Give your audience what it wants: The Brand Reputation Roundtable (Extended)

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): What consumers want most from a brand is for it to be relevant to them and to demonstrate that relevance in their lives and in their communities. Marketers often focus on disruption. That is certainly important today, 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 when it comes to brand. There must be very close alignment between the brand, the brand promises, and the actual operations and execution of the business. 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): In my role, I am challenged because 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 can always 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 do have an impact on our brand.

Jeff Stender (3M): For our brand, we really must focus on the drivers specific to the product experience. The way we try to drive that value is through engaging in authentic dialogue. We listen to what consumers are describing. We certainly adhere to data, much in line with what Dana said, but data is only as good as how we choose to apply it in an authentic, even emotive 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. Even in our ads, we use actual store employees 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 for point of purchase, but you can’t be sure the way it is being 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, not just occasional. 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. And that could even be the case with brands in turmoil.

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 punch line 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. 

Proper representation

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Thanks to social media anyone can be a brand ambassador, including people who are 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, meaningful way.

Once chosen, you need to train and educate these ambassadors about your brand and the parameters. You can never really control what your brand ambassadors 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): I agree. Employees are the best brand ambassadors. About a year ago, we launched a brand ambassador program we call Tech Heroes within our employee base. We create content for them 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): Third-party endorsers are critical for us, but, of course, we’re lucky to have brand ambassadors that wear the uniform every day. And they’re generally good and willing because it helps promote their personal brands.

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.

Admittedly, this idea made me nervous at first, but we’ve developed a terrific relationship with these fans and they 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 for us, but we have to lean into it and accept 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 and enthusiasm and providing fans 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 individual 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): Relationship building is a lost art. 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.

A couple of months ago, we sent 75 of our top leaders to Washington to meet with legislators from both the House and Senate about banking issues and our footprint.

That was relationship building as much as it was anything.

von Walter (Best Buy): Such meetings are so important. 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. Duluth, Fargo, Rochester, Buffalo. We’ll have people engage with us from all sorts of different places talking about something they heard on a broadcast.

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.

Industry impact

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): What is the effect of a broader sector’s reputation on an individual brand within it?

von Walter (Best Buy): When an industry is doing poorly, it impacts every brand within it. Unfortunately, it seems when as industry is doing broadly well individual brands don’t necessarily get the same positive bump.

Schmidt (Spong): Industries need to pay some attention to it collectively. Reputation is not just a concern for individual brands.

Mardiks (Golin): The impact industries have on individual brands is enormous, but there are certain sectors where this is even more poignant. Look at the chemical, airline, and pharma industries. They never seem to get the benefit of the doubt and that makes it even harder for individual brands in those sectors to rise up. It is even more incumbent on those brands to embrace their values and do what they can to develop their own reputational relationship with consumers and other stakeholders.

Porter (Univ. of St. Thomas): At the end of the day, though, consumers still have to make choices. An industry might have a broadly struggling reputation, say financial services, but you still have to choose a bank. It still comes down to the best experience. Individual brands still have to work on these things.

Stender (3M): Brands are always striving to differentiate themselves for various reasons, but rising above the broader industry’s current image is certainly a factor. Our brand marketing team introduced a new tagline – "3M. Science applied to life." It’s a clarifying statement that highlights all the different aspects of people’s lives we touch. The newsroom I mentioned earlier is a key part of this. We constantly tell stories about our cool science and the moments 3M made possible that wouldn’t exist without our brand.

Himle (Himle Rapp): If a brand is in an industry suffering significant reputational issues, they must make a fundamental decision. Will they be on defense or offense? Most companies retreat, slog through, and wait for things to get better. Mistake. The upside to assuming an offensive stance is an opportunity.

As Ellen noted earlier, risks need to be taken, but brands can also look to what specific factors are hurting the industry’s reputation and pivot aggressively to show how they are different.

Ripley (US Bank): When your industry’s reputation is suffering, it’s even more important to look at the data to make sure you don’t overreact to that. US Bank’s employee engagement scores are among the highest in all industries, not just banks. Forbes named us the number-one most admired regional bank. The Ethisphere Institute named us one of the world’s most ethical companies.

When you feel external pressure from the industry’s reputation, you must not ignore how your company is truly performing. Shifting strategy could end up hurting you. That’s not to say we’re doing everything right, but you have to balance that noise from the outside  with the data, how your company is performing, how you’re perceived, and how your reputation is being managed.

Smith (Twins): I used to work in government, Minnesota’s Public Safety Department. We operated under a "define, don’t defend" stance. Define what you’re doing. Don’t be defensive about it. There’s a different context. Explain what you’re doing as a brand. That resonates a lot better with your constituency than being defensive.

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. How we choose to project those stories.

Our research has revealed that there are certain demographics, interests, and behaviors that acquiesce toward various social platforms, so we strive to have an appropriate presence on those platforms. We look at a lot of data that influences the next user experience that we choose to model for our website, so we always want to be relevant in that way.

Smith (Twins): This is a particularly poignant question for the Twins because baseball is such a family game. We want fathers and grandfathers to come with their sons and grandsons. Daughters and mothers, too. It’s tradition. But attracting teens and young adults is the 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 it’s something we constantly work on.

