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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Progressive Insurance has spent hundreds of millions on ads that feature the ever-cheerful Flo, one of the many examples of companies that buy advertising to try to create their own image. Progressive ran into a problem, though, after one of their customers was killed in a car accident, and they stood with the other side in court.

The dead woman's brother blasted the company on his blog, the story went viral. Readers pinned the blame on Flo, and she was forced into temporary exile while the company negotiated a settlement. In a new book, Bob Garfield cites this case to argue that we've moved from the consumer era to the relationship era, where companies can no longer control their image and need to create authentic connections if they hope to thrive.

We want to talk with those of you who work in marketing or in advertising. What messages don't work anymore? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, fears that rhetoric may presage provocation in North Korea.

But first, Bob Garfield joins us here in Studio 3A. He is of course the co-host of "On the Media" and with Doug Levy co-author of "Can't Buy Me Like: How Authentic Customer Connections Drive Superior Results." And Bob, nice to have you back on the program.

BOB GARFIELD: Thank you very much, Neal, great to be here.

CONAN: And Internet shaming may have put Flo on hiatus, but she's back.

GARFIELD: Oh, she's back, but, you know, others have - other brands have undergone similar fates. I think of United Airlines, which has spent well north of a billion dollars over 25 years to play - what song? You tell me: What song?

CONAN: I think it's "Rhapsody in Blue."

GARFIELD: It is "Rhapsody in Blue," the Gershwin standard, a magnificent, lofty, uplifting "Rhapsody in Blue," and yet when you hear that...

CONAN: When you hear this...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNITED BREAKS GUITARS")

SONS OF MAXWELL: (Singing) United, you broke my Taylor guitar.

GARFIELD: Yeah, wrong piece of tape, but you've anticipated my point. You've presaged my point.

CONAN: There you go.

GARFIELD: I learned that for the first time about nine weeks ago that it's not pronounced presage, and I've been saying it wrong on the air for decades. Anyway...

CONAN: No, that's before you put it on the chicken.

(LAUGHTER)

GARFIELD: So United has been selling us that it's a rhapsodic experience, and everybody who flies United knows that is emphatically untrue. But when this video by a country music band called Sons of Maxwell went online telling the story of how Dave Carroll's - he watched out the window of his plane while his multiple-thousand-dollar Taylor guitar was smashed into smithereens by United ground staff and how the airline treated him high-handedly afterwards, that got 10 million views in about five minutes on YouTube.

Why? Because everybody knows that "Rhapsody in Blue" has nothing to with the United experience, and "United Breaks Guitars" has everything to do with the United experience. You cannot dictate your image anymore.

CONAN: In other words, one of those messages was authentic, and the other one wasn't.

GARFIELD: Exactly so.

CONAN: And it is just as Progressive was caught out when its image, the cheerful insurance agent, salesperson, had nothing to do with the behavior of the company in its public life, United, that uplifting message, had no connection to its actual activities on the planes.

GARFIELD: Yes, it's a form of cognitive dissonance, which we do not resolve by giving more money to the companies that are causing it, au contraire.

CONAN: And so your message is that you have to in fact develop a corporate message that is in keeping with the way you behave.

GARFIELD: Not quite that, even. I would say it's that you shouldn't worry too much about promulgating corporate messages because nobody's paying attention to them anyway. What you should be doing is fostering and cultivating actual conversations, shared experiences and relationships, actual flesh and blood, human relationships with the people who used to just be account numbers to you. And in a digital world, that is not only possible, it's now more or less mandatory.

CONAN: But isn't that the way commerce used to work, when you went down to the baker and the butcher down the street?

GARFIELD: Yeah, it did, and in some places it's still kind of the rules of the road. But for the most part over the past, let's say, 300 or 400 years, we've been living in this actually quite fantastic symbiosis of mass media and mass marketing, right. The mass marketers, the advertisers, would underwrite the content that the mass media delivered, we got the greatest stuff ever, plus "The Beverly Hillbillies," and the advertisers got a gigantic audience for their messages. Well the digital revolution has sent that fantastic symbiosis into smithereens.

CONAN: You mentioned that for example "All in the Family," the classic CBS sitcom, on a good night would get 40 million Americans watching. There were fewer Americans in those days, too.

GARFIELD: There were fewer Americans, and in one night in 1979, 40 million Americans watched one show. Now, let's say in April of 2012, all five, the top five English-language broadcast networks among them, among them only reached 25 million people. That's together, in the aggregate. And, by the way, when you factor in the DVR, which people are using to avoid the advertising, that means the advertisers of those networks got very, very little visibility. Nobody's paying attention.

