Champion Brand Roundtable: Preferred status

Leading communicators gathered in New York at this APCO Worldwide-hosted roundtable to highlight how select brands are standing out by forming lasting connections with multiple stakeholders.

Leading communicators joined Gideon Fidelzeid in New York at this APCO Worldwide-hosted roundtable to highlight how select brands are standing out by forming lasting connections with multiple stakeholders.

Karen Buerkle,
senior director, corporate reputation research, APCO Worldwide
Marcy Cohen, VP, senior business leader, MasterCard
Edward Freeman, university professor, The Darden School, University of Virginia
Aedhmar Hynes, CEO, Text100
Chris Loncto, director of marcomms, Sharp
Maril MacDonald, CEO, Gagen MacDonald
Jessica Oster, external communications manager, GE

The educated consumer
Gideon Fidelzeid
(PRWeek): More informed customers have spurred changes to the corporate brand's role in the past 20 years. How has that impacted outreach strategy?

Karen Buerkle (APCO): We used to develop communications strategies much more audience by audience 10, 15, or 20 years ago. With the informed consumer, that segmentation no longer works. Your investor
and environmental messages get to everyone now and everyone cares about it.

Jessica Oster (GE): The idea of the informed consumer is exciting. GE works to make the world better for customers, society, and our employees. Our challenge and opportunity is to connect with those consumers so they can see the value of the work we do. We have a broad group of audiences, but the overall message is the same. However, the way you deliver it and engage with the different groups changes.

Aedhmar Hynes (Text100): The shift we've seen in communications is all around this concept of influence. Stakeholders are consuming stories, content, and messages from different places. PR has had to shift quite radically to have media be only one portion of what we believe now influences the decision-makers. The look, feel, and values of the brand must be consistent across all platforms – a position communications did not necessarily hold in the past.

Marcy Cohen (MasterCard): PR used to be able to control the message a lot more. Now, it's somewhat out of our hands. Many consumers are also brand publishers. MasterCard is doing a lot of social listening now, so we can create content to meet their needs. We're not just saying what we think they want to hear.

Edward Freeman (University of Virginia): The days of telling a story to an audience, having them listen politely, and applaud at the end are gone. There are folks out there with a stake in brands who want to be engaged in those brands. That is less about what you say and much more about what you do.

We used to talk about the value chain, how value gets created from raw material to the customer. Now, you need to talk about the responsibility chain. Brands are held accountable for everything from where the raw material comes from to what I put in my mouth. PR pros are the keepers of the responsibility chain.

Maril MacDonald (Gagen MacDonald): We often talk about the consumer being informed as though it is something that happened to us. We should think about how great it is that it has happened for us. For so long, companies complained that no one understands their business. Now we have a great opportunity. The key is not to be afraid of the informed consumer.

Hynes (Text100): We are talking about the more informed consumer, but it's also a more progressive consumer. They are making purchasing decisions based on what they believe in. That requires brands to rethink what they are, not just what they sell. 

MacDonald (Gagen MacDonald): People inside companies care a lot more about what they stand for. They are looking for meaning, not only in the companies they engage with, but the companies they are.

Proper alignment
(PRWeek): Four elements in which brands differentiate themselves are alignment, authenticity, attachment, and advocacy. We'll take each one separately. What are the key factors to achieving alignment?

Chris Loncto (Sharp): It is about alignment of message and making sure it is consistent across channels. For example, making sure you are not going into a Best Buy or the like and hearing something different about the product than what is on our website.

Cohen (MasterCard): Many people do not realize where MasterCard enters the equation. If they have a problem, we are there to help. However, the bank issues the cards. That education of some of our key stakeholders is crucial to help people truly understand the value we bring to cardholders.

Also, 18 months ago, research revealed MasterCard was exposed to about 30 million people per month globally through social media. We took part in less than 1% of those conversations. We saw a great opportunity. The result: today, MasterCard is exposed to 40 million-plus people a week globally on social media – and we engage them at a much higher rate.

Freeman (University of Virginia): We need to harmonize stakeholder interests, not align them. In harmony, the notes are different, but they all sound good together. In alignment, the notes are the same. It's impossible to get the notes to be the same today, but you must think about where there is harmony in what employees, customers, and others are saying.

Sometimes you play a chromatic passing tone, which is a mistake. Of course, most musicians see it as a chance to do something different. That applies to brands. Where there's conflict with stakeholders, it is not about getting their minds right, but rather seeing the conflict as an opportunity for value creation.

Hynes (Text100): Often brands are not sensitive to aligning with cultures – religion, history, local environmental issues, and so on. Thought leadership is a great way to become aligned locally. You can take your global proposition, but then make sure it is relevant locally.

Loncto (Sharp): Sharp is a Japanese company with a very strong presence there. Japan, however, is a very different market from the US. Our challenge is taking the things that are great about our company, but may not necessarily translate to a US audience, and using them effectively in outreach here.

