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During SXSW a few weeks ago I had the good fortune of meeting a number of my former colleagues from Dell, where I worked from 2002 to 2006. During my stint there I had the incredible good fortune of working on the team that would design, develop and manage Dell’s then new – and since much lauded – social media program.

But our conversation didn’t dwell so much on the good old days as the realization that years later many companies are still hesitant to embrace, or even explore, the full potential of social media technology. This despite the dramatic increase in cheap, user-friendly technology to support everything from targeting to analytics to collaboration. In fact, outside of some perennial leaders – many of them in the technology industry – many organizations are still grappling with the same questions and fears we saw almost ten years ago. And this is particularly true of companies exploring a social strategy inside the enterprise. (As just one example of this slow going, the folks at Prescient Digital estimate that only 4% of companies have a truly social intranet system.) After comparing notes about our respective clients and consulting gigs, we concluded many of the original arguments, tools and basic social media models we developed in those early days were still relevant, and very much in demand.

So why the uneven, reluctant adoption of new approaches and technology?  While many have focused on potential fixes for PR teams and their clients (check out this excellent blog post by my former Dell colleague Richard Binhammer) I am more curious – and perplexed – about the barriers to progress in PR. Why is a business filled with smart , accomplished consultants so slow to adapt? Based on my perspective the past few years, I offer a few suggestions:

  • Bunker Mentality – There’s no way to escape the dramatic tectonic shifts in new technology and the related impact on entire industries, including news media, advertising, retail, music, and not least communications and PR. The dizzying pace of new products and functionality makes it even harder to keep up with change. While some organizations seem invigorated by these shifts and flood of new opportunities, many have reacted with grudging, superficial tactics without changing their strategy or business model. In many ways, they are still in denial.
  • Inertia – The sad reality in any corporate setting (indeed, perhaps even in human nature itself) is that there is very strong momentum for doing things the way they’ve always been done, particularly in times where staffs are lean and driven by short-term objectives. And despite all the hype around innovation and risk, very few organizations have cultures that encourage, or even allow activity outside the norm. Often, companies need a major event like a new strategy or leader to encourage a shift in direction. Without that, it’s difficult to change old habits.
  • Functional Insularity – Functional departments that would typically help spark and support innovation and change – or at least be the sources of new ideas and information – are often the most insular, reactive ones of the bunch. HR and IT, for example, are in many cases reluctant bystanders to progress and sometimes surprisingly uninformed about new technology or trends. (In some of my social media projects, in-house IT departments are either reluctant partners or standing on the sideline.) The one department that seems to have embraced change, albeit sometimes reluctantly, is marketing. PR is often caught in the middle of this dynamic and too often unwilling or unable to drive its own momentum.
  • Boomers Dominate Leadership – Though statistics suggest boomers are among the fastest growing users of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, many older workers are less familiar and comfortable with new technology, social or otherwise. This helps explain anachronisms like the CEO who refuses to use email or others who shun any type of digital discourse. The grizzled leadership in many PR companies has the same generational anxiety about trying new tools and approaches. This trend should change as younger, much more tech-savvy workers gain leadership roles.
  • Tyranny of Today – Many communication professionals operate at a hyper pace and in a routine that leaves little room for introspection or learning. In that context, it’s easy to simply continue focusing on immediate projects and put off professional development – both formal and otherwise. Add to this the reality that many clients and peers are also focusing on their daily priorities, and paying little attention to broader issues outside their immediate tasks. Perhaps the most common refrain I’ve heard from peers struggling to understand and incorporate new technology is “I just don’t have time.”
  • Knowledge Gap – Save perhaps for a few precocious millenials, very few of us in the PR industry start with a deep base of knowledge in social media or related technology. What we know is what we’ve learned in the past decade or so as social media has become more prevalent in our lives. So it takes effort and commitment to remain in learning mode and stay current on major trends and new platforms. Unfortunately, it seems too many PR pros are counting on a few resident tech nerds or outside experts rather than upgrading their own knowledge base.

Taken together, these factors help explain the myopic outlook and slow adoption of social media in PR. And I’ve experienced every one of these barriers, so I have some understanding for the challenges in our business. But they shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction. I don’t want to be having this same discussion in 5 years.

Each year at this time the gigantic Consumer Electronics Show occurs in Las Vegas. This is like the Super Bowl of the technology industry with equal parts hype, illusion, innovation and debauchery in the program. What strikes me every year, however, is not necessarily the news or products coming out of CES – here’s one summary of the key trends at CES – but that the event is virtually ignored by the PR industry.