CONAN: And so there is going to be obviously consequences for newspaper publishers, magazine publishers, television broadcasters, even cable television broadcasters. But the problem for the companies is now how do I connect with my customers. I used to be able to buy an ad on "All in the Family" and give 40 million impressions.

GARFIELD: Exactly, and yet so where do they turn? You know, I chronicled the first half of this book in my previous book, called "Chaos Scenario," which explained, actually predicted the fragmentation, the disintegration of mass media and mass marketing. And now this book answers the question: OK, now what? Well, the now what happens to be fantastic.

I mean, I'm a journalist. I've been a journalist for 30 years. I am not a Pollyanna person. You know, I've been busy trying to shine light in the darkened folds of society and the economy. But it turns out - well, let me ask you a question. What if we lived in a world - what if we lived in a world...

CONAN: What if we lived in a world...

(LAUGHTER)

GARFIELD: Where businesses were not only liberated to but obliged to treat their customers, their employees, their vendors, their shareholders, their regulators, their neighbors and the Earth itself, you know - well, except for the Earth, as flesh and blood human beings - where they were forced to obey the very rules of interpersonal relationships that govern every other aspect of our life?

Well, I'm telling you that that's exactly what is taking place. This relationship era means that companies can't be high-handed or dictatorial or dishonest. They can't foul the environments. They can't mistreat their workers. They can't break the law. They can't bribe foreign officials, and they can't bribe domestic officials. They have to behave like a mensch, and they can't behave like a jerk. There are great penalties for getting caught being a jerk. Everybody knows about it. And there are great rewards, as it turns out, for behaving well.

CONAN: We want to hear from those of you in advertising and marketing. As you look at this, well, brave new world, what messages don't work anymore? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll start with Sharon(ph), and Sharon's on the line with us from Cheyenne in Wyoming.

SHARON: Hi, good afternoon. What a great show. I too was a journalist for 20 years based on the East Coast, and my husband and I relocated to Cheyenne, Wyoming, and absolutely love it. I work for the local utility here and have found that it doesn't matter how healthy your advertising budget is, you can't put a price on an amazing experience that a customer has here and shares it with their neighbor. Our company is judged on our community engagement and the volunteerism of our employees, and it's been truly an eye-opening experience.

CONAN: And advertising, saying - well, isn't the power company sort of a monopoly out there?

SHARON: Well, it is a regulated utility, but then again, you know, we are accountable for service to our customers. So for us, you know, that good customer experience with us really goes a long way, and they do share that in this small town.

CONAN: Interesting, Bob Garfield, you relate an experience, something like that, where a customer walks into a Panera store, she's had chemotherapy, lost her hair, and what happened?

GARFIELD: What happened was the staff recognized her because she was a regular customer, and they treated her to lunch. That's all. It was just something very, very simple. They recognized that she was - had long been there as a regular and had kind of disappeared while she was ill, and she came back, and everybody was genuinely happy to see her and just behaved that way, and...

CONAN: So like normal human beings.

GARFIELD: Like normal human beings. You know, word of mouth, Neal, has always been more trusted than advertising messages. I mean, at least the survey data shows that it is categorically more believable than anything you put in your ads. But what's happened is the Internet and social media has supercharged word of mouth.

And, you know, it's kind of like Santa. He knows when you've been sleeping. He knows when you're awake. He knows when you've been bad or good, so, you know, fill in the blanks. And so, you know, it's obvious that people respond to kindness and goodness, and they understand when people are being real and when they're being phony or slimy or dishonest or disingenuous.

But it's not just a feeling. I mean, I'm not Deepak Chopra, OK? My co-author kind of is. You know, I'm on a book tour; he's on a journey. And we're coming at this from very different angles.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: He's in the workout room; you're in the bar.

(LAUGHTER)

GARFIELD: That's pretty much - yes, when we travel together, that's exactly how it plays out. But there are actual dollars and cents reasons to live your business life this way. Companies that behave in relationship-era ways spend a lot less on advertising because they don't have to, they are more profitable than other companies in their category, and their share prices in public markets are higher.

So it's your basic win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. We're talking with Bob Garfield. More in a moment, and we'll hear some - we'll hear more about the video that took the friendly out of the friendly skies. If you work in marketing or advertising, what messages don't work anymore? Call, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. The power has shifted. Bob Garfield says in his new book historical circumstances have converged to decimate the image-making power of advertising just as the Internet has given the public unprecedented levels of information about corporations and brands.

