You Can’t Make a Great Cake Without Quality Ingredients

A prospective client I met with a couple weeks ago asked us about ways to address their challenges in gaining industry exposure as an “ingredient brand.” I gave an answer, which I’ll share with you, but it got me thinking. In a way, MOST B2B companies are ingredient brands.  If what you make is a step removed from impacting regular people in their day-to-day lives, you’re an ingredient brand to them. Think about everything from servers, smart grid software tools, and B2B professional services to machine tools, medical systems, and commercial airplane manufacturers, not to mention literal ingredients in processed food. In each case, there is an organization and a third-party professional between you/your product and the general public.  That organization might be a healthcare provider, a consumer packaged goods company, a commercial airline, a retailer.  

I will grant there are deep ingredient brands for which earning attention and gaining resonance with the public is harder. For everyone who is at least one step removed from “everyday impact,” however, there are about three approaches you can use to break through the clutter.

  1. Humanize your company.  People are people. If you have creative minds and compelling stories about your people and you can tell them in relatable ways – including through video – you’ll get attention.  This can happen both through executive equity programs as well as through fascinating tales of your own star employees.
  2. Decommodify yourself and figure out why your differentiation really matters. There are certainly true commodities – corn, flour, oil, lumber. For everyone else, two questions: First, what truly makes you distinctive? That’s the easy question. Second, how does that differentiation help your customer make a better product or deliver a better service? You need to be able to memorably articulate this before moving on to No. 3. So you’re the first to support a faster chip. Is that going to be about forecasting hurricanes better? Catching more bad guys? Making cooler movies?
  3. Partner with your customers.  You’re an ingredient brand, so focus on positioning your customer as the hero, rather than yourself. If you focus on storytelling with the customer’s story in mind, you might find them a lot more amenable to publicity than if you’re asking them for an explicit public endorsement. You’ll win by association, especially if you are thoughtful about who that customer partner is. One of our 3D printing clients collaborated with a healthcare provider to tell the story of how the provider’s custom-3D-printed prosthetics changed the life of a young patient, enabling her to hug her parents for the first time. The healthcare provider started getting calls from other hospitals around the world AND the 3D printer company saw a significant increase in visibility, SEO positioning and website traffic. Win-win.

We are increasingly involved in helping upstart renewable chemicals companies – these are  ingredients all the way. But people want renewable and greener products – whether diapers or health products. It’s petroleum-based chemicals that are the true ingredient commodities. There’s an opportunity to help their customers – like consumer packaged goods companies – tell a fresh story that makes them a hero – and increases the value and visibility of renewables.

Know why you matter, humanize your story, tie it to big trends in partnership with customers. You’ll start to see that ingredients really matter.

Tuning Into Talk About Your Industry Can Pay Off for Your Brand

Research is showing senior communications executives are worrying more about perceptions of their respective industries, not just their own companies or products.  In fact 51 percent of senior corporate communications professionals believe consumer attitudes towards their industry impacts their own jobs, according to a recent survey conducted by Spencer Stuart and my agency, Weber Shandwick. That’s higher than other forces such as the economy or product quality issues.  And the companies that seem most sensitive to industry perceptions are those that have divisions or product lines that are both B2B and B2C. Apparently, the firms with the widest variety of stakeholders have the most to lose from negative public opinion.

Chief Communications Officers increasingly worried about perceptions of the industries they work in.

Meanwhile, of 15 business or market forces expected to influence corporate communications budgets over the next year, this same study finds social media trends comes out on top, followed by the state of the global economy, and the globalization of the business.

Taken together, it looks to me like we should ensure we are doing a good job of monitoring conversations and trends on social media (and traditional) channels, not just about our own companies and brands, but about our industry as a whole. We need to recognize the actions of our peers can significantly impact our own companies’ reputations.

Fred Reichard, bestselling author of The Loyalty Effect, says in his follow-on book this year, The Ultimate Question 2.0, that the pursuit of what he calls “bad profits” by industries too focused on short term earnings than on the loyalty of their customers and other stakeholders can soon lead to new regulations or restrictions for everyone in that industry. Thing about how resentment toward financial institutions after the 2008 recession led to legislation to protect consumers from predatory practices. Or consider how the Affordable Care Act is a result, in part, of a lack of pricing transparency between insurers and healthcare providers, and of how difficult it has become for so many people who need coverage to get it. “Customers must conclude that businesspeople lie awake nights thinking up new ways to hustle them.”

But let’s turn this on its head. Being in tune with what is frustrating your customers in your industry is one of the best ways for marketers to spot great business opportunities. It worked for Salesforce, whose motto, No Software, spoke to their commitment to freeing enterprise software customers from license and maintenance contracts in favor of what was then a pioneering cloud computing model. The message was that customers stayed with Salesforce out of loyalty, not just contractual obligation.  Their business was driven by customers’ negative perceptions of their enterprise software industry peers, which opened up an opportunity for a new way of doing thing, just as it has for B2C brands like Zappos and Apple Retail Stores.