Buerkle (APCO): Alignment is not about making sure we adjust people's minds to our story. Alignment can be thought of as the harmony and opportunity to meet the needs of the diverse set of stakeholders. How do I meet the expectations of my customer while still being respectful to the environment, local governments, the federal government, and so on? The opportunity is creating something new out of that conflict, rather than seeing it as a burden of making everybody's mind align to what I want them to think.

Illuminating GE's brand

Gary Sheffer, VP of corporate communications and public affairs at GE, spoke to PRWeek managing editor Gideon Fidelzeid prior to the roundtable about what it takes to be a champion brand. Below are some key takeaways:

•Describing GE's brand.
Over the years, it has been remarkably consistent. All of our taglines have been about progress, optimism, and innovation. Our brand is about solving tough, big problems using technology, leadership, and people. That stretches back to Thomas Edison.

•The CEO's impact.
Jack Welch was the brand when he was CEO in the 1990s, which was good. People came to work for us or they bought the stock because of him.

[Current CEO] Jeff Immelt is a marketer. He really understands brand. When we switched from We Bring Good Things To Life to Imagination At Work [in 2003], Jeff drove that. When people heard We Bring Good Things To Life, they thought of appliances and light bulbs, which today is about 3% of GE. He knew we needed something contemporary that spoke to the businesses we were in.

I'm not afraid of anything that's going on in the company. Giving people a window into that doesn't scare me. Our culture is strong and admirable enough that there's no reason not to take it beyond the firewall and let people see it, experience it, and participate in it.

•Content creation.
Today you have to do it yourself, so it takes a completely different set of skills and strategy. And when you're trying something new, some things miss. And we miss when we get away from the strategy or the culture of the company. In creating editorial, you always have to think about who we are.

•Crisis control.
Our number-one rule in a crisis is no self-inflicted wounds. You must have the depth of expertise in this kind of situation. You need to have all the information immediately and you must fully understand your risks as a company ahead of time. Do no harm, be prepared, and make sure you've got the right platforms to tell your story.

•The public's trust.
People don't like big institutions. They like the troops, but they don't like the Pentagon. It's really about humanizing the company and making your people your face to the world in a lot of ways. You need to self-define and you must give people a window into your company.

Click here for more from Sheffer on building a powerful brand and the chief communicator's role in doing so.

Pursuit of authenticity
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): What does it mean to be a truly authentic brand?

MacDonald (Gagen MacDonald): The concept of authenticity is really about being true to one's origin and being comfortable in one's own skin. Authentic brands are not afraid of conflict. They welcome it because they understand the very nature of the world is being different.

Loncto (Sharp): Authenticity is backing up what you say by the actions you take. Consumers can see pretty quickly if a brand is not authentic.

Oster (GE): It is understanding who you are as a company. For an entity such as GE that works in so many industries, it is what we stand for across our broad portfolio. Being an innovative tech company defines our brand and reputation. Staying true to that, even when facing tough issues, is crucial.

Hynes (Text100): The notion of taking a personality to a brand is powerful. It is the easiest way to ensure what you do is who you are. If you figure out what you stand for authentically, everything you do, such as how you treat people to the decisions you make in a crisis, should bubble up to what you are as a brand.

Cohen (MasterCard): Authenticity is about brands realizing it is not all about them. It's about being part of a larger conversation and tapping into other ideas and concepts that peripherally affect their brand.

Freeman (University of Virginia): Authenticity starts with what you think your values are, but it does not end there. Authenticity must be a process. It is your values, history, the set of connections you are engaged in, and your aspirations. Authenticity is much more than getting your values right, putting them on a card, and thinking you are set forever.

Buerkle (APCO): In thinking about how authenticity helps to make a champion brand, it's very simply whether or not a company's actions line up with what it says it stands for. Are words and deeds matching? There's a temptation to tell people what they want to hear rather than what is true to you. That's where authenticity comes in – not as a separate dimension, but as an insight into how you are meeting other needs.

Cohen (MasterCard): A lot of authenticity comes from the top. The leaders of an organization really dictate how authentic a brand can be.

MacDonald (Gagen MacDonald): Truly authentic corporations are not afraid of being judged. If you are true to yourself, you will stand by what you really believe and not try to please everybody. Trying to make everybody happy is where we often get in trouble. Corporations are often spoken about as if they need to make everybody happy all the time. That is not really their role. One of the key things companies struggle with – but it's also something they need to figure out – is determining who matters and why.

Freeman (University of Virginia): If you can't make it so your staffers feel empowered to be themselves, it's difficult to be authentic to other stakeholders. The window into how authentic brands think will show that it can't be about being everything to everybody.

Emotional attachment
Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
What are the most important considerations for brands when seeking to create emotional bonds with consumers?

