How Brands Should Communicate During Uncertain Times

Today, every company is dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak in some way or another. Companies need to be thinking about their brand communication with stakeholders and how they manage their reputation during these challenging times.

Earlier this year, I wrote about the greatest reputation risks brands face in 2020. At the time, the threat of COVID-19 — the 2019 novel coronavirus — wasn’t prevalent, as it is globally today. I emphasized in my post that compromised health and safety poses a threat to brands, and negligent companies will face devastating reputational consequences.

Today, every company is dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak in some way or another. And it has nothing to do with negligence.

For starters, the coronavirus has an impact on employee well-being, leading many companies to put travel restrictions in place and encourage remote work. Additionally, there is significant impact on customer relationships and financial performance. Therefore, companies need to be thinking about their brand communication with stakeholders and how they manage their reputation during these challenging times.

Start by Communicating. Period.

Now is not the time to stay silent with your employees, customers, and other stakeholders. While you may not have all the answers, rapid and regular communications can help alleviate potential concerns. If you don’t let your employees and customers know how you’re handling the current state of affairs, they will wonder if it’s a priority to you at all. Reassurances matter.

Employees will want to know how expectations are changing and about accommodations to keep them healthy and safe.

Customers also will want to know how brands are addressing the risk of COVID-19, at brick-and-mortar locations, with their employees and otherwise.

Make Responsible Decisions

My inbox is flooded with communications from companies I have relationships with providing information about their new protocols due to the coronavirus.

For example, my local health club shared information about how they’re increasing their cleaning and sanitization procedures. I received a similar communication from a transportation company, highlighting the precautions they’re taking with their vehicles and drivers.

Near-term expenses, such as additional cleaning, added resources, and paid leave for sick employees, will ensure the health and safety of customers and employees. These investments will also help to maintain and improve brand reputation and increase customer retention and loyalty.

Use a Variety of Brand Communication Vehicles

Brands tend to over-rely on email because it’s inexpensive, and production times are short. However, consumers’ inboxes are overwhelmed with marketing messages. To ensure you reach your audience with time-sensitive, developing information, leverage a variety of owned, paid, and earned channels.

Post updates on social media and create a destination on your website to reflect the latest information. Train your employees on the front lines so they can deliver reassurances to customers directly.

Be Earnest, Helpful, and Sensitive — Don’t Exploit the Epidemic

I’ve written about Elon Musk’s poor judgment as a brand spokesperson, but continue to be shocked by behavior like his insensitive coronavirus tweet.

For most people who contract COVID-19, it will be like a mild flu. Some populations, however, are particularly vulnerable, and brands need to be sensitive to the fear, anxiety, and threats many people currently face.

Certain brands and categories, such as hand sanitizer, are subject to strict FDA regulations in terms of how they communicate and market concerning the coronavirus, so it’s essential to understand what’s appropriate and permissible.

Now is not the time for coronavirus discounts or apocalyptic sales. Brands should focus on providing helpful information and reassuring their stakeholders. Clorox, for example, has created valuable educational content on its website.

Leverage Reliable and Credible Sources

It’s always important to present factual and accurate information — but right now it’s crucial. The speed and availability of information in times like these is unprecedented, thanks to social media and digital platforms. Unfortunately, there is a tremendous amount of misinformation circulating. Corona beer has nothing to do with coronavirus. Lysol didn’t know about the outbreak before it happened.

The CDC and the World Health Organization  (WHO) provide the most accurate and timeliest information.

As a brand, take this time to commit to a communications strategy that informs, educates, and provides reassurances. It will make a difference.

Marketers’ New Year’s Resolution: ‘I Will Give Customers More T-R-A’

The turning of the calendar may mean a new fiscal year for many marketing organizations, but there is one constant that remains paramount for customer-centric enterprises:  TLC (tender loving care) and how we demonstrate such sentiments to our prospects, customers, and donors — whomever applies.

The turning of the calendar may mean a new fiscal year for many marketing organizations, but there is one constant that remains paramount for customer-centric enterprises: TLC (tender loving care) and how we demonstrate such sentiments to our prospects, customers, and donors — whomever applies.

