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Does a Commodity Ever Need to Apologize?

Posted in AlphaWatch, Articles, Branding, Genericide, Goodwill, Loss of Rights, Marketing, Mixed Bag of Nuts, Trademarks

On this welcome Labor Day, a few different thoughts converged for me, so please allow me to answer my own question in the title of this post, starting by explaining the below photo:

EscalatorNorthstarMpls

After repeated diversions from a particular moving stairway a/k/a escalator to the far less convenient elevators in an unnamed downtown Minneapolis office building, I finally decided to capture the above photo of signage most recently affixed to the frequent escalator blockade.

This escalator blockade suddenly appears fairly frequently, on a highly traveled portion of the Minneapolis skyway system, at least for me, and at least frequently enough for me to wonder over and over if there are lemon laws not just for cars, but for escalators too.

To soften my repeated frustration shoulder to shoulder with other skyway travelers also waiting for and packing into an elevator to travel one floor from the skyway level to the street level, I often joke out loud about how this building’s escalator must be the most frequently serviced escalator in the entire Minneapolis skyway system:

skyway-minneapolis

Most openly agree. No one has ever disagreed or openly challenged my assessment. And, since the signage provides no explanation, and the ratio of human laboring time at the escalator site compared to total blockade time yields an exceedingly small fraction, to date I’ve been unsuccessful in learning from the experts why this particular escalator is so challenged.

With a view toward the need for branding, let’s turn for a moment back to the above signage attached to the escalator blockade (reproduced below), did you happen to notice anything interesting about the unbranded messages being communicated there?

nonapologysign

Three messages appear in apparent order of importance, at least according to the order of appearance and the size of and particular type styles used.

Apparently most important is the obvious verbal message that probably needs no words given the escalator’s static state and the physical blockade: “ESCALATORS OUT OF ORDER.”

Next is the kind request: “Please use elevators.” With some helpful arrows for directing where to find them. The request part is appreciated, but not always honored. But for the movable blockade, the non-moving escalator, can appear deceptively similar to a static stairway that is capable of being climbed on and even walked upon if someone were so inclined to use their legs.

Last, but not least, especially from a branding perspective, is the exceedingly small and barely legible print at the bottom of the sign: “We apologize for any inconvenience.”

Really, any? As in, we don’t think there is even one notable inconvenience, but if you’re so high-maintenance to think otherwise, accept this token and simply move on. Brands aren’t so invisible and have the potential for being punished when they don’t own their failings.

More than a couple of branding questions come to mind from the last message in the signage. Who is we? Who is the wizard behind the sign? Who is responsible for the frequently failing escalator? And, is this really a genuine apology? In other words, why reference “any” inconvenience when the repetitive inconvenience is obvious and known to anyone close enough to read it? Seems like a classic non-apology to me, made more possible because of the anonymity of the faceless escalator service commodity.

Seth Godin’s post from this morning spoke wisdom about commodities. He contends that a commodity is a product or service no one cared enough about to market.

Building on that idea and tying in my escalator woes, it seems to me that another explanation for commodity status is not caring enough to: (a) engage in the hard work of building a brand; (b) nurture a relationship with customers, and (c) be visible, responsible and accountable to those customers.

So with that, what do you think, does a commodity ever need to apologize?