Revolutionary Measures

Elon Musk and brand safety – a cautionary tale

Consumers increasingly want to engage with genuine brands with a personality. And in many cases this goes back to the founder and CEO. Think of Apple and Steve Jobs, Microsoft and Bill Gates, Burt’s Bees and Burt. Or, as I heard yesterday on Radio 4, Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop.

battle black blur board game

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In a world where consumers are bombarded with slogans from faceless corporations, having a figurehead that they can relate to should be an excellent shortcut to drive success. And, in many ways it often is. However, one of the key factors that drives people to found and grow businesses is self-belief that whatever they do is right, and that they need to battle the world to maintain their success. Add in that the more success they have, the fewer people there are around them who are willing to tell them when they are wrong and you can see a recipe for potential reputational disasters.

Elon Musk is a classic case in point. He’s built Tesla into one of the most recognised car brands on the planet, from scratch, and helped accelerate the spread of electric vehicles. Earlier in the year the company had a stock valuation of $50 billion – larger than Ford, despite its much smaller size (and profitability).

Of course, the key phrase is “had a stock valuation of $50 billion”. Musk announced in a tweet that he had the funding in place to take the company private at $420 per share. When it turned out he didn’t he was sued by both investors and regulators. A further tweet after he was fined for this saw the stock fall further, knocking $10 billion off its value. And don’t forget this is the man that called a British diver involved in the Thai cave rescue a ‘pedo’ and was recorded smoking pot on a podcast.

So how can organisations combine the creativity, drive and charisma of a founder with brand safety? There are four ways to achieve this:

1          Trust the CEO
You could, of course, just let the CEO do what they like, Richard Branson style, but that’s assuming that they understand that there are limits to their behaviour. In the case of true loose cannons (like Musk), this isn’t going to work. In the case of public companies it is also going to make the share price gyrate on a daily basis.

2          Focus on the product
A longer term strategy is to shift the focus from the founder to the product. So while the CEO might be introducing what the company makes, they are talking about what goes into it and what makes the company special, beyond their own personality. Bring in outsiders such as celebrities to subtly shift away from a single founder – a good example is the Virgin Media ads featuring Usain Bolt alongside Branson.

3          Build a team
No one person can run a multi-million pound company successfully. Leaders need help, so build a team and make sure that they are increasingly seen in the media. They are never going to have the same appeal as the founder – for example compare Tim Cook with Steve Jobs at Apple. But creating a wider team will deflect some of the attention over time and prepare for the point when the founder is no longer around.

4          Have people who can say no
Probably the hardest thing for an underling to do is to disagree with their boss, particularly if they have built the company from the ground up. Not many employees would embrace such an almost certain career-limiting move. That means telling founders that they are on the wrong track has to come from boards, independent mentors and from creating a culture where messengers are not shot, but encouraged. This is another long-term process, but one that needs to be thought of early in the process.

Balancing the marketing value of a charismatic figurehead with their wayward side is never easy – just ask Ryanair – but if brands want to stay around for the long-term they need to be ready to outlive their founder and put in place a framework and culture that turns ‘me’ into ‘we’ without losing the brand essence and magic they bring.

 

 

October 10, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mike Ashley – PR star?

English: Sports Direct - Crown Point Retail Park

Sometimes listening to captains of industry being interviewed can be a yawn-inducing experience. They’ve been media-trained to within an inch of their lives and appear to have been sent off with a stern warning that anything they say will immediately impact their stock price/company survival/job prospects. The result? Cagey, bland and message-filled interviews that don’t get across their personality or that of the brand that they represent.

Of course, there are exceptions who engage with the audience while still getting their message across, but for many, fear of failure stops anything interesting being said. As a PR person I find this really frustrating, as it is a missed opportunity to communicate.

Therefore it is always entertaining to hear from those CEOs who have built a brand on not giving a damn on what they say and seem to deliberately go out of their way to antagonise interviewers. Michael O’Leary of Ryanair immediately comes to mind, but he seems to have mellowed – O’Leary has even said that “If I’d only known that being nice to customers was going to be so good for my business I would have done it years ago.”

Another case entirely is Mike Ashley of Sports Direct, who has combined an appetite for controversy with not caring about speaking to the media. Given his reputation for frank speaking I can see why his PR handlers have kept him out of the limelight, so like many I was expecting fireworks when he appeared in front of House of Commons Select Committee to discuss working conditions at his Shirebrook warehouse. However, I was surprised at what I heard. Rather than bluster and defensiveness he admitted past mistakes, such as not paying the minimum wage, and said that the company’s size meant that it had probably outgrown his ability to run it. And all this after previously stating that he wouldn’t appear at the session and that if they wanted to speak to him, he’d send his helicopter to ferry MPs to his company HQ for an interview.