According to its most recent survey of more than 13,400 C-suite leaders, IBM is recommending data users to pursue another approach in their efforts to build consumer trust: T-R-A, as in transparency, reciprocity, and accountability. See the IBM report, “Build Your Trust Advantage: Leadership in the Age of Data and AI Everywhere” (Opens as a PDF)

The report states:

“To satisfy the modern requirement for trust, leading organizations are adopting three basic principles as their guide: transparency, reciprocity, and accountability. Each provides assurance to customers, but is more than good marketing. These principles are the scaffolding that supports the modern enterprise, remade to propagate trust.”

In a time when trust is increasingly harder to earn — and where consumers question the data-for-value exchange — one may think to shun the data quest. But that is not the correct course of action, nor a viable option, at all. Instead, the answer is to triple up efforts — to seek out and ensure higher quality data sources, to ensure chain-of-trust on permissions and consumer controls, and to hold ourselves and data partners accountable for results.

According to IBM, enterprise leaders — “torchbearers” — have fused their data and business strategies as one. “The torchbearers defy data fears, enhancing the trust of customers.”  Eighty-two percent say they use data to strengthen customer trust, compared with 43% of “aspirational” enterprise data users.

So what does T-R-A entail?

Transparency

“Customers demand transparency of data associated with the products and services, and, in the case of personal data, assurances that it’s used in a fair manner and kept safe,” the report states.

Three Keys to Consumer Love: Transparency, Reciprocity and Accountability. | Credit: Pexels.com

And it’s not just about data used in marketing — it’s also about data regarding how products are developed and manufactured, for example, and user reviews and recommendations. Any data that informs the customer journey, and enables the brand promise, really.

Reciprocity

“C-suite executives understand that to get access to data, they have to give something meaningful in return,” the report states. “The challenge? Organizations often don’t know what their customers would consider a fair exchange.”

That’s a fair assessment — as most consumers say they are skeptical about data-sharing benefits; particularly where privacy is concerned. So it is incumbent upon us to discover — probably using data — what truly motivates consumers’ sense of trust and value. I don’t think we do as good a job as we could as brands, and perhaps as an industry, in explaining data’s value to the consumer. Thus, we must do better.

Accountability

“Accountability is synonymous with brand integrity,” the report opined. “To succeed in retaining trust while growing business or expanding into new marketers, marketers need to establish governance and policies to combat cyber risk and protect consumer trust and brand.”

To me, accountability extends beyond data security — and the lawsuits and brand erosion that may follow data breaches. Data governance is closer to the accountability mark: making sure our data supply chains are “clean,” and that they adhere to industry ethics and best practices.

Here’s Wishing You T-R-A in 2020

So I’m hoping my New Year and yours has a lot more T-R-A in the offing. If the consumers equates sharing of data with a loss of privacy, then no one wins — especially the consumer.

 

 

 

Customer Control Creates New Phase of Apologetic Marketing

In a customer-centric marketing ecosystem, brands need to be more self-aware than ever before. Brands must accept that customers control their reputation, and customer satisfaction should become a top KPI for every company.

In a customer-is-in-control ecosystem, brands need to be more self-aware than ever before. They need to open up honest, meaningful conversations with their customers — and understand that we no longer push advertisements to customers through media, but rather engage and communicate with them. Brands must accept that the customer controls a brand’s reputation, and customer satisfaction should become a top KPI for every company.

For years now, customers have controlled the way brands are perceived in the marketplace. Today, that leverage is only growing. Companies can no longer hide behind big brand campaigns, just as marketing can no longer put a good spin on a problematic or dated company. If they try, consumers will either ignore it altogether (because they recognize the idealized corporate-speak) or, worse, they’ll attack in social media. Then, what started as a small problem can get out of control quickly.

Marketing executives need to work with the entire c-suite to make sure brand promises and customer experiences are consistent throughout the entire journey. They need to ensure the brand pillars are not only communicated, but also embraced across every component of the organization. And they have to make sure every team in the company can live up to the vision presented in the marketing.

Over the last year, we’ve seen the disconnect play out on a grand scale for companies like Uber, Wells Fargo, Facebook and unfortunately many more. By not aligning the brand platform with their internal values and customer experience, these companies have had to publicly recognize their faults and apologize for missteps. They each faced distrust among their customer base and, even though that trust was lost in a second, it often takes years to gain back.

So How Can Companies Learn From These Brands?

