By Martin Dohmen, Germany Director, Corporate & Brand Citizenship/PurPle, and Chief Strategy Officer, MSL Germany
Numerous companies and brands have recently recognized the sign of the times and moved on to create a new dimension of interaction with their external and internal stakeholders.
New opportunities open up due to the arrival of new media, channels and platforms – as new challenges arise in the wake of eroding trust, and the growing demand for participation in the always-on conversation economy.
Which are the key factors of success, then, in turning corporate and brand relations into a lasting and mutually beneficial stakeholder engagement? What are the most promising choices in setting up “Purpose + People” programs meant to effectively involve customers and consumers, employees and influencers, thought leaders and citizens? How to best establish communications platforms and programs to add to an attractive “citizen brand” profile? Who could be the audiences participating in the evolution of corporate and brand reputation – through sustained and constructive dialogue, productive ideation and sustained co-innovation?
The Why: stay close to your brand purpose but follow the conversation.
An inquiry into the purpose-related communications of major global companies – like MSLGROUP’s PurPle (Purpose + People) Index – reveals that most key topics around which brands choose to initiate a dialogue fall into four categories: health, environment, education or human potential. Ideally, a brand purpose forms a bridge between the brand’s DNA and its most significant overall promise to stakeholders and society alike.
Hence, pharmaceutical firms like Janssen tend to collaboratively address health issues, a global energy player like Shell is most credible as thought leader and conversation host on energy matters etc.
Increasingly, reputation hinges on stakeholders’ trust in a brand’s future ability to address, and successfully cope with, upcoming demands, challenges and opportunities. Beyond competence and responsibility, this belief makes a decisive difference in securing brand competitiveness and appeal.
IBM’s Smarter Cities initiative has been a good example for a company focusing on a future agenda outside of its comfort zone. The Future Influencers think tank initiated by Siemens equally proves that current business and technological expertise can be made to bear fruit in collaborating with decision-makers and influencers on larger topics, like urban mobility and urgent Global sustainability issues.
Remaining flexible matters too: if fracking in the United States turns part of the global energy agenda upside down, brands should be willing to follow and inspire the meandering energy conversation.
The What: if you are not up for a long-runner, do not start to walk (and talk).
Format options for collaborations range from open crowdsourcing of ideas to exclusive conceptual debate and from controversial dialogue to collective co-creation. When teaming up with some of the most imaginative and inventive talents and start-up entrepreneurs, GE’s Ecomagination Challenge offers a model for collecting and rewarding innovative (business) ideas. If the aim is to empower consumers to co-direct the brand’s cause-related engagement activities, the Pepsi Refresh Project still offers a bold pioneer model, even though it has not been continued.
Open collaboration formats are challenging, not only in keeping out non-productive participants. It is by no means less complex to initiate, manage and stimulate more exclusive or closed collaboration communities.
A well-planned and intense moderation (with 24/7 capabilities) is key in an external debate for ideation or concept development, as in any advanced corporate social intranet drive.
The How: networking and own visibility beat platform technology as attractors.
State-of-the-art multi-media event experiences and digital collaborative tools indeed make a big difference to create attractive environments for advanced interaction. Yet, communicators tend to overrate the technological platform factor.
Experience indicates that a strong conversational agenda fuelled by authentic and engaging storytelling has a much stronger effect in attracting audiences to become initially involved in collaborative communications.
A high-level peer-group offering new networking opportunities beyond the actual dialogue, a chance to personally contribute to a ground-breaking content production, exclusive access to brand ambassadors and thought-leading personalities, and, last not least, added visibility as opinion-leaders and influencers. These are key benefits potential collaborators will be looking for and appreciate– as the build-up and evolution of the Future Influencers community has demonstrated.
Monetary or commercial incentives are also able to drive participation, especially in idea competitions.
In the long run, however, the trust and reputation brands can gain from intensified, more direct communications and relations with their stakeholders will only come through benefits beyond money – and only with a credible commitment to make purpose-related collaborations last and grow.
The Who: talking with “my” generation – if it has influence.
Some general learnings apply, regardless of whether company managers or analysts, employees or environmental activists, brand followers or academic experts are to be involved in a collaboration. Stakeholder communications grow outside in: the 90 (invitees) / 9 (inactive members) / 1 (active participant) community principle roughly holds true.
This makes it necessary to initially address a much larger group than the one the collaboration is planned to be eventually carried out with. At the same time, community engagement grows inside out. This makes it an imperative to nurture the most active players in the conversation – because they are the ones spreading the collaborative impulse to non-active collaborators and to larger audiences outside of the collaboration.
The need for initial awareness and attention makes it highly desirable for a brand to focus collaborations on those parts of its audience which have the biggest influence – be it through their professional authority (and publishing track record) on “my” topic or through their social media clout. Whoever is capable and likely to spread the news about the collaboration and the brand’s role in it is a relevant candidate.
Finally, external stakeholders and audiences – including critical institutions like NGOs and citizen advocates – have repeatedly made it clear that they are not shy about facing companies and brands which explicitly follow their respective business rationale. It makes sense to plan for multi-party collaborations involving managers and employees, customers and consumers, experts and candidates at the same time. A diverse mix will not only make the collaboration more colourful and inspiring beyond conventional audience wisdom, it can also help to create and amplify conversational and reputational interplay, inside and outside of the collaboration.
Return on Collaboration: shared value + share value
An authoritative set of Global KPIs for collaborative stakeholder communications is not yet available due to the early evolutionary stage of the shared value paradigm. Projects like Siemens Future Influencers have produced some first insights on the benefits for companies and brands investing in long-term collaboration platforms and programs.
Learning from the Future Influencers initiative
- Listen and learn: Companies and brands can gain access to “real” conversations not tainted or distorted by push communications and wishful thinking. They can gain valuable insights and ideas not available otherwise from more superficial forms of interaction and dialogue.
- Connect and attract: Collaborations are about talking to each other and, most of all, about working together to co-produce results. The higher the number of collaborators involved in this kind of conversational community-building, the higher the brand attraction.
- Gain access to top talent and future decision-makers: As a sustained working relationship is more reliable than mere “followship,” the engagement created with present or future high potentials, influencers, opinion-leaders and decision-makers (internally or externally) also leads to a competitive advantage in brand reach and clout.
- Co-produce content: debates, ideas, concepts, research, positions, publications etc. – whether as direct community output or as a result of a larger cooperation, well-planned and thoroughly managed collaborations lead to relevant, interesting data, stories and intelligence. The co-produced content is an excellent addition to corporate and brand communications and content marketing.
- Share and enlarge visibility: Any high-quality collaboration is a vehicle and booster to spread the news on the brand’s thought-leading and conversation-leading competence and contributions. The traceable multiplier effect created by the collaborators indicates the collaboration’s relevance and attractiveness.
- Conversational conversion rate: The combination of all other effects will lend to an enhanced reputation, create an increased interest from target audiences and, eventually, more leads and demand.
This post is part of the People’s Insights magazine “The Future of Reputation“