Super Bowl Ads 2019 – The Most Popular May Not Be the Most Strategic

5 Feb

IMG_0816     There were clearly two games on Super Bowl Sunday, the battle on the field and the battle during time outs.   This year, major brands spent more than $5 million for 30 seconds of airtime to compete for your attention and social media approval.  Viewers have already spoken on tracking sites such as USA Today’s Ad Meter as to which commercials were their favorites.  But when brands spend this much money to promote a message, it needs to fulfill a focused business strategy that’s more tangible than simply winning a popularity contest.

     In several cases, there were brands that successfully married a core business strategy with an entertaining, if not an emotional appeal to the viewer to know something and perhaps feel something about their product.  The goal of course, is to position the brand and the product in the mind of the viewer when they are making a purchasing decision.   I’m singling four key business strategies clearly on display during Super Bowl LIII and perhaps the best creative examples of how individual brands executed them.

Switch Brands/Products: Stella Artois

     One of the strategies marketers use to increase sales is to convince consumers to switch brands or products and purchase theirs instead.  That’s exactly the strategy on display in Stella Artois’ Super Bowl entry.  In this case, Stella sees its competition as premium cocktails.  They creatively use the concept of humor and star power to build a narrative about not being afraid to “change up the usual.”

     The genius of casting Sarah Jessica Parker is that her best-known character is synonymous with cosmopolitans.  Likewise, The Dude, Jeff Bridges drinks only white Russians.  Not anymore.  The strategic message here: if Carrie Bradshaw and The Dude can switch products, so can you.

Product Introduction:  Mercedes Benz, Microsoft

    If you’re a global brand needing wide exposure to launch a new product or innovation, the Super Bowl is the best platform on the planet.  It’s exactly why you see so many ads each year unveiling new car models.  Enter Mercedes Benz.  The point of differentiation in its new A-Class sedan is that one can customize the driving experience with simple voice commands.  The ad is strategic in its message, target audience, desired response.  The ad is squarely aimed at achiever millennial men who like experiential settings and crave creative control.  The targeted message: say the word to change your car.   The desired response: if your car doesn’t do this, come test drive ours.

     Microsoft hit the emotional bulls eye with its ad called “We all win.”  But this too is really a product introduction for its new adaptive game controller.  It features the little boy Owen who we met last Fall in another brilliant Microsoft ad about children and the equal playing field of gaming.  In this ad, Owen and other children like him demonstrate how with Microsoft’s new adaptive controller, disabilities become abilities.   While this may be a new product marketed to parents and children with physical barriers, its broader audience is all of us.   In this ad Microsoft is challenging us to change our views on what it means to be disabled and how technology elevates us all.

Rate of Use:  Mr. Peanut

    Another strategy that brands use to improve sales is to encourage consumers to buy their product more often.  That’s the core strategy behind Planter’s Mr. Peanut ad.  Again, this ad is very strategic in its message, audience, and desired action.  Planter’s cleverly uses humor and a schema of Mr. Peanut trying to save sports fans from a snacking emergency.  The brand uses former baseball star Alex Rodriguez to target sports watching men by encouraging them to buy Planters mixed nuts next time you need a crunchy, wholesome snack. 

Product Attributes: Amazon, Google

    Sometimes the strategy is about increasing sales through highlighting a unique product function.  In Amazon’s case, highlighting what its artificial intelligence speaker Alexa can, and most importantly, should not do.  Amazon used the star power of Harrison Ford to not only poke fun at itself with supposed Alexa misfires, but in doing so also hinting at the useful tasks Alexa can do.  The ad entertains and implores us to use Alexa more often for the stuff that didmake the cut.

    Google also gave us an admirable ad about a specific function of its search engine to help veterans with the military codes that are unique to them.  The ad reminds them that no simple code defines them, but can help them search for what’s next.  It takes a brave and secure brand to talk about others more than itself, and Google gave us a message that is both memorable and useful.

    Together, these ads may not be among the most popular among Super Bowl viewers, but they all creatively target a specific audience with a clear business purpose. At the end of the game, these ads need to help brands achieve their goals.  Winning a popularity contest is nice, but if the ads don’t help the brand move sales, market share, or awareness, then they were perhaps a waste of the millions it cost o produce and air.

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Best Christmas Ads Ever–How John Lewis Sells Gift Giving as a Value

23 Dec

John Lewis 4           We’ve reached the advent of capitalism’s most important holiday… Christmas.

