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A “Very Nice!” PR Stunt

Sasha Baron Cohen’s fictional character Borat is a lout from Kazakhstan who says “very nice!” after saying and doing not-so-nice things. The real Kazakhstan has embraced it, and I think it’s a brilliant stunt.

I must admit that I wasn’t even sure Kazakhstan was a real country when the first Borat movie came out in 2006, and I was marginally entertained as Cohen used cluelessness to compensate, just barely, for the repulsiveness of his character, starting with Borat living in an ugly, twisted rural village. The Kazakhstan government ran newspaper ads in the US refuting the portrayal and banned showings of the movie at home.

Now, it has created tourism vignettes using “very nice!” as the catchphrase.

What changed?

An American living in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, came up with the tie-in idea and pitched it to the country’s tourism board, which approved production of short ads pretty much on the spot.

A Kazakh Tourism exec explained at the Huffington Post:

“Kazakhstan’s nature is very nice. Its food is very nice. And its people, despite Borat’s jokes to the contrary, are some of the nicest in the world.”

Supposedly the content has generated lots of social media love.

Now, the marketing strategy is kinda suspect since I just checked and it would take three flights, 19 hours, and thousands of dollars for me to get from Chicago to my vacation in Almaty, and none of what the videos promote is “nice” enough to motivate me to expend that much effort. But maybe the underlying purpose is to raise awareness that might lead to other business or development opportunities? I don’t think they’re spending anything on media, so that might make sense.

The bigger point for me is that other brands could consider similar activities to ride a perceived negative into revealed positive.

I’m thinking Spam, for starters.

Actually, I’ve long believed that Spam missed the opportunity to play off of the zillions of dollars’ worth of exposure the word got in the early days of email. I could have imagined so many different ways to work with it…”the Spam you want,” “there’s good Spam and bad spam,” or “The inbox of your mouth wants this Spam”…or wacky promotions, like a Spam-branded email spam filter that accrued points worth discounts on their product, or whatever.

Instead, Hormel’s reaction was an ambivalent silence and, unless I’m missing something, its product has the cultural relevance of Tang.

Can you think of other products or services that face similar challenges that are really opportunities? 

Making a list of them might be “very nice!”

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Airbnb To Disrupt Gig Economy Branded App Engagement

Former Apple design guru Jony Ive is working with Airbnb to “design new products” prior to its upcoming IPO. Last week’s story was covered extensively across mainstream and tech media. 

What’s the big news? Airbnb plans to redesign its app and website.

There’s a lesson to be learned here: All that matters is the headline. I mean, there’s no story to this story. The rules for web and app design are pretty much established science, driven primarily by the need to seem familiar to users and easy and reliable for doing whatever they want to do. There’s no way Airbnb is going to blow up those rules before its IPO, let alone no compelling reason to do it any other time.

According to a blog post from Airbnb’s CEO, Ive will not only help the company design new products but hire new designers for an internal team. This comes after the company fired 25% of its employees in May.

What exactly are those other products that Ive will design? Maybe there’s something more fundamental going on here, like the potential for designing elements that Airbnb rentals would embrace…think common signage that have been the staple of franchising for decades, only more substantive to experience.

It would be amazing if Airbnb’s shared, say, common controls for heating and cooling, maybe some consistent amenities (SPF for a warming world?) or some cool “incidental” tech for dealing with common traveler woes (a magic de-wrinkler, for instance)? What about a secure lockbox for safeguarding valuables?

In other words, Airbnb could be on the road to operating like a crowdsourced hotel brand.

But we don’t know that, or much of anything else, since the coverage was limited almost exclusively to the headline of Ive working with Airbnb. Journalists didn’t even try and tail to question how it could possible make any sense.

We communicators should take that to heart.

Every announcement we write should have one single, memorable idea that can be expressed in a handful of words. It has to have stand-alone value, which means it must reference doing something tangible that suggests, by the action itself, a bigger idea. Set a goal. Reveal an accomplishment. Announce a partnership, like Airbnb.

Lead with the act, not the meaning. In fact, don’t waste space explaining why it matters…because if you have to explain, nobody will understand or believe it. It certainly won’t help getting it covered by the media. Also, skip all of the technobabble language and evidence-based proof points of functionality.  

David Ogilvy once said:

“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”

He was right, though in his day it was assumed editors and readers still had patience for the content that followed. Now, I’d say spend your time crafting the best possible headline because everything else is incidental.

Maybe there’s a second lesson, too, which is be very, very wary of the Airbnb IPO.

The two trends of post-pandemic living and the concept of the gig economy collide in Airbnb’s business model. Travel is down and its recovery won’t look like the past. It’s not impossible to imagine Airbnb hosts getting classified as employees, or their physical sites getting held to regulated standards of safety and security (and not just customer expectations)?

Worse, there’s no unique IP behind its offering so any number of competitors could whittle away at Airbnb’s customer base. The only thing is truly owns is its brand and whatever data insights into rooms and customers it has collected.

This is what leads Airbnb to an announcement about marketing and a celebrity advisor.