Big advertising budgets don't cut it anymore. What does work? Well, that fills his latest book. Co-written with Doug Levy, it's titled "Can't Buy Me Like: How Authentic Customer Connections Drive Superior Results." We want to hear from those of you in marketing or in advertising. What messages don't work anymore? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's see if we can go to - and this is Nick(ph), and Nick's on the line with us from Salisbury in Maryland.

NICK: How are you doing, Neal?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

NICK: Yeah, my comment was I am a digital marketer, and I have a very small, small, small company in a small town, and one of our clients is a rather large international company that had not engaged in the community that was supporting them as far as, you know, employees and such. And I had to go to the CEO and say basically look, you're being selfish, and you're not engaging in your local community. And through that conversation, we were able to get them to kind of branch outside of social media and actually be social in the community.

CONAN: I can only think of one international company that's based in Salisbury, Maryland.

NICK: There's quite a few, actually, you'd be surprised.

CONAN: You'd be surprised, so it's not necessarily something that goes cluck, cluck?

NICK: No it is not, no.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: OK. It's interesting, you describe Frank Perdue, who I was referring to. His corporate headquarters is in Salisbury, Maryland, and in fact has been quite generous to Salisbury University among other things. But as an example of that old-line advertising, it takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.

GARFIELD: Yeah, you remember - you don't hear that much anymore. But, you know, I've got to say that you gave some very solid advice to your client because, you know, this is not about posturing or promulgating corporate social responsibility statements or underwriting charities or doing any kind of cause marketing promotion, which to my way of thinking is just like taking a licensed character out of the latest Transformers movie, only instead of Transformers we're using sick children or some such.

No, it is about walking the walk just the way you talk the talk. It's about being real. And yes, there are communities out there, physical communities where your headquarters or where your plants are located, and all sorts of communities out there that are your constituencies that you have overlaps with in interests and in values.

And you should be, in social media and the physical world, trying to get to know these folks and talking together, sharing and doing things together, sometimes collaborating on business, sometimes collaborating on things that have nothing to do with business. So, you know, I think you have served this mystery advertiser very well.

NICK: Well, thank you. The other thing that we try to really steer them away from is using terms like sustainability as a buzzword. It's got to become part of your corporate culture. You can't just - you can't just through that out there because it's popular.

GARFIELD: No, and if you live a sustainable life as a business, the world's going to figure it out. If you don't, they'll figure that out, too.

NICK: In time, yes.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Nick.

NICK: Thank you.

CONAN: And so part of the - one of the examples you give is, for example, the company Patagonia, the outfitter, and one of their big commitments is to green issues, sustainability, the Earth and all of that, organic cotton, that sort of thing. And you can see how that message, it goes - well, buying the equipment or a jacket becomes joining a cause. And they are very sincere with it, and it permeates their corporate culture. How does that translate?

You also speak glowingly of Krispy Kreme, and these are caloric and fat bombs that are going to blow up your heart.

GARFIELD: It's funny you should use that term because I used it in the book, and it didn't make the Krispy Kreme people all that happy. But they should be happy with the book because they understand the relationship era. Look, Patagonia, frankly it's easy for them to be relationship-era marketers because they were born out of a cause to reduce their impact, their carbon footprint, and to be outfitters for the outdoors without harming the outdoors, right.

And their audience, their customer base, is predisposed to buying in to their brand purpose, their ethic. So it's a no-brainer for them to be a relationship-era company. Krispy Kreme, they sell donuts, you know, which the nicest thing you can say about them, and it is nice, they're a fantastic indulgence, right. They - everybody loves donuts. Some people, you know, practically dream about them.

They're a ritual in people's lives, and it makes them happy. Now some people eat too many donuts. They are not good for you. They - if, you know, used in anything other than - I'm not going to go into the dietary consequences of donuts, but let's just say it's not health food, OK?

But they know who they are, and unlike the previous management at Krispy Kreme, which saw this practically cult-like following, and they decided, well, here's what we ought to do. We're a company. We have a cult. Let's build, build, build, grow, grow, grow, expand. And they expanded wildly. They nearly destroyed the company doing it. They lost sight of what they were all about, which is giving the joy of Krispy Kreme donuts to their fans. And the company just tanked on Wall Street.

Now the new management said we believe deeply in those little moments of joy when people eat, you know, the (unintelligible), Krispy Kreme is just so delicious. And they have made that moment just the true north for the company. And everything they do in that brand, from the see-suite(ph) to the loading dock to the counter to the trucks and everything else is informed by that moment of making people happy, however ephemeral, you know, and however un-nutritional.

