Yesterday I attended the Economist’s ‘Big Rethink’ conference in London, which did a pretty good of living up to its billing. The star of the show, as ever, was Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland, who provided an absorbing overview of why companies should reject the pervasive influence of data in favour of a more intuitive understanding of human behaviour. I would love to see Sutherland debate someone like Mark Penn, one of many PR industry figures who has championed a greater use of analytics.
Sutherland will get the plaudits, but what I found more interesting was a session that, a little unexpectedly, focused on truth in branding. Jonathan Salem Baskin and Mediacom’s Sue Unerman delivered a thoughtful summary of why authenticity and honesty are the only ways that brands can navigate today’s consumer expectations.
That sentiment will not strike PR people as being especially groundbreaking. Baskin spoke in language that will resonate with many in the communications industry: “There is no such thing as brand dialogue…customers talk about brands not with them…brands should walk towards a crisis”. Sure enough, I was unsurprised when I caught up with him after the event and he admitted that he started life as a “PR guy.”
While Baskin accepts that the tenets of his views come from an understanding of public relations, he also pointed out that the PR industry has plenty of work to do when it comes to making brands more authentic. I would not disagree with that. Indeed, I’d add that, for better or worse, marketers are often in a better position to push through the kind of internal change necessary for this shift in corporate philosophy.
Baskin and Unerman presented some examples to demonstrate why honesty is the best policy. These are useful because much of the discussion in this area can be frustratingly abstract. None, as far as I am aware, originate from PR people, but all showcase a fundamental understanding of public relations and expectations:
Unerman noted that the Guardian’s open journalism project, vividly brought to life in its Three Little Pigs ad, “opens up the product from the ivory tower, to one where everybody can take part. They made real changes to the product because of the need to make it truthful.”
Clorox’s Green Works
Rather than waiting for the inevitable environmental backlash, Clorox invited influential NGO Sierra Club to help co-develop its line of natural cleaners. “It ended up being a line of defence,” said Baskin, words that will resonate with all of our readers who work in NGO engagement. “Announcing something that already has been affirmed is a way of communicating truth, and it wouldn’t have been as believable had they not done it hand in hand with the Sierra Club.”
Roomba makes vacuum-cleaning robots which, from an early stage, were often hacked in various different ways. Rather than fight the trend, the company supported and encouraged customisation, developing a specific product that catered to this demand.. “We customise our lives” noted Baskin, adding that marketers should think of the experience their brands can deliver, rather than in terms of pure product benefit.
When news broke that Wayne Rooney was considering a move to bitter rivals Manchester City, Sir Alex Ferguson did not adhere to any particular corporate messaging line. Instead he opted for the truth – “I was dumbfounded” – in a statement that sounded honest, and, more importantly, chimed with Ferguson’s well-established reputation. “You knew he was telling the truth, and wasn’t putting a spin on something”, said Unerman, handy advice for CEO or spokesperson.
Virgin Media’s Jeff Dodds came next, and outlined that company’s attempts to grow through advocacy. One of Virgin’s big advantages in this regard is the visibility of Richard Branson, who offers a top-down brand identity that few other companies can match. Regardless, Virgin Media is as plagued by customer issues as any telco, but focused its recent ‘superfast’ campaign on “creatively telling the truth” as Dodds put it.
Using net promoter score, Dodds revealed that the campaign grew consumer advocacy by 30 percent. “Consumer advocacy is just as important as product marketing,” he noted.
HSBC marketing chief Chris Clark finished things off with a compelling look at why marketers need to rethink their roles. “It is our job to represent our customer to our business,” he said. “You have to be able to understand what that expectation is. We have a decent brand on our hands because we have told the truth.”
Sadly, Clark was unavailable for media interviews, or I would have asked about his comment that “the process of bashing banks continues – some of that is deserved, some of it I’m not so sure.” That notion was echoed in a conversation with a senior marketer at another bank, who expressed frustration with the way banks are being pilloried by the general public. Whose version of the truth are we to believe here? Banks that continue to insist they have done nothing wrong, or people demanding their pound of flesh?
There’s no doubt that some of the vitriol directed at banks has been extreme. That should not distract marketers and communicators who care about authenticity and trust from acknowledging that their companies and their industry made mistakes and that their actions – even if they were legal – betrayed the trust placed in them by the public. Even more important, they need to make a credible, convincing case that they understand the public’s expectations going forward and will do what is necessary to meet those expectations.
It’s worth noting that the conference was framed around the idea of a “big rethink”. The importance of authenticity in marketing – particularly in the financial services sector — certainly qualifies.