What Kim Kardashian Can Teach Us

“I felt like I was on a fast roller coaster and couldn’t get off when now I know I probably should have,” Kim Kardashian wrote on her blog after filing for divorce after just 72 days of marriage. Such personal revelations had only seemed to strengthen the Kardashian brand. But this time the backlash was sharp and, perhaps, surprising.

The perception that her wedding was a profit-boosting stunt made many fans feel that they were now being duped. The attention that powered her brand was based on the sense that fans were getting a privileged, honest view of her life. Not staged photo opportunities.

A Common Blunder

Ms. Kardashian’s reputation management blunder resembles some recent events in the business world. GoDaddy, for instance, triggered a much-publicized and successful boycott with its support of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) earlier this year. The mass exodus continued even long after it recanted its support. The company should have realized that the web-savvy demographic from which it draws its customers is the same demographic that strongly opposes the act. Bank of America faced a comparable backlash last year when it tried to institute new debit card fees in the midst of the uproar over banking practices.

Netflix saw its stock price and customer base plummet when it tried to split its DVD and streaming services into two different companies. “For the past five years, my greatest fear at Netflix has been that we wouldn’t make the leap from success in DVDs to success in streaming,” CEO Reed Hastings wrote. Focusing on that fear, Netflix lost sight of the reason it became so successful.

Google’s recent privacy policy changes have the potential to do similar damage, but so far it has avoided a major reputation crisis, partially by accompanying its changes with an in-depth explanation of how they will benefit rather than harm its users.

Kardashian and these companies remind us that our relationship with our customers is as good as the bond of trust that holds it together. Once that is damaged or broken, even the most carefully built brand can be lost.

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