The key ingredients of great corporate reputation campaigns

Two weeks ago, I was at the Council of PR Firms' Critical Issues Forum in New York, where Procter & Gamble's VP of communications Kelly Vanasse talked about the company's first global corporate campaign.

Two weeks ago, I was at the Council of PR Firms' Critical Issues Forum in New York, where Procter & Gamble's VP of communications Kelly Vanasse talked about the company's first global corporate campaign.

The “Thank you, Mom” campaign, which launched this summer during the London Olympics, drove $100 million in incremental sales and provided a major boost to P&G's reputation with consumers. The brand's favorability ratings shot up in response to the campaign.

The session got me thinking about two things: how remarkably few memorable corporate reputation campaigns there are; and what elements are common to each of the stand-outs.

In terms of great corporate campaigns, there are only a handful I would categorize as “gold standard” reputation efforts. In addition to P&G's campaign, which is off to an impressive start but still in its early days, GE's “Ecomagination and IBM's “Smarter Planet immediately come to mind. Were it not for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP's “Beyond Petroleum” would also be on the list.

Just to be clear, lots of brands have produced iconic brand advertising campaigns, including Nike, American Express, Apple, and Coca-Cola, to name just a few. The difference is that these campaigns start and end with paid media, whereas reputation campaigns go much broader and deeper to engage key stakeholders.

So what do successful reputation campaigns all have in common? They share five key ingredients:

1.   Singular focus: Each of the campaigns listed above has a unifying message; a clear, simple focal point. Borrowing a lesson from iconic advertising campaigns, they recognize that when it comes to creating a memorable corporate initiative, simpler is better. To quote Jeff Immelt: “It's got to be repeatable; it's got to be learnable; it's got to be teachable.” The other great thing about having a strong focus is that it acts as a filter to work out what should and shouldn't be included in the campaign. For instance, my understanding is that to become part of the Ecomagination portfolio, GE products have to “apply” as part of a competitive internal process. 

2.   Strong leaders: Creating and implementing successful integrated campaigns on any scale takes a lot of coordination, teamwork, and a strong sense of common purpose. For that to happen, you need leaders who are able to rally and motivate people, and who are good at making things happen. It's no accident that IBM's former CEO Sam Palmisano is one such leader, as is P&G's Marc Pritchard (and GE's Jeff Immelt and Beth Comstock). Strong leaders who can both inspire and cajole are what's needed to get all the right corporate functions, communications disciplines, and agency partners working together.

3.   Strategic foundation: “Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising,” as the saying goes. Great corporate reputation campaigns are embedded in a company's business model and strategy, not bolted on by marketing or PR people. P&G's Thank You, Mom campaign isn't simply a heartwarming tribute to mothers everywhere. It's a manifesto for business growth that's rooted in the company's products and designed to generate sales. When Ecomagination was launched in 2005, GE executives talked unapologetically about the campaign being both good for business and the planet. Similarly, IBM views “Smarter Planet” as a way to solve some of the world's toughest challenges, while making money in the process.

4.   Supporters: No sensible corporation launches a proactive reputation campaign without first checking to make sure that others – including its own employees – are willing to lend support to the effort. Prior to the launch of Ecomagination, GE engaged a number of environmental organizations and influencers, and conducted opinion research, to inform its strategy. The company also went to some lengths to reach out to and educate policymakers in Washington DC about the initiative. For its part, P&G teamed up with the International Olympic Committee, secured the support of well-known athletes, and used social media platforms to appeal directly to Moms and their children. IBM aggressively enlists customers in the Smarter Planet campaign, including entire cities.

In short, great corporate reputation initiatives are buoyed by a chorus of supportive voices; the more diverse the chorus, the better.

5.   Sustaining power: Corporate leaders like GE, IBM, and P&G clearly recognize that reputations, and the relationships they are built on, do not happen overnight. The Ecomagination campaign is now in its eighth year, while IBM's Smarter Planet campaign will celebrate its fourth anniversary later this month. Beyond Petroleum persisted for almost a decade before succumbing to the tragic events that unfolded in the Gulf of Mexico in the spring of 2010. Meanwhile, P&G is already busy planning for another big push for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

The fact that these companies have committed to each campaign for so long is a testament to the success of the campaigns themselves, and an important contributor to that success.

In conclusion, whether your organization is already a household name and looking to differentiate itself from competitors or an emerging player looking to build its brand, these five ingredients should be in the mix for any reputation-building effort.

Are there other ingredients that you think should be part of the mix? I'd love to hear your take. Leave a comment here or contact me on Twitter @AlanSexton.

Alan Sexton is EVP of communications for Global Strategy Group.

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