Again, maybe there’s a lot more going on (I sure hope so), and there’s a slight chance evidence of it will surface in the IPO documents, though it’s far more likely that the company will hammer on the proven excuse of brand value. Investors, like consumers of media, tend to rely on headlines. It’ll also tout wonderful benefits while ignoring or downplaying any direct or indirect negatives, which is how companies like Facebook achieved incredible valuations.

Treating the messy, undetermined future like an externality to the graphics on a management consultancy presentation is another successful trick.

So, write better headlines. And maybe avoid the IPO?

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A Photo Op In Outer Space?

A few weeks ago, Estee Lauder sent 10 bottles of Advanced Night Repair lotion to a photo shoot on the International Space Station (“ISS”), if all went accordingly to plan, and the images will find their way into social media marketing.

The New York Post reported comments the company’s president made about it at space industry forum:

“I’m a risk-taker. That tends to basically come with ideas that are a little bit, you know, outside of the normal, traditional ways of doing marketing.”

Three cheers for Lauder on the stunt. Of course, it will be forgotten a zeptosecond after the images appear on Twitter, and it won’t sell a bottle of lotion, but it sure beats the typical cosmetics industry nonsense claims about doing actual science.

That’s what NASA should be doing instead of hosting photo shoots.

Turns out NASA has a department — commercial spaceflight development — dedicated to helping businesses to find reasons to use its launch and orbiting capabilities. It let Pizza Hut to “deliver” a pizza to the ISS astronauts and announced plans to ship Tom Cruise there for a film project.

I’m not sure NASA could do a better job of making itself irrelevant if it tried.

The fundamental problem with using space as the backdrop for marketing or moviemaking is that it’s unnecessary. Computer graphics can more than compensate for limitations of gravity and scenery. You could have told me that the outer space scenes in Brad Pitt’s Ad Astra were actually shot in space, and my reaction would have been a yawn. Make believe has nothing to do with real.

It also attaches NASA to the silliness of make believe.

Remember, we Americans have paid for the research, development, and execution of every launch of living things into space since the US strapped a rhesus macaque to a V-2 rocket in 1948, and we’re paying for upkeep on the ISS. 

Exploring space is incomprehensibly complicated, extremely dangerous, encourages and yields vital technology innovations, and is otherwise incredibly important for the future of America and all of humanity.

And seeing the ISS as the set for a face lotion tweet is supposed to inspire us, let alone prove a return on our investment?

Er, yup, according to the director of NASA’s commercialization initiative, who said at Bloomberg: “We need to expand people’s perspective on what we can accomplish in space.” The initiative is also supposed to earn money to fund future exploration (Lauder paid $128,000 for the photo shoot, which is 0.000005 of NASA’s 2020 budget). Space tourism is under consideration, too, perhaps pending Tom Cruise’s Tripadvisor review.

There has to be a better way.

There’s a lot of research that goes on in space, most of which is focused on solving space-based problems like growing food in zero or low gravity. Why couldn’t some or more of that be focused on products that are sold and used back on Earth?

The vacuum and low/lack of gravity in space should allow for unique execution of processes. I’m thinking mixing chemicals, testing combinations, things like that. But my imagination is limited by my training as a marketer, so I’m the guy who would have come up with the photo shoot garbage.

Couldn’t the scientists and engineers at NASA do better than me and imagine hundreds of things that could get done in space that are impossible to do on Earth (or at least fundamentally different enough to offer the potential of some commercial cachet)?

Why couldn’t Lauder figure out how to do real science and find some way its revitalizing syrup achieves a special quality if mixed in space, and then sell bottles infused with it at neighborhood grocery stores”

Forget tested or assembled in China. Why not brand things as coming from Space?

There’s also the proud tradition of consumer technologies spun off from NASA innovation, from transistors and Teflon to Tang. You’d think the commercial spaceflight development folks would be trolling the last few years’ worth of development for ideas that could end up in some new consumer product.

There’s also the not inconsequential go-forward projects to consider, whether going back to the Moon or landing on Mars. Why aren’t categories of commercial partners working to “mainstream” technologies developed on those journeys?

I guess I don’t want to be entertained by actors or cosmetics companies in space, and I worry that encouraging this kind of stuff is going to make it harder for NASA to argue for funding dollars down the road. 

I want to be inspired by NASA doing meaningful, real things, even if that meant creating a successor to Tang.

That might even warrant a photo op.

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Wait, The Cloud Is A Thing?

IBM has announced its carving off its tech services business because it sees the future in cloud computing and AI. In this New York Times article, Ginni Rometty, IBM’s executive chair and former chief executive, said cloud computing, enhanced by artificial intelligence, “is now IBM’s enduring platform.”

I can just imagine the management consultant presentation that delivered this conclusion, backed up by reams of wildly costly “research” and interviews required to reach such a shockingly novel insight. IBM probably paid through the nose for it, as have all of its large competitors (most of whom have already been told the same thing).

I just don’t understand it.

