In today’s climate, it isn’t easy being a mainstream politician. At a time when populists are gaining ground across the world, from Spain and France to the White House, the danger is that traditional parties are seen as out of touch and unreflective of popular opinion. In the UK, the memory of the parliamentary expenses scandal, where one MP claimed for a duck house for his country estate and for having his moat cleaned, are still fresh in many people’s minds.No wonder that politicians think they should get themselves involved in low level debates that burnish their populist credentials. Witness David Cameron claiming to love Cornish pasties – but then being caught out when quizzed on when and where he last bought one.
Now Theresa May has got herself involved in the furore over Cadbury and the National Trust dropping the word ‘Easter’ from the title of their chocolate egg hunts. What were previously called ‘Easter Egg Trails’ at 300 National Trust properties are now being referred to as ‘Cadbury’s Great British Egg Hunt’. Interviewed by ITV News while on a trade mission to Saudi Arabia, she described the omission as “absolutely ridiculous. I don’t know what they are thinking about frankly.”
Personally what I think is ‘absolutely ridiculous’ is the current Prime Minister, who is dealing with Brexit, the biggest change in the country’s position in the world since World War II, spending her time criticising how organisations market themselves and their products. Clearly, someone in Cadbury’s marketing department has had the bright idea of trying to link to either the mood of nationalism or more likely, the Great British Bake-off, and removed the word ‘Easter’ to make space in the title. Easter is mentioned plenty of times elsewhere in promotional material for the events, so they felt that they had all their bases covered.
However, this does demonstrate the potential dangers to brands and their marketing campaigns. Thanks to social media we seem to live in a particularly touchy time, with people quick to jump to conclusions and complain, with issues snowballing as more and more people Like or Retweet them. It then becomes a story that politicians feel they have to become involved in. So what can brands do?
1 Check everything
Marketers need to balance new ideas and being creative with an eye on potential repercussions. The danger is that you worry so much about the tiniest chance of offending someone that you become too scared to actually do anything. So strike a balance – run new ideas past your wider team and test them with your target audiences before going ahead. At least that way you’ll pick up major issues before launching a campaign.
2 Be prepared
As I’ve said in previous blogs, the risk of a reputational crisis is there for every brand. Things go wrong in even the best run company due to the speed and complexity of business today. So make sure you have a crisis plan that is ready to swing into action when necessary. But don’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut – adopt a proportional response to an issue, rather than rushing your CEO onto the Today Programme at the merest hint of trouble.
3 Be engaged and keep listening
The best way to avoid lasting damage to your brand is for it to be strong in the first place. If you don’t have a good reputation people are likely to be harsher critics when there are issues. Witness TalkTalk’s drubbing when it suffered a cyber attack – it was already seen as a company that was not particularly customer-centric, so had no real brand capital to fall back on. Cadbury is in a similar, but slightly stronger position – since it was bought by US multinational Kraft Foods and then spun off into the Mondelez confectionery conglomerate, it has been seen as ‘not really British’. Therefore it is not given the benefit of the doubt when a story like this comes up.
Personally, I think the whole Cadbury story is a storm in an Easter egg cup that will blow over and won’t either damage the brand or the number of people who turn out for the egg hunts over the holiday period. However, its prominence, and the involvement of politicians, shows that marketers need to be prepared for even the most innocuous activity to turn into a crisis overnight.
The past couple of months has seen a spate of stories highlighting how poor cultures can be toxic to brands and organisations. Uber has been particularly in the spotlight – with allegations of sexism from female engineers through to a rant from its CEO Travis Kalanick against one of its own drivers. New company president Jeff Jones left after six months, saying “The beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber.” Only this week allegations have surfaced of senior management (including Kalanick) visiting an escort/karaoke bar in South Korea. The story came out when Kalanick’s ex-girlfriend, part of the party, alleged that she was pressurised to say she ‘had a good time’ at the bar.
Uber is not alone. The environment at British Cycling has been described by some athletes as operating through “a culture of fear”; misselling scandals at banks, such as around PPI, have been linked to poor cultural control; while Amazon and Sports Direct have both been accused of exploiting workers. In all cases it seems that a blind eye has been turned to how things were done, provided that overall objectives, such as company growth or Olympic medals, were delivered.
