Summer, and the Morgan family head off to the South of France for a holiday. We want some predictable heat.
We arrive at Nice airport at midday. We have booked a National hire car, and after clearing customs, we duly get in the queue for the National desk. After 20 minutes we come to the front of the desk, and wait politely while the male and female National assistants joke and flirt with each other, occasionally pushing pieces of paper across the desk for us to sign. They never look at us – we are something of a distraction, to be honest, from all the joking and flirting. But this is the South of France in the summer: if the sap can’t rise here, now, then frankly when can it ever? We collect our paperwork and benevolently push our trolley on to collect the car.
Which is where National up their game, and the service moves from the charmingly rude to the magnificently contemptuous.
It starts promisingly enough: when you get outside the terminal to the car pickup point, they have a very nice cool canopy, offering plenty of shade from the sun (which is now in the mid 90s). The canopy looks very inviting. Oasis-like, you think; how very thoughtful. And so encouragingly empty.
But there is a reason why it has only a handful of people underneath it, it turns out, and that reason is that National don’t want you to wait for your car in the shade. They want you to wait in the sun.
They want you to wait in a line, on the tarmac, in 90 plus degrees, queuing up to a gate in a chain link fence, where two National representatives on some old plastic chairs preside over the washed cars coming back into service, and hand them out. They don’t bother to explain anything. There are no signs. They have the canopy, but you aren’t allowed to wait underneath it. They want you to wait in the sun instead until they put some keys in your hand.
So we do. For 30 minutes. A queue of pale skinned English families standing in the midday Mediterranean sun, waiting. We stand and redden, and look at the people under the canopy and wonder what the canopy was for, if one is a car rental company and it isn’t for waiting for your car.
And as I stand and wait, I sequence naturally through the cycle of Four Useless Sins that is so familiar to anyone in this situation:
Vengeance: Predictable forswearing of giving any future Morgan business to National. Even if they were the last car rental company left on a remarkably well paved desert island.
Neurosis: Mentally book consultation with skin specialist on return home. Skin cancer inevitable. But reflect that even a successful class action suit a poor recompense for a promising challenger career cut brutally short.
Lust: Canvas possibility of ice cream truck nearby. Believe me, it feels like lust after 25 minutes at 90 degrees
Enlightenment: You know what? This is the exact sodding opposite of an iPhone App.
I didn’t really mean an iPhone App, of course, though that was my headline at the time. I meant the opposite of Startlingly Useful.
Because here’s the thing. We live in an age, surely, where Startingly Useful is fast becoming the new Cool. Having for years been told that The Brand Is The Thing, where we carefully build brands by brilliant marketing over time, we are now seeing a parallel world emerging where brand building as such is not, apparently, important. Accelerating by us in the overtaking lane are a convoy of Supertools, usually free Supertools, that make our lives easier in ways we often hadn’t imagined possible. Supertools called Google (or Google Alerts, or Google Maps, or Google-just-about-anything), or Wikipedia, or Flickr, or Skype, or Spotify, or Dopplr, or Mumsnet. Supertools that it make it really easy for us to do something we want, and because they are free, come with an air of generosity that makes us not just excited by the tool, but grateful to the giver. And perhaps proud to be an early adopter, if we get there on time. And thus become brand builders by an entirely different model.
What does this all have to do with National? The point is, we don’t make exceptions for categories any more. We don’t think ‘Well, this is really hot and unpleasant and they seem to not care about me at all… but, well, car rental’s different’. We judge one category and how it treats us by the standards of our favourite brands in another. So as we see the growth of Startlingly Useful all around us, it is going to throw down challenges in every category. Not to develop apps necessarily (in fact this is exactly the wrong way to think about it) but certainly to develop real utility and integrate that into our brand offer, rather than duct tape it round the edges. And this experience with National, this was the opposite of Startlingly Useful. It was inconvenient, it was entirely on their terms and it was all for their benefit rather than mine. It was time intensive, and stress-inducing rather than stress-removing. It was the very opposite of generous. It was selfish. A master lesson in incompetence and how to drive your customers screaming in the opposite direction.
Newton’s Third Law of Motion (my favourite) states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So, propelled by a violent and visceral reaction to National Car Rental, let’s sit down and take a long hard look at how we can we as challengers build generous utility into the very core of our offer. Beyond the fundamental product or service that we offer, how can we build an experience and value around that which is in itself startlingly useful?
Because if maybe, just maybe, Utility is the new Marketing.
Adam is the founder of eatbigfish and key contributor to THE CHALLENGER PROJECT