The Role of Brand Communicators in an Outbreak

A lot of the work we do in healthcare marketing and communications is predictable. Brand-building, patient acquisition, and organizational support. But when a new health threat emerges, brand communicators have to respond quickly to help people minimize their risk of infection and to keep fear from spreading.

A lot of the work we do in healthcare marketing and communications is predictable. Brand-building, patient acquisition, and organizational support are long-haul types of activities that you sustain throughout the year. But when a new health threat emerges, brand communicators have to respond quickly to help people minimize their risk of infection and to keep fear from spreading unnecessarily.

That continues to be the case with the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), which emerged from the city of Wuhan and Hubei province in China. Authorities suppressed news of the initial cases, so when it finally hit the news cycle, it seemed to appear menacingly overnight. From that point on, the media coverage was almost breathless in its reporting on the quarantine of millions and disturbing visuals of jammed hospitals turning people away. Some of the images circulated online were haunting.

Fear Spreads Faster Than Facts

Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) worked quickly to understand how COVID-19 spreads and its mortality rate, people thousands of miles away from the epicenter began to fear for their safety.

At times like these, brand communicators must find facts from trusted sources, like the CDC, and disseminate it across multiple touchpoints. The information has to be pushed out assertively, because fear raises cognitive barriers that make it even harder to absorb information and assess risk within an appropriate context. For example, at the same time that COVID-19 was making headlines, millions in the U.S. had the flu, more than 100,000 hospitalizations would occur, and more than 12,000 would die from its complications. Yet we are so accustomed to the flu that we perceive its risk as less than the risk of something new.

Spread Facts

If you work in healthcare, you are part of a crisis response team with a responsibility to share evidence-based facts to combat fear and misinformation. The outbreak continues and our thoughts are with those who are impacted.

But with an ongoing dose of information, we can help reduce the spread of unnecessary fear and the spread of the virus. Learn more about COVID-19 from the CDC.

10 PR Don’ts That Will Tarnish Brand Reputations With the Media

If you follow reporters on Twitter, inevitably you will encounter a frustrated post condemning the behavior of a PR pro or company. Experienced brand communicators should have enough understanding of journalism that they wouldn’t intentionally exhibit this behavior.

If you follow reporters on Twitter, inevitably you will encounter a frustrated post condemning the behavior of a PR pro or company. Experienced brand communicators should have enough understanding of journalism that they wouldn’t intentionally exhibit this behavior. However, lapses in judgment may be the result of colleagues or leaders disregarding the advice of the PR expert.

Here are 10 “don’ts” that will alienate reporters and put a company’s reputation at risk.

No. 1: Asking to See a Reporter’s Article Before It Publishes

If you’re lucky, a friendly reporter may let you review your quote. But if you’re interested in seeing a full article before it publishes, then your best bet is writing a contributed piece.

No. 2: Pitching a Story, Getting Interest, and Then Telling the Reporter That Your Spokesperson Is Unavailable

Make sure your spokesperson, or spokespeople, will be available to speak to reporters before you begin to pitch the story. If your subject matter expert is traveling, on vacation, or unreachable, make sure you have a backup plan or delay your outreach until the SME is available.

No. 3: Providing Misinformation

A spokesperson may not have every answer and that’s okay. In pre-interview preparation, instruct your spokesperson on how to handle a situation where they are unsure of a response. A spokesperson should ask if they can check on the answer and follow up with the reporter. They should never guess or provide incorrect information.

No. 4: Requesting a Correction on Something That’s Not Incorrect

A correction should only be requested if the information in an article is wrong. Asking for changes to anything else is an insult to the journalist. If the article is not what you wanted it to say, use this experience to inform your future PR efforts and strategy. Sometimes you just need to accept the outcome and move on.

No. 5: Asking Why You Weren’t in an Article About Your Industry or One That Featured a Competitor

You’re not going to be in every article and, of course, it’s frustrating and disappointing to be overlooked. However, instead of lobbing complaints at a reporter, use this experience as an opportunity to develop an education strategy so you’re top of mind the next time they write on the topic.

No. 6: Sharing Embargoed Information Before Agreeing With a Reporter That the Information Is Embargoed

This is not how embargoes work. You should reach out to the reporter, tease the announcement and ask explicitly if they would like the exclusive and/or embargoed announcement. If the reporter says “yes,” then you agree on the restrictions, such as the timeframe and exclusivity.

No. 7: Being Disrespectful

Treat reporters with respect and act professionally. You are a reflection of your company. Be on time. Appearances matter. Profanities are unacceptable.