What has this got to do with marketing and communications? Essentially, when stories hit the media, it has to attempt to defend the (often) indefensible and then try and rebuild corporate reputation. All scheduled marketing plans have to be put on hold, with every effort focused on dealing with a growing number of allegations.
That’s why I believe marketing needs to step up and be more involved in guiding and monitoring corporate culture, ensuring that it has early warning of any minor issues so that they can be dealt with before they develop further. This isn’t about covering up bad behaviour – more ensuring that it doesn’t happen in the first place. There’s no point investing in huge advertising and PR campaigns that aim to demonstrate corporate strength, when a poor culture undermines everything you do or say. Marketing can exist in its own bubble, particularly in large companies, so that the department doesn’t see what goes in other parts of the organisation, leading to a false confidence that everything is going well. Therefore, it is vital to break out of this bubble and find out what is happening across the business.
Obviously marketing shouldn’t be responsible for culture alone. HR, internal communications, and senior management all need to help set the standards for “how things are done around here”, with regular checks that everyone understands what is expected of them, and their behaviour. Marketing is normally at the frontline of building a brand’s reputation, so it needs to have greater knowledge of what is going on. Otherwise it can’t ensure that the organisation is not tacitly or knowingly encouraging bad, unethical or illegal behaviour, potentially harming staff or customers and storing up major issues for the future. Marketing therefore needs to get a handle on culture if it is to do its job properly, whatever type of organisation you work in.
We’re now living in a world where fewer and fewer of us watch TV live, preferring to use catch up services or clips on YouTube to get our fix after the event. Hence TV companies increasing focus on event-based shows that you have to experience live if you want to be part of the conversation. Whether it is the half time show at the Superbowl, or the climax of the Great British Bake Off, broadcasters are looking for ways to make us tune in.
Which brings us neatly to this year’s Oscars ceremony. Let’s face it awards shows are never riveting viewing, with the only interest normally being whether (a) someone gives a really terrible speech or (b) to judge the sartorial elegance (or otherwise) of the dresses on show. No wonder that the 2017 Oscars had the lowest ratings for a long time.
Therefore the fiasco which saw the Oscar for Best Picture initially given to the wrong film is actually a bit of a blessing in disguise for the event. The organisers get to blame PwC for giving out the wrong envelope to presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, while knowing that the issue will keep the show in the public consciousness for much longer than previous editions. It certainly wasn’t a deliberate PR ploy, but it bet it means that next year more people will tune in, secretly hoping that something goes wrong again. But, in an age of shortening attention spans, I think there’s a lot more that the Oscars (and any other awards ceremony) could be doing to keep viewers glued to their screens:
Rather than just getting two candidates for best picture mixed up, organisers need to get a lot more random. Add in a few leftfield choices or even get the auditors from PwC to offer presenters a choice of envelopes with different winning names in them. It’ll certainly make the whole process more entertaining when the Best Actor award goes to Danny Dyer for his performances in EastEnders, even if he wasn’t on the shortlist.
2. Best dressed
As I said a lot of the time people watch award shows for what the stars are wearing, and this (primarily) means women in dresses, given that men tend to stick with a suit/dinner jacket and bow tie. So reward the best (and worst) dressed by running a quick poll on Twitter or Facebook and then announcing the results during the ceremony. It is sure to be hotly contested – and might even see male stars become more adventurous in what they wear.
The best ever award ceremony moment was undoubtedly the year at the Brits when Jarvis Cocker invaded the stage when Michael Jackson was singing, was then arrested and was sprung from the cells by ex-solicitor Bob Mortimer. At least that’s how I remember it. So use some common sense when deciding the seating plan – two actors that hate each other’s guts and get chippy when they’ve had a skinful? Pop them on adjoining tables and start a rumour that one called the other a lightweight. Perfect entertainment for the watching masses.
4. Gunge tanks for speeches
The sheer excitement of winning an award often goes to a star’s head and they then drone on for hours thanking everyone they ever met, and going through their entire life story. At one ceremony Tom Hiddleston even brought in doctors working in South Sudan. Politely telling people to finish is obviously not enough, so organisers should take a leaf from children’s TV. Install a gunge tank above the stage, and put a hyperactive 10 year old on the controls. It’ll certainly shorten the speeches and keep people focused.
