Many years ago, I worked for the president of a bank famous for aggressive bank acquisitions and rapid growth in the financial services space. The bank ultimately became the Bank of America and the president became the B of A CEO. Hugh McColl was famous for his swashbuckling leadership style, his brilliant strategy execution, and his sometimes irreverent style of communications, especially when the media was involved.
When the bank purchased Barnett Bank, the largest bank in Florida, McColl commissioned the construction of a large high rise bank building in Tampa which the locals called the “Beer Can Building.” It was a tall circular structure that dominated the Tampa skyline. When asked if he had plans to put the bank name or logo on the side of the building, McColl wisecracked, “You wouldn’t think of putting a sign on a female that proclaimed ‘woman,’ would you?” The media had a field day with this metaphor.
His point was to let the performance of the bank and the reputation of its people be the identifying moniker of the structure. If you are known by your works the context in which they are performed will become the label. We do not need a sign to identify the Washington Monument, the Eifel Tower, or Big Ben. The expectations set by a label made me wonder about Wow Airlines.
Wow Airlines just went bankrupt last month. It was an Iceland-based airline founded in 2011 that promised a no-frills, super cheap mode of air travel. Even though passengers were encouraged to bring their own food, download their on entertainment on an IPad, and be prepared for an uncomfortable seat, I believe that passengers could not get beyond the expectations set by the brand name. The leadership compounded overreaching expectations by adding flights to Europe for peanuts while trying to compete in an already crowded field. By focusing on market share and not profitability, their vulnerability got the best of them by being dependent on a highly seasonal business model. At the end of their operation, the airline further demonstrated their “wow” by leaving passengers stranded unable to get home. In addition, people with tickets for trips in the coming weeks either had to cancel their trips or scramble to get new tickets at very high prices. Their demise will likely be the fodder for business school case studies.
Expectations are the starting place for all customers evaluations. When you tell me that a restaurant is a five star; a dry cleaner is the “Best of Podunk,” or the florist has forty-six likes on Facebook, you create in me an implied promise even before I cross the threshold. While lowering expectations is one option; a more successful one is the intent of the McColl no-label bank building—perform so well everyone in town will know who you are and what you represent.