in the marketing world, I find myself regularly criticizing group discount purchasing company Groupon. I panned its Super Bowl XLV commercial as one of this year’s worst, joined the chorus criticizing its initial response to the ensuing fallout and expressed my displeasure when the company’s management blamed its advertising agency for the offending ads.

Despite the criticism, Groupon’s business model intrigues me. I signed up for the service and after several weeks of seeing daily deals for everything from pole dancing classes to custom framing, I took the plunge and purchased my first Groupon for a spa treatment. Excited to join this trendy enclave of informed urban dwellers, I went to Twitter — where announcements of import are now made — to proclaim my hipster status as a newly minted member of the Groupon community.

Customer Disservice

I didn’t expect a response from Groupon, but I got one: “If you were a hipster you’d be more apathetic about your purchase.” Huh? Why would Groupon, a company who says its philosophy is simple, “we treat our customers the way we like to be treated,” risk alienating a new customer with a tweet easily interpreted as a dig? Perhaps, the apology I received from the company sums it up: “No harm was intended.”

No company sets out to intentionally harm itself, but it happens all too frequently. It begins with a failure to capture the unique — and authentic — traits that define a brand. The harm is compounded when a company fails to instill a shared understanding of those traits in its employees and agencies. Without that shared understanding, it’s nearly impossible for a company to communicate clearly and consistently with its audience. The consequence of inconsistency is, at best, confusion and, at worst, alienation.

Developing and maintaining a consistent brand personality is especially challenging for rapidly expanding companies with a priority of growing the business. Their staffs, product lines and customer bases tend to expand faster than their marketing strategies, creating a gap between the business and how the companies are perceived. Established companies can fall back on their existing brands until they have time to get their messaging up to date, but young firms without that base, such as Groupon, often struggle to define their voice amid the turmoil.

Failure to Communicate

Groupon defines its brand as young, fresh and wacky. It employs scores of comedy writers to pen its daily emails and Web postings in concert with that personality. But the company doesn’t consistently get that wacky and obnoxious aren’t synonymous. Groupon’s failure to appreciate that subtlety in its much-maligned Super Bowl ads — spots that trivialized serious social issues by juxtaposing them with discounts for frivolous services — created a backlash that the company is still attempting to defuse.

While a clearly defined and consistently applied brand could have helped Groupon avoid the PR crisis its Super Bowl ads created, a company that sells discounts for tango lessons and sunless tanning to young urbanites is probably right to portray itself as wacky. And although its initial response to the ad fallout suggested that the company wasn’t listening to its audience, Groupon has taken steps to address its customers’ concerns. The apology I received was somewhat backhanded, but it was an apology nonetheless.

To avoid more self-inflicted wounds, Groupon must take ownership of its reputation. That means clearly defining its personality, communicating its values to its employees and agencies, listening to its audience, responding accordingly and rejecting communications that run afoul of the Groupon brand.

It appears that Groupon is starting to catch onto this. The company’s CEO recently acknowledged that the Super Bowl ad controversy “(taught them) that you can’t rely on anyone else to control and maintain your own brand.” At least for now, anyway, we know they meant no harm.

Rachel Kerestes is Strategy Director at MiresBall, a San Diego-based brand design agency.

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