For starters, at least some of the blather is a cover story for IBM’s plan to spin off its technology services business. Such spinoffs underly many of those management consultancy projects by promising that they’ll allow businesses to “focus” on core activities. There’s a trend cycle in business management that oscillates between favoring conglomerates and pure plays; we’re in the waning days of the latter, considering any of the cloud market leaders IBM supposedly emulates are vast conglomerates, so the same consultants will be advocating for combining businesses before long.

It’s mostly short-term financial jujitsu intended to make it easier for equity analysts to market stocks to their clients.

The longer term trend is real, though: The New York Times article cites the established fact that more and more companies are outsourcing IT and computing needs to Big Tech conglomerates. The assumption is that IBM’s business serving customers that operate their own IT shops somehow impedes it from competing/working with the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.

But there are dark clouds on the, er, cloud horizon, from regulatory scrutiny to the emergent discomfort many consumer have with its propensity of sharing private data with evildoers. The evolution of smart tech “at the edge” of networks is moving to make incessant reliance on the cloud unnecessary. Businesses may decide that having to rely entirely on one Big Tech company in order to function may not be such a good idea.

Oh, and every company is going to fight harder and harder to grab the data necessary to educate the AI the will run those cloud services, followed by the companies themselves and then the entire world.

IBM supposedly hopes to somehow finagle its way through this mess and help companies plug into any cloud provider, which sounds like a promising positioning strategy considering how things are going to change, perhaps wildly, in the mid and long-term.

I would have thought its services division enables and differentiates that thinking.

As a communicator, making the case for working with client IT departments to transition into the future would have been a huge and fun challenge. Conversely, the book on promoting AI and cloud computing has already been written, so there’s not much new that’ll come from that choice. 

Its management consultants should have been tasked with providing a better explanation.

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Trust Isn’t Free Anymore

We used to take trust for granted, and we depended on that unmentioned certainty. Then the Internet blew it up. We need to reclaim it.

Traditionally, our institutions did little to earn trust. They asserted it and people gave it, presuming that governments, news media, academia, financial institutions and markets, even religions had some internal makeup that informed their judgments and substantiated their authority. Raw power, whether over our lives or afterlives, was a core component of that authority: people trusted them because people were afraid not to.

Trust wasn’t a cost to them, only a benefit. That’s a textbook example of a market externality.

The Internet changed that dynamic when it provided visibility into institutions and made data on their actions more accessible.

It turns out that behind the walls of institutions are individuals, each with her or his own biases, agendas, and imperfections. They, like brands, have rules and rituals attached to them, but they rely on people to live them. That means institutions can make mistakes and do things for the wrong reasons. They can and do lie. There’s no reason to implicitly trust that they’ll do otherwise; in fact, we’ve learned to trust that there’s probably some ulterior motive, whether unconscious or sinister, behind every institutional action.

Because that’s how we view one another.

Suddenly, the cost of trust has skyrocketed and there’s no clear path to affording it, let alone reclaiming it.

As a business communicator, I run into this conundrum every day. Clients have things to say but lots of stakeholders simply don’t trust their authenticity, accept their relevance, or believe that they’re true.

My firm is constantly experimenting with ways to overcome these challenges, and I can share at least three promising tools:

First, stop declaring victory. Every press release or social announcement that touts an accomplishment is inherently untrustworthy, because everyone knows or suspects that 1) The story is more complicated, 2) The word/image choice is intended to persuade more than prove, and 3) Every milestone leads to the next. This is a particular chronic problem in the B2B space, where companies declare an endless stream of firsts, bests, and mosts as if the broader context and associated truths can be swiped to the side with a flowery executive quote filled with buzzwords.

Companies earn trust by sharing what’s left undone as often, and as honestly, as they highlight their achievements. 

Second, process is everything. This isn’t the same thing as “radical transparency,” which is a wet dream of the digerati that has no basis in lived experience. But it’s true that stakeholders today want visibility into how things get done, which is how companies can reveal the why of what they do. This means sharing accomplishments and disappointments; in fact, the latter can be far more trustworthy than the former. It’s also content that usually comes with uncertainty, suspense, and humanity…all qualities of meaningful communications. 

Companies earn trust by letting stakeholders into ongoing, imperfect, and incomplete processes.

Third, never talk alone. I grew up in a world where media interactivity meant yelling at the broadcast TV screen; now, stakeholders have the ability to react (vet, share, rank, respond) often before content is made available publicly. It never ceases to amaze me or my team that companies act as if these conversations are somehow after-the-fact or that their content has any inherent meaning apart from this engagement. Instead, why not involve stakeholders in the content: For instance, make an announcement to employees and position that as the news, or share something with another stakeholder group (or critic) and announce it. 

Companies earn trust by acknowledging conversations that decide its validity, not simply throwing out content in hopes of influencing it. The mechanism is the message.

Like the costs of pollution, the cost of trust is no longer outside the purview of our opinion or financial markets. The genie is out of the bottle: Everyone knows that governments know one thing and say another, auditing firms miss things, news media can’t be wholly objective and academics sometimes don’t know what they’re talking about, markets do not treat all participants equally or fairly, religious leaders are human beings, not saints, and brands weren’t invented to stand for things but rather sell things. 

We business communicators need to understand these costs and figure out how to address them.

Trust isn’t free anymore.

