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Caught at a Customer Crossroads

Keeping on a Steady Path Amidst Confounding Customer Demands

By Hannah Landers

Controversy started with a headline: “TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM.”

In its August 14, 2019 edition, The New York Times reported on President Donald Trump’s speech in response to two mass shootings that happened on August 3 (in El Paso, TX), and August 4, 2019 (in Dayton, OH). In this speech, Trump urged the country to use “one voice” to “condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacism,” despite the fact that the president’s own divisive statements have often pushed a far different message. In fact, in one of the stories included in that same controversial issue of The Times, reporters Michael Crowley and Maggie Haberman made similar comments, noting the unlikeliness that Trump would “reposition him[self] as a unifier when many Americans hold him responsible for inflaming racial division.”

The headline caused long-simmering reader and staff frustration—which began with The Timesuneven and “superficial” coverage of the events surrounding the 2016 presidential election—to boil over. Many felt that the headline was not only misleading and inaccurate, but that it, coupled with other choices like the one to hire climate-change denier Bret Stephens to write for the Opinion section within the last few years, was further evidence of the paper abandoning its integrity to attract a larger reader base at any cost. Readers expressed their outrage and disappointment on Twitter, with some even vowing to cancel their subscriptions.

In the aftermath of the controversy, The Times held a town hall meeting for the newspaper’s staff. In a leaked transcript of the meeting, executive editor Dean Banquet observes “that our readers and some of our staff cheer us when we take on Donald Trump, but they jeer at us when we take on Joe Biden. They sometimes want us to pretend that he [Trump] wasn’t elected president, but he was elected president.”

The New York Times was facing a crisis. Not the expected crisis of the increasing decline of print media outlets in the digital age—one that has forced even the venerable Times to turn to other sources of revenue—or about the decreasing public faith in the media’s ability to produce honest, independent reporting. Rather, The Times was grappling with something familiar to any business: Key newspaper leadership needed to find the balance between following The Times’ brand purpose and navigating customer demand.

As the self-proclaimed independent source of journalism for many across America, The Times has built its brand around a purpose that’s remained static for over a century: uncovering the truth and reporting on news and current events without bias to “help people understand the world.” Achieving this seems to be more and more difficult in a time of proliferating partisanship, where many readers require even supposedly objective, unbiased news sources to take a firm stand on political issues, people, and ideas. If The Times chooses to pacify this vocal group of readers by taking such a stance, the newspaper risks not only alienating a portion of its audience, but also betraying its reason for existing—a move that might quell the insurrection in the short-term, but would surely crush the entire organization eventually. Purpose, steady and constant, acts as the driving force of all that a business does; betraying that purpose sends a brand off course.

The New York Times is far from the first brand to be at a crossroads between its customers and its purpose. While many are sentimental about and protective of the last Blockbuster in the world, the brand failed to generate the same warm and fluffy feelings at the height of its success.

In 1985, Blockbuster founder David Cook opened his first location in Dallas. Although video stores had long been a key source of entertainment for families on weekend evenings, Blockbuster was different. Instead of the relatively small-scale organizations with a limited number of movies consumers were used to, Blockbuster was built for growth with about 8,000 titles on display and a fully digital checkout process.

And grow it did. Cook opened three more stores in the two years following the original Blockbuster and, in 1987, sold part of the business to a group of investors, including founder of Waste Management, Wayne Huizenga. Huizenga took the company’s reins and steered Blockbuster into a period of aggressive growth; by the early 1990s, Blockbuster had opened its thousandth store and was expanding internationally.

Nearly everyone knows what happened next: online DVD rental service Netflix appeared in the late 1990s, offering Blockbuster users an even wider selection than they were used to in their local branch without the hassle of driving to the store and seeking out a title that may or may not be available for rent, and the ability to hold onto that title without fear of late fees or other penalties.

Many see Blockbuster’s demise as a failure to innovate and adapt, a similarly misplaced criticism that has also been levied at The Times. A deeper look, however, shows that the issue is far more nuanced, and boils down to the fact that the brand was unwilling to empower the customers who were central to Blockbuster’s purpose—a betrayal that led to its quick and devastating free fall.

Huizenga’s vision for the company was ambitious. After acquiring a couple music retail chains and launching a partnership with Virgin Retail to open Blockbuster-branded music stores internationally, Huizenga had embarked to transform Blockbusters into the go-to entertainment center of the future.

He imagined these centers as gathering places for communities to rent and buy movies and video games, as well as play in “virtual reality entertainment arcades.” These stores would also have a robust music selection, allowing customers to browse tunes and artists, then create their own personalized CD of their favorites—a harbinger of the easy, mix-and-match nature of building a playlist from Spotify’s endless catalogue.

At this same time, Blockbuster was establishing stakes in production companies Spelling Entertainment and Republic Pictures, and there were tertiary plans to open an entertainment complex to house Huizenga’s many sports team investments. These ventures spoke to the role that Blockbuster wanted to take in its customers’ lives, as articulated in a mission statement touting a customer-centric (and non-video) message: “Our corporate mission is to provide our customers with the most convenient access to media entertainment…combining the broad product depth of a specialty retailer with local neighborhood convenience.”

Blockbuster purported to put its customer’s priorities and preferences first, while at the same time referencing “local neighborhood convenience,” which conjures up images of a friendly, welcoming staff that has the ability to offer up the kind of highly personalized recommendations and suggestions that algorithms can only dream of.