No. 8: Following Up Too Many Times or Too Frequently

I find that one follow-up email or phone call is appropriate. As a best practice, give reporters at least 48 hours to respond, unless the news is time-sensitive. Reporters receive hundreds of emails per day and they can’t possibly respond to everyone. If you don’t hear back, they are likely too busy or uninterested. Move on, seek out other outlets, or look for a more compelling angle.

No. 9: Bribing a Reporter or Other Illegal Behavior

It’s shameful to offer money or other payment for a reporter to write about your company. Reporters will accept an invitation for a meal or coffee. But if you’re looking to pay for coverage, opt for an advertorial or sponsored article, instead.

No. 10: Confusing PR With Marketing

The reporter’s job is not to give you free advertising or marketing. They are reporting the news. A completely self-serving pitch is unlikely to generate interest. If you want to advertise your business, paid opportunities are more suitable.

Do Better

Public relations is all about relationships. Reporters have a job to do and so do PR pros. Let’s strive to make interactions mutually beneficial in 2020 and use social media to commend one another.

Reputational Risks Brands Face in 2020 and What to Do About Them

The CMO Council touched on many of the reputational risks that marketers need to have on their radar in 2020 and beyond. Below are five brand risks that I believe will be widespread in the year ahead, along with a bit of advice for marketers.

Marketers are responsible for building, managing, and protecting corporate brands. Considering how quickly a brand can go from loved to loathed, being a brand custodian is a daunting task. With a tarnished reputation, companies lose customers, employees, investors, and value.

In a recently released pictogram and listicle, “Bruised, Battered, and Embattled Brands,” The CMO Council highlighted 20 of the most challenged brands in 2019 and 15 of the most critical issues impacting brand perception. The CMO Council touched on many of the reputational risks that marketers need to have on their radar in 2020 and beyond.

Below are five brand risks that I believe will be widespread in the year ahead, along with a bit of advice for marketers.

Privacy and Security Incidents

Trust is fundamental to brand reputation. Companies want their customers to trust them and feel secure transacting with their company. Maintaining data privacy and keeping information secure is a customer expectation, and rightly so. And while privacy and security are not new reputational risks, CCPA ups the ante and no company wants to be the first company penalized and publicized for failure to comply.

Advice: Build alignment between marketing and privacy teams, with a focus on transparency, trust, and preparedness.

Polarizing Politics

2019 brought to light many politicized issues in workplaces, such as the Wayfair worker protest against the sale of beds to migrant camps. As we embark on an election year, companies will continue to be thrust into the political divide, whether they like it or not.

Advice: Companies need to establish their political boundaries and clearly communicate any limitations to their stakeholders; in particular employees, or they risk being the next brand battleground.

Marketing and Advertising Fails

Brand snafus are identified and discussed at an unprecedented rate across social and digital channels. Peloton’s holiday advertisement is a prime example of an ad campaign turned viral branding criticism. The Peloton scrutiny expanded well beyond social, with coverage across national news outlets and even an “SNL” skit.

Advice: Test your marketing programs with a wide audience before launch. Monitor social and digital conversations about your brand. When all else fails, apologize sincerely.

Compromised Health and Safety

PG&E, Boeing, and Juul failed consumers and their brand reputations have taken a massive hit. All three landed on the CMO Council’s list of companies in the crosshairs. A company that is negligent about health and safety will face devastating reputational consequences.

Advice: Hurting people (or any living thing) is never OK. If your company is careless and harmful, get your resume in order, immediately.

Management Missteps

Behavior in the corner office is under the microscope like never before. Executives are (finally) being held responsible for how they treat employees and for their ethics. With CEO turnover at an all-time high, far too many of these changes are being driven by misconduct, as we saw with the abrupt departure of McDonald’s CEO over a violation of company policy related to a consensual relationship.

Advice: View leadership changes as an opportunity to redefine the brand. Follow a clear playbook to reassure internal and external stakeholders.

No Risk, No Reward

There will undoubtedly be brand reputation winners and losers this year. However, responsible marketers understand the risks they may face and can learn from the mistakes of those who’ve suffered before them.

Why Influencer Marketing Is Going From Fad to Marketing Trend

I have a prediction for 2020. I think 2020 will be the year when influencer marketing becomes a “big time” tactic. A confluence of factors are driving influencer marketing, including the supporting trends of historically low brand trust and the growing difficulty in getting meaningful brand exposure.

I have a prediction for 2020. I think 2020 will be the year when influencer marketing becomes a “big time” tactic.