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Communications Devolution Or Revolution?

It’s trendy for big companies to devolve authority to operating units, and the jury is still out on whether or not making them compete as collections of smaller independent ones makes any sense (the management consultants who came up with the plans will be long gone before there’s a verdict).

But it’s already clear that giving marketing communicators responsibility for overarching corporate communications is dead on arrival.

First off, they’re just two different animals, by definition: Business marketers talk to customers who might buy stuff and to those with whom a company is already doing business. This is incomprehensibly important because buying things is what keeps them and everyone else employed. Therefore, marketing communications is often an adjunct to sales, which makes perfect sense.

Corporate communications has a broader remit, tasked with talking to investors, employees, suppliers and partners, and non-business entities (like universities and NGOs), all of whom “buy” ideas about a company. This is also really important because it helps brands differentiate, adds to equity valuations, and makes everyone more loyal. Corporate communications is an adjunct to every other department in the company.

It has been fashionable for some time now to default to the communicators at operating units to manage both functions with a glib “that’s where the money’s made” comment to explain why. Staff and budget at the corporate level is often reduced to what’s essential to cover financial reporting requirements and catering to the egos of executives who want publicity.

It’s a mistake, for at least three reasons that are structural to how work gets done:

The timeframes are wrong. Customers don’t buy promises or pay for things that don’t exist; they have immediate needs that need to be addressed which, ideally, matches with the products and solutions sellers have in stock and ready to sell to them. Any perspectives on the future are really extrapolated from the present, usually in “use cases” of how those products and solutions would function. Operating units need to communicate this information even if it’s limited to statements of what is (with the occasional buzzwords about purpose or something else thrown in for good measure).

Other stakeholders are all about buying promises, especially those who “pay” for them with their belief, goodwill, and loyalty. Some make this distinction by describing brands as present tense perceptions and reputations as confidence in future tense performance. Corporate communicators necessarily look at the future and deduce back to the present, usually via what if statements on why and how product and solutions might function. It makes no sense for operating units to communicate this information; worse, it’s antithetical to their core and necessary purpose. 

Different planning tools. The core of any viable marketing communications plan is a product release calendar, which is based on the availability of products and solutions for shipping and implementation (and closely coordinated with dates for sales targets and, by association, buying cycles for major customers). Sure, they consider things like holidays and major trade events, but they otherwise look inward at what matters to a company, and when. Operating unit communicators must invent ways to bring such glorified product catalogs to life. This usually means defaulting to functional performance specs which, by definition and with good reason, limit the audiences to whom they can talk.

Corporate communicators need to be aware of what the operating units are selling, but their purview should reach far beyond that internal calendar to look outward and see all of the requirements of external stakeholders: For instance, when are sustainability reports compiled and issued? What are the major themes, and conclusions, media are covering? How has the chatter on social media about employee conditions evolved and what’s coming? Corporate-level topics (or issues) get asserted and ideally owned based on a different timing and planning approach that requires far different content.

Saying something memorableDeclaring that a product or solution is the greatest thing since sliced bread isn’t thought leadership, just as overviewing the conditions of a present tense market isn’t terribly memorable. Operating units are actually disincentivized from saying things that break through the clutter because they can’t risk getting too far ahead of their customers. They also can’t share things that are underway or imperfect since communications are intended to describe things that work; therefore, it’s really tough for marketing communicators do accomplish more than describe the status quo, which is rarely newsworthy.

Corporate communicators should do the exact opposite and put out content that is bold, contrarian, and risks pushback; there’s a case to be made that if you aren’t risking being wrong or offending someone, your thoughts don’t lead. Corporate-level content should speak on behalf of the businesses overall and insert the company into conversations that otherwise ignore product-based communications. This includes sharing the narrative of research and innovation and being transparent on the ups and downs of development. Business units need to present things as if they’re always right; corporate communicators need to earn credibility by revealing when things are sometimes wrong.

I’m reminded of the old adage the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, which is a misquote; “sum” should be “besides,” according to the guy who wrote it, and speaks less to an additive mathematical outcome and more to the emergence of something different from something else.

Applied to the business communications, it means that branding content distributed to operating units doesn’t necessarily add up to a broader, coherent or compelling identity. The mechanisms of how marketing communications operates, again by legitimate necessity, simply don’t allow for it, and all those shared slogans, proof points, and beautiful graphics are often included as awkward, inauthentic add-ons to the stuff that really matters to them.

It also means that relegating corporate communicators to investor relations support and stroking exec egos is a missed opportunity, as is tasking them with promoting some permutation of “purpose” campaigns which tend to all be the same and don’t legitimately draw on those very activities underway at the operating units. 

Instead, I vote for a revitalization of corporate communications as a function, and inspiring it with the goal of achieving the forward-looking, outward-facing, and memorable content that complements the work of the business units so, together, something unique emerges from that integration. Something big, different, authentic, and compelling.

I say we make business units as agile and successful as possible, but let’s stop expecting them to accomplish things that simply aren’t within their purview. Enough with the devolution.

We need a revolution.

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Does Corporate Sustainability Have A Credibility Problem?

