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12 Points for Handling the Communication Conundrum

CEOs offer 12 points on managing your brand communication in the digital age.

dv1492011Communicating effectively in the digital era requires a strategic approach for each target constituency, say CEOs we spoke with for this article. Here are their thoughts on how to do it:

1 / DIVE IN; EVERYONE ELSE HAS. Companies are compelled to stake a place in the endless marketing conversation these days simply because everyone else is, some CEOs believe. “More is better,” argues John Foraker, president of the Berkeley, California-based Annie’s Homegrown unit of General Mills. “People want to know what’s going on in the hearts and heads of the companies they’re doing business with. A lot of transparency is out of the control of companies anyway, so they can participate in the conversation or not. People will have conversations about what you’re doing and what they care about.”

2 / CONSIDER CONTINUOUS MESSAGING… Some companies believe it’s almost impossible to over-communicate. One making a case for “always on” marketing is Honda, notable for the types, frequency and topics of its social-media marketing competing for sales in a robust but competitive U.S. market. “There’s tremendous fragmentation in the marketing world, so we have to reach out to a variety of demographic and media-consumption profiles,” says Tom Peyton, assistant vice president of marketing for Torrance, California-based American Honda. “We’ve got a lot of news to talk about, and more in the pipeline.”

3 / …BUT ESTABLISH SOME TENTPOLES. Audi of America takes a more restrained approach to marketing communications in a luxury-car segment that is, if anything, even more competitive than the mainstream. “If you talk about every little thing with every product launch, then you don’t have a chance to have real news or unique information for social channels,” says Loren Angelo, brand director for the Herndon, Virginia-based arm of Audi AG. “So we plan our outward-facing communications a year in advance, decide when to drop our core assets to make sure they’re heard and then reinforce them as need be.”

“The level should be at least consistent regardless of the situation, and when things are going badly you should maybe be communicating more.”

4 / WRITE A STORY… Storytelling remains one of the most effective approaches in marketing. “In a world where everyone is bombarded, you have to use an emotional element,” says Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn, a New York-based marketing-communications firm. “Sometimes senior management has a bit of a hard time with that.”

5 / …BUT PROVIDE AN ENDING. Strong narratives made the “Doritos Crash the Super Bowl” campaign one of the most popular annual advertising extravaganzas in the history of the Big Game, but Ram Krishnan and Dallas-based Frito-Lay decided that 2016 was its last year. “You need times of silence, too,” he says.

6 / LOOK TO THE SCOREBOARD. One of the happy results of the digitization of marketing is that it’s much easier to track ROI, and CEOs should make sure to take advantage. “We’ve stepped up our monitoring of the different media,” says John Dillon, CMO of Denny’s, the Spartanburg, South Carolina-based restaurant chain, “so we are closer to data-driven marketing than ever before.” Many marketers swear by Klout, which uses social-media analytics to rank online popularity and “influence.”

7 / TRY SOME FUN. “Gamification” can incentivize consumption of marketing messages by introducing an element of fun and even material reward. Reltio, a data-management company in
Palo Alto, California, provides target audiences access to a “portal with fun ‘challenges’ that educate and inform, while allowing them to be rewarded through points that can be exchanged for various prizes,” says CMO Ramon Chen.

8 / TALK THROUGH THICK AND THIN. Especially in an era when consumers, employees and other constituencies have come to expect regular messaging from companies, they must be careful to communicate through rough times as well as good. “Sometimes companies tend to communicate more openly and often when things are going well, and then when sales are down or they’re having an issue or a crisis, they shut down,” says Fred Cook, CEO of the Golin Harris PR firm. “But the level should be at least consistent regardless of the situation, and when things are going badly you should maybe be communicating more.”

9 / DON’T SACRIFICE TRANSPARENCY. Constituents don’t want to be overwhelmed with messages, yet they want to know more than ever about the companies they deal with as consumers, employees or investors. It’s difficult to be too transparent. So even though its products are considered junk food, Mars has led the way in voluntarily publishing important nutrition information, such as calories, in a graphic on the front of its candy products. “Transparency,” says Allison Miazga-Bedrick, Snickers brand director, “is that important.”

10 / PUT YOURSELF IN THE PICTURE. The new era of communications means that CEOs almost have to get more personally involved; and some see running their own Twitter stream, for example, as a great outlet. “Then you really see the CEO as an individual, and people want to see that,” Bloomgarden says. “There’s something positive for the company about feeling like you ‘know’ that person.”

11 / BRING EMPLOYEES INTO THE MIX. Allowing employees to enter social media can help even the odds that a company can get positive consideration in the public conversation. “Our
research shows that half of employees are already talking about their company online,” says Andy Polansky, CEO of Weber Shandwick, a PR firm. “To the extent that you can train them and so give them license to speak on behalf of the company in some measure, that could help cut over-communication from the top and get the kind of attention that’s most valued by the company.”

12 / KEEP THE PERSONAL TOUCH. No electronic means of internal communication can top the old-fashioned, occasional staff meeting. “People still like to look the head person in the eyes and hear their inflection or passion or the seriousness of what they’re saying,” says Jack Deschauer, senior vice president of Levick, a Washington, DC-based communications firm.


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