In today’s marketplace, companies need to do three key things:

  • Be transparent. Customers don’t expect companies to be perfect. But today, customers aren’t just immune to, but are also appalled by corporate-speak and over-hyped, insincere brand promises. Customers want brands to be real, to mean something and to associate with their beliefs and values. Companies today need to be humanized so customers can connect with them.
  • Align departments across the organization. Customers perceive companies as one entity and they expect that, whether they’re in a store, on the site or calling customer service, they’ll have the same experience across the board. Companies, however, are made up of different departments, with different bosses (who have different beliefs), and are often measured against different (sometimes opposing) KPIs. Today, corporate structure needs to embrace customer expectations. Politics and personalities have to take the back seat to the unified brand vision.
  • Companies need to embrace their customers. They can no longer lay out their corporate vision and marketing plans without fully understanding what the marketplace needs — both today and tomorrow. They need to understand what customers are looking for and shape their products and their company accordingly. Most companies hate hearing this, but they also need to narrow their audience and focus their company. Very few brands can and should appeal to all consumers. Too many brands try to satisfy everyone, remaining conservative so they don’t alienate any prospective customers. In doing so, however, they don’t resonate with anyone. Brands that take a stand, know who their audience is and what they want, and mold their company around that always win. Even if they outrage a part of their base, they inspire and resonate with their core, turning them into passionate advocates who reinforce the brand and allow more organic growth.

What Can You Do When It’s Too Late and You’ve Lost Consumer Trust?

While it’s a situation nobody wants to be in, companies need to be honest, fall on their sword and open up to the gaps they have. Just like Facebook’s WSJ ad and Wells Fargo’s TV campaign, they need to promise to do better. But again, it needs to be more than a marketing promotion; it needs to be a genuine re-set, one that all departments and the entire c-suite embrace. If it’s not, it’s only a matter of time until you’re back in the hot seat.

Marketing and Beyond: The Evils of Inertia vs. a Bias to Act

Inertia is a terrible thing. In marketing and beyond, inertia breeds complacency. It defeats initiative. And often leaves us stuck in life and work situations that very much prevent progress.

“The chill of inertia, the failure to make an ongoing effort to progress, is the greatest barrier to success and happiness in life.” Yogananda

Inertia is a terrible thing.

In marketing and beyond, inertia breeds complacency. It defeats initiative. And often leaves us stuck in life and work situations that very much prevent progress.

In our free democracy, where we have full opportunity to act with will as citizens, as voters, as employees (and employers), as consumers, as individuals too often we find ourselves victims of inertia; often ,in the form of our own indifference, or bias to do nothing.

This summer I’ve seen three instances of inertia local, national and global, each with their own potential for terrible outcomes. All are preventable.

Inertia Hurts My Savings

For three of the past four years, my cooperative has sought to introduce a transfer fee where the seller of an apartment pays a fee to the cooperative as a sort of “kiss” goodbye. The funds generated from the sale are dedicated to a reserve where such proceeds can finance many predictable capital projects over time. Building such a reserve lessens the need for high maintenance increases and/or a series of one-off assessments to fund necessary capital projects. In a buoyant New York real estate market, the fee often can be recouped in the sale price. Having such a reserve in good standing also keeps our building attractive to buyers. These are all wonderful benefits of having a transfer fee in place and why it’s part of a fee structure in many New York co-ops.

Yet getting the necessary two-thirds of our shareholders to pass such a common-sense measure had been trying. Despite pleas and prods from the board, we could never muster enough votes at our annual meeting. It wasn’t that shareholders en masse opposed the proposal a far majority of those who voted did favor it it’s just that we couldn’t get enough favorable ballots to meet the mandatory two-thirds threshold of our governing rules. So this year, we took a “vote over time” approach, where we used the summer months to garner the two-thirds majority. It took one tremendous effort interacting as we could with each shareholder by phone, email and visits and we achieved our goal.

Still, nearly a third of shareholders did nothing, said nothing, and paid no attention … inertia. Even when confronted with a worse outcome, they failed to take notice and act. Thankfully, in this situation, enough neighbors picked up the slack. A potential financial emergency has been averted.