As I read article after article in the business, marketing and technology media outlets, there is nary a mention in PR industry publications. (PRWeek US does have one article, but it focuses on how brands are adapting their promotions to drive buzz at the event rather than the actual technology.) There’s a similar trend on popular PR blogs and discussion groups, with those leaning on communication (or broader, related topics like engagement and dialogue) virtually ignoring the event and related discussions.

This lack of interest, and coverage, reflects a dangerous blind spot for the PR industry, which still focuses on churning out content and traditional techniques and tools and lacks interest and expertise in emerging technologies. I’ve witnessed the same “leading from behind” trend with the industry’s uneven, tentative reaction to the social media revolution, which has resulted in sporadic deployment and glaring knowledge gaps across the industry. It’s as if the technology side of the equation has been outsourced to digital agencies or even IT teams (though the latter also lag badly in some organizations.)

I recognize CES is about consumer technology and products, but I believe the concept of marketing to consumers carries some relevance to marketing – or communicating – to other audiences, including employees. At minimum, should professional communicators not track what new technologies are impacting various products and industries – particularly those directly grounded in communication areas like digital content and collaboration?

This is one area where marketing and advertising firms seem to have the upper hand. They realize, it seems, that they risk irrelevance and oblivion if they don’t seek to understand and implement new technology to inform and engage customers. I like the approach of the Starcom/Publicis agency team, which hosted hundreds of clients at CES to expose them to emerging trends and partner in discussions on the implications for marketing. Their message on the event is perceptive and telling:

“CES is about more than just technology.  The agency views it instead at the Consumer Experience Show. […] One of the underlying messages from CES is that technology is a major contributor to a culture and business climate that is evolving at warp speed. Ultimately, creating a compelling experience is what we’re all struggling to do.”

I keep hoping that the PR industry will stop playing catch up on these major trends. Maybe I’ll see more interest and participation at SXSW in Austin, which is ostensibly more relevant to PR professionals. Getting informed and engaged is in the interests of our industry, and our clients.

I wasn’t surprised at all by the results of the US presidential election. Despite Republican conspiracy theories about the polls, I believed most were an accurate reflection of the mood of the electorate – or as accurate as polling can be. And I expected a majority of Americans would gravitate to a moderate position on key issues, and be scared off by some of the extreme, simplistic positions promoted by Republican candidates. What did really surprise me, however, was that Romney and his ardent supporters on Fox News seemed genuinely shocked, even flabbergasted, that Obama had won – and decisively at that.

I suggest the main cause of this surprise was the insular, persistent echo chamber constructed by conservative media pundits, the powerful PACs and the Romney campaign that promoted its own narrative at any cost. As a detached observer (I’m Canadian and therefore cannot vote in U.S. elections) it struck me that the conservative media machine was doing a great job telling their own supporters what they wanted to hear, but in the process they built a parallel universe that filtered out or discounted information that didn’t fit their narrative. They appeared to lose touch with the concerns, doubts and opinions of many voters. Witness the histrionic focus on conspiracy theories around the Benghazi attack in the days prior to the vote while most of the country, rightly, seemed far more concerned about the Sandy disaster.

Perhaps more surprising is that the Romney team went along for the ride. In short, they guzzled their own delusional cool-aid. In the process of pushing their message – again and again – and listening primarily to their fans (and billionaire supporters) while avoiding critics, the Romney team seemed to lose the pulse of the broader electorate. They forgot that the essence of a productive communication process is a dialogue, where listening is a key ingredient in delivering a relevant and credible message.

I’ve seen this same insularity and hubris in corporate settings. Some CEOs forcefully promote and execute their agenda with little care or understanding for their employees’ concerns and questions. They pay limited attention to employee feedback, and rely more on informal sources – often senior staff reluctant to share bad news – which fosters an artificial decision-making cocoon that becomes detached from the reality on the front-lines. As a CEO, losing touch with your audience increases the chance your outreach and policies will be duds, and that your employees will ignore, or worse reject, the top-down dictums.

