Monday, August 20, 2012

How to lose a customer, by Filson

In one of my early posts, I wrote that a company could create a great brand through direct channels rather than rely on traditional brand media such as broadcast TV or print.  You can argue my point all you like, but I think we can all agree that a brand can destroy itself through direct media.

Case in point: Filson.

OK, I still want one, but still...

For those of you unfamiliar with Filson, they have made clothes since the 19th century in Seattle (predating Boeing and even Starbucks).  While they originally created clothing for Yukon gold pioneers, they quickly established themselves as a premiere American manufacturer for outdoorsmen with handsome, functional and well-built items.  I own three: a vest, a briefcase (see below) and, of course, a safari jacket.

Also, thanks to them, I have been solicited by one of the most repugnant organizations in America: the National Rifle Association.

At this point, I have to depart from my customary even-handed tone.  I do so without apology.  While I do not have any problems with hunting, target shooting or even gun collecting, per se, I cannot see any excuse for civilian ownership of military or military-style firearms.  Feel free to disagree respectfully in the comments below, but a) there was no such thing as a repeating firearm when the framers wrote the Constitution and b) if you really think you can hold off an Army platoon or even a county SWAT team with your black rifle, you are mistaken.

Sure, the NRA helps make sure hunters can hunt and target shooters can target shoot.  They also have fought for cop-killer bullets, for preventing ID checks on buyers at gun shows and, most recently for encouraging residents of Indiana to shoot cops.  Nice folks.

Yes, upstanding citizens such as this one

So imagine how pleasantly I responded when I found a direct mail piece in my mailbox from them.  I immediately suspected that Filson sold my name, because, let’s face it, I don’t have too many other characteristics that would index high on a list pull.  I’m an Upper West Side Jew who subscribes to the New York Times.

To be fair, I emailed Filson and they copped to selling my name...eventually.  When I emailed customer service, they initially said that I might be mistaken, but they said that a vendor had somehow sold my name without permission.  Mistakes were made, essentially (note the strategic use of passive voice).

OK, no harm, no foul.  As a longtime marketer, I know that catalogers sell names all the time.  They promised me that they would never sell my name to the NRA again and, true to their word, no one has mailed me anything about jackbooted thugs.

Then this happened:

I got this bag (the green one) in December of 2010.  Two weeks ago, the brass hardware on the strap came loose, as you can see above.  Filson famously guarantees its products with the words of its founder: “We guarantee every item purchased from us. No more, no less. Your satisfaction is the sole purpose of our transaction."  Thus I expected prompt and satisfactory service when I emailed the next day.

Indeed, a few hours after I emailed (early morning, EST), I got a reply from Filson:

Thank you for contacting Filson. I would suggest that you send the damaged strap in for an evaluation. Given the circumstances of the damage, it may be possible that the returns department will either repair or replace the item. Upon evaluation, you will then be contacted with the options available to you. Please send the item along with a brief note with your contact information and an explanation of the circumstances to the returns department. Below I have enclosed the return address.

As a subway rider, I would no sooner carry my bag to work without a strap than I would send the NRA a political donation.  So I immediately asked Filson if they could simply mail me a new strap and I could send them the broken one.

And so far, 12 days later, I have yet to receive a reply.

And here we see the tricky part of using direct mail for branding.  When direct mail works, people take it personally.  They really do expect a one-to-one relationship with their favorite companies.  And botching this kind of relationship can hurt.

In the first place, Filson used direct mail to hitch its brand to a questionable one in the NRA.  In the second, they summarily ignored a communication from one customer to one customer service representative.  Not good.

Brands should really take care when employing direct communications, whether direct mail, email or any other addressable communications.  While many people will go to the bathroom during a TV spot or flip right by a magazine ad, they will nearly always read an email or letter once opened.  So, for pete’s sake, don’t send anything if you’re not willing to stand by it.

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