I’m sure there are many more ways of spicing up award ceremonies and increasing the interest of the general public – let me know your suggestions below.
photo by Alan Light [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The British government has just released its latest housing white paper, aiming to address the chronic shortage of homes across the country. But what caught my ear when listening to the news on the radio was how keen minister Sajid Javid was to avoid focusing solely on getting people onto the property ladder, and how much he wanted to broaden this to include having more homes available to rent. Partly this is down to the enormous cost of buying a first home in most places, which puts it out of the financial reach of many young people, but also I think it reflected a change in how goods and services are bought and consumed. And it is a trend that marketers need to wake up to.
Quite simply, consumers, particularly younger ones, are now renting things that in the past they’d have bought outright. Why buy music or DVDs when you can access a huge library through services such as Spotify, Amazon Prime or Netflix for a monthly charge? Do you need to buy a car outright when you can hail an Uber or sign up to a flexible leasing scheme that means you never actually own the vehicle.
In many ways this reflects two major things that have happened over the past five years or so. The pace of innovation (and the uncertainty in the world) means that many people don’t want to be locked into a big ticket commitment such as buying an expensive TV which could be out of date in less than a year. They want to get things on-demand. You may pay more overall, but the flexibility, ability to change and regular billing rather than a one off lump sum makes up for the additional cost. It also fits with the more demanding expectations that consumers now have – if they don’t like something they can switch to a rival, rather than being locked into an agreement that they can’t get out of.
As I say, this dramatically changes how brands need to market themselves – in three key ways:
1 Build for the long term
We’ve all had the experience of thinking we’re valued by a business and then seeing new customers receive a better deal. Every year I have to point out to the AA that I could just cancel my membership and sign up for less, rather than pay the renewal fee that they want to charge me. With on-demand services companies have to keep the good experience going, day after day, week after week, if they want to retain customers. And that means marketing to them constantly, but without confusing them with complex offers that are designed to dupe them into spending more
2 Be personal
The advantage of on-demand services for marketers is that they are constantly generating data – what you watch, what you download, where you are driven by Uber. This is incredibly powerful knowledge, that needs to be used to personalise services and make the experience special. At a basic level it is recommending other films you’d like to watch, but it is also about offering better ways of using a service that may even save the customer money. That’s how you build real loyalty.
3 Exploit the network effect
The reason tech firms such as Facebook grow so quickly is the network effect – the more of your friends use a service, the more reasons there are for you to join. Keeping customers happy through clever marketing means you retain them, going beyond that by incentivising them to recommend you to their friends helps widen your customer base. Bear in mind the reverse also applies – annoy a customer and they’ll not only leave, but are likely to share their frustrations with friends and the wider world via social media.
The on-demand economy is changing many traditional markets, from consumer goods to automotive and travel. Marketers need to understand that this isn’t a passing fad, but a trend that more and more people are joining. It requires a move away from old-style marketing where the goal is getting someone to sign on the dotted line, to one where you need to keep nurturing customers to make them feel special. Campaigns need to be faster, more personalised, more adaptable and more immediate if you want to succeed in the competitive on-demand economy, whatever industry you are in.
Let me know if there are any areas I’ve missed when it comes to on-demand marketing in the comments section below.
Image courtesy Ryan McGilchrist on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons https://flic.kr/p/bRt3qV
Theresa May’s description of a squeezed middle of Britons who are “just about managing” may have been a passing aside that seems to have dropped by the wayside, but it made me think. A similar problem affects technology businesses. Everyone loves the innovation, excitement and (often) wide-eyed naivety that drives a start-up, while having respect for those organisations that have grown to lead their industry or niche. Consequently there are clear ways of marketing both these types of business – essentially you either focus on the hopefulness of youth or the solidity and strength on old age. After all, no-one got fired for buying IBM.
Where does this leave the squeezed middle – companies that are still growing, but not at the hyper-powered speed of a start-up, and are not yet big enough to be the safe choice that old-timers provide? These organisations are affected by a number of challenges:
1.Differentiating themselves in the market
With competition increasing, how can they remain relevant to existing clients while fighting off rivals from above and below?
2.Attracting and retaining staff
In incredibly competitive markets, the squeezed middle lacks the name recognition and safe salaries of older businesses, while not offering the potential rewards of getting equity in the next Facebook provided by start-ups.
3.Choosing where to expand
After building a base in a single country or segment, companies need to look at their next steps. But with limited resources they have to choose wisely and invest enough to drive success, without risking their overall survival.
