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When Customer Engagement Goes Wrong: Honda Needs to Hold its Horses (and Stop Sending Emails)

Apr 9, 2013

For many people, milestone birthdays include the following years: 10, 13, 15, 16, 18, 21, 25 and 30. After 30, like some radio news broadcast, you’re on the ‘5s’ – 35, 40, 45, 50 and so on.

But I won’t be forgetting 32 – the year I just turned – anytime soon. While I’ve adjusted to the annual Facebook birthday bombardment of well wishes from people I’ve barely spoken to in years, I wasn’t quite prepared to receive not one but several emails from Honda – I lease a 2012 Civic. All correspondence went to great lengths to wish me the happiest of birthdays…and…oh yeah…to encourage me to stop by the local dealership should I need new windshield wipers or a free oil change.

At first I thought it was funny. In our overly linked synced and wired culture, a world where I give out my email address with reckless abandon, I wasn’t too surprised to see my flooded inbox.

The first email was actually pretty innocuous and was possibly the most effective as it came from the salesman who leased me the car. But – as if Honda were desperately expecting my response – a second email followed suit. This one was more insistent, informing me that Honda will be adding 250 bonus points to my Advantage rewards account. Mind you, I don’t even know what that is.

But the crème de la crème came with email number three:

Now that you are getting on in years, don’t you think it’s time to purchase a more responsible and grown-up vehicle? Perhaps an Accord sedan or a spacious Odyssey minivan. Either of these would be comfortable and roomy enough to haul all your earthly belongings back to the Northeast where you belong! (and bring the warm weather with you, sheesh, it’s like 25 degrees out with the wind chill; it’s supposed to be spring)

If you insist upon attempting to hold onto your youth, may we suggest something more in line with a mid-life crisis? Are you aware we make a wide range of street and off-road motor bikes? These vehicles would certainly satisfy any older gentleman’s need for a sense of danger and to “look cool” for the ladies.

Either way, we hope this and any other e-mails from us (we are nothing if not thorough in our marketing) find you in good health. And have a happy birthday.”

Let me just say that this letter was such a calamitous miss on so many levels I don’t know where to begin. I guess it’s meant to be funny. But as a PR professional, it reeks of desperation and of fake friendliness. I’ve used this comparison before, but to me it felt like Honda was blindly throwing darts in a drunken attempt to hit a bull’s-eye. Young? Old? Mature? Thirty+ going on 15? Ladies’s man? Biker? Transplant Floridian? Proud New Yorker? Whatever you might be, a Honda is right for you.

It’s also a real-life lesson for what ThinkInk’s clients are constantly driving home: just because marketers can measure, track and act on nearly every metric imaginable, doesn’t mean they should. Sometimes, as was the case here, the signal-to-noise data ratio is dialed way too far down.

The irony in all of this failed effort is that, had Honda really done its homework, it would have learned that my brand loyalty is already very well secure. My first hand-me-down car was a 1997 green Honda CR-V, a vehicle I drove to nearly 190,000 miles and one I was reluctant to give up. Like many first cars, the CR-V and I developed something of a relationship. It got me through several upstate NY winters, handled the rugged roads of northeast PA in summer and literally saved my life on multiple occasions.

Had Honda’s emails touched on any one of those personal and genuine recollections of good times and bad, they would have executed their jobs brilliantly. Instead, Honda’s hubris has dimmed my brand opinion even if my brand commitment is unchanged – for now.

We’ll see what happens once my current lease expires or the next barrage of emails comes in.

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