Guilt or Greatness? Associations that Affect Customer Perception

When I was a kid, one of my mother’s favorite “mom-isms” was…tell me who you run around with and I will tell you what you are.

Like many of my mom’s seemingly esoteric pearls of wisdom, that phrase was probably lost on me in my youth. Today, however, I understand the power of associations – not only in the context of one’s personal brand but for corporate brand health as well.

Your Customer Experience Defined

From my perspective, your customer experience is the sum of perceptions consumers have about your brand based on their interactions with you. Those perceptions, rightly or wrongly, include not only your behavior but also the actions of those who associate with you and your products. It is for that reason that so much time and energy is spent trying to associate product use through celebrity endorsements or partnerships with social media influencers.

TIKI® brand

Sometimes associations are formed in unexpected and undesirable ways. Take TIKI® brand torches for example. In 2001 the TIKI®torch brand, popularized in the 1950’s, was purchased by Lamplight® (a family owned manufacturer of outdoor torches). In essence, it was such a good association between Lamplight® and TIKI® that the former acquired the latter. To keep the backyard/leisure lifestyle theme going, Lamplight® itself associated with a family of brands under W.C. Bradley Co. These brands include grill maker Char-Broil® and fishing reel manufacturer Zebco®. All of which brings together positive lifestyle brand synergy.

Unwanted Associations

Now to the unwanted brand associations for TIKI®. Imagine being an executive at the Lamplight® company and reading the following headline in the New York Daily Press about your TIKI® brand…

Tiki torch-wielding white nationalists at UVA rally roasted by critics on Twitter

Moreover, imagine seeing images of your product splashed across print and electronic media in the hands of participants in the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA. A rally that was a precursor to senseless violence and death perpetrated by white nationalists.


Swiftly and without equivocation leaders at Lamplight® took to Facebook and in a resounding TIKI® brand voice stated:

Wise Action

Many social media posts emphasized that TIKI® did NOT need to issue the statement as people understood they were not supporting the action. As a customer experience consultant, I disagree.

TIKI’s® leaders demonstrated wise brand stewardship by asserting that their product is NOT an authorized symbol of a movement which would tarnish TIKI®’s identity and brand equity. While most rational adults can separate the product itself from those who seek to use it in intimidating ways, TIKI® forcefully dissociated themselves from the fray.

Cynics of TIKI®’s action, might say, “No big deal, who wouldn’t quickly distance themselves from toxic brand associations?” I say commerce and the risk of giving up revenue can make easy things difficult. For example, in the context of this same White Supremacist brand association quagmire, Bill Chappell of NPR highlights the groundswell needed to oust the Neo Nazi website Daily Stormer from the GoDaddy web hosting platform:

GoDaddy had banned the site after receiving complaints from the public led by women’s rights advocate Amy Siskind, who‏ wrote via Twitter, “@GoDaddy you host the Daily Stormer — they posted this on their site. Please retweet if you think this hate should be taken down & banned.” 

More than 6,500 people retweeted her message, and the Web service replied late Sunday night: “We informed the Daily Stormer that they have 24 hours to move the domain to another provider, as they have violated our terms of service.”

The Takeaway

The big takeaway from this week’s blog is my mom was right. Namely, associations do matter whether those associations are strategic or inadvertent.

All of us must realize that perceptions of alliances are formed when two things co-exist. As brand stewards, we are responsible for strengthening those connections when beneficial and severing them when they are detrimental!


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Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D. is a professional speaker and chief experience officer at The Michelli Experience. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, Dr. Michelli and his team consult with some of the world’s best customer experience companies.

Follow on Twitter: @josephmichelli

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