-Chris Breslin, VP, comms, Voya Financial
-Danielle Goonan, external and brand comms lead, Bayer Consumer Health
-Annie Howell, CCO, Crown Media Family Networks
-Michael Kaye, corporate comms manager, LinkedIn
-Avra Lorrimer, EVP, Hill+Knowlton Strategies
-Amber McCasland, VP of global brand and comms, Poshmark
-Justin Rushing, senior director, creative and social, Walmart
-Joshua Thomas, VP of comms, Target
“Storytelling has moved from glossy to gritty,” says Hill+Knowlton Strategies’ Avra Lorrimer. Comms pros are placing a huge emphasis on making sure their audiences “feel seen and heard through what and how we communicate.”
To be relatable to others, though, a company must first know itself.
“It takes a clear identity,” counsels Walmart’s Justin Rushing. “You have to know who you are and what you stand for. Then that becomes the basis for everything you do.”
“Brands are evolving almost on a daily basis. They're living, breathing organisms,” observes Amber McCasland of Poshmark. “You need to not only understand your company, but also your consumer – what motivates them and what they care about.”
Bayer’s Danielle Goonan shares that “putting the customer at the center of the work we’re doing” helps her team connect to its audience.
Staying consistent is the key for Crown Media Family Networks, says its CCO Annie Howell.
“We know any wrong move could hurt the mothership [Hallmark],” she notes. “Words matter, so we have purposeful communication. We don't change our stripes in terms of who we are so people know what they're going to get when they tune in.”
Roundtable participants were (clockwise from top left): Breslin, Goonan, Howell, Kaye, Thomas, Rushing, McCasland and Lorrimer.
Hard-core fans are a critical audience for brands that require continual and close communication.
“That's where the relatability transitions into something more emotional and lasting,” explains McCasland, “when consumers can actually see themselves in the decisions you're making and how it reflects their feedback and comments.”
“Oftentimes, the most vocal critics are your biggest fans,” she continues. “They're the ones who are most passionate about your brand. Their expectations are incredibly high. When you fall short, they're the first to call you out.”
Target’s Joshua Thomas shares an example of how he created an invaluable opportunity by engaging a hard-core fan turned critic.
“Our purpose at Target is to help all families discover the joy of everyday life and inherently baked within that purpose is relatability,” he says. Yet that purpose was at odds with design partnerships that ignored plus-size consumers – a disconnect that was called out in an emotional post from a blogger who said she didn't see herself or her friends reflected in the brand’s designer lines.
Thomas called the blogger and invited her and a few friends to Target’s Minneapolis headquarters to work with the company’s design team on a new plus-size line.
“The women became Target lookbook models and shared their experiences on their blogs,” he recalls. “When we announced that line, our earned media surpassed anything we had seen from previous announcements of design partnerships. It doesn't get much better than that.”
More important, the experience represented “a real moment of change within the organization,” adds Thomas. “We recognized we could do a better job of making customers feel not just welcome, but celebrated at Target.”
It’s a great example of making sure a company’s actions match its words.
“You have to live up to your core values as a company,” advises Chris Breslin of Voya Financial. “Consumers have shown that they will very quickly call out companies that do not walk the talk.”
Our roundtable experts provide examples of brands who are getting relatability right. Click here to see who they are.
DON’T SPEAK TOO SOON
A form of relatability, especially in the past year-plus, has been brands getting involved in issues consumers care about. Our panelists, though, caution against jumping on an issue too quickly without proper forethought.
“It's easy, especially in moments of crisis, to jump into the conversation prematurely and put out hollow statements that don't really speak to who you are,” says Rushing. “Having restraint to focus on what you say when you have something valuable to add or speaking to something that is actionable is really important, otherwise the world is just going to push back really hard. We saw a lot of companies get this wrong over the past couple of years and the pushback was stark. It was a good learning moment for everyone.”
Social listening can help ensure the “brand is not siloed, so you know what people are saying about you,” adds Goonan. Howell’s team does “tons of social listening and a lot of focus-group testing, so we hear what is working and what's not and we adjust accordingly.”
A company’s workforce can also be a vital bellwether for comms.
