Give your audience what it wants: The Brand Reputation Roundtable

What consumers value most in organizations does not always match what marcomms pros think. Industry leaders joined Gideon Fidelzeid at this Spong-hosted roundtable in Minneapolis to discuss bridging that gap, as well as keys to establishing ambassadors and bulletproofing a brand.

Back row (l-r):
-John Himle, founder and CEO, Himle Rapp
-Jill Schmidt, director of strategy, corporate practice chair, Spong
-Jeff Stender, manager, global social media strategy, 3M
-Michael Porter, professor of marketing, University of St. Thomas

Front row (l-r):
-Dana Ripley, SVP, corporate communications, US Bank
-Ellen Ryan Mardiks, vice chairman, president of consumer marketing practice, Golin
-Amy von Walter, VP of comms and public affairs, Best Buy
-Kevin Smith, senior director, corporate comms and broadcasting, Minnesota Twins

Consumer demand

Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Spong’s research highlights a divide between what customers and marketers deem most important in a brand. How can marketers bridge that gap?

Jill Schmidt (Spong): Our recent primary research found there is far more diversity in what consumers value in a brand than what marketers think they do. While quality, value, and customer service all rank high in terms of importance, consumers also bring their own personal value systems to bear on what they deem most important in a brand – from its record on sustainability and treatment of employees to its leadership in innovation and contribution to community. It's not one size fits all, so it's critical for us to really understand what's important to a brand's target consumers.

Ellen Ryan Mardiks (Golin): Consumers most want a brand to be relevant to them and to demonstrate that relevance in their lives and communities. Marketers often focus on disruption, which is important, but sometimes we focus on it so strictly we may forget the relevance part. Bringing those two closer would serve brands well.

Dana Ripley (US Bank): So often people make decisions in the context of emotion. As communicators, though, we have to let data drive our decisions. That’s hard as a financial institution, where issues such as trust, governance, and transparency are particularly paramount, but you could end up making a much worse mistake if you’re responding in the context of emotion.

John Himle (Himle Rapp): Communicators are only one part of the equation. There must be very close alignment between the brand, the brand promises, and the actual business operations and execution. If the consumer is hearing one thing from communications but experiencing something totally different in reality, your brand won’t do very well.

Kevin Smith (Minnesota Twins): I have no control over what happens on the field, which is basically our product. So how can we walk the talk when we can’t control that? You find key elements of your brand that you can control. In our case, it’s the Target Field experience, the way fans are greeted at the gate, the food and beverage. Those really impact our brand.

Jeff Stender (3M): For 3M, we really must focus on the drivers specific to the product experience. We try to drive that value through engaging in authentic dialogue. We listen to what consumers are describing. We certainly adhere to data, but it is only as good as how we choose to apply it in an authentic way.

Amy von Walter (Best Buy): Tactically speaking, we can’t control what happens in the stores, but it’s about setting an expectation. It’s about connecting with customers in the field. We are known for our blue shirts [that employees wear]. We make a concerted effort to take those blue shirts and make local connections. Customers want to know the people who will be helping them in the store. We use actual store employees in ads because it makes an authentic connection that will truly drive the brand forward.

Michael Porter (University of St. Thomas): Brands talk a lot about customer touch points, but they tend to only focus on the pieces they can control. However, those touch points go much further. For example, for consumer packaged goods, you might control the product that is sent to stores, but you can’t be sure the way it is deployed matches what you intended. As loyal as I might be to a brand, in that instant, for that one purchase, my loyalty could disappear. This is a crucial part of the brand, too – the more you can manage the things that are out of your hands.

Ripley (US Bank): What you thought customers wanted 20 years ago is not what they want today. You must constantly ask consumers what they need and expect.

As a bank, we have so many different types of customers – small business owners, college students, retirees, etc. – and they all have different financial needs. We must be very aware of what their actual need is, not just their perceived need. That takes constant data analysis. And you have to balance that with keeping your message consistent. You don’t want to be the company that is constantly changing messages.

Mardiks (Golin): It’s also up to us to recognize the thread of commonality that we see over time and, hopefully, read between the lines as much as we can. As Spong’s research highlights, marketers presume things that don’t match what customers truly think. So it’s important to recognize what we don’t know, too.