The lesson here for communication professionals is that it’s fine to have an agenda and narrative you want to promote – even a partisan one – but doing so without careful, constant consideration for your audience and a realistic, open perspective is a recipe for disaster. In this case, electoral disaster. Despite the propensity to rely increasingly on partisan hype – a wall-of-sound of repetitive, shrill advertising and commentary – all the wishing and punditry in the world can’t change the reality on the ground. It’s understandable the Romney team didn’t want to show their true hand, but they certainly should have known their realistic prospects, and spent more time listening to the voters rather than their own hype.

I’ve been in the communication business a long time; now well into my second decade. Though I’ve witnessed many changes as the profession has evolved – most of them positive – there are also several industry characteristics that seem to stubbornly resist progress, almost like anachronisms. These aren’t so positive. Granted, this is just an unscientific tally from my personal perspective, but here is a list of communication quirks, or habits, that I’m surprised to still be seeing in the workplace:

  1. I’m amazed at the prominence of much-maligned PowerPoint as a communication tool. Even harsh critics seem to use the tool – with minor variations and embellishments – even as they attack the platform. Despite the introduction of plenty of new technology and platforms over the years – including more dynamic PP tools like Prezi and new visual options – the tried-and-true model remains ubiquitous.
  2. Interactive, digital 3-D environments like Second Life have a very low profile, and usage, despite the early hype and promise.  A few cutting-edge firms use the platforms for a wide range of communication activities (including secure, enterprise versions for internal use) but many pros seem to have little awareness or interest in this technology.
  3. Corporate communications content is almost devoid of humor, which is so prominent in our digital lives and a key ingredient in the best marketing and entertainment campaigns. I understand some topics are serious, but the PR industry seems to have a deathly fear of humor that fuels work that is needlessly boring and forgettable.
  4. I still see much more “push” communication – or talking to/at our audiences – than “pull” activities, where users can access information they want, when and where they want to.  Genuine conversation – which can be fostered through a range of new social media tools – is even more rare.
  5. Many companies still have no social media strategy. And I’m not talking about a proactive, intervention plan. Many don’t even have a defensive, passive social media program – with a basic employee policy and/or rudimentary monitoring.
  6. While the internet is truly global – a virtual community where distance and borders are irrelevant – many companies are still surprisingly insular and lack basic knowledge of global communication trends and differences. (One example: no awareness or recognition of the dominance of languages other than English on the Internet.)
  7. With apologies to my friends in IT… most IT departments in organizations remain a reluctant partner and barrier to progress, rather than a technology leader or facilitator. Yes, they have to consider costs and risks. But IT’s lack of attention to new technology and thin excuses (we can’t support that third-party platform) has made the function less relevant in many organizations.
  8. Finally, perhaps the most surprising…too many professionals still lead with a tactic at the expense of strategy. It’s the old shoot, fire, aim adage…with a checklist mentality focused on deliverables and activity and not on driving impactful, relevant objectives.  The new version – “can you set us up with a Facebook page” – is simply an updated variation of pushing out the old employee newsletter (without clear purpose or metrics.)

Like in any industry, it can be hard to change entrenched habits. And our bosses or clients – senior executives – are often the ones pushing back on untested, new approaches. But if we hope to position ourselves as smart, agile consultants we can’t fall back on excuses and inertia.

I have to admit to a morbid fascination with the hyper-partisan and highly ritualistic wall of noise that serves as communication during this election season in the United States.  You know the playbook: deploying an army of “surrogates” to amplify the daily message platform; vacuous appearances in friendly, choreographed media interviews; carpet-bombing of shrill, bombastic advertising (much of it devoid of nuance or credibility); and, commentary by a motley crew of journalists, polarized media personalities and self-appointed expert pundits.

The premise behind this political playbook seems to be that saying something loud and often – no matter how tenuous the relationship with objectivity or truth - will eventually get people to believe it . It suggests that subtlety and creativity have no place in bare-knuckle political advertising (which would explain the highly formulaic production that mimics low-rent infomercials.) It also seems based on the assumption that most of us rely, almost exclusively, on media sources that are already aligned with our beliefs – almost like talking to ourselves. In other words, we access news and information from our side of the political divide; the rest is likely rotten and misleading anyway, so why bother. Perhaps the worst aspect of the political toolkit is the intense personal attacks; the debate is often framed not by disagreement about policy or vision, but by dubious personal attacks questioning the character and integrity of the candidates. Beyond the merit of these specific tactics, which seem almost anachronistic in this age of empowering technological progress and social media, this whole approach seems perched on the belief that most people are simply not very smart.

