1 February 2021

Micro-Raving: A Saga Of Brand Prejudice And User Experience Gone Wrong

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Marketer + Consumer…

I’ve never taken a microwave oven off roading. Or tough mudding. Or deep sea diving.

I’ve never abused, misused, or spindled a microwave. Heck, I just reheat coffee and make popcorn.

Yet every five years or so, a microwave decides to fail on me. The last ingrate simply refused to turn off — which I’m guessing could have led to nuclear Armageddon, at least within my apartment complex — so I obviously had to pull the plug.

I blame these malfunctions and malfeasance on our disposable culture, with built-in obsolescence now standard on all new models. And since this culture makes repairing electronics more expensive than replacing them, I set out to buy yet another microwave.

When The Going Gets Tough, Brand Preference Rears Up

Some surveys find that consumers don’t care about most brands. They claim they’ll buy whatever’s cheapest and readily available.

Those surveys never ask consumers what brands they prefer when their lives and careers depend on a product. Just ask ranchers whether they’d trust any truck. That’s when brand preference — make that brand prejudice — rears up proudly and passionately. “You think I’d drive anything but a Ford F-150? What planet you from, son?”

We business geeks experienced that brand prejudice during this pandemic, when Logitech webcams sold out nationwide, even though thousands of cheaper options glistened and screamed “BUY ME!!!” on Amazon. “Wait, I gotta Zoom with my boss and my colleagues and my clients? Yeah, give me a Logitech – make that two.”

So when I had to replace a microwave that tried to go Chernobyl on me, I decided no more no-name products, no matter the discount. I would go with a brand I trust: Panasonic.

Costco Fait Accompli

So I proceeded to find a Panasonic microwave oven on the Costco website, then trekked out to my local store to purchase it. Microwaves are a household essential — who can wait 3-5 days for shipping? (I know: first-world problems.) Plus, Costco prices many of its products lower in-store than online, likely so we’ll impulse-buy snacks and socks while we’re there (it works).

But not everything on Costco’s website is available in its stores, and vice versa. It’s a bit of a crap shoot.

And this time I got lucky. At least, I thought I did.

When I reached my local Costco and survived the parking lot from Hell, I beelined to the appliance section and found just ONE model of microwave available. But, yes, it was exactly the one I wanted: the Panasonic NN-SC668S. Even better, it was $20 cheaper than advertised on the site.

Score.

So after adding a six-pack of socks and a jumbo bag of pistachios to my cart, I paid, survived the parking lot from Hell again, and brought the microwave home.

And that’s where I was tempted to take it off roading. Or tough mudding. Or deep sea diving. Not because I wanted to test its toughness, but to destroy it.

There Should Be A Law

We need a law that requires CEOs to use their own products — with no alternatives — for at least a week. If they all had to endure what we do, product quality would increase exponentially.

If such a law existed, I bet the top guy at Matsushita (the parent company of Panasonic) would also be tempted to take this microwave off roading. Or tough mudding. Or deep sea diving.

Why is this microwave so infuriating? It’s not one big problem that would justify the hassle of returning it. It’s a lot of little irritations that add up to a heinous user experience. They’re all so trivial, I would be embarrassed to cite them when explaining to a Costco employee why I’m returning a nearly new microwave that’s fully functional.

Hence, my appetite for destruction.

Trivial Pursuit — Or Crimes Against Humanity?

So how does the Panasonic NN-SC668S irritate? Oh, let me count the ways:

  1. The control panel is unlit, and some Marquis de Sade of a designer decided to make the panel’s text and numbers gray-on-black. It is nearly impossible to read in low light, such as in my kitchen first thing in the morning.
  2. The interior of the microwave is so dimly lit, I need to wear a miner’s headlamp to find anything with the door open — never mind seeing what’s happening with my food while the door is closed.
  3. The stainless-steel trim looks nice from a distance, but it flaunts fingerprints like a CSI prop.
  4. The glass tray does not fit snugly on the hub, so if a cup or bowl makes it slightly off-balance, it rattles when it rotates.
  5. Also, the tray does not rotate completely in synch with the minutes. In other words, if I put a cup in for 1 minute at the front of the microwave, when the minute is up, the cup appears at the back. Trivial, I know, but my other microwaves completed their rotations in synch with the timer.
  6. On other microwaves, the quick 30-seconds function requires punching just one button. This Panasonic requires hitting both the “Quick 30” button and “Start.” What’s the point?
  7. And, worst of all, when it’s finished nuking, this oven emits five ear-piercing beeps that sound like a banshee slammed its fingers in a car door. I presume that, in an office, a worker can hear their popcorn is ready from down the hall, but pity the poor soul seated next to the kitchen. At home, I watch the clock so I can lunge for the unlit “Stop/Reset” button before it starts shrieking. And, yes, I sometimes miss. It gives me a heart attack every time.

Key Takeaways (And, Please, Take It Away)

When most marketers hear “user experience,” they think digital media, like a website’s features and functionality. But UX applies to everything, from cars to cats, airlines to air conditioners, bar-and-grills to basketball games.

And no matter how much money and time a company pours into marketing, one bad user experience can convert preference for a brand into prejudice against it.

I have no idea what I’ll buy when this particular microwave decides to give up on me (which I hope is soon — just in time to take advantage of the warranty).

I do know that I’ll have a nice cold drink in celebration.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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