Oftentimes, we’ll think a personal experience with a brand dictated something, but maybe consumers don’t care about certain things as much as we think they do.

Himle (Himle Rapp): Too often there are misinterpretations around what data is actually telling us. It’s hugely important to segregate what somebody really wants and expects versus what’s nice to have. Brand marketers must differentiate between beliefs, perceptions, and opinions. Meeting stakeholders’ true demands might not be easy, but if you don’t meet those thresholds it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. Research must be designed in a way that truly gets at the core elements of what stakeholders expect and demand from a brand.

Stender (3M): In terms of data, the biggest question for us is choosing specifically what to measure. Stakeholder expectations and benchmarks are always evolving. We launched our 3M Newsroom this February. Our site has long included product catalogs and general company information, but the newsroom is designed to be more editorial and focus on the day-to-day experiences people have with our brand they may not realize. We are in airplanes, cell phones, cars, and healthcare.

Launching this site forced us to benchmark against other content organizations, not just product catalog producers, and really evaluate what a site experience needs to be.

Schmidt (Spong): People get information about brands in so many different ways now. Consumers truly select what they get. We must think about that because brands are not always connecting with consumers at the same points they used to, or even with the same information sets.

Smith (Twins): Do consumers even care where their information is coming from? If not – and if they are getting bad information – the impact that has on communicators is enormous.

Stender (3M): Studies have revealed that the rate at which information is given is sometimes valued more highly than the accuracy of it. As long as people know that something is happening and they can follow along with the story as it evolves, it’s more important than knowing the punchline at the end.

Focusing back on where information comes from, our research shows 67% of people trust information from technical experts and 52% trust information that comes from employees. That has helped fuel a lot of what we do around advocacy. 

Minnesota Twins president goes to bat for comms

Having spent years in senior-level comms roles prior to ascending to the presidency of the Minnesota Twins in 2002, the team’s brand message is constantly top of mind for Dave St. Peter. From fan engagement to picking the right partners, below are some key takeaways from his conversation with PRWeek managing editor Gideon Fidelzeid:

What the Twins look for in brand partners and vice versa:
We sought organizations that understood what baseball means to the local market. We also need to find brands that share with us a value system around service and community. And with a facility such as Target Field, we are well positioned to deliver a strong brand platform to our partners.

Unexpected benefits from the Target relationship:
The investment it made in the stadium is basically an investment in the Twins. As such, we collaborate all the time around what we can do to activate within the facility and how can we better engage in the community together. What Target brings in terms of creative marketing ideas is incredibly valuable to us.

Keeping fans engaged when on-field results fall short: Relationships are huge in this regard - with everyone from season-ticket holders to corporate partners. We're enjoying our best season in a while. We're giving our fans hope and excitement. But the relationships we cultivated when we were struggling on the field will truly pay dividends when we become a contender.

Comms' increasing relevance in baseball’s upper management:
When I assumed my current role in 2002, only two out of 30 MLB team presidents had a communications or marketing background. Most were lawyers, accountants, or former business heads. Now, out of 30, eight or nine have marcomms backgrounds. The explosion of social media and the ever-increasing understanding inside sports organizations of the importance of crisis communications savvy has led to this.

Click here for additional thoughts from St. Peter on dealing with crises, how social media monitoring impacts key brand decisions, and why a PR man is the most influential sports figure of the last century.

Proper representation

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Thanks to social media anyone can be a brand ambassador, including those not employed by that organization. What is the key to creating and fortifying effective ones?

Ripley (US Bank): Simple as it sounds, you first must decide who you want your brand ambassadors to be. It can’t be everybody, nor should it be. We want it to be our employees. Narrowed even further, the power of the US Bank brand lives with our tellers, who touch our customers in a very real, tangible way.

Once chosen, you need to train and educate these ambassadors about your brand and the parameters. You can never really control what they do, but you want to give them guardrails. You want them to know the messaging you would like them to deliver. There’s a lot of trust involved in the relationship between corporate enterprise and brand ambassadors.

von Walter (Best Buy): About a year ago, we launched Tech Heroes. We create content for employees to share since we know they’re active on social media anyway, particularly the many in-store staffers who are 20-somethings.