4.Keeping the excitement going
Five years on from being a start-up, teams can become tired and see the world from jaded eyes. How can you keep people motivated, particularly when that IPO or acquisition seem further away than ever?
5.Attracting continued attention
Start-ups can manufacture news, while established players have a pipeline of new products, partners and customers to publicise. For companies in the middle, finding new things to talk about can be hard – journalists and social media flock to the next big thing, rather than celebrating incremental progress.
Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of organisations in the squeezed middle and there are a number of ways of marketing yourself that can differentiate your from larger and smaller competitors:
1. Be known for something
Don’t try and take on established players by talking about the speed or even cost of your product – even today, many buyers are reassured by the expense of buying from a big company, while start-ups will be more than happy to make wild claims/offer below market pricing to build their business. Focus on the business issues your potential customers suffer from, and become known as the answer to their problem. This might mean looking at just a part of what your product does, but if the niche is big enough you can dominate it. The same applies to marketing – don’t try and out-compete the big boys through a playbook of hundreds of messages or campaigns. Cover a few, but do it well and keep repeating it to hammer it home, so that you are known as an expert in at least one thing.
2. Focus on the customer
It is an obvious point, but to get where they are, middle aged companies have had to sign customers. And often these companies are passionate about the benefits that their products have delivered to their operations, making them the best possible evangelist for the business. Nurture them, treat them well and involve them in strategic planning (through things such as customer days and customer advisory boards), so that they remain onside and are happy to be involved in your marketing.
3. Build the right culture
Retaining staff – and attracting new blood – is crucial to growing your middle aged business, but it is about continuity rather than revolution. Set out to build the culture that will make the most of your advantages, such as international reach, but include the flexibility and inclusiveness that big companies don’t have. Show that every member of staff can contribute and make a difference – without the imminent threat of closure that underfunded start-ups face.
4. Keep doing it, all the time
It can be tempting for middle aged/midsize businesses to try a lot of different things, searching for a silver bullet that turns them into a star overnight. Unfortunately, marketing doesn’t work like that. What is needed is constant, consistent, campaigns that hammer home a message day after day, month after month. Do the basic things right and don’t be downhearted if things aren’t an immediate hit, but build over time. Obviously look at measuring results and improving what you do, but keep on keeping on. It may sound like an uninteresting approach, but it doesn’t have to be – it is just a question of avoiding the flightiness of a start-up or the random changes that big businesses can often make in an effort to be trendy.
In competitive sectors, middle aged tech companies can easily get an inferiority complex – to succeed in their marketing they therefore need to make the most of their advantages, apply hard work, and focus their efforts if they want to thrive.
This week saw Bernie Ecclestone replaced as the head of Formula One, after essentially running the sport for 40 years. It is no understatement to say that Ecclestone built Formula 1 from a disparate collection of races into an extravaganza that ranks as the third most watched sports event in the world, behind the Olympics and football World Cup. The fact that Liberty Media paid $8 billion for the sport is a further demonstration of the value of the F1 brand.
However, at the same time, Ecclestone has been a controversial figure. Tried for blackmail in Germany over previous sales of F1’s TV rights and accused by some teams of pocketing a fortune while leaving them struggling financially, he also cosied up to autocratic regimes in countries such as Russia, Bahrain and Azerbaijan and was fond of provocative utterances such as praising Hitler and calling women ‘domestic appliances’. In many ways he echoed the power and dubious practices of other sports leaders such as Sepp Blatter at FIFA and Lamine Diack at the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), meaning his removal marks the end of an era.
So how do you turn a squabbling series of teams and races into a polished product that is worth $8 billion and is known across the world? There are four communications lessons – good and bad:
Ecclestone was continually coming up with new ideas – whether it was changing the qualifying format or awarding double points for the final race of the 2015 season. These didn’t always work in terms of spicing up the spectacle, but they generated discussion and hence interest in the sport.
2.Be approachable and open
By all accounts Ecclestone was always visible in the F1 paddock and accessible to journalists. He may not have necessarily answered their questions, but always gave good quotes, meaning his own profile (and that of F1) moved beyond the sports pages to reach the general public.
