“Ooh, a vegan handbag,” I thought, as I set my 100% leather handbag down on the table next to it. “What a cool concept.”


I’m a sucker for vegan stuff. (I aspire to be a Vegan but like meat and leather too much.) I picked up the handbag, tried it on my shoulder, and was pretty impressed. It was pretty. I looked at the price and saw that it was on sale from $69 to $40. Pretty inexpensive for this specific store and for what I assumed to be innovative vegan technology.

I opened it up to look for a tag that would tell me what it was made of because, surely, if it was promoted as vegan the manufacturer would want to promote the ingredients. That is the whole point of vegan: the absence of non-vegan stuff. No tag. I looked for a label so I could use my handy phone to look up the ingredients. No label.

In that 1 minute shopping experience I went from “wow!” to “huh, could that be true?” to “call it vegan when it is really just plastic just to get my attention? I dislike you now. ”  Before I left the store feeling slighted, I asked the store clerk what it was made of and she said “well, there isn’t really a list of ingredients but it has no animal stuff in it” and then her colleague chimed in “and no lead!” Lead. Huh. Does that matter to Vegans? (Note to self: remember to Google ‘vegan and lead’ when I leave here.) I asked the obvious question: Is it plastic? “Not really. It feels much better than plastic. And it doesn’t crack.”

Turns out it was made from PVC (plastic by a different name) and it is conceivable that PVC could be vegan. My umbrella is also probably vegan but no one sold it to me that way. There is nothing wrong with plastic and had it just been labelled “handbag” I might have bought it.  The purely-for-marketing-purposes vegan label made me feel tricked. I am sure I am tricked a lot in product sales and don’t know it and that is ok. The problem comes in the moment a customer senses something isn’t right and feels tricked. It is very hard to recover from that for either party.

Let’s make this a lesson in the perils of not measuring “unbelievability” for everything that touches the consumer. (First, let’s get this out of the way: no, “unbelievability” it isn’t yet a word but it was recently published in the Wall Street Journal so that makes it ok to use, in quotes.) If this store, and manufactured, had tried this marketing tactic on for size as if they were the target segment, they would have quickly learned the way to make it less unbelievable was to add labels and tags, at least.

The reason the word “unbelievablity” is so good is because it easily captures the incredulity that customers view companies with the moment something feels a little off and allows us to turn it into a measurable business metric. We could use “believability” as in “So what do you think the believability is on that marketing message?” but it doesn’t capture the damage that unbelievability causes to the customer-company relationship. 

“So, what’s the unbelievability rating on that <thing>?”  companies should ask. Anything more than 1 on a 1 (very believable) – 10 (ridiculously unbelievable) scale should immediately send whatever it is back to the drawing board.  

As a society (worldwide) we have started to appreciate authenticity more than before. We have more resources to cross-check facts, we are used to self-serving, we frequently make educated purchase choices, and we expect more transparency in ingredients, selling, and the supply chain. Tolerance for “unbelievability” is shrinking. If you need to massage the truth to sell your product or service, it is worth reevaluating the benefit your product or service is bringing to your customer at the price you are selling it. We prefer you don’t lie to or massage the truth with customers but if you do make sure you drive the unbelievability right out of it. 

The moment a customer thinks “huh, could that be true?” about a marketing message, a product or service feature, or a brand promise is the moment their relationship with a company starts to change.  If something is unbelievable and yet a company is trying to convince its customers to believe it, the customer feels that trickery is at play and that immediately puts their defensives up. An on-guard customer is a customer just waiting to be made angry (see our recent blog on this topic).

Last week the Wall Street Journal interviewed John Bilbrey, CEO of Hershey Co. about a number of different things (and it is worth a read). Surely to the dismay of  English teachers everywhere we have been using ‘unbelievability’ for a while but he gives us printed-permission to use it in this bit of dialogue:

WSJ: How do you deal with concerns over diet and health claims about the benefits of chocolate intake?

Mr. Bilbrey: This [candy] category is not a food group. When people come to the category, they know it’s an indulgence. So there’s a little bit of unbelievability if you start talking about health benefits. The idea that it’s good for you is not the main driver of why [consumers] come. It’s still a treat.

He is right, of course. If Hershey’s told customers that Hershey’s Kisses were good for them they would surely pause and think “huh, could that be true?” That would put doubt in a relationship that, up until that moment, probably included an assumption of trust and the perception of mutual respect.

As humans we aspire to have personal relationships built on mutual respect and trust. If either of those two things are missing or start to disintegrate, the relationship changes. And it rarely changes for the better. This is the same in a customer-company relationship. Customers trust companies to have their best interests in mind and respect the value the customer brings to the table (money, participation, advocacy, etc.) The company side of the equation is a little more complicated but in B2B, especially with long term, large scale customer relationships, trust, respect, and value exchange are key aspects of those relationships. 

In the coming weeks we will look at most basic needs that organizations should pay attention to in customer, employee, and supplier relationships – feeling respected and having trust are two of the most important ones.