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. And so does a good story. Again, across generations, powerful storytelling is the ultimate way to communicate messages effectively.

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.

Smith (Twins): A theme that came up before during this roundtable was taking risks. So something we came up with this year was having two of our relief pitchers – Brian Duensing and Aaron Thompson – do a series of videos called "Pen Pals."

Some upper executives were very wary it would border too much on sophomoric humor, but it’s turned out to be very tasteful and very funny. The feedback has been generally good, but even the critical comments are welcome because people are paying attention. It drives a lot of social traffic not only among fans, but from fans to the team. And we send it all to the players and they respond directly. That kind of interaction between fans and players really helps build our brand, not to mention that of the players involved.

Stender (3M): 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 plenty of 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. Let it drive 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 or period of poor performance?

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. If they see consistent performance, which also includes doing the right thing in the communities in which you operate, that can help you get through tough periods.

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. 3M, for example, has certainly established itself as an integral member of the local community here. People are proud that 3M is in Minnesota.

Stender (3M): Particularly as a 113-year-old company, that means a lot. And there is 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 that as a guiding principle will make you as bulletproof as you can be in the long term. Every brand is subject to its own crisis, but that integrity gets you through the bad times. 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. Ford’s slogan of "quality is job one" really came under fire when it had all those issues with the Explorer. It chipped away at the brand reputation it had built up over many years. 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 about its brand – and I’ve sat in enough meetings with senior leadership to know this – 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.

Family business

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): There are many parent brands out there that also have very powerful sub-brands. How do you ensure a sub-brand has a brand all its own, but still remains consistent with the parent? Or is it even important it does?

Stender (3M): The parent brand has a very important impact throughout all the sub-brands at 3M, including iconic ones such as Post-It, Scotch, and Scotch-Brite. Within corporate communications we try to focus on 3M’s larger story, particularly the aspects of it that might not be as readily known. For example, we have 8,500 scientists. Also, a third of our sales come from products that did not exist five years ago. That technology and constant growth is something imperative for us to share as part of the parent brand, as well as all the sub-brands.

Certainly, there are marketing teams that focus on Post-It and Scotch, but people don’t buy stock in those brands. They buy it in 3M. So there’s a narrative we work to weave into all our iconic brands through the newsroom I described earlier.

Schmidt (Spong): Parent and sub brands need to be on the same page in terms of the core essence. However, it’s important to realize that sometimes consumers don’t even know who the parent brand is. How many people know who makes Jif peanut butter? [Editor’s Note: Nobody in the room knew the answer.] It’s the JM Smucker Company.

When things are going well, the sub-brand can stand on its own and consumers will not even think about the parent brand. However, invariably when something goes awry – a product recall, for example – that’s when it becomes crucial to be in lockstep in terms of values, brand direction, and what they stand for.

von Walter (Best Buy): We have a number of house brands that people don’t identify with Best Buy – Insignia, Rocketfish, and Dynex among them. We’re able to produce many of these products at a lower cost, but we don’t necessarily make that a big part of any marketing or PR to distinguish any of them as a Best Buy house brand. And that is OK. The big brands are the ones that drive people to our stores. The sub-brands are simply there to give customers options.

Porter (Univ. of St. Thomas): Best Buy’s driving corporate image is about offering choices. If there is a blank spot in the marketplace, you create and provide choices and can thus fulfill your marketing promise. In many cases, sub-brands or house brands are the best way to fill a niche for an important customer segment – and that is totally fine.

Stender (3M): A rising tide lifts all ships. 3M strives to constantly pull back the curtain so people can understand the technology behind what makes a Post-It Note experience so great. We want them to understand the ongoing innovation and R&D that needs to happen to create these iconic brands and keep them consistent.

Mardiks (Golin): Most companies, especially in the consumer space, put the spotlight on the product brands – and rightly so. I'm impressed with how parent brands today are carving out their own messaging – consistent with, but additive to what their sub-brands stand for. Social purpose campaigns are particularly effective platforms for parent brands.

Defining moment

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): What would be your dictionary definition of "brand"?

Ripley (US Bank): It’s the heartbeat of the organization. It’s who we are. It directs our interactions, conversations, and message development. It gives the organization life.

Mardiks (Golin): Brand is the combination of who you really are and how you project that to the world.

Smith (Twins): A brand is a living, breathing organism with which people have a palpable relationship.

Stender (3M): It is an expectation or an experience and a story. It’s a way to tie back that moment when we were able to do something because of this brand.

Himle (Himle Rapp): A brand is what a company stands for and what it can deliver from the standpoint of operating business policies, practices, and behavior. All of that must align back to the brand you declare yourself to be. And there must be a link between the two.

von Walter (Best Buy): A brand is who you are and what you stand for.

Porter (Univ. of St. Thomas): Brand is like the managed goal of the organization for the reputation and the perception of a product. For me, though, it’s that managed piece. In truth though, it’s constantly evolving. Once you put it out there for the world, it can go anywhere from positive to neutral to negative.

Schmidt (Spong): Brand is about the thoughts people have about a particular organization, product, or service. Whether it’s based on personal experience or what people hear from others, a brand is what people hold in their thoughts and minds. Somebody once said a brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room. That goes back to what we as communicators helped shape in thoughts and minds.

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

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