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Poor Buddy.

When I left him at home that morning, my aging but otherwise spry basset mix was doing just fine. Sure he’d been battling a chronic illness, but his meds were working and his prognosis was up and to the right.

Imagine my shock when later that day I received condolences via e-mail about Buddy’s passing from 1-800-PetMeds.

What?! Wait! How could they know about something so important before me? Work is engrossing and all, but my dogs get top billing in my life. What the heck was going on?

Turns out that bad marketing was the culprit that killed Buddy. Killed him virtually, that is, in 1-800-PetMeds’ misguided effort to commune “authentically” with a customer. Ex-customer to be precise, and that change in status with them is exactly what triggered this morbid and intrusive communication.

See, I had contacted the leading online purveyor of pet medications and supplies to put a final nail in my long-standing account with them. The reason for that is a whole other story involving exactly where they buy media time to promote their service. But let’s not go there.

Seems that when you terminate your account with them they need to check a box in their system to indicate why. And since there was no box that said “customer is offended by your advertising placement choices” they apparently decided to delete Buddy from their system by reporting him as deceased.

That generated the smarmy condolence message and set me off on a rant about false intimacy in marketing.

While this kind of cut-and-paste message was intended to demonstrate the company’s personal relationship with me – being there by my side in the mourning process – as a customer it was simply not welcome. Even if Buddy had really died (he hasn’t, just to be clear) I would have found the message presumptuous. Because I only ever saw myself as a remote customer of theirs. We never spoke nor had I ever crossed their threshold. It was strictly a business relationship from my standpoint.

In the rush to forge “relationships” with customers some companies go too far. Other than taking my money and giving me my product in return, 1-800-PetMeds never made any effort to get to know me or my dogs better. There was only a financial relationship, not an interpersonal one.

That’s a danger with marketing these days, whatever communications platform is in play. Marketers might think they’re clever by personalizing communications. But if the customer doesn’t see himself in the same kind of relationship the tactic not only backfires, it can create a level of hostility.

Empowered consumers know they have choices. And they can nurse grudges that pull them away from brands. Some find another product or service provider while others just opt out of the category. Unrequited love never feels good. But when marketers make erroneous assumptions about the level of intimacy they’ve earned with customers they can be scorned for life.

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