When Counter-Intuitive Marketing Works
Here’s the latest counter-intuitive marketing trend: Go to jail — improve your reputation.
Martha Stewart isn’t the only brand name capitalizing on a founder’s stint in jail. A prominent footwear retailer also promoted the release of its founder, Steven Madden, from the “Big House” — in this particular case, a federal prison in Florida, where he had resided for a stock-fraud violation.
Company marketers couldn’t resist associating this event with the “springtime” release of its products which bear Madden’s name. The campaign ads appeared in trade magazines, newspapers, and on bus shelters in Manhattan trumpeting, “A new meaning for the word springtime, Steve returns, spring 2005.” Not exactly putting your best foot forward.
Not to moralize here. These are penultimate examples of the old saw, “making lemonade out of lemons” (or, in this case, license plates). It’s a specialty of the marketing profession. Moreover, one with precedent: Richard Nixon’s transformation from disgraced U.S. president in the 1970s to an elder statesman in the 1980s was a forerunner of some of today’s less subtle campaigns.
The lessons are instructive for mainline corporations as well, and there are scads of companies that are employing or could use, a little repositioning strategy these days.
What happens when your CEO makes an infamous departure? The focus should be on operations in the wake of the limelight. By hiring new executives who have solid operational backgrounds, you’ll quell shareholder angst and recast their enterprises as companies that are sticking to their knitting, and that will provide excellent shareholder and customer value in the long run.
However, more critical for any chief marketing officer or public relations officer concerned about whether their company is teetering on the brink of trouble is the proverbial “ounce of prevention.”
Here are some thoughts on the fundamentals of reputation building and crisis survival.
Companies should spend much time going to the reputation “bank” and making deposits. Remember AIG CEO, Hank Greenberg? If Hank Greenberg, who ran AIG for more than 40 years, can fall in a business scandal, it’s likely that in the life of every company the need to make withdrawals from a carefully built reputation account will come.
Here are a few checklist items for those in “prevention” mode:
- Identify the audiences of importance and know how to communicate with each. These include members, regulators, employees, and suppliers. Determine what messages and corporate actions will convince each of these audiences that the company is wholesome, compliant, and stable.
- Understand compliance issues and know where your company stands. If you suspect or know that your company isn’t in compliance with any regulation, get ready to play ‘defense’ in terms of communications. If you’re in accordance, issue it as news to your key constituencies and relevant media.
- Bolster community relations activity. Select appropriate forms of grassroots volunteer activity or charitable giving in keeping with your brand promise and the type of business you’re operating. Get executives active on boards of community-based organizations. Again, communicate the good things you do to the communities that you serve. These are in addition to (hopefully) long-standing strategic communications programs which build brand and company reputation.
- Promote your CEO or chairman if he or she is worthy of it. For example, Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Group is perhaps the best example of a chairman who’s admired for his entrepreneurship. In his 20s, he first signed the seminal punk band, the Sex Pistols, to his record label, and has built his Virgin Group of companies into an $8 billion international conglomerate. His latest exploit? The private exploration of outer space.
Consider creating a corporate responsibility program to, for example, help the environment.
Select one or two high-visibility societal issues to focus on and join the dialogue. Be a leader on topics or issues that matter to your company or your key constituents. Join boards; chip in on awareness campaigns; contribute to issue-oriented blogs, and raise your visibility as a player. John Bogle, the founder of the Vanguard Group of mutual funds, has been a crusader for integrity in the mutual fund industry and a leader in business ethics. His leadership has been the foundation of Vanguard’s reputation as a haven for retirement nest eggs.
When A Crisis Occurs
Assuming you’ve been doing some or all of the above, you can also make other bold moves to bolster your image in a crisis. The keys are speed and sincerity.
Here are a few tips for crisis communications:
- Act quickly and honestly. Use the Tylenol packaging tampering scare of 1982 as your guide. The company soon assessed the situation; removed all products from store shelves; and took the financial hit. Then it distributed new tamper-proof packages of its products. The company’s credibility and public goodwill from the product recall not only saved it but helped the pain relief brand gain a stronger and nearly invincible reputation that exists to this day.
- Be decisive. If a change in the senior ranks of management is necessary, speed is of the essence. Please pay special attention to customers and suppliers, and make sure they are kept abreast of any unfolding situation.
- Line up credible third-party experts to come to your aid. These experts can include analysts, industry experts, journalists, and anyone else not directly connected to your company, but who know and admire the company or its work, or are at least experts in your industry.
These are some techniques that have worked in the past. Your situation may be unique, but the fundamentals of knowing your constituencies, employing prevention techniques ahead of a crisis, and acting quickly and honestly in a crisis will serve any enterprise well.
Done right, it can even turn potential trouble into a competitive advantage.