In spite of my personal distaste for this carnival, it does raise two important questions for me and other communication professionals. Does any of this really work? And is there something valuable here communication professionals can learn from?

Does any of this really work? There’s been plenty of discourse and disagreement on the question of whether the political communication model actually works. Maybe I’m an idealist, but I like to believe that most informed observers, – who are willing to look beyond the most predictable, partisan media outlets – have the judgment and intellectual curiosity to make up their own minds on the issues. Those who are most partisan happily return to their favored sources to hear what they want to hear, but many others will take advantage of the rich, diverse array of information sources, formal and otherwise, to shape their opinion. In terms of the loudest winning the argument (or election), history is littered with those who mistakenly thought their money, and advertising clout, could buy them victory (Meg Whitman is one recent example.)  Furthermore, I’m not sold on the logic that hearing a message repeated by 10 people, all obviously towing the party line, will make us more likely to believe it than if we heard it only from the candidate. There are also many examples of voters contradicting the polls, and experts, predicting one outcome or another based on their campaign acumen. So my verdict on whether this model works is: the evidence is mixed, and I don’t see enough reason to throw my values and professional integrity out the window.

Is there something valuable here communication professionals can learn from?

This second question is one that comes up often with peers, particularly younger professionals new to the PR/communication industry. My answer to them is that politics is the last place I would go to pick up valuable best practices. Yes, there are certainly some lessons we can learn from the political process – notably the sophisticated use of research in message development, enlisting of third parties and local volunteers, and efficient use of “war room” monitoring and response teams. There are also important media trends we can learn from, such as the shift to more blatant, unapologetic political alignment. But overall the extreme (some would say perverse) communication approach favored in political campaigns is a good model of what to avoid if you want to foster a credible, lasting relationship with your audiences. Hype and propaganda may win you a few temporary victories (including some elections) but facts, balance and transparency are more important if you want long-term relevance and respect as a source, or professional counsel.

Ultimately, I have faith in the capacity of well-intentioned people to sift through the noise, do their homework and make up their own minds. Banking on the ignorance and gullibility of people is not in the best interest of voters, or the PR profession.

In recent weeks I’ve been involved in several projects that revolve around that challenging, nebulous communication exercise called the “vision thing.” More specifically, I’ve worked with clients to help develop, or uncover, and articulate their corporate mission…or vision…or purpose.

As you can surmise by my last sentence, these type of engagements are often rife with confusing, overlapping terminology and unclear intent. In fact, the very labels used in this type of work usually spark negative reactions, if not yawns, for many employees. Still, this is critical work that can help to direct business decisions and boost employee morale, engagement and productivity.

On the surface, helping a company to crystallize its purpose – or reason for being in business – seems obvious. In fact, shouldn’t a company already know who it wants to be, and what it wants to stand for in the marketplace? In theory yes, but the reality is many organizations don’t have a credible, relevant purpose – or mission statement – that captures their core aspirations and corporate DNA. Even fewer of them have defined their identity and core values. Much of the work I’ve seen in this area is generic, trite and lacks relevance or credibility with both customers and employees. Think of the clichéd values on the wall (sometimes as many as 12!) or the vacuous mission statement with no apparent link to daily operations or goals.

With this context in mind, I’ve developed a short checklist to help organizations develop and execute a valid mission statement:

  • Use words wisely – Knowing that many employees (and indeed professionals) are fuzzy about what these words mean and often tune them out, start by carefully selecting and clearly defining the labels you will use. Perhaps the most frequent confusion I’ve seen centers around purpose – which identifies a company’s fundamental reason for being, and captures key customer benefits and/or market differentiators – and strategy – which is a plan of action, or roadmap, to achieve the purpose.
  • Connect the dots – A purpose will only make sense, and drive real change, if it’s part of a strategic framework that clearly outlines the various elements of an organization’s strategic plan. There is the purpose, or aspiration, which is linked to the strategy, or roadmap to achieve the purpose. Beyond that, there are typically related elements such as: core values that define the “how”, or desired behaviors; market differentiators; cultural tenets; and so on. Whatever the elements are – since these will differ based on circumstance and industry – their relationship and relevance should be clearly and consistently communicated.
  • Don’t forget the brand – Linked to the point above, a purpose should also inform a company’s brand positioning. That means marketing messages and themes should reinforce, if not specifically mention, the key elements of the purpose. Many companies spend considerable time developing their brand essence or positioning, as well as related tag lines or campaign slogans. This marketing approach certainly has merit, but the process – and implicit messages – must be aligned both with the purpose and related themes the company is promoting with employees.
  • Be credible – Having a purpose that is a stretch, or aspiration, is fine. In fact, the purpose can be so ambitious the company may never fully achieve it. But the purpose has to be realistic and based on true marketplace advantages and cultural differentiators.
  • Walk the talk – As noted above, the key to a viable, relevant purpose is having a robust plan of action – or strategy – that firmly anchors the purpose to the company’s business operations. Everything the company does – all the way down to capital investments, performance reviews and team priorities – should be linked to achieving the purpose. In short, it can’t just be an idea or concept.
  • Tell a story – Though in theory a purpose should serve to direct and motivate staff, too often they fail to engage and drive any meaningful action. There is huge opportunity to leverage the inherent passion and pride in a purpose through compelling, consistent communication across all audiences. Companies that do this well use all the tools and sophistication of marketing and storytelling to bring their purpose to life and illustrate best practices and positive outcomes.
  • Be disciplined – A purpose isn’t going to do much good if there’s no discipline behind it. It should serve as the North Star for a company, and a litmus test for investment of time and resources. If an activity or investment doesn’t support the purpose, don’t do it.
  • Think long term – Many companies often make a big splash to announce their new purpose (or new strategy) but often fail to follow-up with updates and illustrations that provide a sense of progress and success. Though short-term priorities and even strategies will change over time, a purpose should have a long shelf life. The key to sustaining relevance, therefore, is to give stakeholders are sense of if/how the purpose is being achieved, and what impact that is having on the company’s success.

Through my career as a communication professional, one mantra that’s provided me with sustained inspiration and direction is the need to consider all five senses while communicating. In other words, though we tend to spend most of our time in written words (only using sight) there is benefit in using other senses as appropriate – particularly sight and sound – to try to reach and affect our target audiences.  As it happens, I got a great reminder the past few weeks of the impact and effectiveness of compelling visuals.

First, I finally joined the Pinterest bandwagon. I’d heard the increasing buzz about the booming site (or app?) from peers and friends alike, and now use it regularly to “pin” and share a wide range of images. I’m still not sure if it’s a fad or adds any lasting value to the on-line conversation, but from my perspective the images (most of them photographs or posters) are as compelling and informative as the best blog posts or Twitter comments – though it’s true the format limits the detail and nuance the images can convey. Still, I’ve discovered several stories and campaigns – including the much-hyped KONY story – through their Pinterest “windows.” And for what it’s worth my peers and friends have a much richer understanding of my personality and preferences from my selection of images.

The past few months some of the best blog posts I’ve read – or seen – involved info-graphics on a wide range of topics – ranging from the growth of the Internet to the DNA of social media. And by the way, they are much more compelling, memorable and user-friendly than equivalent white papers on similar topics. Check out this one as an example. I’ve also noticed a strong trend towards peers and friends sending me (or posting) photos and videos – often with little or no text.

My best personal anecdote of the power of visuals is about a simple photograph. While working several years ago in a global organization undergoing a massive transformation (both cultural and structural) we convinced the CEO to focus on several stark, bold photographs to convey the key themes behind the change. Over time these photos became widely recognized and even used as unofficial brands for the various facets of the program. One photo in particular – a fish jumping from a safe, small bowl of water into a larger one – came to symbolize the essence of the company’s revolution and was prominently displayed in the CEO’s office as a reminder. Of course, there was content behind the photo – without meaning using photos can easily invite sarcasm and even parody.

I’m not the only one thinking about this visual trend; this blog post in AdAge argues the shift to visual is part of a greater cultural trend sparked by technology: Smarter devices are prompting more occasions for people to create and consume visual content, while social media is encouraging that content to be shared on multiple platforms.

While the use of strong visuals and design has long been a best practice in advertising and entertainment (which could be described as both a form of marketing and communication), it remains nascent and uneven in the PR industry.  For many organizations, the focus on visuals (and related emphasis on graphic design) is limited to primitive PowerPoint slides and esoteric debates about fonts. Even simple internal branding or program collateral is rare in many corporate settings.  Where visuals exist, they are too often functional and lacking attention to creative, original design.  (When is the last time you’ve seen content on bulletin boards with any hint of imagination and visual originality?) Video also seems limited in many companies – at least in terms of internal use – despite the fact new technology makes shooting and editing content ridiculously easy and inexpensive. Even photography seems to be an after-thought in communication platforms and plans.  Years ago this might be explained by the cost of design and printing, but in this digital age there is no excuse for the paucity of pictures.