If the content on company websites was complete and truthful, you’d have to conclude that we’re turning the corner on climate change and social injustice. Only it’s not, and we’re not.

Yes, corporate sustainability has a credibility problem.

The recent news about Coca-Cola is a good example. A special interest group called the Changing Markets Foundation recently revealed that Coca-Cola reached less than half of its goal for using recycled plastics in its bottles by 2015 (announced in 1990), and missed various revisions of that target between then and now. Also, the company has provided no updates on its announced intentions to use plant-based materials for a third of its bottles by 2020.

The interest group blames the company’s preference for making donations and grand gestures, all the while pocketing the cost savings from plastics prices that have gone down along with the price of oil. This practice was called greenwashing before it was subsumed by purpose.

And, sure enough, Coca-Cola made new pledges on recycling to an MacArthur Foundation initiative in 2018, encapsulated in its gloriously branded World Without Waste program.

A visit to the company’s website yields page after page of content about its progress on a variety of sustainability-related issues and its plans “to make the world’s packaging problem a thing of the past.” 

But the world’s problem is that Coca-Cola has a problem.

This truth is evidenced by a revelation the company made to the MacArthur Foundation that it produces 200,000 plastic bottles every minute…only that information isn’t on its website. What’s there instead is a wash of happy, inspiring language, numbers and percentages that all point in the right direction, and images of its products being held high by people as if in a salute.

So, there’s no reason to believe the company’s claims or its intentions.

What’s sad is that its lack of credibility is a self-inflicted wound, for three reasons that are common with many other companies’ reporting on sustainability:

The targets are unreachable, whether for wholly reconstituting the company and/or taking responsibility for saving the world. Citing lofty goals that management consultants have said that consumers care about says nothing about the reality of business…other than that companies are lazy, purchase the same research, and say the same things.

Stating a corporate purpose of making the world a better place (or whatever) is akin to voicing support for happiness and sunny days…it’s generic, and it sets up a crashing disconnect between what a company publicly claims and what it’s doing privately to stay in business.

Instead, why not pick targets for things that a business is pretty sure are reachable and then exceed them (that’s the stuff of an undergraduate class in communications, BTW). Skip all of the fluffy language — Coca-Cola says its Business and Sustainability Report is about “working together to create a better shared future for our people, our communities and our planet” — and focus instead on the specifics of a business and how sustainable practices are good for it first, not the planet or good feelings. Businesses are profit making entities and not NGOs, and if the truth that staying in business is a fundamental goal, someone will catch the disconnect sooner vs. later (as is the case for Coca-Cola).

Report honestly along the way. I’m sorry, but Coca-Cola’s sustainability reporting is disposable, as is similar content from many other companies, since it doesn’t reveal the complex and difficult realities of its efforts, nor the many shortcomings and failures that must be as common as its glowing accomplishments, if not more so.

Change is hard, and admitting that truth is a lot easier than pretending it isn’t because it screams authenticity — truth has a way of doing that — and helps inform as well as manage expectations, so when you know you’re going to miss one of those formerly achievable goals, saying so preempts it getting characterized as a willful crime. 

What’s hard, though, is that communicating honestly about sustainability must include revealing the tough operational decisions behind it, including making clear the trade-offs between short profits and longer term value expected from sustainable practices (or your metrics for them that should matter otherwise). Then tell your investors and your customers; if you can convince these two stakeholder groups, the Changing Markets Foundation and their ilk will pin blue ribbons on your company. 

Don’t brand sustainability. I mean, really? It’s the same for the nonsense names attached to corporate innovation programs; you’re just daring people to suspect that you’re up to something other than what you claim you’re doing. It is common sense that the bigger noise you make about things, the more attention you’ll get. Coca-Cola, like many companies, spends a lot of money producing content that declares and promotes its purpose to do things other than make fizzy drinks.

Despite this glib business strategy du jour, company purpose is still selling stuff and not even the gods of McKinsey or the Business Roundtable can absolve businesses of that sin. It’s just too easy, primarily because it’s unbelievable and ultimately unsustainable, despite all of the marketers happy to take client money to promote it.

To be judged honestly, companies need to be honest about the challenge, which is to choose operationally to destroy the planet and its people or make it and them better while selling whatever it is they sell. Sustainability is a business practice, not a good deed or marketing campaign attached to a brand, and it’s just sad that Coca-Cola and other companies buy into such branding inanity though, as the Changing Markets Foundation alleges about Coca-Cola, “it’s easier…than to really invest in it [solving plastic pollution].”

The only place that the world isn’t incinerating itself and punishing millions in poverty is on corporate websites. Starting tomorrow, companies should lock the marketers out of the room when it comes to communicating on sustainability.

I get that challenges from special interest groups are often based on facts taken out of context, and no non-profit is going to give its full blessing to a for-profit company. Interest groups exist as foils to corporations, so if businesses operated effectively on issues they cared about, and were convincing in communicating those efforts, those interest groups wouldn’t have a reason to exist. 

Since they thrive on conflict, there’s no resolving it.

