Last Sunday a story broke that a Papa John’s employee had typed “lady chinky eyes” on a receipt for an in-store order instead of the customer’s name. The customer cleverly scanned and Tweeted the receipt which went viral and earned the employee a quick dismissal and sincere apologies from Papa John’s.
Last night, we watched as Bronco’s fresh new quarterback Tim Tebow lead his team to a thorough spanking in a 10-45 loss to the Patriots in the AFC playoffs. In my—and perhaps Saturday Night Live’s heathen opinions, it would seem that reverential “Tebowing” isn’t enough. Victory might just come down to a decent offensive line.
It was a slow night at my house so shortly after the Bronco defeat, we watched the end of the Miss America pageant where Miss Wisconsin clinched the crown with her answer to the question: “Do you think Miss America should be allowed to declare her political affiliation?” Her answer surprised me slightly with the reminder that the contestants know their audience—the judges, not the public—when she said that “Miss America represents everyone,” (implying that Miss America should keep her political mouth shut). I found this surprising because as a member of the public, I sat there pandering to my mild curiosity, wondering yeah, which are you? Republican or Democrat? But as a pageant professional, she’s likely been trained to think: What does the Miss American organization want me to say?
And that’s where I started thinking about branding and customer service (as I often do and not just on slow Saturday nights). I was reminded of a book I read in the mid-nineties when the notion of customer service was becoming a “thing” in management literature. One of my favorite sociologists, UC Berkeley professor Arlie Russell Hochschild wrote The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling. In the preface, Hochschild describes her experience as the child of diplomats:
“I found myself passing a dish of peanuts among many guests and looking up at their smiles; diplomatic smiles can look different when seen from below than when seen straight on. Afterwards I would listen to my mother and father interpret various gestures. The tight smile of the Bulgarian emissary, the averted glance of the Chinese consul . . . I learned, conveyed messages not simply from person to person but from Sofia to Washington, from Peking to Paris, and from Paris to Washington. Had I passed the peanuts to a person, I wondered, or to an actor? Where did the person end and the act begin? Just how is a person related to an act?”
In The Managed Heart, Hochschild proposed the notion of “emotional labor” which is not only the culturally conditioned response to feel the right thing (i.e., sad at a funeral, happy at a party), but “the effort to seem to feel and to try to actually feel the ‘right’ feeling for the job, and to try to induce the ‘right’ feeling in certain others.” In other words, employers expect their employees not just to sell their labor, but their feelings as well.
So let’s bring this back to brands. Mac has built a brand around hip creativity. Harley’s is built around rough-around-the-edges independence. Would you feel right buying a Mac from an Amish dude? A Harley from an accountant?
Let’s go back to Papa John’s, Tebow, and Miss America. Clearly, each of them represents a brand. If I were to plot them on a continuum, I would put the racist on one side—clearly undermining the tenets of the Papa John’s brand. Tebow might go in the middle because although we in Colorado Springs, Colorado don’t need the help of our state’s quarterback getting branded as evangelicals and I personally don’t think God cares as much about football as say, peace or malaria, Tebow seems to be a generally nice and generous kid. On the other end of the spectrum there’s shiny Miss America who has clearly drunk the organization’s Kool-Aid and is prepared, no “honored” to be their go-to girl for the upcoming year.
What right do we as brand practitioners to expect or demand certain behaviors from employees? I mean, this is America dammit; we the people are allowed to have and express our opinions freely and bless the people who have fought for that right. And. This is America dammit; arguably the leader in consumer culture; we’ve got brand reputations to build and we need good people to help us build those brands.
So what do you think? What’s the line? What’s the line between authentic personal behavior and responsible representation of a collective? What’s the line between a racist employee being rude and awful to a customer while wearing your branded hat, and the young woman who’s not allowed to say if she’s a Republican or a Democrat while wearing the tiara? What if Tim Tebow insisted on including a cross next to the Bronco logo on his helmet? How do you feel when someone who’s ostensibly supposed to represent you does a really crappy job of upholding the values you hold dear?
I have opinions, they are candidly, a little conflicted and I want to hear from you. Bring it folks, let the conversation begin.
Kyndra Wilson, KW Brand Translation, LLC
Culture geek. Proud Colorado native.