Two Marketing Guys Walk Into a Branding Storm…

Ice cream vendor s bicycleFor marketers, 2010 has thus far been a tough year – at least on the branding front. We’ve seen the downfall of several of the world’s top brands, including the ongoing BP oil spill debacle and the ensuing fallout for its corporate image and brand, along with Google’s recent privacy concern issues and several other high-profile branding dustups.

A recent Financial Times article (PDF Version) examined the perils of a tarnished brand. After reading the article, we thought it might be interesting to examine the broader issues and implications from a marketer’s perspective, with Jeff Esposito coming from the point of view of a corporate communications guy working for a global brand (Vistaprint), and Keith examining this issue from the perspective of a PR agency exec who works with SMBs, global brands and everything in between.

Keith Trivitt: Jeff, what is your opinion on the current state of corporate branding?

Jeff Esposito: A brand is a living and breathing symbol of a company. It goes beyond a logo, catchy tagline or jingle—it is what a company means to its constituents. In the age we grew up in [the past 30 years], a lot of what we knew about particular brands was based on the media and advertising. Fast forward 20-some-odd-years, and one-dimensional messaging does not exist anymore. We’ve entered an up-to-the-minute news cycle now, so perception is reality. It may sound cliché, but companies really need to be listening and monitoring what is being said about them. When blogs came onto the scene, there was not a lot of emphasis on their importance; however, a negative post or Tweet can really cause some negativity around a brand. In a nutshell, brands need to speak to their customers, both literally and figuratively.

KT: Your point about corporate branding going beyond just a logo or a catchy jingle is spot-on. So often, the public—and often, even business executives—thinks of branding as this one-off project you do early in a company’s growth cycle to try to catch people’s attention. Branding is often viewed as a quick fix. But as I tell clients, branding, marketing and communications should be seen as long-term solutions to what are often long-term problems for many businesses: staying top-of-mind for your key audiences. And like you say, Jeff, with the advent and mass adoption of social media, if you’re not actively monitoring brand sentiment and even trying to persuade brand sentiment through various digital PR means, you’re not really engaging in active 21st-century branding.

Branding has changed beyond just having a cool logo and a great jingle. It’s now an all-encompassing marketing strategy that requires tremendous time, resources and attention to ensure positive constituent sentiment is not lost, and a company has the capacity to acquire new brand advocates.

KT: As a whole, do you feel some of the recent corporate branding downfalls (BP; Google’s U.S. & EU regulatory issues and privacy concerns; Apple’s insensitivity to consumer concerns) are largely out of marketer’s and communication pro’s hands, or are they indicative of a shift to much larger branding issues marketers will have to face in years to come?

JE: Brands are now facing the same pressure that politicians have over the past few years. The constant news cycle is vicious and unforgiving. Like many industries now, branding is in a state of evolution. Change is not easy and isn’t an overnight sensation. With social networks, companies have to cede some control and engage with their customers. For large brands, it’s a matter of getting back to the basics. I recently read a great book on branding called BrandSimple that is worth checking out if you are interested in branding.

KT: Change is certainly not easy, particularly when you look at the perspective of us, as marketers, talking about branding and marketing with a business owner. We have a pretty good idea of what we think a company should do to improve its branding and position within a specific market sector, but for that business owner we’re counseling, it’s an entirely different picture. They may have invested 25 years in their business, engaging in largely the same marketing practices every year. Trying to tell them they need to now actively monitor their brand online and/or cede some control to the public doesn’t always go over well.

Which is a possible explanation for some recent corporate branding issues. Not so much in that BP, Google or others were stuck in their ways with marketing and branding (to an extent, they were), but each company had executives who though they knew better than the marketing, PR and branding experts on their staffs, and yet, they really didn’t, and they are now paying the price in terms of negative brand perceptions.

JE: Branding is something that is not just for companies anymore. Everyone’s online footprint can influence how they are seen in a field or get you turned away for a job.

KT: The power of personal branding has been on my mind lately (even though I hate that term). I’m beginning to think that, over time, corporate America will become more entrepreneurial for a variety of reasons. Social media will continue to give each of us a powerful public voice and platform to expound on our expertise, insight and dreams. This empowerment will suddenly force companies to learn new ways to handle a larger population of employees who are more willing to speak their minds in public, ask big questions and start to explore bigger issues. This, in my opinion, will eventually lead to entrepreneurial mindsets within corporate employees, where they view themselves as employees of the company, but also as individual entrepreneurs exploring innovative ways to improve some facet of the company by using social media, cloud computing and other social resources to find new ideas. This has the potential to create brilliant ideas for companies, but also huge legal issues; something to watch out for.

JE: I love the way that the Internet has really changed the way people get their name out there. While Twitter chats, Facebook, LinkedIn, and blogs are great mediums for sharing your opinions, they also offer a window into your personal life. So share with caution. Companies can see everything about them and also what their employees are saying. When job hunting, employers search for what you are posting online. So before posting something remember who can see it. Once published things can be seen by anyone with computer access, just something to keep in mind, and Google yourself every once and a while to see what’s out there on you.

KT: The Financial Times article referenced at the beginning of this post noted that, “Corporate communications, such as advertising, play a relatively minor role in this process. It is what the company does, not what it says, that reinforces the brand in the minds of customers.”

Do you agree with this statement, as it broadly appears to make the assertion that PR and communications have little—if any effect—on brand affinity?

JE: While I would agree that our society has become numb to advertising to an extent and actions speak louder than words, there is still a personal connection to brands. I also would not call advertising part of corporate communications. Advertising can be used to reinforce messaging but is something that is not traditionally trusted. Using an ad, not a person, to communicate messaging in crisis communications can go over horribly. Toyota’s response to the recall by way of a commercial is one example that comes to mind. However, they have done a great job reinforcing safety in recent weeks as the immediate media buzz has dies down.

KT: Something I found particularly interesting about that comment by the FT writers (Morgen Witzel and Ravi Mattu) was the comment that came directly after it referencing the fact that Apple’s PR team runs very theatrical product events, but it’s the terrific products that keep consumers coming back. I agree with that—to a point. Even brands that were once viewed as highly in consumers’ minds as Apple currently is (The Gap and The New York Times come to mind) have seen brand affinity somewhat tarnished over the years as they have either over-expanded into to many markets (The Gap) or seen certain market pressures cause the mystique of their industry begin to tarnish the brand (NYT). That’s where I think great brand messaging, combined with a company’s actions, is the best strategy to engender long-lasting brand affinity and brand reputation. Mere actions alone sometimes aren’t enough, as The Gap appeared to be one of the world’s most prosperous brands 10 years ago because it was expanding so rapidly, but underneath that was a lack of effective communications to address market and consumer concerns about the brand.