Your brand’s most highly personal, long-lasting interactions with customers are most consequential. These brand touchpoints can be what customers remember and cherish about your company (leading to brand loyalty and revenue growth), or they can be the reason why this customer never buys from you again.

The auditorium darkened. Music swelled. Legendary entrepreneur Richard Branson appeared first on a towering movie screen, windsurfing and launching rockets, before he appeared on the stage before us.

And just fifteen feet away from me, he was larger than life.

I was lucky enough to be in the front row when Branson addressed a room full of entrepreneurs, and was swept up in his stories of starting and growing Virgin. One that stuck with me was about salt and pepper shaker touchpoints. Yup. Sir Richard can make pretty much anything exciting.

He recounted a conversation with a controller, who called to tell him how much the company was spending on the custom salt and pepper shakers that were created for the airline’s business class passengers. “They’re expensive, and because people like them so much, they’re stealing them. It’s really becoming a huge line item,” the controller explained, logically recommending that they discontinue the shakers and move to a more cost effective option.

Most of us would have acquiesced. Branson doubled down. “No way. We keep them. But in the next order, make sure that they say ‘Pinched from Virgin Airlines’ on the bottom.”

The salt and pepper shakers soon became sought-after touchpoint symbols of the Virgin Airlines experience, and one of the most effective marketing campaigns the airline ever ran.

Why were they so powerful? We know from neuroscience research that the more personal/engaging and long-lasting a consumer’s interaction with a brand is, the greater  neurological impact it has. The salt and pepper shakers were highly experiential personal touches, and passengers had exposure to them for hours on long flights (even longer, if they tucked them in their carry-ons). It was an opportunity for impact, and Branson and his team made the most of it.

But after a recent experience, it was reinforced to me that a personal, long-lasting interaction doesn’t necessarily mean automatic success. Mishandled, it can be a massive liability.

On a Delta flight to Georgia to visit a client, rather than adorable salt and pepper shakers, the meager drink and snack service were the highlight. As I took my seltzer water from the flight attendant, I glanced down at the napkin. It was Diet Coke-branded, with an odd message. Because you’re on a plane full of interesting people and hey…you never know.

Be a little old school, write down your number & give it to your plane crush.

There were two blanks for your name and phone number.

I gave my co-worker a nudge. “Do you believe this?” We rolled our eyes both at the weird idea and at its tone deafness in the midst of headlines about sexual assaults on airlines, and sipped our drinks. (And because I must really be a Virgin passenger at heart, I also tucked one in my bag to show folks back at Six-Point this example of “creative ideas gone wrong.”)

A week later, I got a text from my co-worker with the headline: “Delta and Coca-Cola apologize for their ‘creepy’ napkin messages.”

“Remember that napkin? I guess other people noticed it too!”

The social media backlash and the associated PR was immediate and loud enough for Delta to retract the campaign and replace them with other, less risky, designs.

Two very similar brand touchpoints, two very different responses from customers. How do you make sure that your company has more viral hits and eliminates firestorms?

Here are three key ways:

  • #1: Understand what your target customer values, not just what you value. Virgin Atlantic specifically targets a passenger who values an extraordinary experience above low cost, and who wants their travel to be memorable, not just satisfactory. This focus allows Virgin Atlantic to know that it will be a worthwhile brand investment to allow their customers to steal custom salt and pepper shakers. The brand touchpoint becomes inherently valuable because it allows target customers to take the extraordinary experience with them in a tangible way when they leave the plane.
  • #2: If you collaborate, make sure that you fully understand the other brand’s audience and their expectations. Coke tried to bring its brand value of personal connection onto Delta flights, but it was clearly not what Delta customers expected or valued in that context. And “creepiness” was the result. Ask for data on the other brand’s audience and look for specific demographic that differ from your core audiences. Carefully review examples of the other brand’s most successful campaigns and ask yourself, “Is this something our audience would respond to?” You could even run their brand work by a few of your key customers and vice versa—do your customers have a natural affinity to their brand and do theirs have an affinity for yours? Looking for disconnects instead of opportunities can actually be of great value and help you bulletproof your campaign.
  • #3: Make sure you have brand standards that go well beyond fonts and colors. Your brand documentation should include some “guardrail” checklists that can be used to double check whether a concept or collaboration is brand-appropriate. These guardrails should include:
    • What values a concept/collaboration must align with
    • If and how your brand engages in controversial topics
    • If and how your brand engages in trending converstaions
    • How humor should (or should not) be used, with examples

Whether you are engaging vendors, forging brand partnerships like the one between Delta and Coke, or letting your nephew take over your social-media channels for a summer internship, you must understand both the opportunity cost and the potential liability associated with “off-brand creative.”

Or the potential upside of creative that your customers love.

Let’s all try to pinch a page from Virgin’s playbook.