A confluence of factors are driving influencer marketing, including the supporting trends of historically low brand trust and the growing difficulty in getting meaningful brand exposure.

Along with this prediction, I would like to make three recommendations for marketers to consider:

  • First, recognize that influencer marketing is still just an ad channel with good and bad exposure opportunities.
  • Second, Influencer takes discipline to manage. Most brands will want to work with multiple influencers to target a broader audience and the process can get unwieldy, quickly.
  • Finally, Influencer marketing will be hard to measure, but measure it you must.

Why I Think Influencer Marketing Is Here to Stay

We are spending an enormous amount of time on our smartphones and the bulk of that time is spent consuming entertaining or informative content. As a result, marketers have been pumping billions into mobile adverts.

One way that marketers have tried to reach consumers is through mobile banner ads. Every advertiser knows that most clickthroughs are accidental outcomes of trying to close the ad.

While video ads have better luck, it is still not stellar. IPG Media brands Media Lab published findings in 2017 that 65% of users commonly skip video ads.

Personally, that number feels low. When legitimate brand exposure does occur, it is dampened by the historically low levels of brand trust. That’s something that I describe as a silent tax on brand exposures.

The solution to this crisis is finding quality exposure. Brands can build trust with content providers, loosely called influencers.

Why Brands Still Need to Be Careful

Before we all start an ad bubble (and it may have already started), there are many reasons to be cautious of influencer marketing.

  • First, not everyone with compelling content is an influencer. But they are all called influencers. Some content providers just have “train wreck” value, and followers see them as part of a digital menagerie — with no credibility.
  • Second, it is also possible that influencers have artificially inflated their follower count. Most social platforms, so far, are not interested in policing follower counts beyond weeding out bots.
  • Third, influencers may not have a relationship with their followers. This limits their ability to influence on behalf of brands.

The full list of cautions around influencer marketing is longer. The larger lesson is this; Influencer marketing is a big opportunity, but it is also full of low-quality opportunities.

Now for the Good News

Influencer marketing works very well when influencers are carefully selected, and the brand content is authentic.

A 2019 report by Mediakix states that 80% of marketers found influencer marketing “effective” or “very effective.” However, to achieve good results takes discipline. This includes a willingness to mine social and other online data to understand the influencer’s own brand and history. Some influencers are not well-known beyond a core following. They sometimes have taken positions or done things that may not associate well with your brand.

A key step should be testing them for brand fit. Good judgment is important, but not enough. There are a growing number of tech and data-driven approaches to scan social history and bring forward potential issues. Making sure you understand how unintended brand traits may transfer onto your brand is also important. A good brand fit study is critical; especially if big dollars are involved.

Once you are comfortable with the brand fit, then comes the fun part. How do you leverage the influencer’s credibility in a way that feels authentic? There are many models for how this is done. One involves sponsoring content with a simple acknowledgment from the influencer. A better model is having the influencer interact with your brand and make it part of their engaging content. For this to work, brands have to cede some creative control to the influencers. A smart influencer will be attuned to actions where they might seem disingenuous — or worse, look like a shill. The advice most successful influencer marketing pros will give is to let the influencer be themselves and don’t over-prescribe.

Influencer Marketing ROI

Finally, we come to measurement. And it is the biggest challenge facing influencer marketing. Not only are the number of views, likes, and followers often over-reported, they are also weak measures of engagement and tough to link with real financial value.

The right approach means making measurement and analytics considerations a part of the content design process.

When thinking about content, everyone should seek out opportunities to make it digitally interactive. Unlike the commercials of old, digital channels provide many opportunities to interact with content, such as forwards, downloads, comments, and shares. These deeper engagement measures tend to be less bloated and better reflect viewer intent.

As a result, you are better able to measure campaign success. I have also found that they correlate better with financial outcomes.

Taming Influencer Marketing

Influencer marketing today is often described as the “Wild West.” Anyone who has heard this analogy knows it really means chaos with immense potential.

The good thing about this channel is there are literally thousands of small influencers with whom brands can experiment to uncover that potential.

The Psychology-Based Marketing 2019 Roundup of Top Stories

Psychology-based marketing has a lot of nooks and crannies, but here are the top four stories that stayed in the corners of marketers’ minds in 2019.

Psychology-based marketing has a lot of nooks and crannies, but here are the top four stories that stayed in the corners of marketers’ minds in 2019.

I wrote these pieces in 2019, though you were still reading my columns from previous years. I think, though, that it’s important to look at the thoughts from this year and perhaps take a look at evergreen pieces at a later time.

These posts are listed based on popularity.