But an open, honest, and ongoing conversation with stakeholders about realistic goals, the challenges in reaching them, and the centrality of any meaningful activity to business decisions that have real consequences for employees and investors would go a long way toward tipping that debate in the favor of businesses, at least with the stakeholders who are interested in the truth.

If Coca-Cola and other companies embraced this approach to addressing sustainability, it would also make it much harder to allege that they’re operating in bad faith…because they wouldn’t be doing so any longer.

Otherwise, who knows whether or not accusations like those from the Changing Marketing Foundation aren’t true?

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What’s Your PR Skunk Works Project?

Corporate communicators are working hard to make programs work in a ‘new normal’ of changed expectations and, generally, constrained budgets. I worry that not enough of them are experimenting with new ones.

Who could blame them? All of us are being challenged to do more with less, and do it while facing the most challenging professional and personal circumstances that most of us have ever experienced.

But that’s exactly why experimenting now isn’t just an option but a necessity.

Here’s why:

Nothing works like it did. The rules have changed for even the most proven, established activities, so none of them are or will work exactly as they once did, yet any remit to return to normal requires that communicators figure out how to deliver them. The likelihood that results won’t be up to snuff, especially over time, are high. Doing the “right” things now may well turn out to be “wrong.”

Everyone is doing the same things. If anything, the pandemic and resulting economic uncertainty have forced communicators to default to core activities like product-focused content and hosting webinars. Everything needs to somehow support the business, not just in the short-term but somewhat immediately, since sales are required to pay everyone’s salaries. Good luck standing out.

They’re saying the same things, too. Promises of corporate largesse or the benefits of stuff they make feel somewhat generic now, especially since the pandemic revealed that we were about as prepared to deal with it as we are to fight climate change or social injustice. No, it actually seems less believable now that the world has melted. There will come a time when you’re held accountable for it.

I get the necessity of sticking to process and striving to meet your internal stakeholders’ expectations, but there’s a solid self-interest case for experimenting, either with something you’ve done and think you might disrupt (I wrote about this idea a few weeks ago), or choosing something novel.

I say give novelty thing a shot. You need a skunk works project.

The term “Skunk Works” comes from a secretive weapons development group at Lockheed during the waning days of WWII. Now, Wikipedia says:

A skunk works project is a project developed by a relatively small and loosely structured group of people who research and develop a project primarily for the sake of radical innovation.

What would the project look like? It would depend on what you want to accomplish. Perhaps you could pick one of your existing communications goals and consider novel ways to achieve or augment it. Could it be a new approach to your thought leadership content? Using a new technology tool? Risking engagement with a third-party that might otherwise be an opponent?

They key would be to structure the project like Lockheed did: A stand-alone team tasked to operate without touching existing activities so, in the spirit of a medical treatment, do no harm while risking improvement. Don’t distract your existing external agency. Set boundaries for what’s allowable and what’s not, but otherwise let the internal/external team challenge every conceivable convention you (or your stakeholders) might take for granted.

What’s cool is that you can’t fail; a truism of any innovation activity is that you benefit from learning even if you don’t get the outcomes you’d hoped. Plus, you’d likely get credit from stakeholders for innovating (and there many even be public content to be had from your efforts, whether successful or not).

The trick with any skunk works project is to not get caught up in the same restrictive expectations you apply to existing activities. It won’t work the way it’s supposed to work; that’s the point. There are no guarantees when you experiment.

The thing is, there aren’t any guarantees for anything else we communicators are doing anymore, expect it’s all but certain that they’ll tend to disappoint us.

So, what’s your PR skunk works project?

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Intel’s Next Announcement Needs To Blow Our Minds

Earlier this month, Intel rolled-out a new logo and graphics color scheme. It deserves new actions to give the new look credibility and meaning.

Its announcement came replete with all the “right” words about what the branding meant. The company is “a catalyst for world-changing technology,” it is “[making] a leap into the future,” and pursuing a growth strategy for AI, 5G, and other popular buzzwords in order to “do something wonderful” and “create a more responsible, inclusive and sustainable world.”

The company already knows it needs more, noting:

“We know a new brand won’t come to life with new colors, sounds and logo; it needs to be a unifying rally cry built on action and aligned with our company purpose. We recognize that only through time and a continued track record for excellence and delivering for our customers will we share and define ourselves.”

In other words, the branding is the cart before the horse, only we don’t even know if it’s going to be a horse, donkey, 4-wheeler, or alien surfboard.

Or a Model T, if Intel’s current situation is directionally relevant.

Intel all but started the PC revolution and its chips have been pushing the edge of processing power for mainstream computing since the 1970s. Its products are in just about everything, everywhere. It employs over 100,000 people and grossed over $70 billion last year, or just about half of the revenue of its largest 9 competitors combined.

In other words, it’s a huge, lumbering target that must defend its positions in numerous markets while its competitors can pick and choose where, when, and how they attack.

Suggestions that it possesses some “heritage of innovation” or record of world-changing activities is like saying that an old person has a “heritage of having been young once” and vaguely remembers having done cool stuff. Its CEO’s recent passionless defense of desktops/laptops as somehow positioned for the future, which they’re not, doesn’t cut it.

