Brands worried about price, promotion, product and placement are stuck in the Stone Age, said Catherine Hernandez-Blades, SVP and chief ESG and comms officer at Aflac, during The Power Behind Brands in Motion lunch at PRDecoded, hosted by WE Communications.
"The four Ps of marketing are gone," she emphasized. "It is about creating an environment that drives engagement and allows people to ultimately enter into an exchange with you."
WE Communications EVP Bill Schultz put into context precisely why this is such a challenging time for brands.
"Increasing consumer expectations have made brands more vulnerable," he said. "How they do what they do matters more than ever." Furthermore, continued Schultz, transparency and ethics are so top of mind for consumers now that a whole host of implications have been created for brands, from both a business and marketing standpoint.
And, of course, there's technology, which both Hernandez-Blades and Schultz emphasize is impacting the way brands engage with consumers, with positive and negative results.
"I am OK with AI being in my car to guide me in the right direction," he said. "But if I want to talk to Aflac about my insurance policy or an airline because I have an issue, I want a person at the other end of that technology."
On the consumers’ terms
Brands must meet the consumer where, when and how they want to be met, advised Hernandez-Blades, who added that the pace of change, in terms of technology, will never be slower than it is at this moment.
So while brands need to be innovative, such efforts must be entered into carefully. For example, she counseled, "Don’t chase the bright shiny new object." And innovation for innovation’s sake can be useless and even dangerous.
"If you create it, be ready to take care of it," said Hernandez-Blades. "And be ready for unintended consequences."
Even though brands are rushing to innovate and implement AI into their strategy, it can be counterintuitive to helping build relationships, she continued.
"If we don’t do it right, we might as well send out our press releases on stone tablets," stressed Hernandez-Blades. "Be ahead of the curve in a smart way that allows you to build the relationships you need in a very challenging environment that is ever-changing."
Social media certainly helps brands, too, but it can cause problems. Consumers can find out anything about a brand, good or bad, real or imagined.
"What keeps me up at night are things that are not accurate about my company that people are spouting out for whatever reason and keeping up with the pace of that," admitted Hernandez-Blades. "The way they are able to do that is changing."
Innovation for innovation's sake can be useless, even dangerous, for brands, warned Hernandez-Blades.
Companies starting to move into the purpose space need to be careful that transparency, honesty and integrity don’t become buzzwords, warned Schultz.
"We are starting to see purpose pushback," he said.
Last year, Aflac released My Special Aflac Duck, an anthropomorphic mechanical duck designed to be a friend to children battling cancer that is used in hospitals across the country.
"That duck is a natural extension that would not have worked if we had not spent the previous 24 years donating $136 million to the pediatric cancer cause," explained Hernandez-Blades.
The duck’s human connection and authenticity was key to the campaign’s success.
"We want everyone to know the duck has a right wing and a left wing," she added. "We are not going to make enemies and we are going to do good. Picking a fight with people never gets you anywhere."
Hernandez-Blades went on to compare CSR efforts and Santa Claus. Whether or not you believe in the latter, she noted, you can’t underestimate his social or economic impact. Brands must take a similar view of their purpose initiatives.
"Now we have to figure out what is key versus what’s material," she said. "We have to come up with another way of letting people know what the economic impact of our efforts is. That’s what’s next for us and what we are focusing on now."