ANALYSIS: Survey gives voice to brand managers - Research firm ORC International has established a panel of senior comms professionals to contribute views on brand management. Gidon Freeman reports on the panel's first findings

The results of the ORC Brand Insight Panel - supplied exclusively to PRWeek - make compelling reading for PROs and corporate comms advisers.

Researchers at ORC International will convene a quarterly panel of brand managers in in-house roles with a view to analysing how those in brand management view the ability of topical news events to shine or tarnish major corporate or product brands.

For the inaugural panel, ORC brand consultant Julia Willcock contacted more than 70 brand communicators - job titles ranged from comms director to V-P of marketing - who filled in an online questionnaire in which their core views were solicited and space was given to them to expound on how current affairs impact on major brands.

The first and most crucial topic under discussion in this first survey centred on the participants' thoughts on the relationship between the corporate comms and marketing function on the one hand and the customer relations function on the other.

For 33 per cent of those who took part, customer relations was guided by corporate brand values but established its procedures independently of communications.

For 16 per cent, communications established protocols for customer relations, in an effort to ensure brand image is consistent throughout the company and is monitored regularly.

For a further 16 per cent, regular meetings take place between customer relations and corporate comms departments on the best ways to promote the brand image. And for a similar-sized chunk, the customer relations unit operates with complete autonomy and is not seen as being fundamentally linked to the comms function. Eighteen per cent of those questioned either didn't know or would characterise the relationship in a manner not specified by the questionnaire.

One member of the panel - which responded anonymously - highlighted a trend in some companies of the two units working increasingly closely together: 'Communications is responsible for brand and consistency, while customer relations manages issues reactively and proactively. Linkage is now being established.'

ORC then turned its attention to two prominent issues - the state of the railway network and British membership of the euro - to tease out the views of those working at the sharp end of brand management.

Panelists were asked how train operating companies such as Virgin and Connex could protect their brands in the eyes of customers while the Government altered the regulatory framework within which they operated. 'Communication' came back as the rallying cry.

One respondent in packaging said that 'through open and clear communication and ensuring voice to the consumer' the brand would be protected in such a trying environment.

A cosmetics sector specialist told the researchers: 'They need to communicate clearly to customers the things they can't control, but demonstrate that they are lobbying, to improve infrastructure, which causes customer dissatisfaction.'

The basics of good comms remain important: '(Brand protection is possible) by identifying and communicating a realistic brand promise. Passengers would respect this more than something that is not deliverable,' said a financial arena respondent.

But further to this, there was some consensus that closer working between customer relations and corporate comms would help deliver brand value.

One automotive sector participant told ORC: 'They should talk to customers to explain the constraints they are working under and more importantly listen to them, and show willing to reimburse fares and apologise in response to poor service.'

But all is not lost, at least in terms of how comms thinking can inform customer relations approaches. The view was clear: 'Trains are bound to be delayed until the infrastructure is overhauled, so Virgin and other operators need to enhance the time onboard.'

For the euro, panelists were asked whether the 'brand' identity of Britain would be debased by joining. Happily for the pro-euro lobby, one of the respondents thought Britain was in danger of losing its identity, though caution was urged by some panelists.

The vast majority - 64 per cent - said losing the pound would not deprive Britain of its unique identity. Fifteen per cent agreed that Britain would lose world status if the UK joined since the pound is a stable currency. Eleven per cent agreed that Britain's possible loss of identity would be a much-needed sacrifice to protect its economic performance in the future. The UK brand, it seems, is more durable than previously thought.

Further issues will be assessed in the next Brand Insight Panel, the findings of which will be published in May.

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