While one could argue the external world bombards us with too much visual stimulus – think a Blade Runner dystopia where imagery overload drowns out even compelling ideas – many organizations are stuck too far in the other direction. In a commendable effort to avoid hype and be direct, they have become too serious and formulaic, even boring.  Another possible factor behind this visual gap is the lingering firewalls between related disciplines like marketing, IT, design and PR. While it seems like a no-brainer to walk down the hall to your marketing team to leverage them in an internal promotion – one of many examples of potential cross-pollination – it seems to be a rare occurrence.

The result of this lack of visual imagination is predictable: many internal communication programs have limited resonance and impact on employee awareness and engagement. While our focus as communication professionals should always remain the message, we need to expand our thinking about how we communicate with our audiences. The power of images is too potent to ignore.

Social media technology – or Web 2.0 – has been around for several years now, and for most organizations debate on social media activities has shifted from if to how.  Despite an accumulation of case studies and ubiquitous social media “experts” selling their wisdom, however, many organizations are still struggling to define and execute a viable strategy.

Brian Solis, a thought leader with Altimeter Group, recently published a helpful checklist of best practices for brand building in social media.  Beyond the useful tips, Solis highlights some of the common challenges – and shortcomings – of social media activities in the marketplace. Perhaps most notable is the stubborn focus on marketing – impulsively building branded properties across social channels primarily to promote the brand and spur sales – at the expense of relevant content and sustained engagement. This myopic approach fails to consider the ultimate litmus test for any social media strategy: is the activity/channel providing relevant, long-term value to targeted consumers? Not surprisingly, there is still a strong “push” reflex to many of the social media programs.

But lack of strategic focus and self-serving outreach are not the only problems. In my experience, the biggest and most surprising shortcoming is the lack of originality and innovation in the social media activities of many organizations. Many programs are tentative forays (branded Facebook pages) using obvious, safe paint-by-number templates. But for those who are interested, and motivated, there are plenty of successful, smart programs that go beyond the ordinary and manage to break through the noise. As one example, check out Secret’s anti-bullying campaign – Mean Stinks. As noted in this AdAge article, while many of the ingredients (channels) in the campaign are fairly typical, the recipe of multi-media tactics and content is original and fresh (no pun intended.)  Included in the mix are a “good graffiti” app, referral info for counseling centers, a donation tie-in and the ability to upload personal video apologies or complaints. The result has been rapid growth in fans/friends, strong repeat traffic and a notable boost in Secret deodorant sales. (The program included links to purchase P&G products – a reminder that an appropriate link to sales platforms can be part of the mix.)

So what can we learn from this? While many organizations need to spend the time developing robust, focused social media plans, they can’t forget to add the pixie dust of creativity. That will help ensure they break through the noise and truly engage with their customers and fans. Smart, memorable marketing apparently never goes out of fashion.

Another week, another interesting corporate response to a crisis. This past week we have Taco Bell defending its honor against a lawsuit accusing it of misleading customers on claims of beef content in various taco products.

The official Taco Bell response – centralized on a page within their corporate website – typifies a “good offense is the best defense” approach. The company quickly raised the profile of the issue with sarcastic, defiant full-page ads in major U.S. newspapers. The response also features a video from the CEO Greg Creed (and taped interviews of the CEO with major networks), various fact sheets and a stern statement warning they will vigorously defend their integrity against the “bogus” lawsuit. The company also wisely leveraged its various social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook – which showcased messages of support from hundreds of fans, and even a spoof on the lawsuit response. To their credit, Taco Bell management didn’t seem to filter the comments on either platform to skew a positive response.

Not surprisingly, there is a range of opinions from PR pundits on whether Taco Bell is using the right approach. Check out these comments in a USA Today article. One writer on the Huffington Post argues Taco Bell may have permanently hurt its reputation by bluntly admitting its beef is bland and needs to be augmented with flavor and fillers.

