As a retailer-owned hardware cooperative, True Value Company provides guidance to almost 3,000 individual owners (or "associates", as it calls them) nationwide. As the economic downturn battered many of the cities and small towns with True Value stores, Carol Wentworth, VP of marketing, says the company recognized the need to refocus its messages to its most important stakeholder: the associates that represent the company.
"With so many associates, it's possible to have a lot of different messages out there touching our retailers," she adds. "What we decided to do going into this tough economy was get everyone on the same page delivering the same message. Cross-functionally, working with our CEO [Lyle Heidemann], we developed the pillars of our communication strategy."
Those pillars all focused on the end consumer; the aim was to empower the owners to provide even better service to the communities they serve.
Earlier this year, for example, True Value rebuilt its company intranet with the specific aim of helping its associates focus on the customer experience. The intranet features content like mystery shopping summaries, so owners can learn how other customer-centric retailers, from Costco to Starbucks, distinguish their services.
"Because we've had to fight harder for every purchase, we've had to become more focused with our message," says Wentworth. That increased focus has also impacted its external communications, including its ads.
A recent TV spot, "Sheepish," features True Value associates coming to the rescue of shoppers embarrassed to admit they have made a DIY blunder. "I think we've given ourselves a clarity of purpose," says Wentworth.
In many cases, that "clarity of purpose" represents a back-to-basics approach for corporate communications, says Ben Boyd, EVP and director of the US corporate practice at Edelman (which works with True Value). In the depths of the recession, many companies adopted a wait-and-see attitude to communications. As the economy rebounds, they are reemerging with more thoughtful messaging.Going into reset mode
"Companies are in what I call 'reset mode,'" notes Boyd. "They are being incredibly thoughtful around their core messaging - who am I and how do I deliver value to my various stakeholders? Pre-reset, companies played perhaps a little fast and loose. Now clients of all shapes and sizes are trying to make darn sure that there is a fundamental link to everything that they are doing."
The reset mode is also seen in the CSR arena, as companies, especially those in tainted sec-tors like financial, seek to restore their reputations.
"CSR has always been an element of corporate reputation, but it was always in the back water compared to, say, financial performance and quality of management," says Andy Tannen, SVP and director of reputation management at MS&L. "We are seeing a lot more companies making it a higher priority."
He points out that renewed attention doesn't mean companies are spending or adding more to their CSR initiatives; rather, they are just being more thoughtful about how they go about it.
"Many companies in financial services were still doing CSR activities [during the recession]," says Tannen. "But what they've done is focus it a lot more, so it has impact in terms of communication effectiveness. It is about what they are doing - and how it is being perceived."
Andrew Goldberg, US corporate practice chairman at Burson-Marsteller, says the "back-to-basics" approach, at least in some sectors, reflects the importance for companies to reassess messaging in a post-recession world.
"Companies have to look at this in terms of gaining a competitive advantage," he suggests. "They must define their place, their role in the new economy. If they don't, media and other constituents will do it for them. There is a much stronger need today to clarify brand values, management values, and, in general, what a company stands for."
As corporations emerge from recession, many have devised new business objectives. Burson's Andrew Goldberg says clarifying company values and what they stand for is key
Edelman's Ben Boyd says that only communications fundamentally linked to core messages will move forward under the scrutiny of a "reset" economy
Many companies have shifted away from "big ideas" with a short shelf life to a long-term value story, notes Goldberg