Even when the company started to face Netflix’s increasing dominance, the company leaned into its mission statement, confident that customers would stick with the brand— a reasonable expectation given how closely its vision for the future of entertainment hews to reality 20 years later.

After doing away with the much-kvetched-about late fees on rentals in the early 2000s, former CEO John Antioco led the launch of Total Access, a Blockbuster subscription rental service that offered users to ability to have their movies mailed to their doorstep, with the flexibility of being able to return or choose additional movies in store locations—for no additional fee. This service was a massive initial success, subscribing more movie lovers than even Netflix.

And yet, Blockbuster shuttered the Total Access service, deeming it “too expensive” and bowing to pressure from the company’s wary franchisees. Rather than thinking about what the customers were clearly asking for, and religiously sticking to the company purpose to deliver that, the brand was distracted by short-term disarray and unrest. The result is that sole, surviving Blockbuster.

Best Buy is another company that appeared poised to be left behind in an increasingly digital age. Although founder Richard Schulze operated a series of successful electronics stores through the 1960s and 1970s, the true origin story of Best Buy begins after the largest and most profitable of these locations was hit by a tornado which destroyed its showroom. In response, Schulze decided to move all of his stock into the untouched storeroom, and advertised an ensuing sale by offering the “best buys.” In only four days, the Schulze netted more money from the sale than he usually did in a month’s time.

Over time, the brand evolved from its bare bones, tornado-sale roots: it dispensed with the commissioned salesperson model common at competitors that made employees and customers feel pressured and uncomfortable, carved out floor space for demonstrations of video games and home theater systems, placed cash registers at various locations around the store for easy check-outs, established a customer rewards program, and created customer profiles that encouraged employees to focus on uncovering solutions to different customer issues rather than just moving product.

By 2012, however, the company was suffering from low employee engagement, turned over its CEO after he admitted to an improper relationship with an employee, and was losing sales to customers price shopping televisions and refrigerators on Amazon. Before the death knell tolled, however, the brand was able to rebound impressively—because in the most turbulent times, it embraced its purpose and trusted customers to lead the brand to a brighter future.

First and foremost, Best Buy took control of the “showrooming” effect that had plagued its business since the rise of ecommerce. After noticing that many customers spent time in its stores testing out purchases like sound systems or smartphones, only to purchase them online for the best price, the company enacted a price match policy, allowing customers to know exactly what they’re going to get—and to get it at the best value, too. “Until I match Amazon’s prices, the customers are ours to lose,” said Hubert Joly, Best Buy’s CEO at the time, in an interview with The New York Times.

Rather than a race-to-the-bottom discount strategy to move stock, this price match policy was a clear instance of aligning with Best Buy’s mission statement—one rooted in “solving the unmet needs of our customers.” Best Buy didn’t seek to undercut competitors and reposition as a discount offering—it simply removed them from the equation, making it possible for customers to come into a store to learn all about and test a product, then take it home with them that same day. Best Buy learned that customers were looking for a product that checked off all the boxes, including price, and implemented a policy that would help the brand meet that customer need.

Best Buy also more closely linked its online business—where more and more customers were increasingly seeking out products—and its retail business, making it possible for customers to order a product online and choose to pick it up in the store or simply have it shipped right to their home. Best Buy also lured big tech brands that customers look for, such as Samsung, Apple, and Microsoft, into its stores by giving them their own real estate within Best Buy’s large warehouse spaces, complete with each brand’s distinct look and feel.

Most importantly, Best Buy embarked on an initiative to foster a deeper connection between those seeking technological guidance and Best Buy’s technology gurus, known as “in-house advisors.” With this program, Best Buy invites those seeking technical advice on everything from how to set up a router to the perfect smart home technology solution to sign up for a free, in-home consultation with a trained Best Buy professional. Following the consultation, the advisor creates a personalized plan of products and services suited to that individual’s distinct needs. Rather than asking these individuals to come in and browse the store for what they might need, Best Buy essentially brings the store to these customers.

At a key crossroads, Best Buy ceded control to its customers, letting them guide the organization to evolve in ways that fulfilled Best Buy’s customer-centric purpose—a purpose that encouraged the company to think critically about what customers want, and about how to meet those needs in an authentic way that felt true to the brand. Since implementing these changes, Best Buy has effectively bounced back to its status as a retail behemoth with sales and stock price increasing, and multiple voices hailing the electronics retailer as the blueprint for retail success in the digital age— all by going back to its core purpose and original vision for treating customers.

For the conflicted New York Times, the path to a sustainable and successful solution may seem a bit more nuanced and difficult than simply sprucing up its online presence or making investments in customer service, yet it really boils down to purpose. With its foundations in honesty, integrity, and independence, The Times is historically recognized as a brand that can be trusted to convey the facts and uncover the truth within any story. While defying that purpose to report on events in a way that pacifies a vocal portion of its audience may net acclaim and profits in the short term, it would be a betrayal of all that the brand claims to stand for, and leave The Times without a path forward. The New York Times’ readers are certainly valuable advocates for the brand, but to remain the newspaper of record for another century to come, leadership should worry less about how its coverage is perceived, and lean in to what has always guided it forward: commitment to truth, no matter the controversy.

Hannah Landers is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.