Here’s to more social media listening and responding to what really matters to customers and prospects, and less talking just to talk.

 

 

Where Was PR at the BMA International Conference?

I got a lot of great insights from attended the BMA International Conference in Chicago the last week of May, which brought together a great mix of corporate and “agency” types to discuss B2B marketing. That included the power of Net Promoter Scores, the differences between marketing transactional and complex sales,  where creativity in branding comes from, and what makes a successful marketing communications campaign.

Guy Kawasaki at the BMA Grow Conference (photo courtesy BMA)

What I heard precious little about is public relations. I didn’t see evidence of many PR attendees, and I didn’t hear more than the occasional passing comments about it in presentations. Moreover, PR is poorly represented in BMA’s own B2 awards, while piles of categories are dedicated to traditional advertising.

I don’t know why this is, though it’s probably always been that way.  When I got my MBA in marketing, it was pretty obvious that most marketing students and professors regarded PR as a mysterious niche capability hardly worth mentioning. But that was a decade ago.  Meanwhile, year after year, PR agencies outgrow their advertising counterparts (albeit from a much smaller base), and on the B2B side, most of our clients regard us as their crucial partners in building their brands, advancing awareness, rallying influencers, building thought leadership and building engagement through social channels. I think those are all pretty important, don’t you?

I do believe that PR pros often do a poor job connecting their results to objectives that the CMO appreciates, and even less at doing it in a way sales appreciates. Impressions and clip counts aren’t going to do it. We need to have an open dialogue with sales and marketing to understand where the problems are in the marketing funnel and align public relations efforts accordingly. Maybe the need is awareness, maybe it’s correcting misperceptions about the brand, maybe it’s about providing resources to help prospects research, maybe it’s about activating customer advocates AFTER the sale. But I can tell you that I would design the PR campaign very differently depending on which of these issues is first and foremost.

Then I believe we need to be more aggressive in helping our sales and marketing colleagues envision what is possible through PR across owned, earned and shared media platforms. We complain when they don’t “get it,” but where were we when they had their quarterly retreat or annual summit? Too busy tweeting?

We’re doing some awesomely powerful work with digital storytelling, video, events and straight up media relations. Let’s make sure we’re clear on how that work is helping drive the business.

Yes, Giving Back to the Profession Makes a Difference

Ten years ago, I decided to call Central Michigan University’s academic director of the Integrative Public Relations program. I graduated from the school in 1990 with a degree in Economics and wanted to learn more about their public relations program. It was a random call that to date has ended up making a difference in the lives of ten students. It also has meant an incredible amount to me personally.

Giving back to me has always been about helping out and getting students to understand the value of good communication — why it matters, how it can influence change for the better, and how it is evolving. In addition, I always have found it beneficial to learn from the next generation of professionals, who approach their future careers with enthusiasm, excitement and new ideas.

In particular, what I’ve found to be an obvious obstacle is that most students don’t understand B2B communications. The textbooks they read and examples in the news they see are all related to celebrities or retail/B2C brands. So what are ways to give back? There are numerous opportunities to provide value where you can help and be beneficial. Here are a few:

  • High Schools: Most high schools in the US have a journalism program or a career center. If you are a recent college graduate this is a good place to start in order to sharpen your presentation and speaking skills. Contact your former school and see what they offer in terms of outside speakers for various programs.
  • PRSSA: Your university likely has a chapter and they are constantly in need of speakers and professionals to come advise them on projects. Contact the academic program director for PRSSA and offer your assistance. While speakers are always welcome, you may find more value in helping advise on a project or with client work that the group offers to small and medium businesses. In addition, many of these students are looking for help in drafting a resume and learning how to apply for an internship.
  • Degree Programs: Both at the graduate and undergraduate level, programs and classes are in need of professionals to bring real-world advice and examples to the classroom. Don’t be shy, get a hold of the academic program and tell them who you are and why you would make a valuable speaker.

One thing I’ve learned in the past ten years of helping out at Central Michigan University is the enormous amount of passion students have to learn. They ask intelligent questions and they really want to hear your answers. In fact, they openly embrace your feedback, but also will challenge it. I would encourage you to think about what you can do either based on my suggestions or on your own. I promise you that the personal rewards over time will go beyond anything you can imagine.

 

 

 

B2B Tech Opportunity

Okay guys, if you want to see more blog posts from me, then you need to find me a good hire, because I have too much going on!  Here’s the official posting.

I’m a little flexible on just what level we hire because we can adjust the assignment accordingly, but I’m not looking for entry level and not looking for senior level.  Weber Shandwick is a heck of an agency and the Minneapolis office is a truly extraordinary place thanks to the most positive, respectful work culture I’ve ever experienced, a team of pros committed to staying on the cutting edge of PR, and great leadership. That’s my commercial. You won’t regret joining us.

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