On the product side, we’ve found some success working with mom bloggers. As we get into the area of fashion accessories, for example, we’ll work with bloggers in those spaces. Without a huge marketing investment, the blogging community has proven very effective for us as ambassadors, especially in areas not commonly associated with our brand.

Himle (Himle Rapp): Relationships play a huge role in developing the trust necessary for anyone to be a brand ambassador. I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve been asked to assist a company in getting third-party support when that company has done absolutely nothing to develop relationships or trust. In a social media world, where everything operates so quickly, those factors are more important than ever.

Smith (Twins): Deckstravaganza is a program we have created to develop external ambassadors. We invite some of our biggest social media users to two or three games a year. They all sit together on the Twins’ private deck above left field. We turn them loose with food and beverage. These folks will be very active on social media anyway, but now they’re enjoying a really great night at Target Field and they’re sharing that. These things trend nationally, so our brand gets a real boost. Moreover, we interact with every tweet and post, which is important.

This idea made me nervous at first, but we’ve developed a terrific relationship with these fans who have turned into truly great Twins ambassadors.

Mardiks (Golin): Another key is the embracing of risk. We don’t control what our brand ambassadors are going to do and say, but we have to lean into it.

In addition, you have to embrace fandom. In many cases, a brand’s relationship with customers is not a direct interaction. Often times, fans are made because brands develop relationships based not only on trust, but also on excitement, enthusiasm, and providing them with a regular stream of content they believe in and can enjoy. This creates a ripple effect among a community of brand ambassadors that can be invaluable.

Schmidt (Spong): Just as important as developing brand ambassadors is working with the ones already out there. Brands have to monitor what is being said about them. There must be a response and engagement plan. Find those enthusiasts and get them even more engaged in supporting your brand.

Porter (Univ. of St. Thomas): This sounds a lot like media relations to me. If bloggers were editors or writers for a key publication, brands would treat them a certain way. However, their relevance as influencers and the traction they have built demands they now be treated as respectfully as traditional media professionals.

Ripley (US Bank): For as much as our discipline has changed – it’s more fast-paced, sophisticated, complicated – it still comes down to relationship building with all your stakeholders. It’s a lost art.

von Walter (Best Buy): Our press operations people meet with newsrooms all over the country. As we focus so much on day-to-day tasks, you can’t forget these crucial relationship-building exercises.

Mardiks (Golin): Hopefully in all this we’ll start remembering what local means. We are still citizens of place. Consumers and other stakeholders believe that fundamentally. As PR pros, we can lead in emphasizing how much those local, personal relationships can make a difference for our brands.

Smith (Twins): We are a very local brand in many ways, representing Minnesota. However, our games are broadcast on 98 radio stations around the US. We’ll have people engage with us from all sorts of different places.

We have an off-season caravan that visits locations well outside Minneapolis. We can be in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on a Wednesday night in the middle of winter and we’ll find, without fail, packed rooms of fans in Twins gear. In those moments, that’s just as local to us as Minneapolis.

Something for everyone

Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek): How can you establish a brand that effectively finds common areas between generations?

Mardiks (Golin): It might be easier today than in the past. There is actually more commonality between generations today. We’ve spent so much time in the past decade dissecting everything there is to know about Millennials. It’s been a good exercise, but perhaps a bit overdone. The latest research shows Millennials aren’t all that much different than the rest of us. They seem more receptive to messaging that spans different age groups.

It’s also important to note that generations are only one dimension of what defines us today. There are so many different communities we all belong to that truly span generations – whether based on interests, ethnicity, etc. They unite us. Brands can benefit from that.

von Walter (Best Buy): We have so much data about people now – how, where, and when they shop, as well as what they are looking for. We use this to help us set up programs such as our wedding registry and our movers program. We can personalize emails and social media outreach. We can give consumers things relevant to them. That’s what everyone wants, regardless of the generation they are in.

Stender (3M): When you talk about purchase behavior online, one thing we focus on a lot is storytelling. Our brains are literally wired for stories. It’s a generational way to pass along information and experiences. It’s something we work to do on a very consistent, daily basis.

Smith (Twins): Attracting teens and young adults is our biggest attendance challenge. So we have to offer them something. Barrio is a well-known bar and restaurant in Minneapolis. We put one in left field for the purpose of getting young people to hang out with their friends at Twins games. If you look around the ballpark on any given night, it has become one of the most popular spots.