Inertia Hurts Democracy

It’s the day after Labor Day and now we start our march to vital mid-term elections. Left or right or in the middle, the decisions of our elected officials matter during the next two (Representatives), four (Governors) and six (Senators) years. Guess which age cohort of voter could hardly be bothered?

A new survey from NBC/GenForward reveals insights on inertia and ambivalence on a growing and key voter bloc Millennials and there’s a potential high price to pay through inertia.

Yes, that’s 43 percent who are uncertain or will probably not or definitely not vote. I understand why many younger individuals may have less faith in our political institutions than prior generations, but we get exactly what we deserve when we don’t show up to vote. Staying home cedes control to someone else. Is this purposefully not voting to stoke some imagined revolution or is this ambivalence? The effect, in any measure, is inertia and the status quo is hard to change when we keep sending the same people back to high office. Voting is the means to change, if you show up to vote.

We healthfully debate guns, police brutality, immigration, healthcare access and affordability, gender equality, climate change, conflicts of interest and Russian meddling. This voter bloc diverse as it is is the very generation who is empowered to make a difference! Folks, we just need to vote for the change and culture we believe in! There’s a lot more behind these survey results, I fear, that I have room to expand upon in this blog. Suffice it to say inertia, again, hurts all our interests.

Inertia Hurts Advertising

And now to a marketing issue wholly predictable and preventable. Europe has instituted a data freeze called the General Data Protection Regulation. I doubt it’s helpful to the average European and I know it is harmful to American interests. It actually institutes inertia as public policy.

Whole categories of beneficial information use in marketing the use of web-viewing and app-usage data for more relevant messaging, for example have been prohibited subject to opt-in permissions. Let’s revisit my co-op example: how many people opt-in to “anything” when it’s wholly desirable and beneficial for them to do so? Very few. Add a little doubt and fear political scandal, hypothetical evils not based in reality and the opt-ins are even harder to come by.

With a stroke of well-intended but ill-informed law, European Parliament slammed publishers, advertisers and consumers alike all in the name of privacy and they are proud of this accomplishment! Time will tell the true toll. But already, Europeans have less information, less choice, less competition, less revenue and more generic advertising all in the name of chasing ad tech profits as a privacy surrogate. These negative effects may not be immediately apparent to the consumer how do you count a beneficial offer not received? The familiar retort behind this law is “privacy is a fundamental human right.” Well, we can see how well that’s going again, all very predictable and preventable.

Let me be clear: I believe in privacy rights, too most certainly. [Disclosure, I work with a digital advertising privacy program for U.S. consumers, the YourAdChoices program.] But let’s make sure that mere annoyances a pop-up ad, for example don’t get conflated with government surveillance of citizens, or personal information misuse by the private sector where consumer harm is likely where privacy concerns as a society are truly legitimate. There are annoyances, which can be managed by ethics and best practices, and there are scenarios where privacy indeed is at risk. One needs to grade privacy protections accordingly. I’ve long argued U.S.’s current and extensive privacy regimen a thoughtful sectoral approach dutifully enforced, complemented by ethics, self-regulation and business contracts is far superior to Europe’s one-size-fits-all prescriptive approach. In short, Europe has mandated that inertia freeze (or even undo) responsible data use. Thus, in this zeal for consent, the tremendous flow of benefits accrued through responsible data deployment largely ceases.

In short, I’m hopeful, stateside, that we shun this European import. Transparency, choice, security and sensitive data we have effective, existing means in the United States to deliver toward these laudable aims. We have other ways to assert such privacy protections, yet we still allow beneficial information flows and innovation to continue.

So, will this be a summer and fall where we let inertia win? Or will we have a bias to act, to keep all-too-predictable sorry outcomes from happening?

RIP, Victoria’s Secret Catalog … But Long Live Catalogs!

The news came out a few weeks ago: Victoria’s Secret – one of the most iconic catalogs of the last few decades – will be discontinued sometime this year.

The news came out a few weeks ago:  Victoria’s Secret – one of the most iconic catalogs of the last few decades – will be discontinued sometime this year.

VictSecretB_01Parent company L Brands cited high costs and a need to simplify its brand, but let’s face it, it’s also about the internet, especially mobile, and how it’s more and more the preferred channel for many customers.

That’s why this move isn’t that big a deal. One factor identified by the company was that testing revealed that eliminating the catalog mailings in a few areas had little to no effect on sales. As creative director Carol Worthington-Levy told me, “test-test-test.”