No. 1

“Persuasive Copy That Sells: It’s Not About the Words” from Jan. 15 interested the largest number of you. Marketers who are used to using “Limited Time,” “Only One Left,” “Don’t Miss Out,” “Never to Be Offered Again,” “Big Discounts,” “Guaranteed,” and “Free,” “Free” and “Free” wanted to see what was new.

I wrote:

“Marketing copy strategies that align with ‘feeling good’ address many aspects of human nature and what really influences us to change our behavior. It’s no longer about the words we use to influence behavior, it’s about the values we project, our brands, and the values of those we want to do business with us.”

No. 2

“3 Customer Experience Tips for Marketers to Reduce Churn” on May 7 gets into how good customer experiences are essential to customer retention.

“Without carefully planned and executed employee onboarding programs, employee attrition goes up, and so does corporate waste, as it costs about nine months of an employees’ salary to terminate and start over again.

“This same principle applies to customer loyalty and the very high cost of losing even just one customer. Yet it’s hard to find “onboarding” programs for customers that are as robust as those for employees. Even with the cost of losing a customer being much higher than the loss of a middle management employee. When you lose a customer, you lose not just the cost of acquiring that customer, you lose the next transaction you were counting on, and you lose their entire lifetime value, which can be pretty substantial in the B2B world.”

No. 3

“The 4 Most Critical Steps for Happy Customers, Profits” appeared on March 12 and got into how the face of your brand needs to be happy, too. Sure, customers care about whether your employees are happy and treated well — especially if it affects how those employees treat them. But Target Marketing blogger Jessica Nable recently pointed out that business partners care, too, and will check if you have heavy turnover.

I write:

“With the frenzied rush to make happy customers, engage them emotionally, and be transparent and relevant at all times, many companies unwittingly skip over the more important goal: making happy employees, engaging them emotionally, and being transparent and relevant at all times.”

No. 4

“The Danger of a Single Story for Marketers in the Age of Storytelling” piqued your interest, starting on Oct. 22.

Stories from us are what pull customers in. If they like the experience, they tell good stories about us. Or, I should say, good stories about what we did for them.

As I say in this column, “We marketers today are really the new age of storytellers.”

  • What’s your story?
  • Do your customers know it?

Here’s how we tell it:

“Our websites, white papers, and content marketing are written just like classic novelettes. A teaser to create intrigue, a climax that builds with all of the reasons a customer needs us and needs us now, and a conclusion for how customers can get what they need from us. For a price.”

Back to You

What do you think will be the top psychology-based marketing stories in 2020? Please let me know in the comments section!

Why Pulling Out of Amazon Is the Smartest Decision for Your Brand

Nike announced that as part of the company’s focus on elevating consumer experiences through more direct, personal relationships, it will stop selling its merchandise directly to Amazon.com. Here’s why Nike made the right decision.

Nike announced that as part of the company’s focus on elevating consumer experiences through more direct, personal relationships, it will stop selling its merchandise directly to Amazon.com. Here’s why Nike made the right decision.

Partnering with Amazon undoubtedly has benefits — namely, a built-in audience and speedy delivery options. However, it’s crucial to consider what you’re jeopardizing in exchange. You’re losing control of how your brand is presented. Even if you’re lucky enough to benefit from Amazon’s search algorithm — another thing brands have no control over — you essentially have no say in how your brand experience is delivered.

Last year, Nike partnered with Jet.com, and given what Jet’s chief customer officer said, I’m not surprised. David Echegoyen told Footwear News, “the way in which people find, discover and use your product is as much part of the experience as the fact that you buy them and use them.” Echegoyen explained that Jet’s focus would be on delivering an experience that would allow both brands to utilize customer insights to enhance their experience. And because Nike products would only be sold direct from the brand on the Jet site, the confusion and brand dilution that shoppers often experience on marketplace platforms would effectively be eliminated.

What every brand should seek in its retail partners — and, really, all partners, to the extent that it’s possible — is recognition of the importance of delivering a cohesive brand experience at every touchpoint, and the desire and capabilities to do so. The advantages of owning your brand experience are abundant.

Control Your Customer Journey

By limiting the channels where your products are available, you’re better able to deliver the best experience to your customers. This includes everything from product recommendations to delivery preferences, the physical unboxing experience, and more. This controlled approach also serves as a preventive measure against counterfeiting issues that could otherwise tarnish your brand’s reputation.