So what caused this road to Damascus moment? I think partly it was the realisation that, like O’Leary, being hated by your customers and the public isn’t a long term business strategy. Competition is fierce in the retail market, and while many shoppers may not care about the working conditions behind their cheap trainers, others do. There is such a thing as bad publicity – stories about a female member of staff giving birth in the Shirebrook toilets as she didn’t want to call in sick and risk her job is bound to resonate widely with many people. By admitting errors and saying that the company was going to change he’s now one step ahead of his critics, though the focus will be on him to deliver on his promises.

Another reason was that his actions give him the chance to occupy the retail moral high ground, given the ongoing investigation into the collapse of BHS, which has also seen leading figures in front of parliamentary committees this week. Former boss Dominic Chappell (who bought the business for a pound from Sir Philip Green), was accused of “having his fingers in the till” by one of his associates, described as a “Premier League liar” and of threatening to kill the chief executive after he challenged him on his behaviour. In turn Chappell’s testimony tried to shift the blame to Green, who he claimed had bankrolled his purchase (with more than a pound), and was behind the decision to put the chain into administration. Green will now get the chance to defend himself in front of the committee, so expect more mudslinging. Given his contrition it all makes Ashley look like a paragon of virtue – something that may help fulfil his desire to buy BHS in some form.

For anyone talking to the media, they should keep these examples front of mind. Develop your own style, tailor it to the audience in order to engage with them, and take the time to go beyond the pre-written message if you want to be remembered for the right reasons. Whether you are Michael O’Leary, Mike Ashley or just talking to your trade press, invest time in the interview and you (and your company) will reap the benefits going forward.

June 15, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thinking, Fast and Slow

A Cadbury Dairy Milk bar in 2006.

Probably because it is a difficult discipline to predict, we marketers love the idea of systems that are proven to deliver results. Whether it is putting the call to action in a certain font, including a free pen with a mailing or emailing at a specific time of the day, anything that can help convince consumers is considered fair game.

So it is no surprise that marketers, and particularly advertisers, have long looked at psychology to help predict what will work and what won’t. I’ve previously talked about Mark Earls and the theory that, basically, we all want to belong to the herd, an ingrained, unthinking, attitude that makes us enormously susceptible to peer pressure.

Much of herd theory is related to the work of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2002. His work (including the seminal Thinking, Fast and Slow), shows that the human mind is comprised of two systems. The first (system one) is intuitive, making decisions automatically, while system two rationalises the ideas of system one and sometimes overrules it. Essentially, what this means is that we think far less about decisions than we believe we do, and are much less rational than people expect. As Kahneman put it, “We are to thinking as cats are to swimming. We can do it if we have to, but we don’t particularly like it.”

Theories such as these are a godsend to marketers. If you can convince system one to like/buy something then chances are it’ll slip past the lazy watchdog that is system two without anyone noticing. Potentially scary if you are a consumer (or a citizen during an election campaign) but perfect for ad agencies.

Hence, as a recent story in The Economist points out, the phenomenal success of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Gorilla advert, which delivered an ROI three times the industry average. In reality the advert had nothing to do with chocolate at all, but led with emotion (rather than information) and brand (rather than product benefits). Ad men love Kahneman’s theories because:

(a)  They get the chance to do fun, extravagant ads that could win prizes rather than list the benefits of cough syrup

(b)  Traditional ways of measuring ad impact don’t work with system one-led ads. So there won’t be an annoying (uncreative) market researcher telling you your ad doesn’t resonate with the audience.

As the current crop of Christmas adverts shows, reason and rationality have very much gone out the window, with a focus on brand, emotion and slowed-down songs sung by female pop stars. But I don’t think all is lost for the system two adverts – if they are clever, informative and delivered with humour they can appeal to our rational selves, and by being the opposite of the mainstream can stand out by being different. There’s always a trade-off – if all things were equal, most of us wouldn’t choose to fly Ryanair, but system two looks at the price difference on tickets and forces us onboard. So, before they get carried away, marketers and ad men shouldn’t throw system two out with the bathwater (or should that be gorilla?). 

December 18, 2013 Posted by | Creative, Marketing | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

easyBrand Damage?

Aircraft: Boeing 737-33V Airline: EasyJet Regi...

Like a lot of people I’ve been impressed by the current easyJet TV ads. Celebrating ‘generation easyJet’, the group of travellers that the airline claims was created due to its low fares and wide range of destinations, it is modern, engaging and aspirational. There’s no overt mention of price (in contrast to Ryanair’s pile them high and sell them cheap advertising), and the overall approach is grown up and comparable to ‘proper’ airlines. The message is travel with easyJet to do the things you love.

However in an age of social media and consumer activism advertising can’t trump reality. Two recent easyJet blunders threaten to undo the slick ads, damage its brand and put off prospective passengers.