I’ve been thinking of other catalogs that show up on my desk every day at Who’s Mailing What! and how they differentiate themselves in the marketplace. What makes them special? Why do they stick with print?

Here are a few ideas about what works for catalogers today.

1. Photography & Paper
Patagonia_01Patagonia is an apparel and gear brand that has long relied on matching spectacular photography with the merchandise it sells in its catalogs. The paper even feels good, kind of satiny in my hands  – the same paper that makes those images looks so good. Patagonia even published a coffee table book, Unexpected, that featured photos from the catalog over the years.

2. Social Awareness
Penzey_03A lot of catalogs use content (more on that later), but not many express a viewpoint or advocate for a cause. Uline is one I can think of right away, with a new issue addressed every few months. Another one is Penzey’s, the spice catalog. In this example, it ran stories of people involved in Milwaukee’s public transit struggles around recipes and the ingredients they required.

3. Transparency
Lush_01Lush is a cosmetics retailer that at the front of the catalog announces its commitment to using responsible packaging, buying ethically, and opposing animal testing. Each product listing includes its ingredients.

4. Fun
Zoro_01
I’ve always liked catalogs selling products that are good for a little laugh, but this heavy card stock paper football game from Zoro, the tool supplier, really caught my eye. It’s more elaborate than what I ever did as a kid, and it has the company brand on it. Nicely done.

5. Curation
TravelsmithCurate_01You can sell clothing or other merchandise, so how about championing your expertise? Lots of style guides do this, laying out the trends for a new season, or maybe putting together a wardrobe. TravelSmith here talks about how its team starts a year in advance to select materials and styles for its apparel.

6. Content
Design_01I never miss an opportunity to look at how catalogers use content, and there are too many to easily name. And, I’ve already mentioned Patagonia and Penzey’s. Build.com is another catalog that’s much more like a magazine.

This is a great example from Design Within Reach, the furniture brand. A recent issue of the catalog featured a collection based on the work of George Nelson. Besides articles about the late designer, the stories behind individual items are told.

Somewhere along the line, after changing how lingerie is sold in several retail channels, the economic rationale for Victoria’s Secret’s continued existence as a printed catalog ended. But with so many exciting developments under way, like programmatic print, and augmented reality, the age of the catalog is far from over.

 

How Does Native Advertising Survive in an Age of Transparency?

Native advertising goes by many names including: sponsored content, sponsored posts, paid posts, brand services, custom solutions, branded content and probably dozens of other titles. Regardless of the name, the product is essentially the same.

Native advertising goes by many names including: sponsored content, sponsored posts, paid posts, brand services, custom solutions, branded content and probably dozens of other titles. Regardless of the name, the product is essentially the same.

Native ads are pieces of paid content ranging across articles, videos, infographics or images delivered in the flow of editorial content and consistent with the editorial style and tone of the publication. Typically, they have a teeny, tiny stamp that marks them as advertising or sponsored content — if you know what to look for. However, not everyone does know what to look for and research suggests that most users don’t recognize it as advertising.

The implicit agreement of the Web is that content is largely free and that ad exposures pay for the significant costs to create and deliver all that content to users. This keeps it simple — church and state, advertising and editorial — and maintains a mutually beneficial balance. Native advertising subverts that trade-off for the benefit of publishers/advertisers in much the same way that ad blockers tip the scales for consumers.

In fact, many assert that native advertising arose as a publisher solution to outsmart ad blocker software allowing growing numbers of consumers to remove ads from their online experience.

The rise of native advertising under its multitude of names has been impressive. Higher click and engagement rates compared to other forms of online advertising have driven brands on board with flexible formats across social and mobile platforms, in particular. Business Insider Intelligence predicts that spending on native ads will rise to $21 billion in 2018 from just $4.7 billion in 2013. Almost half of online advertisers have adopted native ads into their plans as of 2016, according to a recent survey.

But the widespread usage of this format is not without its costs. A recent Penn State study found there may be negative perceptions attached to publishers who blur the lines of advertising and editorial. Brands using the tactic apparently get more leeway since they are expected to promote themselves.

