I first learned what “the company you keep” can do to a business from a phone call I received from my contact at a New England insurer. It was regarding a shipment of material we had printed and stored for them at The Allied Group, a full service fulfillment company that also provides marketing and sales support. Everything looked great. The shipment was delivered on time to the right location. But the common carrier truck driver had exchanged angry words in the parking lot with a company Vice President. “We know it’s not your fault,” my contact told me. “But if you ever send that trucker here again, I know there’s going to be trouble.”
Because of the bad conduct of their driver, not only would the trucking company lose business, but I was scrambling to maintain my own good relationship with a major client. Even when people intellectually know a problem has nothing to do with you or your firm, the bad feelings generated by such a situation can stick to everyone connected to it. Organizations truly are judged by the company they keep.
Marketers and advertisers have long recognized the power of association to shape opinions. Communications psychology expert Robert Cialdini, PhD outlined a classic marketing study that compared men’s impressions of a new car based on two versions of a print ad. One ad showed a seductive model with the automobile, the other just displayed the vehicle. Men who viewed the ad with the beautiful woman rated the car as faster, more appealing, more expensive-looking and better designed than those who saw the ad without the model. When surveyed after the study, these men refused to believe that the woman’s presence had anything to do with their assessment.
Other controlled research found that young adults seated in a room with a MasterCard insignia on display were willing to spend an average of 29% more to order items from a catalog than those who perused it in a room with no credit card logo. A comparable study showed that twenty-somethings were 260% more likely to contribute to a charity when in the presence of the MasterCard logo. But credit cards were not accepted in either case. Merely seeing their symbols encouraged people to spend more cash.
Similarly, clients and their employees can form positive or negative impressions that can affect your business based on their dealings with people just remotely connected to it. Executives, brokers and administrators are treated like the weatherman. Cialdini quotes Indianapolis TV meteorologist Bob Gregory: “I had one guy call and tell me that if it snowed over Christmas, I wouldn’t live to see New Year’s.”