Firstly, it initially refused to let a passenger who criticised it on Twitter board his flight. Lawyer Mark Leiser sent a tweet after his plane from Glasgow to London was delayed, potentially preventing a soldier on his way to active service reaching his base in Portsmouth. easyJet allegedly said they wouldn’t help pay for him to get to his destination. After tweeting Leiser was pulled out of the boarding queue and told by a manager that he couldn’t get on the plane as ‘you can’t tweet stuff like that and get on an easyJet flight.’ It was only when the manager found out that Leiser was a lawyer that they changed their mind and let him on. easyJet later apologised and denied that it was its policy to ban passengers based on what they’d said. However by then the damage was done as Leiser’s original tweets were shared around the world and then picked up by major media.

A couple of weeks later easyJet managed to leave 29 passengers behind even though they’d passed through the boarding gate and completed check-in (and had hold luggage on the plane). Interestingly statistics from YouGov found that nearly 10% of UK Twitter users heard about the story, showing the power of social media to spread bad news.

Obviously easyJet is not the only airline to suffer at the hands of social media. After BA lost his parent’s luggage, Hasan Syed invested in a campaign of promoted tweets focused on the airline’s target audience, leading to the #BASucks hashtag trending. Eventually BA customer service responded, apologising for not getting back sooner but (I kid you not) the global airline’s social media team only works 9-5. Like easyJet, BA has an ambitious new ad campaign out now, highlighting its “To Fly, To Serve” motto. No news on whether they are going to amend that to “To Serve (business hours only).”

easyJet has invested over £5m in its new ad campaign and I’m sure BA has spent a lot more. But it looks like a classic case of being distracted by shiny things. A much smaller investment in social media and staff training might not look as impressive, but in today’s world may well go a lot further.

October 16, 2013 Posted by | Creative, Marketing | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Why Ryanair doesn’t care – lessons for marketing

Today’s media is full of the latest outburst from Ryanair’s founder and chief executive. Michael O’Leary described passengers who failed to print out their boarding passes (and consequently are charged €60 per flight as a surcharge) as ‘idiots’. Responding to a Facebook campaign by disgruntled passenger Suzy McLeod who fell foul of the charges O’Leary suggested she “should pay 60 euros for being stupid.”

Disobeying the cardinal rules of marketing and abusing your customers never normally works – remember Gerard Ratner describing his jewellery as ‘crap’?

English: Michael O'Leary

English: Michael O’Leary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Particularly given that the Facebook campaign had gained support from over 500,000 users it seems to demonstrate that Ryanair is ignoring the power of social media to spread complaints and criticism.

But it actually reflects Ryanair’s very simple brand proposition – cheap, no-frills flights with all the extras charged for (remember O’Leary’s threat to charge for using the loo on his planes?). Extreme, yes, and in many cases comes across as unfair, particularly when charges are added on that can’t be avoided, but in general people know what they are getting. It’s a classic case of market segmentation, coupled with a flair for hitting the headlines on a regular basis to reinforce the message. People can choose to fly through other carriers so there’s no monopoly that needs to be regulated which means that generally Ryanair can get away with it.

So what lessons can we learn as tech marketers?

Have a single focus
Firstly, you have to be very focused on what your company/product/technology stands for. Build a unique proposition that solves a customer pain point and make sure that it runs through everything that you do. While it is always best to be liked by your customers, if what you are offering is compelling enough they will continue to buy from you.

Use the power of PR
Yes, O’Leary is a motormouth but he knows exactly the value that his outbursts will bring in terms of column inches. These are not off the cuff remarks but a planned campaign to reinforce Ryanair’s proposition and keep it front of mind with potential passengers.

Have a figurehead
Companies are generally faceless, so make sure you have a charismatic spokesperson to get your message across. Again, O’Leary’s positioning isn’t going to work for most businesses, but he provides an instantly recognisable face to Ryanair. Don’t use too many spokespeople, make sure they are media trained but let them demonstrate their personality and how it reflects the business. This should be easy for tech entrepreneurs who’ve put their lives into a startup, but getting them to look up from their technology to engage at a higher level can be a struggle.

Invest in marketing through the right channels
Given it claims to offer the lowest fares and operates as a no-frills company, you may think that Ryanair has a minimal marketing budget. On the contrary, over its last financial quarter Ryanair increased marketing spend six fold (to over €51 million). While that’s not going on social media it is going on eyecatching adverts designed to persuade passengers onto new routes with what appear to be compelling offers. The company knows that a combination of its brand presence, O’Leary outbursts and advertising through channels that reach its customers will translate into sales. No waste, no free iPhone apps, just a focus on what is proven to work.

Clearly, very few businesses, tech or otherwise, can get away with how Ryanair markets itself and survive. But strip off the O’Leary bluster and there are lessons that can be learnt by all companies when it comes to successfully reaching customers and making money.

 

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September 5, 2012 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment