“Clean Restrooms” – When company image conflicts with reality

Sep 16, 2022

We have an inside joke in our family; When we’re traveling and ready to make a pit-stop and see a billboard reading, “clean restrooms”, we better keep driving – because they are going to be filthy!

Why does it always seem that if a business has to proclaim something – then it usually ain’t true? Why do some companies pay enormous fees for branding and marketing to try to create an image and never quite live up to that image? Why do companies voted – “one of the areas best places to work!” – have poor employee retention, with unhappy and disconnected workers?

The philosophy held by many corporations is simply to make bold statements about who they are… when they are not. If they expound on their freshness, you can usually bet that freshness is their Achilles heel. If they run ads on inclusiveness… well, I won’t go there. But when every commercial, every brochure and every public statement is in conflict with the operation, manufacturing process, employee relations, day-to-day decisions or internal attitude of the company, people know it.

How do certain companies know exactly who they are – then simply, consistently and transparently, be that? They’re not worried about creating an image – they’re just doing-what-they-do. Companies that succeed in creating trust with the masses don’t create the image first, then try to get everyone – customers and employees – behind that image. They create something that is unspoken, but known by all. These companies become what their customers settle into like a warm blanket – before they even knew they were getting cold. Successful companies can’t help but look at their business from the customer’s perspective – constantly, analytically, relentlessly. Read about Amazon sometime! You don’t need it to be delivered before you get up from your computer, but there it is on your doorstep. Watch yourself do a U-turn while you pass a normal gas station because you spotted a Quick Trip two blocks in the other direction. You may not know why, but you’ll practically risk life and limb to get to the QT.

We’re becoming a transparent world. We all walk around with a computer in the palm of our hand that 25 years ago – would have been the size of a small car and unaffordable to 99% of society. There will be a day when you’ll be able to look at your phone and see a company top to bottom; political donations, lawsuits – pending and past, employee opinions and management philosophies. There will be a day – and it may be soon – when every company’s pricing, margins and top-to-bottom employee compensations are readily available. (Legislation making it mandatory for businesses to publish compensation ranges was recently passed in California.)

As consumers, we sometimes can’t help but choose brand “x” over brand “y” because we either feel comradery or disdain. This may be a form of “cancel culture”, but it’s the sign of the times. It comes with transparency. Knowledge is power – and we all have that power in the palm of our hand! We can’t help it. It’s here to stay. We’ve all experienced watching an interview with someone we’ve admired our whole life, only to find out that they’re exactly the opposite of what we thought! You may be devastated, but the damage has been done. (Again… 25 years ago their publicist would have shelved that interview and you never would have seen it!) The same devastation can be felt in the business world when you find out your favorite fast food restaurant is as radically your opposite as night is to day. Too late… transparency is here. The consumer is becoming smarter and smarter, younger and younger, and your company will soon be seen exactly as it is; regardless of your marketing plan, or your HR program, or your brochure, or your online presence. The 3000 year old inscription over the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi doesn’t read “create an image”, it reads “know thyself”. In your company and in your life… there’s nothing more important.

I love working with companies that do $500k in revenue and want to break one million – or one million dollar companies that want to hit two – or two million dollar companies that want to hit five. At these levels, business makes sense. Decisions seem almost obvious and can be openly discussed on every level – from bottom to top. Small changes in procedures and direction can have a huge and immediate impact. But beyond twenty million? Things becomes very difficult. Companies this size have already hired outside organizations for “branding”. (So someone, from outside your organization, tells you, who you are?) Companies have already hired outsiders to develop a marketing program. (So someone, from outside your organization, tells you, who your buyer is, what your product is, and how to sell it?) “It would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a 20 million+ company to “know thyself” – sorry for the blasphemy.

The disconnect begins when an organization gets large enough to start making top-down decisions. You’re no longer running on a shoestring so you no longer have to make sure the folks in the trenches are onboard. Decisions get handed down through the ranks as “great new programs that will; streamline our procedures, make your job easier, keep all of us on the same page, make your position more efficient – and most of all – you’ll be able to show management how much of a team player you are and it’ll ultimately have a big impact on your future with this company.” Employees know this is nonsense, but they also know it’s non-negotiable. If upper management could hear the real responses from employees when some of these wonderful programs were rolled out? Now that would be a reality TV show we’d all watch. The title could be… “Clean Restrooms”.

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