“Listening to your own employees and having them review content is a great way to know if you're getting it right,” suggests Rushing. “It gives you a great sounding board. With 1.5 million employees in the U.S. alone, we have a huge audience internally and that's become an important part of building 360-degree communication strategies. Letting your employees tell those stories in an authentic way will resonate more than produced content.”
THE PROPER PLATFORM
The platform on which a story is told is certainly of relevance. Some are better suited to relatable content.
“There are limitations to what you can say or show on social media compared to a digital or video interview, but that doesn't mean that the content on social media is any less meaningful or relatable,” explains LinkedIn’s Michael Kaye. “Earned media and social content complement each other and work best when done collaboratively,”
“Being relatable can be really simple for a brand,” he goes on. “Sometimes we overcomplicate things. I always opt to use imagery and language that is familiar to the audience I'm trying to reach. I want it to feel like a conversation between friends.”
Howell uses LinkedIn aggressively for corporate and business comms and also taps Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter. “We tailor to each platform. We're even tiptoeing into TikTok,” she reports.
Voya recently initiated a podcast with two of its executives and is promoting it through social media, particularly LinkedIn.
“Given the B2B audience, it’s a more direct way to reach buyers, decision-makers, consultants,” explains Breslin.
For the right brand, humor is a good option and Instagram is the perfect vehicle.
“There are several brands out there using social media in a way that is very entertaining,” notes Goonan. “There's something to be said about a powerful meme that is shared again and again.”
McCasland looks to video platforms to maximize engagement. Poshmark recently used Zoom and YouTube to broadcast its annual conference.
“We use Instagram Live for sessions where people can engage and ask questions,” she reports.“Having those touch points in real-time conversations with your community is invaluable.”
“I feel less limited by the platform and more limited by the bandwidth of the audience,” admits Rushing. “LinkedIn has been a good platform for an authentic conversation and we’re creating smaller content out of these events to drive people back to the longer-form content.”
Ultimately, it’s the customized content rather than the platform that dictates relatability. And it should always be natural.
“Don’t force relatability,” advises Thomas. “Sometimes it's not there.”
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
When asked what the next big focus will be for comms, participants focused on certain key thoughts.
“Vulnerability,” says Kaye. He believes that authentic, emotional posts are the ones that go viral and that storytellers who humanize their messages will win with audiences.
“Perfection doesn't work,” notes Howell. “People forgive imperfections.”
In addition to authenticity, transparency and vulnerability, Thomas would “love to see an injection of optimism.”
While it can be scary for any brand to relinquish control over the conversation, it may become a requirement in the future for brands that want to truly connect with consumers.
“We need to think about the broader environment and ecosystem of brand voices and figure out how those voices can help shape the brand story,” suggests McCasland.
To sum it up, Lorrimer proclaims, “Brands require communicators who are brave.”
Below we share examples of brands that, in their own way, are stars of relating with audiences…..
Progressive’s “Turning into your parents” creative was among the examples given of brands who understand the power of relatable storytelling.
•Breslin cites brands such as TOMS who give portions of their profits back to specific causes, and Subaru, a brand with a very specific following.
“People are following them because they like the products and they fulfill a very specific need,” he explains, “but even more they like the story behind the product, why it was created and what that company is doing.”
•Rushing likes the simple and consistent approach Patagonia takes to storytelling.
“You know immediately what they stand for,” he says. “They’re really good at letting the person or the place be the hero of the story versus the brand itself, which is always important to the authenticity. It’s almost like they're selling a belief more than they're selling a product. That makes you want to be part of a movement, with their products being secondary.”
•Howell gave a shout out to Progressive’s “Turning Into Your Parents” creative.
“They do a beautiful job of using humor to make us laugh at ourselves while bringing in the next generation of consumers who are owning their homes and cars,” she notes. “They do a great job of bringing multiple generations together.”
•Match.com got a nod from Kaye for its “Adults Date Better” campaign.
“That was a recent example of a brand that really got it right,” he explains. “Lyft is another brand that communicates exactly what they stand for. It's so relatable, I switched from using Uber to Lyft because I feel like I know the brand so well and it aligns with my values.”
•Unilever’s Degree inclusive deodorant for people with visual impairment and upper limb disabilities was a winner for Lorrimer.
“The campaign recognizes the meaning and importance of being relatable in their comms and in how the product is actually delivered,” she says. “It is powerful.”