Own Your Data

Amazon traces every shopper’s step, utilizing that data to make product suggestions based upon its own algorithm. These are insights that would be incredibly valuable to brands, arming them with information that can help to deliver a better experience across all platforms, ultimately earning loyal customers. The problem is Amazon owns that data and doesn’t share it with brands. Now, selling direct to consumer on your own channels provides you with 100 percent of your data, the benefits of which warrant its own article. With a compatible, focused retail partner, there may be more room for a discussion about data sharing.

Secure Better Profit Margins

It’s difficult to predict revenues when the sales process is out of your hands. Going direct to consumer gives brands the most control over profit margins. However, as a new or emerging brand, third-party channels are commonly part of the mix. Profit margins are dependent upon the type of partner and the value they bring to the table — or in this case, the cart. Amazon controls the market, so the terms of merchant agreements are almost certainly dictated. However, when you have a like-minded partner dedicated to delivering an experience, the terms may be subject to negotiation.

Shatter the Delivery Myth

Thanks to the “Amazon Effect,” brands and retailers have had to figure out how to meet delivery expectations. My company conducted a 2019 study that revealed online shoppers weigh shipping costs and delivery speed more heavily in their purchasing decisions than ever. Consider that 58 percent of respondents said shipping costs greatly impact their decision to make an online purchase, and 62 percent said free shipping was the most influential factor in their decision to make future purchases. By utilizing sales and transportation data from your fulfillment team, you can map your customers’ journeys and customize shipping pricing and delivery speed to meet their unique expectations.

Selling through partners can be a huge asset, but it means there will always be an intermediary between you and your customer. If your sales channels include third-party retailers, make sure you’re all on the same page. Amazon can bolster brands in the short term, but to build a sustainable business, you must control how customers experience your brand, wherever they are.

Maria Haggerty is CEO and one of the original founders of Dotcom Distribution, a premier provider of B2C and B2B fulfillment and distribution services. 

Earn Consumer Trust Through ‘Surprise and Delight’ in a Post-Privacy Age

Recent consumer research from Pew Research Center shows we have some work to do persuading consumers to let us use data about them for marketing. Right now, the risks seem to outweigh the benefits, in consumers’ view. At least for now.

Recent consumer research from Pew Research Center shows we have some work to do persuading consumers to let us use data about them for marketing. Right now, the risks seem to outweigh the benefits, in consumers’ view. At least for now.

Marketing may be an annoyance to some — but too often, it’s conflated by consumers (and privacy advocates, and some policymakers) to our detriment into real privacy abuses, like identity theft, or hypothetical or imagined outcomes, such as higher insurance or interest rates — to which clearly marketing data has no connection.

There needs to be a bright line affixed between productive economic use of data (such as for marketing) — and unacceptable uses (such as discrimination, fraud, and other ills).

As consumers feel they have lost all data control — perhaps one might describe the current state as “post-privacy” — it is doubtful the answer to consumer trust lies in more legal notices pushed to them online. Consumers also have told Pew the emerging cascade of notices are not well understood or helpful.

Consumer Trust
Image Source: Pew Research Center, 2019

When Pew explores more deeply the root of what consumers find acceptable and unacceptable, opportunities for marketers may indeed arise. For example, the study summary states:

“One aim of the data collection done by companies is for the purpose of profiling customers and potentially targeting the sale of goods and services to them, based on their traits and habits. This survey finds that 77% of Americans say they have heard or read at least a bit about how companies and other organizations use personal data to offer targeted advertisements or special deals, or to assess how risky people might be as customers. About 64% of all adults say they have seen ads or solicitations based on their personal data. And 61% of those who have seen ads based on their personal data say the ads accurately reflect their interests and characteristics at least somewhat well. (That amounts to 39% of all adults.)”

This is why regulating privacy — from self-regulation to public policy — is so challenging. A broad brush is not the right tool. We want to preserve the innovation, we want to improve consumer experiences, while giving consumers meaningful protection from data use practices that are harmful and antithetical to their interests.

An Industry Luminary Lends Her Perspective

Image: Martha Rogers, Ph.D. (LinkedIn)

Martha Rogers, Ph.D., who co-authored the seminal book “The One to One Future”with Don Peppers in 1993, helped to usher in the customer relationship management (CRM) movement. Today, CRM  often manifests itself in brands seeking to map customer journeys and to devise better customer experiences, and a lot of business investment in data and technology.

Reflecting on privacy last month in New York, Rogers said, “The truth of the matter is, we always judge ourselves by our intentions. Yet we judge others by their actual actions. The problem is that everyone is doing the same thing with us [as marketers].”