Older folks still like to have vendors come to them, so we have that, too. There is still the challenge of the music we play at the park, how loud it is, and making sure everyone is comfortable with it. Bridging generations in that way is still a challenge, but we constantly work on it.

Ripley (US Bank): Millennials definitely gravitate toward mobile payment systems and online banking. However, perhaps surprisingly, many older customers also want to interact that way. In fact, real-time information is strongly desired by them when it comes time to make an investment decision. There are still plenty of people who want to do in-person transactions, and that’s fine. However, online banking is not simply something the younger generation appreciates.

Himle (Himle Rapp): The unifier among different generations goes back to authentic communications. It doesn’t matter if you’re 25 or 65. If you believe that what a brand is saying is not just corporate speak, but real, that resonates with any generation.

Porter (Univ. of St. Thomas): The variety of offerings Kevin was speaking about has the makings of a great story about what it’s like to be at a Twins game on any given night. Not every audience will care about everything, but if you tell the complete story, something will resonate with everyone.

Stender (3M): Storytelling isn’t all about the written word. It’s actually showing, not necessarily telling. As a brand, you want to utilize video and images to allow individuals to glean the parts that are relevant to them so they can start telling your story in a way that is influenced by the content you created.

Word of mouth marketing is also still very powerful. In his book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Jonah Berger stresses that while social is such a focus, it is still not the only form of interaction. We still spend more time talking to people.

Schmidt (Spong): Brands really need to study attitudes and psychographics to truly understand what bonds generations together. What brand attribute can we identify that will resonate with Millennials, Boomers, or anyone? And once you identify it, stay true to it. Let it drive your brand and your storytelling. Tap into it at every turn and you’ll have messaging that crosses generations.

Becoming bulletproof

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): How can a brand set itself up to where it can survive any crisis?

Himle (Himle Rapp): Establish trust. Customers, employees, investors, and all stakeholders will not overlook crises, but they will stay loyal to brands they trust. The lack of trust makes you most vulnerable in any kind of crisis.

Mardiks (Golin): Building trust is like wearing a bulletproof vest. Crises still sting, but they don't kill you. Building the trust bank takes commitment and resolve to do the right thing. And today, of course, it also demands real-time, authentic communication.

Ripley (US Bank): You can never think your brand is bulletproof. You have to believe you’re always protecting, managing, and nurturing it. And it has to start at the top of the house. A brand’s executive team should feel enormous pride, respect, and concern about the brand to the point where it trickles down throughout the organization and everyone is always working to enhance, nurture, preserve, and protect the brand.

Smith (Twins): Equity is the word that comes to mind. If you build up equity with your fans, your consumers, they might be more sympathetic when you stumble.

As a sports team, I can definitely say community interaction helps maintain the Twins brand during periods of losing. You want the community to be proud that the Twins are a part of it. And that certainly applies to all brands.

Stender (3M): There is also something to be said for being transparent. It’s a facet we work hard on every day. I’ll echo what Dana said: you can’t even pretend to be bulletproof. No brand is. But the building of trust and relationships gives you momentum that can help see you through crisis.

von Walter (Best Buy): Integrity plays a key role here, too. Our chairman of the board, Hatim Tyabji, just retired. He led the organization through a time of great public turmoil, but always focused on doing the right thing for shareholders, employees, and customers. Having integrity as a guiding principle will make you as bulletproof as you can be in the long term. It certainly has helped Best Buy get to a much better place than it was two-and-a-half years ago.

Schmidt (Spong): Brands need to walk the talk. They can damage themselves when they depart from the core claims and that experience within the company. Communicators can best do their jobs by being interlocked with operational issues.

Himle (Himle Rapp): I worked with the Mayo Clinic for several years. It has one of the most powerful brands in the world, not just its sector. What is so significant is that every single critical question always comes back to what is in the best interest of the patient. That is infused in the DNA of the organization – from the person at the reception desk to the nurses to the physicians to all the other people working there. And when that happens, everyone understands it and experiences it. It’s a guiding principle of the company and it truly stands up to any potential crisis the brand might encounter.

Click here for Spong’s proprietary research on how consumers evaluate brands.

Click here for more from this roundtable, including a look at how a broader industry’s reputation impacts individual brands within that sector.

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