3.Don’t forget new audiences
Every sport or brand needs to attract new fans, otherwise it will eventually become irrelevant. Yet Ecclestone seemed disinterested in investing in younger generations – due to the hosting fees he charged circuits to hold grand prix, ticket prices were enormous, pricing many families out of the market. The main focus appeared to be corporate guests and sponsors – he famously asked why F1 should appeal to 15 year olds as they were unlikely to buy Rolexes or bank with sponsors UBS, ignoring the fact that they are undoubtedly buying Red Bull. At the same time more and more TV rights have been sold to pay TV channels, limiting the available audience by shutting out the casual viewer.
4. Don’t forget the internet
One of the big areas that Liberty Media has promised to address is the internet and social media. F1’s presence and use of these channels has been pretty woeful, taking years to even come up with a Twitter hashtag for races. Again, this stems directly from Ecclestone who said he didn’t see any value in “tweeting, Facebook and whatever this nonsense is”. While it may not directly lead to money coming in, fan engagement is crucial to every sport today, and is an area where F1 as a brand (unlike teams and drivers) has been lacking.
And before his detractors see Ecclestone’s departure as the end of the era of fast-talking, slightly dubious, deal-making dinosaurs take a look at the new resident of the White House. Perhaps if Ecclestone was on Twitter, he’d still be leading F1……………
Photo Habeed Hameed [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Who do you trust? Perhaps unsurprisingly given the political turmoil in 2016, the answer is ‘no-one at all.’ That’s the headline finding of the latest Edelman Trust Barometer, which found that trust in politicians, media, business and ‘the system’ has dropped precipitately over the last year. Less than a quarter (24%) of those surveyed in the UK trust the media, and just 26% trust the government. Figures continue to drop – comparing data from the end of 2016 and beginning of 2017 shows that trust levels fell a further 11%.
What is most worrying is that while trust in politicians is at rock bottom, the majority of people believe outspoken, spontaneous ‘straight-talkers’ over diplomatic communicators. This echoes Oxford-educated Michael Gove’s boast during the EU referendum that the British public “have had enough of experts”. 53% of people believe the system has failed them and that the odds are stacked against them. They blame immigration, technological change and changing values and simply don’t trust existing politicians and organisations to sort them out.
As someone who studied history it is easy to draw parallels with the 1930s. The immediate impact of the Wall Street Crash was bad enough, but the failure of things to return to normal over time led to disillusionment and the rise of radicalism and racism. Existing liberal institutions thought they could control these forces, hence trying to do deals with the likes of the Nazis. Instead, it had the opposite effect, making them appear stronger than they actually were and encouraging a rise in support.
What is especially concerning is that things could be about to get much worse in 2017. We already have the prospect of Donald Trump in the White House, and the triggering of Article 50 to launch a hard Brexit. But elections are also due in France, Germany and the Netherlands (and potentially Italy), where extremist and anti-establishment parties are expected to do well with disenchanted electorates.
The impact of two of the main factors driving the breakdown in trust (immigration and technological change) are going to accelerate, further weakening support for the status quo. It is a vicious circle – isolationism and suspicion reinforce themselves, allied to the fact that many of us now get our news through social media networks that reflect our own background and views, rather than leaving us open to ideas that are different.
What can be done to change this? And, can it be changed at all? The first step is to wake up to the seriousness of the issue. Just as politicians and the public seemed to sleepwalk into the rise of the far right in the 1930s, there is a danger that the same thing will happen again. Politicians need to take a stand and outline exactly what the benefits of the current system are, taking steps to be positive about what it delivers to people. This is what the Remain campaign singularly failed to do during the EU Referendum vote.
Secondly, equip people to deal with change. Automation and artificial intelligence are hollowing out the workforce, but they are also creating new jobs. It is up to government, working with business and trade unions, to put in place the training to help reskill people on an ongoing basis. The old system of early education needs to be complemented by lifelong learning with access for all.
Thirdly, the media must take a stand against extremism and those that are wantonly making up ‘facts’. They need to call out deliberate lies from politicians, even if that makes their job harder. And companies like Facebook need to be considered part of the media, and redouble their efforts to stamp out fake news on their networks, given that this is where a large (and increasing) percentage of the population get their information.
The breakdown in trust that the world is currently suffering from cannot be easily remedied. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth trying. Public relations professionals should be playing their part, but it will take a sustained effort from all the groups named in the Edelman report (business, politicians, government, the media and NGOs) to change perceptions and rebuild trust.