How much of that business spending resonates with consumers? “When 400 chief executive officers were asked if their companies provided superior customer experiences, 80 — that’s eight-zero — percent said ‘yes.’ Yet only 8% of customers said that companies were providing superior customer experience. Customers also judge us by our actions, not by our intentions.”

Rogers told two “surprise and delight” stories that illustrate how powerful smart data collection, analysis, and application can be.

“We need customer data to get the job done. A regular Ritz-Carlton customer I know once asked hotel staff for a hyper-allergenic pillow for his room. Now when he goes to a Ritz-Carlton, he always has a hyper-allergenic pillow in his room. He told me he just loved how the Ritz-Carlton had changed over all its pillows to hyper-allergenic ones.”  Rogers said she didn’t have the heart to tell him it was just his room — and the hotel simply had recorded, honored, and anticipated his preference.

Another story came from insurer USAA. Upon returning from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, USAA sent a refund on auto insurance premiums in the form of a live check and a letter. The letter thanked the soldiers for their service, and reasoned that a car must not have been used much or at all, while a soldier was overseas — hence, the refund. “Do you know 2500 of these checks were returned by customers, uncashed?” Rogers reported, noting that many of these military families have limited means. “Wow, stay strong … keep your money — some of the policy holders said to the company. How do you compete in that category if you’re another insurance company?”

These two cases both show smart data collectoin — applied — builds customer trust and loyalty, no matter what their feelings may be about privacy, in general.

“There are three reasons why we care about privacy,” Rogers said. “One is because there are criminals out there. We don’t want to give data to the robbers or the hackers. Second is because some of us do have secrets — and I’m not naming any names. And we don’t want people knowing every blessed thing about us. And the third reason that we just want our privacy is because [our lives] can be embarrassing.”

Consumer Trust Is Like a Pencil Eraser

“Privacy in an interconnected world is a pipe dream, an oxymoron,” she continued. “Still, we have to access and use customer data to give those great customer experiences. So what happens now? We have to do things [with data] that are good for customers, and not for ourselves [as marketing organizations]. Regulations and laws are really just a floor.”

“If you want to be truly trust-able, it’s about doing things right. One lie can ruin a thousand truths,” she said. “Trust is sort of like the eraser on a pencil. It gets smaller and smaller with each mistake we make. So we have to be careful. Do things right. Do the right thing. Be proactive.”

“No matter how fantastic technology is, it can’t top that trust,” she said.

How many Ritz-Carltons and USAAs — surprise and delight — does it take to undo a Cambridge Analytica or an Equifax? I’m actually optimistic on this. Because better customer experiences, brand relevance, and resonance through data insights will continue to win. We just have to prove it, to the customer, millions of times, one by one, every day — in the very important data-driven marketing work we do.

 

2 Steps to Making Brand Transformations Stick

Brand transformations are like our own transformations — we shine a light on our salient qualities and then amplify that for everyone to see. Brands can make sure that as they transform, their strengths and most positive qualities are continually revealed.

My wife and I are big fans of the new “Queer Eye” on Netflix. We’re into the second season, and the guests have been a splendid variety of people from Atlanta and Kansas City. From an older, single, heavily-whiskered straight gentleman to a young, single gay woman redefining her space, all the people featured fit into the paradigm of a great story.

Like I wrote about in “5 Aspects of Storytelling,” the essential element of a story is a hero who faces a villain, meets a mentor, and then transforms. In each of the Queer Eye episodes, the Hero (the guest), has an internal villain. There’s a block or a weight that prevents the guest from moving on to the best version of themselves. Then through discovery, love, compassion, and talent, the Mentor (“Fab Five”) help to pull the person out of his/her funk through a Journey, and arrive at a visibly better transformation. It sure seems authentic to me, and the follow-up articles online seem to reinforce that the transformations seem to stick.

It’s a remarkable show about a fundamental, and beautiful, part of our human nature: an innate ability to transform.

We — all of us, at our core — want to transform to a better version of ourselves. Every healthy person I’ve ever known wants to get better. We often don’t know the path forward, are perhaps too scared to make a first step, or are possibly afraid of failing to transform. We frequently get in our own way.

Yet the keys to personal transformation — as evidenced in Queer Eye — is calling upon the best part of our nature. Each person’s backstory — and their struggle point — is revealed through the discussions s/he has with the mentors of Queer Eye.

And what is also revealed is his or her salient positive quality. Whether it’s kindness, tenacity, devotion, it’s there. Everyone has one. What the Fab Five do is artfully amplify that positive quality to push the transformation powerfully forward. At the end of the show, the person’s transformation — driven from their salient positive quality — is visible to their cohort, family, and friends.