So we’ve got the new cart. Now what?

My fear is that we’ll get more of the same, highfalutin babble that came with the branding announcement. Intel will announce incrementally improved products and ink new or renewed partnership deals with every tech brand you could name. It will flood the mediasphere with content — it has an endless number of outlets for news, blogs, videos, and speaking platforms — and the only thing it’ll all have in common will be some boilerplate references to the above mentioned branding babble.

It won’t be self-evidently credible or meaningful, though lots of senior execs will say so in their finely crafted PR quotes. It will reference itself as “a leader” as if doing so made it true.

Worse, I fear that “strategy” will get conflated with business news and will continue to focus on sales forecasts and results. “Selling more stuff” isn’t strategic, wherever and however it’s targeted, and no sales rationale is powerful enough to pull a kid’s wagon, let alone that branded cart.

My dream is that it would come up with some illustrative activities, not words, that warranted a second look from customers, partners, and potential employees. Doing so would take reimagining PR as a driver of operational action, not just the window dressing on those aforementioned legitimate but wholly uninspiring business decisions.

Here are three examples of what I’m dreaming about:

First, it could lead on some big, hairy issue, and my vote would be for cybersecurity. If Intel created a new threshold for software and/or silicon-level chip security it would be the de facto standard for the entire industry. Maybe it would rely AI, human oversight, and/or involve a number of its business (i.e. perspective and resources its competitors don’t have). I’d throw a bunch of engineers at a Manhattan Project-styled crash campaign to do it, and then narrate its setbacks and progress. Now that would be purpose.

Second, it could declare the PC/laptop idea dead (and then rename it). Make a big stink about the end of an era and announce the next one, full of specific new uses for the greater processing power only available in those configurations…which have been renamed: Desktops are exclusively workstations or communications centers and laptops are mobile controllers or whatever. And then invent new configurations for its chips, and encourage new software that requires all that processing heft. Smart furniture. Devices that merge gaming experiences with daily calendar management. Put a swat team of smart people on it and talk about their great and silly ideas.

Third, get active in really visionary, far-out stuff. Where is Intel on quantum computing? What will make quantum computing yesterday’s news (could it be intelligent biochips or processors that run on tachyons)? Intel should be involved in more failures than successes, if only to keep pushing the boundaries of what’s even conceivable, let alone possible. Where’s the cross-industry platform tasked with inventing a statistical successor to Moore’s Law, so maybe something that addresses the very core of our relationship and future with tech (or maybe something about AI)? Think less business plan next quarter and more Hari Seldon’s Foundation.

Intel is aware that it’s facing a reinvention moment, a point of inflection for its business. The new branding is the easy response, but it says nothing other than “stay tuned.”

What comes next must be actions, and my hope is that they’ll blow our minds.

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Does Corporate Purpose Need A New Purpose?

While most of us think about “corporate purpose” as companies adopting programs to promote public good beyond what directly benefits their bottom lines, I wonder if a bigger, more complex transformation is at hand?

I’ve been an outspoken critic of the philosophy as it’s currently conceived (here and here), but what if believing in brands, whether as employees or consumers, is more like faith than any traditional ideas or language of business?

I’m going to make the case for seeing companies as religions instead of commercial enterprises. If I’m even partially right, it has massive implications for how they function and communicate.

OK, for starters, pull your camera back from the purpose movement and consider three bigger trends:

First, the organizational structure of companies is changing. Uber, Airbnb, and others in have forever changed our conceptions of employment in the geophysical world, much the same way that Facebook, Google, and other online platforms have redefined the roles of makers and consumers. The idea of “employee” is no longer a standard nor a function on which these businesses rely, at least not solely.

We now participate in the economy in “gigs,” loosely defined by various roles depending on circumstance. Ditto for assets; why own when you can rent? Companies can outsource almost everything from workers (who are now independent contractors or freelancers) to parts and products (Boeing outsourced entire sections of its 787, and Intel will finish its Aurora supercomputer using chips from other manufacturers).

If companies were once seen as owners of productive assets and arbiters of worker employment, they are becoming primarily owners of ideas — the intellectual property behind products or services — for which they aggregate the necessary people and tools to create. 

Second, they’re all relying on the same resources. Automation, 3-D printing, and other digital technologies are reasonably available to any company that can pay for them. Digital platforms for supply chain, manufacturing processes, accounting, market research, and pretty much any other outsourced functions that were once owned and managed in-house are equally available, many times being offered to multiple clients from the same service providers.

Even the race to capture data, used for activities like targeting customers, vetting employees, and educating robots, tends to default to commonly known norms, as companies are seeking to answer the same questions by using many of the same sources of data (captured directly or bought from service providers). The premise that my robots will be better than yours is a fleeting proposition, as is your hope that you might target customers with more insights for more than a brief (or slight) moment of difference.

If companies were once seen as possessing competitive difference based on their operations, they’re becoming primarily owners of applications — the outcomes to which their ideas or IP are directed — for which they harness generic technology and put it to novel use.

Third, the “big” challenges they face are identical, too.

