Louise Ballard, Grayling: Cultivating a community

Consumer brands can teach corporates a thing or two when it comes to forming communities.

A brand's community includes its most ardent admirers. These 'fans' are the most engaged and, crucially, most loyal customers a brand can wish for, and they are also the most likely to infect others with their passion.

Consumer brands have long known the value of building communities based on shared lifestyle and common interest. Orange Wednesdays and V Festival are good examples. And it seems that this has not gone unnoticed by the guardians of corporate reputations who are increasingly looking to communities to capitalise on that sense of belonging.

Take this summer's launch of the 'Boris Bikes' in London and Barclays' £25m sponsorship of Transport for London's new Cycle Superhighways to promote cycling in the capital. Already 40,000 Londoners have signed up in the first few weeks and Barclays' blue livery is every where you look.

A traditional community built on a huge scale, this is without doubt not simply a branding exercise for Barclays. In the wake of the financial crisis, the move is a bold statement of the bank's role in a sustainable society. Will Barclays actively 'manage' this community? In future will this initiative be seen as a successful branding exercise or an astute move to help rebuild the bank's reputation?

With research indicating that the internet is our fastest growing meeting place, the best way to create communities is to do so online. But some argue European corporate brands are still failing to make social media projects work. A study published by the Brand Science Institute in August 2010 paints a dismal picture, saying that 81 per cent of such brands do not have a clear social media strategy.

Our experience at Grayling tells us that there's a lot more going on than these statistics suggest and that engaging communities is becoming an important part of many corporations' business strategies.

There are some great examples of how social media are benefiting corporations in areas you'd least expect. One example is a targeted online social network for the pensions industry, www.mallowstreet.com, developed by pension risk consultancy Redington, one of our clients.

It was launched in December 2009, but already has more than 800 active users representing over £500bn in pension fund assets. It is a place where the pensions industry, traditionally very disparate, can connect and share knowledge. Redington's blogging and tweeting co-founders saw social media as the best way to bring members of the community together.

Harnessing the expertise of personalities in organisations is also paying dividends for many. 'Super bloggers' show how corporate clients can assert their personality effectively to galvanise communities. Personalities such as Sophos' senior technology consultant Graham Cluley have become commentators in their own right. Cluley has created a loyal community following, positioning IT security firm Sophos as a leader in its field.

Corporations have always sought to reach out to key stakeholders and although methods have changed, the imperatives for doing so have not.

Social media have enabled corporations not only to disseminate information to their stakeholders but to listen to and communicate with discrete audiences more effectively.

I believe we will find that the most powerful way to communicate with stakeholders and therefore manage corporate reputation lies in building communities and adding value by facilitating conversations within those communities.

Views in brief

- Which organisation has most improved its reputation in the past year?

UK plc. With the new coalition Government in place, the mood among business leaders is hugely optimistic. The sense is that the UK has a real opportunity to reinvent itself.

- What is the most important lesson to have emerged from the BP saga?

I think we all underestimated the extent to which the criticism of the personality and personal life of the CEO would affect the reputation of the firm during the crisis.

Louise Ballard is managing director of the corporate practice at Grayling

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