Broken Windows for Marketers

I’m not talking about when your Microsoft software goes down, I am referring to a theory developed in the 1970’s by George Kelling and James Wilson that is somewhat controversial but can be extraordinarily powerful in identifying big time wasters and losses in reputation and money.

The theory is designed to reduce crime, bring big criminals to justice, and to improve the quality of a neighborhood by involving neighbors. It goes like this:

  1. A broken window (or graffiti, or any other blemish) is about 10 times more likely to occur on a building that already has a broken window than one that has all its windows in good order. Lesson: keep your windows in good order.
  2. Those who commit small acts of vandalism aren’t “big  time” criminals, but almost always know those criminals. Lesson: follow down troublemakers.
  3. By heavily prosecuting small crimes, you can almost always get to the bigger criminals in exchange for a clean criminal record.  Lesson: fight back.
  4. The community is essential in policing themselves, which means police need to have strong relationships with their local community in order to police effectively. Vested community members can often identify those who are committing crimes better than anyone else.Lesson: know your community.

As a marketer I take away the following lessons from this theory. First, the time we spend in keeping a good reputation is very worthwhile. 

Tips for marketers form Step 1) Keep your windows in good order

Part of this means keeping our appearance in pristine condition. A spelling error may make a big difference, and anything glaringly wrong that isn’t fixed immediately is equivalent to a big broken window. Too much work, you say? Simplify, simplify, simplify. If you can’t keep your online space immaculate, then you are trying to do too much in order to effectively market.

On a product marketing level this means keeping your physical location “on brand.” Anything that is not “on brand” is like a big broken window. Commercial cleaning products in the bathroom of an “organic only” grocery store is not on brand. Neither is having graphic novels for reading in the waiting room at a lawyer’s office (I get that there are exceptions). The bathrooms in a greasy spoon only need be acceptable, but at a posh restaurant they need to be brilliant. And if you are the super hip, heavy-rustic designed restaurant Ned Ludd in Portland, they need to look like this

Also, invest in maintenance. I guarantee if your service is clean, well maintained, and looks professional–no matter the price point–you will have more loyal, happy and repeat customers.

Tips for Step 2) Follow down troublemakers

Now, outside of our own space, we also need to do our best to clear up graffiti about us. This could mean on Yelp, Amazon, etc. we need to be very proactive about following up and challenging bad ratings. Sometimes competitors will launch a campaign against us, write false reviews or simply leaving a bogus post on some site, because they were mad that we didn’t have oranges even though we were an apple orchard.

 Now, there may be something to their anger, in which case it is best to help fix the problem. However, they may be off base. Still we can look at our messaging, and try to understand where that consumer might have become confused. Chain restaurants usually do a great job clearing up confusion through their branding, advertising, and graphic design. Others, not so much. What does “cracker barrel” sell anyway?  This emphasizes the importance of a “log line.” That’s the 1-2 sentence summary of a movie that you see. That helps cut the confusion.

Finally, these small hits are not to be taken too personally. They are more like someone dumping their trash in your yard. Unpleasant, annoying, gross, but not going to make me change what I’m doing. I will just ask them to clean it up, or I’ll have it cleaned up. And above all, no one has the right to treat you with disrespect. You don’t have the right to lash out at them, but if they are disrespecting you, they are not interested in being your customer. Diplomatically say, “we will miss you!”

However, it is absolutely VITAL that you take care of these complaints as soon as humanly possible!! Make sure you have all the alerts set up for anything less than a 4 star review on all the major websites that come to YOUR attention, or your marketing team’s attention.

Tips from Step 3) Fight back

However, if there is a systematic attack on your business by groups of people who hate you for one reason or another, then it is extremely important to prosecute them and hard. I would honestly consult a lawyer, and do whatever was necessary to find who they were and to determine if there was any link to one core person / business. Now, I’m not saying this is the case, but what if there were a local coffee shop that was targeting a local Starbucks branch and leaving nasty reviews everywhere imaginable. If I’m Starbucks, I’m taking that very seriously.

Now, if your lawyer says you have no legal basis, then I would actually treat the attacker as I would treat any bully: punch them in the face (metaphorically only! Don’t go to jail!). Do everything you legally can to publicize what they are doing, to make known that they are disingenuous and to launch a full social media war against them. So long as it’s legal and only so long as they are being a genuine bully. NB: Americans love underdogs. Always be the underdog.

Many companies respond to complaints on Twitter. Make sure you take the time to get to know your twitter followers, treat them as real human beings, and if you resolve a complaint or help them in a big way, offer an inbound way to help you, i.e. subscribe to a newsletter, get deals, review your customer service, etc. If the process is smooth (vital), then it will have a great impact.

Tips from Step 4) Use your community.

When you get to be a big company like Apple you have users magically appear who have drunk the Apple KoolAid and are ready to fight tooth and nail for the superiority of Apple products. Also, you have people in the support forums that are exceptionally willing to help report others, to help calm others down, and to help solve problems. is a marketplace full of people who have a VERY particular set of ideas about what Starbucks *should* be.

Starbucks has an unwritten obligation to these active community members; they are obliged to care for them and listen to them. They are obliged to know them, to be of as much assistance as possible and treat them as (virtual) VIP’s. That’s because they are very important people to the brand. Rewarding the community around your business is hugely important, because it keeps it going and helps people feel as they they are part of something bigger, a deeper more intensely felt experience than just an average customer.

If your business doesn’t have a community, consider the ways in which it can be a good neighbor to those around it. What small acts of kindness to the employees or to the other customers can it perform. What additional beauty can it add to the area in plant life or landscaping. What acts of good will can it perform both locally and within the region. If online, what cause can you contribute to that your customers will care about?

Well, there it is, just a few ideas for how you can prevent vandalism to your business and know that it’s well worth the investment to keep sales moving and your company in tip-top shape.