Every company faces the same meta challenges — climate change, employment diversity, community improvement — because all of us face them as individuals, too. There are 17 of them, according to the UN, and most companies set out to map and measure their progress at making improvements against those goals.

So, any company that produces pollution, which means every company should do its part to reduce it. They should hire or do business with a more diverse universe of people, and make management and leadership more diverse, too. If a company isn’t contributing money to education or community good deeds, it’s probably an outlier. These are all legitimate issues that need to be addressed, and we increasingly look to businesses as the engines for change. Doing what they do in response is also legitimate.

But it is purpose?

Think about it: Companies using the same people and same tools and technologies to address the same big picture outcomes.

That doesn’t sound like purpose in any way we’d understand the term. It sounds generic, like table stakes. Every company is trying to solve the same problems.

OK, now about that camera I mentioned earlier? Fool around with the focus a little and consider this:

Religions tend to be incredibly similar in terms of the “big” questions they try to solve — literally, they don’t get bigger than eternity and the meaning of the universe — and rely on the same pool of people and tools to address them, like source materials, roles and rituals for the faithful. A large percentage of the content the distribute is somewhat interchangeable, especially when it comes to the processes they promote for leading good lives.

What differentiates them is how they go about doing it, and whether or not someone finds it believable and applicable to their own life.

You could say that the purpose of religion is to give its adherents purpose.

Just imagine if religions went about purpose the way companies do.

“Thought leadership” pronouncements from leaders that all said the same things: “People need to live just lives,” or “heaven’s really important,”delivered at religion conferences filled with religious people or in media directed at the same audiences. Infographics on metrics of reduced sins committed and increased good works, and slick videos on the importance of the afterlife. Announcements of contributions to charities.

What would be missing? Reasons to believe that one approach was any different than another save for differences in language and allusions. Reasons to care.

A religion would be an “it is” instead of an “I am,” and it would go out of business before long.

Now, imagine if corporations went about purpose the way religions do. I can think of at least eight things that would be different:

First, a company would assert a new way of looking at the world and its problems and opportunities. It would describe unique outcomes and ways to achieve them, taking the generic questions that everyone asks and translating them into bespoke answers. Most importantly, it would present really big things in terms of personal experience and achievement in ways that no other company did. This would be its thought leadership.

Second, a company would talk to stakeholders differently than it talks to everyone else, since its members had asked for revealed wisdom. It would tell them things that substantiated its way of looking at the world and empowered its adherents to realize those truths. They would always be the audience that mattered first and the most; never taken for granted, or presumed to be “informed” of things going on beyond them since the things that mattered were being done by them. This would it its content.

Third, a company would be defined as much by what it didn’t do as by what it did. It would necessitate difficult decisions, not just strategic ones, because forsaking actions can be as potent an expression of purpose as actions and they are a tool to help stakeholders realize the meaning of their faith. This would be a binary thing, so no protestations of “we’re working to reduce XYZ.” This would be its business strategy.

Fourth, a company would have its own rituals. It would go far beyond events that stakeholders “attended” or could consume online as spectators; they would have active, emotional elements that gave participants a sense of involvement and co-ownership. It would unlock the meaning of its purpose by enabling its stakeholders to unlock aspects of themselves, and provide newbies with impactful visceral experiences. This would be its special events plan.

Fifth, a company would constantly reinterpret its message delivery, sticking to its ultimate destination but finding new ways to realize the journey. It would dare to share new, sometimes difficult or challenging content that added meaning or nuance to prior statements. It would anticipate the latest difficulties the faithful might face and preemptively address them, taking an active role in helping guide their experience. This would be its crisis communications.

Sixth, a company would speak primarily through its believers, encouraging them to be evangelists. It would never talk about what “it” did, since there is no IT, but rather about the actions of its stakeholders to realize its IP. It would transform every statement and policy into possible actions that could be taken by its adherents, as its ultimate purpose is only “solvable” by their actions (and for them, since the corporation has no destiny in the afterlife). This would be its process.

Seventh, a company wouldn’t shy away from imposing burdens on its stakeholders, in addition to expecting them to spread the faith. It would link expectations for longer work hours, more productivity, added volunteerism, etc., with greater access to revealed wisdom and participation in rituals. It would make annualized celebrations of working together truly holy events and artifacts like pins celebrating years of employment into true badges of meaning. This would be its loyalty.

Eighth, a company would always highlight work undone and shy away from celebrating too much success. It would identify a new step after every old one, providing its stakeholders (and potential new applicants) with a continuing journey as the central tenet of their participation. It would be on the lookout for ways to apply its content to new issues, new needs and new opportunities. This would be its branding.

Ultimately, there has to be more to corporate purpose than another marketing campaign, and even today’s most celebrating communications activities seem oddly detached from the transformations underway within and around companies.

And, oh yeah, the world is still on fire and it seems to be getting worse, so all that corporate purpose marketing is failing to achieve its purpose.

So why not change the purpose?

I wonder if acting more like a religion would yield business plans that were more honest, give people things in which they could believe, and just maybe deliver outcomes that truly changed the world (or at least changed the lives of believers).

Maybe the remit for corporate purpose is faith?