PRWeek at Cannes: Brands in motion must channel their inner Muhammad Ali

At this WE Communications-sponsored panel at Cannes, leaders from Airbnb, KFC, and Samsung discussed how purpose, data, and a new kind of creativity help brands define themselves and stay ahead in a constantly moving world

Image via radcharliebrown / eBay
Image via radcharliebrown / eBay

It was once rather easy to arrive at one definition for a brand and be confident it would stay that way for a long time. Things are much more fluid now. Brands routinely shift positions in the global marketplace. And they must, as the world in which they all operate is in constant motion, as highlighted by a 24-7 media, never-ending social conversations, political turbulence, and many other external forces.

Earlier this year, in an effort to discover how brands can optimally operate with all this motion swirling around them, WE Communications conducted its Brands in Motion study, which covered three markets – the US, UK, and China – and surveyed 4,500 consumers and 1,000 b-to-b decision-makers in each one.

In summarizing the top-line takeaways from the study at this week’s WE Communications-sponsored Cannes panel entitled Brands in Motion: Unlocking the Equation, WE’s CEO and founder Melissa Waggener Zorkin offered "The Greatest" example.

"Muhammad Ali is the greatest athlete of all time," she suggested. "Why? He moved all the time. He knew when to move. He knew where to move so he wouldn’t get knocked out."

"That’s how brands need to think about where they are today," Waggener Zorkin added. "It’s not about standing still. It’s about constantly assessing where you’re moving. Are you going backwards? Forwards? Spinning in place?"

To determine how they can best function in this reality, brands must view themselves through the lens of emotional and rational drivers. From there, says Waggener Zorkin, the study revealed four potential personalities for an organization.

It can be a "mover" that understands all the motion, harnesses it, and knows where to go next; a "defender" that excels at the rational aspects, the business side, but falls short is establishing emotional connections; an "agitator" that is always accelerating, always daring to dream, but is not quite as strong on the business side; or a "survivor" that is challenged on both sides and struggles to stay alive.

One brand, many definitions
Consumers today equally demand functionality and emotional connections from brands, WE’s study finds. Not always an easy balance to achieve, but the three brand leaders who joined the panel elaborated on how they do it.

Samsung is an innovation company, explains Zach Overton, VP of customer experience and GM of Samsung 837 at Samsung Electronics America. So it certainly sees itself as a mover. However, the brand exemplifies just how fluid things are today because its definition changed recently.

"Our general brand is a mover," he says, "but when you look at our sub-brands, it changes. For example, our mobile phone brand is one thing, our refrigerator brand another. And, of course, last year’s smartphone crisis put us more in the position of defender."

KFC’s brand operates with similar fluidity, notes former global CMO Jennelle Tilling.

In the US, its home market where it has operated the longest, it’s been a defender of late. In countries such as France and Brazil, it’s more of an agitator.

"The recent re-introduction of Colonel Sanders has helped KFC transition from a legacy brand in the US, which it still is, to being cool again," adds Tilling. "We’re a mover."

Tony Högqvist, executive creative director at Airbnb, sees his brand as a mover, too, but for unique reasons.

"Tech companies have a natural division between rational and emotional," he suggests. "The products define the rational, the marketing defines the emotional. But make no mistake, the emotional element is so important for a tech company like Airbnb. That is what gives us a legacy."

Högqvist admits there are competitors that do what Airbnb does, but it’s the values upon which the brand is built that truly make it a mover.

(l-r) Waggener Zorkin, Overton, Tilling, and Högqvist

Understanding your purpose
Today’s consumers expect, actually demand, that brands stand for something, finds the Brands in Motion study. KFC, for one, welcomes that.

"Our brand purpose is around celebrating the originality in everyone," explains Tilling. "And that purpose is very closely tied to our employee value proposition [EVP]. When the EVP connects with your brand purpose, you’re on fire."

KFC’s ability to link to other markets around the world has also helped it build momentum, adds Tilling, who suggests that "the more creative tension you have in your brand purpose and positioning, the more exciting your brand will remain."

Overton focuses on Samsung’s recently unveiled Do What You Can’t campaign to illustrate how impactful his brand’s purpose is on marketing efforts.

"We seek to create products that allow consumers to share their thoughts and achieve the seemingly impossible," he says, citing that Samsung was created to lift society up. "Do What You Can’t is about empowerment. Samsung was founded in Korea to help during World War II, so purpose is in our DNA. For us, it’s about being agnostic and letting our consumers’ voices be heard."

Overton also cites VR as a very interesting platform for purpose, noting how organizations such as UNICEF use it to train doctors in remote locations to give them a sense of the environments they are in.

"We’ve taken VR beyond gaming and entertainment," Overton reports. "We really try to showcase real-life purpose."

Airbnb’s whole business model is built around acceptance, explains Högqvist. This is really poignant in a world of travel bans, border controls, and such biases. It also inspires him to be more creative in his external outreach efforts because he so thoroughly believes in the brand.

"When I joined Airbnb last June," he recalls, "a major factor was my firm belief that I was joining a purpose-driven company."

Waggener Zorkin is adamant about the value purpose brings to companies.

"Cause-based marketing is good for business – period," she asserts. "More and more brands are realizing this. As a result, purpose and sales will be intrinsically more linked than ever before."

Data and the new creative process
The touch points to be creative are no longer just the classical ones, notes Högqvist.

"We have great options to use creativity to fuel the customer experience with the brand," he continues. "You no longer have to start with a TV spot or a print ad. You can go to a very specific point in the user journey and focus on how to make a more immersive experience right there."

Högqvist realizes the enormous value of data – "we use it massively," he says – but encourages brands to remember "at the end of day we are offering human experiences. You can have 50 Watsons analyze everything, but the major decisions are still made by brand leaders."

Tilling circles back to the recent re-introduction of Colonel Sanders to highlight KFC’s approach.

"In the US, the decision was made to bring him back, but make him funny," she explains. "The impact this had on the brand in terms of Millennials was huge. This was a great example of going back to the company’s roots, but doing so in a way that made sense given the current culture in the US."

As for data, Tilling emphasizes that it’s only as valuable as the insights you glean from it and the messages you create from that.

"The key to getting the best insights from data is asking why four times," she counsels. "Typically, when you get a piece of data, you’ll ask one why about it. I encourage my team to go three steps deeper than that. The first why is an observation. By the fourth why, you have something rich."

From there, "it’s all about storytelling," says Tilling. "The marketing function has become a publishing function. And we want to give freedom to everyone on our team to create content and publish. In fact, when we hire for the marketing team, a big part of the onboarding process is asking them to publish content."

Data helps Samsung determine when to amplify the emotional connection with consumers, says Overton.

"After last year’s crisis, we did a lot of listening to glean data about how customers were feeling about the brand," he adds. "Where we stood in terms of trust. What they wanted from us." It was apparent that consumers craved transparency and an ongoing dialogue.

"That data has proved cathartic for us," Overton notes. "This is data from real people – not just numbers – to understand who we’re talking to, how they want to be talked to, and what they want to hear from us. We focus on data through the lens of humanity."

Inasmuch as a main goal for communicators is to get consumers to do something different, Waggener Zorkin cites creativity as the "catalyst that unlocks action."

"It’s not really about Big Data now," she says. "Creativity enables you to find the small data, the face in the faceless. It finds that one piece that will really connect with that person to drive them to action."

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