In my last column, I told the story of international law firm DLA Piper, which got into reputation management hot water because a few of its lawyers sent e-mails to each other to brag about churning and featherbedding a legal file to drive up fees. I also mentioned a Royal Bank of Canada plan to outsource jobs so it could hire cheaper foreign workers, and how it had to apologize by taking out ads in national newspapers when the story broke – and when investors threatened to move their money in protest.
Both stories circulated far and wide and didn't do wonders for the brands or the industries in which they operated.
But DLA Piper and RBC are not alone in the "what were they thinking" department. It seems like every week a well-known brand shoots itself in the foot – and then falls on its sword – for something profoundly stupid that makes the company look rapacious, uncaring, money-grubbing, or just plain ridiculous. We read these stories and collectively roll our eyes as our respect for the brands plummets.
In response to the DLA Piper story, a colleague of mine reminded me that lawyers all over Canada and the United States spend their non-billable hours coaching their kids' sports teams. Or they volunteer their time on community boards and help raise money for all sorts of charitable and philanthropic causes. There would be a huge void if lawyers simply ceased to volunteer their free time and expertise in their communities. But lawyers continue to do so, without much fanfare, because we feel it's the right thing to do.
So what about the good news stories we don't hear about that make us respect or admire a corporation, a brand or an industry? Good news rarely sells papers, nor does it lead nightly TV broadcasts. The good news stories are often so small as to be unnoticeable, except by the few people directly involved.
I want to describe a good news story where the company involved did the right thing for the right reasons and earned a lot of respect without spending much money. It was a little thing that made a big difference to one person. The company didn't expect media attention, but it's a story all businesses, big and small, can learn from and emulate.
My 18-year-old son Jeremy is going into second year at the University of Victoria. He seems to be a whiz at fantasy football, fantasy hockey and fantasy basketball – he has an uncanny ability to predict the performance of sports teams and their players through an analysis of trends and statistics. One of these days, he'll put this to commercial use by becoming a scout for a professional sports team, or by transferring his skill set and applying it to stocks and currencies.
He participated in a fantasy football contest in 2012, put on by NFL Canada. He came second in the country. The only problem was that he was 18 at the time and the rules stated that winners had to be at least 21. I gather this had something to do with U.S. beer companies sponsoring the contest and that the drinking age in the United States is 21.
Instead of lying to NFL Canada when it contacted him about his rather substantial prize, he confessed he was only 18 and that he knew he wasn't entitled to anything. What did NFL Canada do? Lawfully, they didn't have to do a thing. Jeremy was underage and the prize – which I think was a big-screen TV, tickets to an NFL game or some other very expensive item – could not be awarded to him. End of story. Game over.
But that's not what happened. When he came clean about his age, NFL Canada asked him to name his favourite team (Baltimore Ravens) and provide his shirt size. A few weeks later a box arrived at the door. In recognition of his accomplishment, Jeremy was sent a plethora of promotional swag that included a Baltimore Ravens football helmet, a football, various jerseys and hats and a Samsung Galaxy tablet. He was overjoyed.
I recognized it as a great exercise in branding for very little cost. By rewarding a loyal customer in circumstances where the company wasn't legally obligated to do anything, NFL Canada looked generous, understanding and, from a marketing perspective, very smart.
That's how you win life-long, loyal customers.
Tony Wilson is a franchising, licensing and intellectual property lawyer at Boughton Law Corp. in Vancouver, he is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University (SFU), and he is the author of two books: Manage Your Online Reputation, and Buying a Franchise in Canada. His opinions do not reflect those of the Law Society of British Columbia, SFU or any other organization.