Loncto (Sharp): There's a reason you buy a 70-, 80-, or even 90-inch TV. When Sharp started selling these big-screen TVs, no one had sold anything of any significance more than 60 inches. We talked to the people who might buy these products and learned that having their friends, neighbors, or family congregate in their homes to watch the big game or a movie was a huge consideration. Creating the emotional attachment in a product like this is a key factor.

Buerkle (APCO): It is about layering and building a bond stronger than just a pile of facts. It is easier for b-to-c companies to build those bonds because people can hold those products. But even for b-to-b companies, cultivating that bond with multiple stakeholders is key to building enduring relationships.

Hynes (Text100): In the b-to-b space, it's often overlooked that your target audience is not necessarily the buyer or decision-maker. Text100 does a lot of work in the tech space. Research suggests the chief technology officer will be influenced by 17 different people before making a purchase for their company. Communicators must think about how to connect with all those influencers because their perception of the brand is as important as anyone's. That emotional connection becomes a key part in the overall decision.

Oster (GE): GE has been in people's homes for 100-plus years through our appliances. Consumers are familiar with us in that area. A lot of our other business is b-to-b and storytelling focuses on the outcomes we can deliver to make the world work better.

We are in the aviation business, for example. Airlines are our direct customers there, but the conversations we take part in or the content we create focuses on how we're helping everyday people get to their destinations faster and safely with GE engines. There is a definite connection to be made with how GE is helping to make the world work better for our customers, our stakeholders, and society.

Cohen (MasterCard): Creating emotional attachment is about raising the voice of the consumer and enabling that stakeholder to tell their own story. We do this through a program called Cashless Pioneers.

MasterCard is on a journey to a world beyond cash. In this video series, we highlight merchants and governments who are embracing this. For example, we profiled a man who owns a food truck in Mexico who only took cash. One day he started taking cards and his sales doubled within the first week. We then promoted him through our program and his sales increased exponentially. Telling those stories and having a platform to deliver that creates a powerful emotional attachment to what brands are trying to do.

Freeman (University of Virginia): It's dangerous to think about creating emotional attachment separate from a brand's purpose. Creating inspiration is how brands will achieve emotional attachment. And it always goes back to the actions they take, not any concerted effort to create an emotional attachment.

Advocates for the cause
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): One definition of advocacy is to be a champion on behalf of stakeholders' interests and applying unique expertise and assets to add value to society. How is this playing out with brands today?

Freeman (University of Virginia): I'm on the board of nonprofit group Conscious Capitalism. Companies such as Whole Foods and The Container Store are members who embody that. They don't separate economic and social. They see the purpose of their companies in part to be something bigger than making profits – whether it's getting the world to eat better food or solving problems around organization.

Cohen (MasterCard): Toms is a brand that springs to mind because my kids are actually aware of what it's doing. It's magical when my 10-year-old daughter says, “Please get me a pair of Toms. They have this one-for-one program where some child in a foreign country will get a pair of shoes when I get a pair.”

Hynes (Text100): Companies are beginning to align this concept that they are the enablers. They have a skill or a business acumen they can lend to a cause that creates a situation where there is not just a giver and a receiver, but rather two organizations trying to work toward a common goal that is meaningful to both.

Starbucks found farmers who could not grow Starbucks-quality beans and invested to help them yield better crops. It was taking people out of poverty, but also aligning with a particular skill of theirs.

MacDonald (Gagen MacDonald): If a company is in business, it is advocating for something people care about somehow because those people are supporting them over and over.

Everyone talks about Southwest Airlines making money quarter after quarter, but it started with the Freedom to Fly philosophy and everyone laughed. Founder Herb Kelleher was the joke, so he made himself the joke. It then became the company's personality. Southwest just said, “Here's who we are.” They took the world on, and look at what's happened.

Oster (GE): We have talked a lot about purpose, which is something GE thinks about a lot. We are working to make the world work better, but we are still expected to make money. Again, it's marrying that up. Ecomagination is a great example of that. We are very straightforward about the fact that this is good for the world, but it's going to make us money.

Loncto (Sharp): Sharp is a 100-year-old company. It started with belt buckles and then took its name from the EverSharp mechanical pencil, which was one of our founder Tokuji Hayakawa's first inventions. We have evolved through the years, but the one constant was Hayakawa's credo of sincerity and creativity – and you are reminded of it every day.

Buerkle (APCO): The challenge for all companies is to see they don't just make a widget with a price list attached to it and certain specs. They are doing it because it fits into society in some way.

Take WellPoint, one of the US' largest insurance companies. It can spur innovation in the healthcare delivery system for everyone. As an insurance company that grabs data from doctors, it knows what makes someone land back in the hospital and has more data about what is and isn't working. How can it use this data to improve not necessarily its healthcare plans, but new models in healthcare delivery? It can take its relationships, the people it touches, and pull them together to solve something bigger than itself.

Click here for more from this roundtable, including how different global regions view champion brands.

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