Still, publishers chasing much needed revenue have almost universally adopted this highly effective approach, including expected sources like Buzzfeed, Outbrain and Facebook plus other, more traditional and mainstream, publishers like USA Today, The New York Times, Conde Nast, The Atlantic and The Wall Street Journal.Forbes cover with native advertisingForbes actually devoted part of its cover to a native ad for Fidelity in its latest issue, prompting AdAge to proclaim “Another Taboo Broken.”

Smart algorithms drive the money machine that is native advertising even as popular criticisms emerge in voices as unexpected as John Oliver and South Park:

https://youtu.be/IVfslRsNXUc

The reproaches vary but tend to reflect the core concern that users may mistake paid content for unpaid content.

Well, yeah. Native advertising done well will blur the line between content and ads. That is the goal of the format — to keep readers in the stream of their content experience and not disrupt them with a blatant ad. But, if we don’t disclose the commercial intent in a visible and noticeable way, we are using trickery that runs counter to the transparency that users demand in their Web experience today.

How do advertisers capitalize on the opportunities presented by these new innovative ad vehicles without stepping over that thin line? The Federal Trade Commission published specific guidelines late in 2015 to help brands avoid deceptive practices, and the IAB has weighed in as well (opens as a PDF). Guidelines reduce to simply how visible and clear the disclosure needs to be.

Web users demand transparency and punish brands that aren’t truthful at the same time they reward brands that succeed in delivering honest ideas and communications. #Fails abound for hapless brand campaigns that ring false with their audiences.

But, marketers lured by the promise of improved results may minimize or rationalize their deception and probably don’t even consider the broader possible impact on the industry. Like most things, the danger is in the aggregate.

There may be increased backlash coming as more and more consumers come to recognize and resent the frequent sleight of hand integral to many native ad executions. And it won’t just damage the already challenged reputation of the advertising industry, but will also tarnish publishers and brands making it harder for even forthright ad executions to gain acceptance.

For the industry to continue innovating successfully, the public trust must be prioritized with both publishers and advertisers acting responsibly. For native ads, that means a minimum of clear naming and prominent labeling. It’s the law, it’s the right thing to do and it’s smart business.

Consumers Know They Are Being Tracked

According to a recently released study by consumer privacy organization TRUSTe and global market insight
and information group TNS, consumers generally know that their internet activities are being tracked for purposes of targeting
advertising.

Are they OK with it? Not really. They study also revealed a high level of concern associated with that tracking,
even when it isn’t associated with personally identifiable information.

According to a recently released study by consumer privacy organization TRUSTe and global market insight
and information group TNS, consumers generally know that their internet activities are being tracked for purposes of targeting
advertising.

Are they OK with it? Not really. They study also revealed a high level of concern associated with that tracking,
even when it isn’t associated with personally identifiable information.

Behavioral targeting, which enables marketers to deliver customized experiences and improved marketing
metrics, also runs up against consumer privacy concerns and calls for greater
transparency around emerging tracking and targeting techniques.

Based on
the results of the survey, lack of transparency may factor into privacy
concerns. In fact, 71 percent of online consumers are aware that their browsing
information may be collected by a third party for advertising purposes, but
only 40 percent are familiar with the term “behavioral targeting.” In addition, 57
percent of respondents said they are not comfortable with advertisers using
that browsing history to serve relevant ads, even when that information
cannot be tied to their names or any other personal information.

Meanwhile, a majority (91 percent) of respondents expressed willingness
to take necessary steps to assure increased privacy online when presented
with the tools to control their internet tracking and advertising
experience, and this, accoridng to TRUSTe and TNS, suggests a need for added education, transparency and choices
for behavioral targeting. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) would choose to
see online ads only from online stores and brands that they know and trust
and 44 percent of respondents would click buttons or icons to make that
happen.

To the contrary, a similar proportion of consumers (42 percent) said they
would sign up for an online registry to ensure that advertisers are not
able to track browsing behaviors, even if it meant that they would receive
more ads that are less relevant to their interests.

What these results boil down to is that consumers say they want more relevant advertising, but don’t want
to be tracked in order to get it.

What is the key takeaway here? Transparency, transparency, transparency. Consumers today are more sophisticated and educated than ever before. They understand advertising, and in many cases, respond to it and even enjoy it. So don’t take chances–be a trustworthy and transparent company.