And they believe it. I mean, they believe it with a very fervor very close to a Christian fervor because they're kind of very biblical folks down there in North Carolina, and much of what they do could be almost plucked from the New Testament. But they are serious about what they do, and it just shows. Everybody is delighted, which means great customer service. It means great, genuine happiness when all of your encounters with front-line personnel, and it means all of the corporation's focus is to giving you your Krispy Kreme moment as pleasantly as they can. And it works.

CONAN: Let's get Joseph on the line, and Joseph's with us from Medford in Oregon.

JOSEPH: Hi there, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

JOSEPH: I was commenting on this idea that because of the Internet, it's easier to establish your brand. But we make a small, horse-related product, and we found that on things like forums, if somebody doesn't like something you do, they talk about it incessantly, whereas if you have a client that really likes your product, and they get on as a new person, they can hardly talk about how they like it. In other words, it's very easy to have a negative reputation built through forums, but building a positive reputation is in fact very difficult.

CONAN: Why is that, do you think?

GARFIELD: Because people say what they think, and they say what they think. And they say what they feel, even if what they feel is wrong. And they use social media and Internet forums to say so. So, you know, there's a number of things you can do. You can ignore, which I don't think is really smart, or you can engage them.

And even, you know, you'll quickly discover when someone has a real beef, a real grievance, someone who can be educated versus someone who's just a troll. But in the meantime, you get credit in social media, just as you would at a town meeting where someone's standing up at the microphone not by ignoring them but by engaging and finding out what their beef is, trying to deal with it and do the best you can.

If people are persistently awful because they're wrong, well, that's one set of problems, but the rest of the audience kind of figures that out. If they're a problem because they're right, because there is something wrong with your product or your horse-related product or service, you - then you've gotten some intelligence that you need to have and to adjust your business, your product, your service, your customer service, whatever, accordingly.

There's nothing bad about it except a momentary embarrassment of seeing the slur online. Everything that happens thereafter can redound to your benefit.

JOSEPH: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Joseph. This email is from Carinnia(ph) in Fresno, Ohio: Just yesterday my sister took our 90-year-old mother to The Olive Garden in Flint, Michigan. When the manager learned that it was my mother's 90th birthday, she treated my mother to her meal and a free desert. My sister posted in on Facebook. She now has a new favorite restaurant.

So this kind of word of mouth spreads pretty quickly.

GARFIELD: It does. I mean, that's more or less part and parcel of what we're talking about here. And it's - but it's not just fantastic customer service. But in that email, a very important truth lies, and that is that many businesses are doing all of the things wrong on social media, trying to convert likes into transactions. What should be in every business' mind and heart is to convert transactions into likes, like the Olive Garden in Fresno, Ohio, apparently did. And if you can do that and you can have an ongoing relationship - and every businessman will tell you it's better to work with existing customers than to go to the expense of trying to find new ones.

CONAN: Tell us what happened with Coca-Cola's Facebook page. This was actually a page that was started by a couple of fans.

GARFIELD: Yeah. In the old days, fans could start brand pages, and a couple of guys from California did. They posted a picture I think they swiped from Wikipedia, a really nice, high-def picture of a Coca-Cola bottle, put it on there. And people started weighing in on stuff they love about Coke, or things that happened to them that were sort of Coke-centric.

And, you know, then Facebook eventually changed its rules, and only brands - brands have to host their own page. And so Coke happily took this over in collaboration with the two guys who originally founded it. And now there are 40 million fans of the Coca-Cola page. Let me put it to you this way: Forty million people is not a Facebook page. It's Ukraine.

(LAUGHTER)

GARFIELD: That is a lot of people. And they actually interact with Coca-Cola. Why? Well, because Coca-Cola is a part of their lives - which we knew, by the way, 25 years ago, when they introduced the new Coke and asked the wrong question. You know, they handed people two cups of soda: one the new Coke, and one the old. They said: Which do you like better?

Overwhelmingly, everybody liked the new - the cup A, not cup B. So they changed the formula of Coke worldwide. They changed the formula of Coke. They asked the wrong question. They should have asked: Do you want us screwing around with the flavor of Coke? And then the answer would have been hell, no. We don't want you touching our Coca-Cola. That belongs to us. And that presaged...

(LAUGHTER)

GARFIELD: ...the relationship here...

CONAN: You love this word, don't you?

GARFIELD: Oh, this is fantastic - the relationship area in which we now all very happily reside.

CONAN: And interestingly, Coke does not use that site and those 40 million fans for advertising - or make that direct advertising.

GARFIELD: No, they don't. I mean, every now and then they'll have a promotion where you can get access to something or do something free. But they - Coca-Cola - you know, and you can have your issues with the Coca-Cola Company concerning, for example, childhood obesity and other issues, and water use.

