I spend lots of time thinking about brands—I’ve been hired by all types of organizations to help clarify exactly what their “brand” is, usually to kick off an identity design project or as part of a larger strategic planning or marketing exercise.

It’s always relatively easy to illustrate to everyone in the room—from the CEO to the creative director—how a well-defined brand strategy impacts marketing and communications. What’s harder to explain is how a well-vetted, concise brand strategy can improve every single consumer touch point—from purchase confirmation emails to how your customer service reps answer the phone.

I’d argue that it’s those small touch points—the seemingly unimportant interactions with customers—that can actually have the largest impact in positively shaping consumer perceptions, especially if the cause of the interaction in the first place was customer dissatisfaction.

I recently had a very positive, yet totally unexpected experience with a company that seemed the perfect example…

My broken zipper

I recently needed to make a warranty return because a zipper tore away from a pretty pricey jacket I purchased from Outdoor Research (OR) last ski season. Like most outdoors sports companies, OR claims an “Infinite Guarantee: Outdoor Research products are guaranteed forever.” Unlike other companies, they seem to actually honor theirs.

After going through a very negative warranty process with a competing company claiming a “practical lifetime warranty” and reading about REI’s famous “100% satisfaction guarantee” policy being jettisoned (I’m really gonna miss their famous garage sales), I was putting off doing this return because I didn’t feel like arguing with somebody on the phone about whether or not my claim was legitimate.

But Outdoor Research is evidently a company that puts their money where there mouth is. The warranty process was easy and effortless, and from a branding perspective—it’s clear that they have fostered a culture that understands and can support their brand promise.

Crafting consumer touch points

User Experience (UX) Design

From the start, the warranty process was more positive than I’ve had in the past. Instead of burying the warranty section on their website, OR makes theirs easy to find and painless to use: follow the simple instructions on the site, fill out an online form, and you’re ready to go. The benefits of making this process simple may seem obvious, yet at some point it was a conscious decision to make this content accessible—a decision many companies ignore, or worse—intentionally obfuscate.

Language and tone

After I submitted the online form to initiate the warranty return process, I got this automated email response:

Screen Shot 2013-09-24 at 2.00.03 PM

“Sorry to hear your gear blew out.” Not everybody can get away with colloquialisms, but OR pulls it off here by really understanding their audience. This informal tone helps to remind the consumer that the business is made up of people like them, establishing trust and empathy.

Targeted messaging

The image of the well-used gaiters implies that their gear can take a beating—even if they need to be mended from time to time. And if they do have to be fixed, you’re being reassured that the company will be there for you. OR takes advantage of the fact that they were able to deliver on their “infinite guarantee” and reiterate it here (it’s also a prominent message on their website and at point of sale in the form of tags on the garment). They’ve turned a potentially negative experience into a tool—next time I’m in the store browsing their products alongside other brands, I’ll see this “infinite guarantee” and remember the positive experience I had with this return.

Keeping a (brand) promise

Branding is often looked upon with some degree of skepticism, and probably for good reason. It’s the veil that bad companies doing bad things try to pull over their actions. Did your company just spill a bunch of oil in the ocean? Was your factory exposed as having unsafe conditions or child labor? We’ve all seen movies where the executive orders a “public relations to the rescue” campaign. But that is not branding.

Successful branding helps organizations share the genuine ethos of their operations with their customers. It aligns the public face of the company with the private workings of the company—and you can’t just put advertising or design out there to fake it. The organization must actually deliver on their brand promise in order to perpetuate that positive image and benefit from brand recognition.

In this case—that’s exactly what happened. Within a few days of starting the process, I had a new replacement jacket arrive at my doorstep. They made good on their guarantee, keeping their brand promise. For OR, the “infinite guarantee” is an asset to their brand strategy.

Their competitor on the other hand (whom I was frustrated with because of my negative warranty experience), probably shouldn’t be advertising their “lifetime warranty” if they’re not going to live up to it. And they don’t need to—they have other attributes that are still desirable to me as a consumer. But if they aren’t going to live up to a brand promise, then they shouldn’t make that promise in the first place (because I start to think “if they’re lying about this, what else are they lying about?”)

And this is a critical lesson in branding—put your money where your mouth is. You don’t have to deliver everything, but you do have to be honest in what you promise to deliver.

Brand? Or culture?

So Outdoor Research has found a new brand champion in me—they’ve turned a happy existing customer into a loyal repeat customer, all because they upheld their brand promise. And loyal, vocal, repeat customers are the golden eggs of marketing—creating free, word-of-mouth advertising directed towards a target market: the consumer’s personal network. Case-in-point: this article. (And now is probably a good time to say that I have zero affiliation with OR, other than being a happy customer.)

Perhaps you’re wondering: was this all a pre-designed branding scheme? Did the marketing team actually sit around a table and decide whether or not to use “sorry to hear your gear blew out”? Or, was that message simply a product of the culture that Outdoor Research has fostered?

Well that’s the thing about branding—the two are not separate. A company’s brand is it’s culture and vice versa.

An organization can’t build a positive, distinctive brand if it’s not built atop genuine culture. Maybe that’s why there are so many likable brands in the outdoors industry: the people that build these companies share a passion for the lifestyle their products are built for, and that passion breeds a unique culture.

Maybe that’s why they can convince us to pay $600 for a jacket.