Veneer, applied by those skilled in the craft, can give something quite ordinary the appearance of something altogether different for a while. On the other hand, applied by those with little love of craft, it ends up ugly, quickly, particularly when abused by those who buy it.

I was reminded of this yesterday in one of those serendipitous moments that bring along a “compare and contrast” opportunity. The first was with my bank, (the veneer of which is all laughing children and galloping horses), when using the phone app to deposit a cheque. For whatever reason, the app threw up an error code and I got that sinking feeling when instructed to contact their help line. We all know what’s coming next. I could feel the blood draining away, and it didn’t disappoint. The wait. The impatient system that wants you to remember the fifth, twelfth and sixteenth letters of your memorable information with two second gaps, before putting you through to someone who wants to do it all again, and then wait whilst she speaks to her manager and come back with “we ‘re not sure – you’ll need to pay it in at your branch.” Over an hour of my life I won’t get back, but instructive. Systems go wrong, we all get that, but the interesting part was the relationship between system and human. System as Master. human as servant. A very flaky veneer.

Then the comparison – a call to query and renew my car insurance. Notionally, I’m sure very similar systems, but which could not have been more different experiences (high five to Liverpool Victoria). One “press the number” sequence, followed by contact with a real human within five rings who dealt with my query, made a decision on an anomaly all on his own, and made me smile all in less than five minutes. The system as servant, not master. Good quality veneer.

As we move more and more to AI enabled systems, and the benefits they bring, the more the veneer matters. There will always be systems wrinkles, and the human experience will be the deciding factor in our relationship with the brand in a way all the advertising spend in the world cannot achieve.

Cellini Salt Cellar – Christie’s.

Cellini, arguably the world’s greatest ever goldsmith hated veneers even though his clients would have often been quite happy with gold leaf rather then pure gold (Cellini was one of the first brands,) but he wasn’t. he went to extraordinary lengths to extract the gold from ore, all the way to the artefacts he made – he wanted to make “honest” products. Nothing less would do – and fortunately, his patrons had the money.

But I can’t help feeling there’s a lesson we all can learn here. If we’re going to apply a veneer to what we do, we should apply it with skill, and say it’s a veneer. Be honest about the relationship. After all, it works for IKEA – and LV. On the other hand, fitting it shoddily, like my Bank, and pretending it’s what it’s not, is a sure route to disillusion.

Relationships made from business MDF is business MDF no matter what veneer we cover it with, and we will notice.

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