Our business: the entitlement of INDYCAR fans as consumers

SONOMA CA - AUGUST 22: General view of fans during the IZOD IndyCar Series Grand Prix of Sonoma at Infineon Raceway on August 22 2010 in Sonoma California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the dangers of gloom-and-doom pessimism and the penchant for IndyCar fans to overindulge themselves in it. I still stand by that assessment.

But there is a flip side to that equation that is just as dangerous as wallowing in a morass of Chicken Little philosophy.

Like all businesses, INDYCAR and its assorted partners need to have a positive self-image in order to keep revenues flowing in and maintain their customer base. So with the outlets they possess, they will pursue, shall we say, an aggressively optimistic public stance. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, either.

The problem comes when an aggressively optimistic public stance mutates beyond that yardstick and becomes a fantasy construct, wherein the expectation for the consumer is not simply to have a positive mental attitude about the business, but is in fact encouraged to willfully minimize or even ignore the product's shortcomings out of a sense of loyalty -worse, a loyalty that the business intimates is violated by any hint of second-guessing.

INDYCAR and other businesses whose "product" embodies more than a simple tangible consumer item (like, say, a box of breakfast cereal) tend to prod this mutation along because it appeals to the natural fervor of the human psyche. Whereas you can eat a bowl of cereal and immediately know whether you like it or not - and therefore whether you will continue to buy that cereal brand in the future - INDYCAR asserts that its product cannot be judged on such a small sample size.

To be fair, they are correct in that assessment; unlike a breakfast cereal, the "taste" of a particular INDYCAR event can vary significantly from others, even if that event is staged in as consistent a manner possible to the others in the schedule. A consumer therefore needs to take his time and partake in a series of samples before being able to form a judgment on whether the overall product suits his tastes.

It is not too difficult a stretch to extend the sentiment of "Don't judge the product too hastily" to a corollary that says "Don't judge the creator of the product too hastily." Where we start to run into trouble is when the "too hastily" bit gets redacted.

This being the 21st century, social media is the area where this tendency to put on symbolic blinders to criticism is most prevalent. This is where INDYCAR and similar businesses diverge drastically from product-based companies. A fan-driven business can manipulate sentiment by controlling access, whether it is outright or via more passive-aggressive means. A driver might stop responding to online feedback if she adjudges that it is not sufficiently positive to her liking; a team may constrain its interaction to only those outreaches which are fawning and laudatory; an executive may respond to a critical argument with the hoary old trope of "You don't know what's really going on" or, more egregiously, "You have very few followers/friends, so your input does not matter."

You might be saying, "Well, it's just social media. Who cares about that stuff?" The problem with that line of thinking is that social media platforms are the most direct, most instantaneous methods of interaction available in the complex relationship between business and consumer. It is a simple (and even understandable) thing for a business to ignore a critical letter sent through the postal service, or even to hide behind labyrinthine layers of customer service departments to ward off critical phone calls. But social media is a different animal - a tremendous gamble, to be sure, but one which pays off handsomely if it is handled well. And so businesses must engage in such efforts, and that is where they can run into trouble by approaching critical feedback with the wrong responses.

The Holy Grail that should be pursued by all parties involved in this elaborate dance between business and consumer is one of honest equilibrium. There has to be a balance between the extremes of optimism and pessimism, but it has to be founded upon expressed truth, as unvarnished as it can be. If a business shies away from truth, or reacts poorly to truthful candor from its consumers, then the question must be asked: "Is this business worth my investment?"

When you strip away all of the attendant obfuscation of truth shadings, spin, opinion, perspectives, and other machinations, the relationship between a business and consumer is exceedingly simple: the business creates a product, and the consumer decides whether or not to buy it and keep buying it. At its essence, "product loyalty" cannot be divorced from "product quality," even though many businesses attempt to do so at every turn. And while goodwill can be banked, it is not interest-bearing - it must be continually replenished by the account holder or else the account will eventually be empty.

While de facto pessimism is a useless trait to possess, criticism and the voicing of unpleasant truths should be seen as some of the most valuable commodities to possess. It is consumer feedback, a massively important tool towards making a better product. Successful businesses welcome it; those that do not usually do not remain in business for long.

My advice to fans is simple. Your loyalty is a gift you bestow - it is not something required or expected. You have every right to expect it to be earned, every bit as much as a business earns your consumer dollars. And while I do not advocate ceaseless complaining, nor do I advocate unending fawning or brown-nosing. You must feel like you are getting your money's worth... or you should take your money elsewhere.

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