Here is Michael Eisner, the man who turned Disney from a basket-case into one of the world’s most valuable companies, talking about brands: ‘A brand is a living entity, enriched cumulatively over time, the product of a thousand small gestures’.
Virgin Atlantic is a shining example of Eisner’s axiom. Virgin’s passengers feel that the airline cares about them as individuals. The result is loyalty and Net Promoter Scores off the scale. It’s not done by advertising. Virgin uses public relations in the true sense of the term: interacting with members of the public as if they were human beings; making them feel important; treating them as if they mattered.
The Virgin example is rare. The web is flooded with complaints – irate, dismayed, disappointed, resentful – from customers whose experience of ‘customer relations management’ has demonstrated that, for all the fine words, they don’t count. None of us enjoys being ignored, belittled or driven insane – so why do companies routinely treat us with indifference?
A sea-change in 1996
Michael Eisner is telling marketers that there are no short-cuts. As long ago as 2000 the Cluetrain Manifesto issued a wake-up call to the corporate world: you can’t just shout at people any longer, they don’t like it and never did; the internet has changed everything; from now on, you must take the trouble to conduct a conversation with your public.
Amazon got the message early. Not because of the intrinsic good nature of its management, but because Bezos and Co could see what ‘a thousand small gestures’ would mean for sales. It doesn’t quite work, but we like Amazon for making the effort. This admired brand has also turned upside-down the ancient idea that you can only provide good service if you charge premium prices.
‘Trouble’ and ‘effort’ are the key words. Marketers are taught to think of customers as statistics. One unholy grail is the notorious 80:20 principle – devote 80 per cent of your effort to the most valuable 20 per cent of your customers and more-or-less ignore the rest. Presumably the concept of the long tail has yet to reach utility companies, banks, telecommunications suppliers and most airlines.
Good ideas good; excellent execution better
People as individuals are indeed troublesome. They can be capricious and irrational (can’t we?). It is so much easier to spray and pray. It is so much more senior to play around with spreadsheets than go to the mall and talk to customers. But people are not actually stupid, as David Ogilvy memorably pointed out: they can sense in an instant if they are being taken seriously. They know if they are being ripped off by the way their bank or mobile company speaks to them.
There are 53 million broadband accounts in the UK. The internet has re-empowered consumers, and this is great news for the public relations industry. We don’t confine ourselves to the broad brush; we love grand gestures and big messages as much as anyone, but we earn our living by treating stakeholders, and particularly the media, as individuals. We take infinite pains to get the details right, and we are not forgiven if we overlook trivial but important factors. Here is Felix Dennis:
Ideas, we’ve ‘ad ‘em
Since Eve mated Adam.
But take it from me,
Execution’s the key.
Another tycoon who knew that the boil-in-the-bag approach doesn’t work. But neither he, nor Eisner, nor Branson, nor Bezos ever aimed to make a quick hit and move on: their goal has always been brands of enduring and accumulating value, and they exhibit (one of Jeff Bezos’s three self-proclaimed virtues) the gift of patience.
New media, traditional talents
Your client’s brand campaign must have a long-range horizon, with landmarks and waypoints separated by years rather than months. This doesn’t mean that short programmes have no place – of course they do: but it demands that every fragment of PR investment should be carefully aligned with the bigger plan. In practical terms, this means that brand campaigns will almost always out-live the tenure of individual client contacts.
Use statistics to paint the overall picture, but then drill down – and keep drilling down – until you feel you understand the brand’s stakeholders as people. You will normally end up with a diverse range of preferences, habits, opinions and susceptibilities, and this will lead to ‘a thousand small gestures’. Your client will probably groan – it’s much more trouble - but this is the pathway to real success as measured by NPS, market-share, margin, P&L and share-price.
A visitor from Mars might get the impression that ‘content’ is a new discovery. Not really: it’s just digital terminology for ideas, headlines, stories and hooks which audiences find attractive enough to read and remember. The pace of online consumption makes this challenge harder: Chartbeat found that the average duration of 2 billion website visits in 2013 was 15 seconds. Giving people stories they enjoy and which change their opinions is a rare talent; anyone who can do it consistently should be a hero in your agency.
Go to great lengths to nurture good relationships with the media (Robert Peston may hate us, but most journalists appreciate a good service). There aren’t many of them these days: we are twice as numerous. They depend on us. This starts with learning to write well in media terms. Surprisingly, this also seems to be a rare talent. I was told the other day: ‘Reading most PR material is like listening to an eight-year-old practising the violin – excruciating’.
Leave transactional website design to technical experts, but own online and social media – contacts, content and distribution. Is there any real difference between mainstream media and well-managed, branded online outlets? There may once have been, but these days it’s hard to spot the join. Whether it’s MSM or digital, the same skills divide the sheep from the goats: the ability to create compelling content (or copy) and the knowledge to fine-tune audience targeting. More good news for PR people: these are skills which we possess and most other marketing communications disciplines don’t.