I’ve mentioned before that I believe brands are like people. They have the same traits — personality, trust, a purpose — and are subject to analogous journeys. And one necessary journey that a brand will go through is transformation.

Since an Immutable Law of The Universe is that everything changes, brands need to adapt. Yet just like people, they need to adapt while remaining true to their core traits. So when a brand goes through a transformation, look at two simple steps that Queer Eye teaches us about personal transformation: Shine a light on Your Salient Trait … then Amplify.

Step 1: Shine a Light on Your Salient Trait

Brands like Coca-Cola have the challenging job of remaining relevant in a world that recognizes that Coke isn’t healthy. We all know it’s not physiologically good for you to drink it. It has syrup, carbonation, and a degree of unnatural chemistry. There isn’t a single medical professional today who would recommend that you exclusively drink Coca-Cola instead of water.

Coca-Cola has had to continually transform its brand to stay relevant. It does this by continually revealing its salient quality: people feel happier when they drink it. It’s fun. It tastes yummy and bubbly. It’s a pleasure and a treat. Coca-Cola’s purpose is not to make you healthier … it’s to make you happier.

If you search “Coca Cola Happiness” on YouTube, you’ll find dozens of consistent, focused ads that speak to what they’re about. This is an older one, but one of my favorites, and it’s all about Coca-Cola’s salient trait:

Step 2: Amplify

Every brand has something they do well. And if you’re transforming your brand, you need to make sure that everyone knows the transformation is real and authentic. Everyone you know who has made a real, deep, lasting positive change in his or her life proudly communicates that change one way or another.

Brands need to do the same thing when they transform. The best ones continually remind the market — and their audience — of who they are, what they do well, and why they should be remembered. They simply don’t let up.

Southwest Airlines does a brilliant job of amplification. While they had a run marketing low fares — which is helpful to most travelers — Southwest’s salient trait is that they treat everyone just like folks.

Their positioning and messaging reinforces that their brand is not about a luxurious, special, stylish airline travel experience. It’s about folks getting other folks to places to meet folks. Just us and everyone.

Check out their ads. New digital ads show their employees in travel destinations. The walkways to the plane show photos of real, happy Southwest employees, with their names, who welcome you on the plane.

YouTube commercials that are focused on the trips we all take, and why we take them, are consistent with this. They continue to transform — some might say evolve or refine — their brand and continue to amplify their salient trait.

If your brand is going through a transformation — and I’d argue that it should be continuously transforming — remind yourselves what your brand’s salient trait is, and make sure you’re amplifying it. If you do, you’ll make your audience believers. As always, I welcome your comments.

Why a Brand Not Responding Is Sometimes the Best Response

I recently engaged in a thoughtful Twitter debate (no, this is not an oxymoron) with industry peers over my belief that non-response can be a valuable PR and reputation management strategy. Silence may not be well-received by everyone; especially reporters, who expect that PR representatives will be responsive and helpful.

I’ve written about the importance of transparency — by brands, when it comes to owning up to their mistakes; and by companies, as they consider privacy and security. And I do believe that transparency, openness, and honesty are the best policies, most of the time. But there’s still a place for what I call “strategic silence.”

I recently engaged in a thoughtful Twitter debate (no, this is not an oxymoron) with industry peers over my belief that non-response can be a valuable PR and reputation management strategy. Silence may not be well-received by everyone; especially reporters, who expect that PR representatives will be responsive and helpful. However, a public relations response requires weighing the needs of your business, leaders, clients, and other stakeholders.

Choosing not to respond comes with the understanding that you are leaving the media to interpret and speculate. You also run the risk of damaging your relationship with a reporter and publication.

Somewhere between non-response and response lies “no comment.” Formally telling a reporter that you can’t comment acknowledges the inquiry, but also protects your interests. There are instances, which I will highlight shortly, when saying “no comment” is better than not providing a comment.

Still, there are circumstances where not responding is the best response.

Times to Be Tight-Lipped

Legal & Regulatory

Legal matters are an obvious example of situations where the needs of the business outweigh media relations goals. When I led communications at a company that was impacted by a data breach, we could not speak on the record to anyone about the incident and investigation, beyond a very brief public statement. I received hundreds of calls — some from reporters I had deep relationships with for years. The value of these relationships didn’t trump the legal and regulatory risks of commenting.

Sheer Volume

Even if I were able to comment on the breach, I simply wouldn’t have been able to respond to the sheer volume of inquiries I received, including some from publications I had never heard of. When a company draws the attention of hundreds of reporters in a short timeframe, PR teams must prioritize publications. Unfortunately, many reporters end up with the silent treatment.