From my perspective, the company did many things right:

  • They jumped right on the issue clearly stating their case to ensure consumers heard their side of the story;
  • The CEO has been very visible and is definitely – for better or for worse – the public face of the company;
  • The company leveraged various communication channels – ranging from traditional media to social media properties – and formats to get its message out;
  • Taco Bell has shown some creativity and bluster despite tackling a serious topic, which is consistent with their young, hip advertising image (think barking Chihuahuas);
  • Messaging from Taco Bell has been consistent and concise, if somewhat shrill.

The problem with Taco Bell’s strident response is that it leaves no room for error – after loudly proclaiming its “beef” is 88% meat (and not 35% as argued in the lawsuit) the company has little leeway for compromise or back-tracking if the facts are proven otherwise.

It’s too early to tell if their aggressive response is working in the PR arena (and the lawsuit will likely take time to be resolved) but judging by the hundreds of comments I’ve seen Taco Bell has plenty of dedicated fans who don’t believe – or don’t care – that their beef may not be 100% beef. Taco Bell may be gambling that many consumers aren’t expecting high quality beef for tacos that cost a dollar or two. Ironically, maybe Taco Bell is still suffering from previous PR fiascos (like widely publicized videos of rats running around one restaurant), so expectations may be so low their brand will rebound from this latest attack. Let’s check in a few months time to see if there is any obvious impact on their sales or brand equity. In the meantime, keep reading those Twitter and Facebook comments.

The recent uproar surrounding the introduction – and then demise – of Gap’s new logo has sparked vibrant discussion on the merits and risks of crowd-sourcing…or more specifically listening to customers and critics.

A few weeks ago, Gap introduced a new logo on their Facebook page with nary a peep of warning or consultation. The initial reaction among observers was swift and fairly uniform – harsh criticism. The Gap folks tried to address the situation with a belated invitation for consumer input – call it reactive crowd-sourcing – which only fanned the flames of critics and confused observers. Think of it as bad buzz. Subsequent updates by Gap positioned the new logo as a broader brand update, and provided more background on the rationale and strategy. But in a fascinating twist, a survey several days after the initial buzz confirmed that few consumers were aware of the new brand or related online polemic. Gap ultimately announced they heard the feedback and scrapped the new logo design; it appears they have learned their lesson and will tread carefully in future brand changes. (For another example of a rebranding effort gone wrong – witness the debacle by Tropicana, which surprised consumers with a new packaging look that was harshly criticized – and eventually scrapped.)

There are several lessons communication and marketing pros can take from this story:

  • If you are truly committed to listen to online consumers or fans – have a crowd-sourcing plan and a system to back it up. Confirm how you will gather feedback and what you will do with it before opening the doors to input and ideas. Define rules of the game to manage expectations and legal/copyright issues. Most important, be prepared to respond and take action based on what you hear.
  • Make listening and monitoring of relevant sites a constant activity rather than an ad-hoc, reactive event. That will provide solid context for dissecting the scope and potential impact of any feedback.
  • Consider getting input before you make any changes to products or brands. That makes the process more credible and relevant for consumers.
  • Know who/where your fans and customers are…and make sure you are always listening to them. There was interesting debate around the Gap issue about whether the logo uproar was truly a broad, grass-roots reaction from fans and customers or just a brush fire from a small but vocal group of malcontents in the design community.
  • Have a brand strategy – and stick to it. Yes…consumers own the brand, since their perceptions are ultimately the reality and determine brand equity. And many passionate fans feel they have personal ownership of favored products or brands. But no brand can survive without careful management by inside folks who are trying to blend identity, marketing, products and PR to drive the business.

I’ve heard a few executives and peers whisper that the Gap episode provides further evidence that social media is risky and perhaps even counterproductive. I disagree. The problem here wasn’t with social media – though listening and dialogue has exploded with the advent of new technology – but with faulty strategy and planning. The famous Coke Classic fiasco happened years ago without the prominent presence of Facebook or blogs. The issue now is that criticism can spread much wider and faster than years ago…which puts more onus on active monitoring, smart planning and ongoing dialogue with customers. An excellent article in AdAge focusing on social media “screw-ups” (which goes beyond crowd-sourcing) suggests that such missteps are inevitable – despite increasing efforts by companies to listen and learn – due to the rapid pace of evolution in communication technology.

On a final note, I enjoyed this video post by my friend Paul Walker at the PulsePoint Group on crowd-sourcing projects that worked well…and why they did. It reminds us of the potential benefits of crowd-sourcing – including consumer/employee engagement, lower cost, innovation and speed-to-market – which to my mind greatly outweigh the risks. Check it out.

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