But they understand that they are not - people don't come to be their fans because they want to hear another Coke ad. They - although they make their own. They make their own and share them. No. They come because Coke is a part of their lives, and they - and it's important to them, and they, you know, they enjoy being in that milieu.

CONAN: Other companies don't show that same restraint.

GARFIELD: No. Most companies on social media, I'm sad to say, just use it as an advertising channel. And they send you coupons. Kentucky Fried Chicken, KFC, is notorious for this. You know, they're not there to build relationships. They're there to advertise their latest menu item, which - I mean, it's like going into a - the neighborhood picnic, and you're an insurance agent, and instead of saying, hey. Is it hot enough for you? Just handing him a business card, handing somebody a business card. No. You don't do that. People think you're a jerk. It's a social relationship. It's not a business one. Nobody wants to be sold to on Facebook.

CONAN: The book is "Can't Buy Me Like: How Authentic Customer Connections Drive Superior Results." Bob Garfield is with us. His co-author is Doug Levy. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

This email from Florence in Murfreesboro, Tennessee: My 24-year-old daughter recently tried to make an online purchase from modcloth.com, a woman's clothing site. My daughter called with questions about her order, since the dress she wanted was suddenly not available. Yesterday, she got a postcard from customer service. It said: Hey, Elizabeth. This is Shannon from ModCloth. It was great chatting with you. I'm sorry. Your order experienced an oversale. Please let us know if you need any help seeing the coupon.

I'm not sure. That may have been a misprint.

Good luck with school, Shannon. The company won her loyalty by just this simple gesture. We both remarked: This change is refreshing.

And that is reminiscent of Zappos. Well, you think of it as a shoe company. It's not a shoe company, really.

GARFIELD: Well, they consider their role in life delivering happiness. You know, if I had written the line, it wouldn't have been delivering happiness. It would have been, like, delivering satisfaction, or something like that. But, you know, if shoes make you happy, God bless you.

And - but it's a company that was - on the strength of almost zero advertising budget, just sold itself to Amazon for $1.2 billion. Now, how did a mail-order shoe company get to be worth $1.2 billion without advertising to us and telling us how great it is? Because its customer service is absolutely, much like that example you just showed, remarkable.

The people on the other end of the phone take an immediate interest. They hire people for their personality, for their zeal, for their quirkiness, even, and they empower them to just make it right by whoever's on the phone, no matter how long it takes. They're not trying to get you off the phone. They're trying to solve your problem, and people just love them. Plus, you tend to get your shoes overnight.

CONAN: Here's an email from Dave in Santa Fe: Does any old, trusted brand truly exist? Longstanding brands seem to have been taken over by other manufacturers, their brands we no longer know, therefore trust the (unintelligible) of any brand.

And it seems that I - I think there are some, but, again, the authenticity problem comes when your company gets taken over.

GARFIELD: That is a problem. And, I mean, I get - I suppose - let's take Comcast, for example. Comcast went out and bought a whole mess of cable companies. Comcast had horrible customer service. When it acquired - you know, when its mouth was bigger than its stomach and it acquired all these people and they couldn't quite integrate it into their system, they went from having terrible customer service to having just mammoth-ly, gigantically horrendous customer service and paid a great price, including some idiot who started a website called comcastmustdie.com.

CONAN: I think that idiot might be in this room.

GARFIELD: Oh, right. That was me. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GARFIELD: And it became a customer service channel of last resort for a company that was too crippled by its own size to take care of its customers itself. So that has happened. But you know what else happens? Companies like Johnson & Johnson, which was the most trusted company in the world for decades, ever since its heroic behavior in the Tylenol poisoning incident back in the '80s, They have been a Harvard Business School case study, you know, forever. And they are slowly, but surely squandering all of that trust capital by doing all the things that companies can no longer afford to do.

They've had manufacturing problems with contaminated over-the-counter medicines. They've had illegal marketing. They sold defective hips, and then dumped them abroad. I mean, they're a mess. So one good thing about the relationship era is you cannot - you can't falsely maintain trust. You've got to be a good guy.

CONAN: And that's why, if it continues this way, it's good for all of us.

GARFIELD: It is good for all of us. I mean, far be it for me to put on the rose-colored glasses, but I think that the universe has arranged itself so that business will have to behave well, and we'll all be the beneficiaries.

CONAN: Bob Garfield, his new book with Doug Levy is called "Can't Buy Me Like." It's filled with - well, really bad jokes. You'll like it. 800 - coming up, we'll be talking about how a nuclear North Korea ramps up the rhetoric, but to what end? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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