Transactions

Publicly traded companies, subject to Reg FD, face legal ramifications if they prematurely disclose material information. So they must operate in an environment of extreme caution when it comes to public relations activity. Furthermore, for public as well as privately-held companies, transactions such as mergers, acquisitions, and divestitures cannot be discussed until the appropriate time. Speaking to reporters, on or off the record, when a company is facing a deal is risky, not to mention potentially illegal.

Personnel Matters

Leadership departures and reorganizations, especially at large companies, draw rumors and speculation, which can lead to media attention. Speaking to the media about executive exits sets a dangerous precedent. When leaders are leaving on good terms, you may think it’s beneficial to discuss the circumstances. However, when you’re faced with a #MeToo scandal, you will not want to have set a precedent of discussing departures. To protect corporate reputation, I’ve always advised my clients and executives to maintain a standard policy of not commenting on personnel matters, beyond simply confirming a departure.

Final Thoughts

Be comfortable with your response strategy and your limitations. You can be committed to transparency and have clearly defined exceptions. Make sure leaders are on board with your strategy of silence.

Build out a publication and/or reporter prioritization that clearly outlines your most important media relationships. If your top priorities would benefit from a brief explanation as to why you’re unable to discuss a matter or would appreciate a more formal “no comment” response, try to engage with them accordingly.

Lastly, assess over time if your response, or lack of response, strategy is working or not. See what other companies, especially ones that you respect and aspire to be like, are doing when they’re facing challenging circumstances.

You can’t unsay something, but you can decide to share more in the future.

Should Marketers Be Taking a Pass on Hard-hitting Sponsorships?

As a healthcare marketer, you wear many hats. One is “generate brand awareness.” How and where you choose to elevate your brand — including sponsorships — is a reflection of your organization, your audiences, a strategic analysis of pros and cons, and shifting societal perspectives.

As a healthcare marketer, you wear many hats. One is “generate brand awareness.” How and where you choose to elevate your brand — including sponsorships — is a reflection of your organization, your audiences, a strategic analysis of pros and cons, and shifting societal perspectives. So when Children’s Health of Texas put its name on a high school football stadium, the sponsorship raised some eyebrows.

Football is a huge part of life in Texas. Having grown up there, I understand the proper construction of a three-day weekend: Friday is high school game day, Saturday is for college, and Sunday/Monday is pro-ball. Putting your brand name on a stadium is a marketer’s dream. I’ve had that dream, too.

A few years ago, the decision to put a healthcare brand on a football stadium wouldn’t have attracted much attention. Since then, however, the connection between football concussions, traumatic brain injuries, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has become clear. The NFL uneasily acknowledged such a link in 2016. Other studies have shown that younger players are also susceptible to brain injury from contact sports at the college and high school levels. And parents are paying attention. The National Federation of State High School Associations reports participation in high school football has declined by 6.1% over the last decade, even as participation in other sports has grown. Other studies show even sharper declines in participation in youth football. Some of the decline is attributable to rising parental awareness about the link between hard-hitting contact sports and CTE.

So is this where a children’s healthcare brand should invest $2.5 million for a title sponsorship?

I am certain the decision to brand a football stadium was made with the best of intentions. It’s a high-visibility play, intended to create an affinity for the health system among parents as it expands its footprint. But in addition to securing eyeballs and mentions, brand placement is also about telegraphing organizational values and being mindful about clinical evidence. Will this sponsorship be paired with an equally visible effort to educate the public about how to minimize concussion risk?

To be sure, football is not going away. Athletes who excel at it become local celebrities, can get into stellar college programs and even dream of being in the NFL. Those who choose to play it should be able to do so. Brands associated with it, and other sports, often do well by association. But this is a tricky landscape for healthcare marketers.

Societal norms evolve. What would have been an easy decision a few years back may no longer be your best fit for a multi-year contract, moving forward. Ideally, brand placements position your organization as an exemplar of heightened conscience, as well as enduring core values. Only time will tell if the decision by Children’s Health of Texas struck the right balance with its audiences.

As you evaluate contract renewals or new sponsorship agreements, look beyond the sheer number of eyeballs who might see your brand. There are many ways to draw those eyeballs to your organization.

A marketer’s job is not to seize upon a high-profile promotional opportunity just because the cost-per-impression pencils out and you have the budget. The job is to choose sponsorships through a strategic lens.

Sponsorships, especially title sponsorships, should be chosen in the context of longer-term societal shifts and the values of the workforce in your organization — especially in healthcare.