    But instead of brands trying to sell us objects and products all in the name of quarterly sales goals and corporate profits, what if they bent the value curve and sold a different kind of equation?

    British department store John Lewis has.  They’ve done it for years, and once again implore us to think of Christmas as an idea.  That idea is giving something of one’s self and thereby changing yourself and the person you love.   They do it not through product demonstration or a heavy-handed sales pitch, but instead through powerful schematic storytelling.

   This year’s John Lewis Christmas commercial, or advert as they’re called in Britain, follows in the store’s long tradition of inviting its customers to think differently about the holiday.  Each year, the John Lewis advert becomes the most anticipated and most shared piece of strategic advertising communication in the UK.  For 2018, they take viewers by the hand and lead them on the musical journey of the child who would become one of the world’s most enduring pop stars.  

    With its newest advert, John Lewis is sending a very specific and powerful message—give the gift that will change someone’s life.  Of course the implicit message is, if it changed Elton John’s life, imagine what it can do for someone else.

    The brilliance of the John Lewis Christmas ads over the years is that they use inviting and compelling characters that make the viewer think deeply about story. Firmly grounded Appraisal Theory, the viewer aligns the story with their own life experiences and creates a powerful emotional response about both the ad and their attitude toward the brand.

    By far, their most powerful advert was 2014’s Monty the Penguin with its simple message of buying someone the gift they’ve been dreaming of.

    For John Lewis, it’s more than just changing our attitudes on gifts.  It has also implored us to change our attitudes on society.   In 2015, its Christmas advert “Man on the Moon” focused its attention on the elderly.  The campaign turned a corner by partnering Age UK to bring awareness to the loneliness of many senior citizens.  The proceeds from the sale of specific items at John Lewis all went to the Age UK charity.

   More than two thousand years ago the Book of Matthew told of three men who originated the idea of giving.  Their gifts to the Christ child of gold, incense, and myrrh were about those higher-level values of innocence and honor.  John Lewis on a different level implores us to think about that too. It’s about the idea of giving—and changing someone’s life.  That’s a brand value worth taking to the bank.

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Old School Speech Lessons for the Modern World — Kissinger’s Eulogy to Sen. John McCain

29 Sep

    As time has passed since the passing of the late Sen. John McCain, this is a good time not to pass over one of the better eulogies in his memory and the lessons it offers to communicators. 

    At McCain’s own request, President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama led the eulogies and stole the headlines.  McCain wanted it that way.  He wanted the world to see that in America we settle political scores at the ballot box and thereafter break bread at the table of ideals.  But buried among the communion crumbs was a speech that students of political and social rhetoric should take note.  It came from none other than Henry Kissinger.   

    In many respects, these two men share nothing in common, and yet everything in common.  Separated by a generation, they represent different chapters in American history. Kissinger’s coming of age came during a time when American power was ascending, McCain’s came when American power was fracturing.  But Kissinger’s flight from Nazi tyranny formed his views on the ideals and values of America every bit much as communist captivity formed McCain’s. 

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Former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Senator Joe Lieberman, and Meghan McCain were among the speakers eulogizing the late Senator John McCain at his September 1st funeral.

    The former Secretary of State under President Nixon, and co-recipient of the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a ceasefire in the Vietnam War is not especially noted for his oratory.  The plodding, bookish, and deliberative elder statesman speaks with a heavy German-accented monotone that is the antithesis 21stcentury talking heads. But his eulogy of Sen. McCain was a speech writing lesson in structure, substance and delivery. 

    By contemporary standards his eulogy was short, just 738 words.   But it carried exponentially more power, focus and ultimately a more forceful persuasion of McCain’s legacy than did a wandering speech by Sen. Joseph Lieberman who rambled for more than 20 minutes, often times talking more about himself.  Kissinger’s eulogy had a clear beginning, middle, and end.  In the first two sentences, he tells the audience what the speech is all about—one of history’s great personalities that remind us of unity and sustaining values.  “John McCain was one of those gifts of destiny,” said Kissinger.  Every word that followed supported and transcended this notion.

    Kissinger powerfully attempted to prove that gift of destiny with an admission of his own guilt.  Guilt about what he too didn’t do in life and what he couldn’t do.  The former diplomat acknowledged that he had the chance to free McCain during his negotiations with Hanoi to end the Vietnam War.  McCain thanked his captors for the offer, but refused. Kissinger had to wait until 1973 to finally meet McCain at a White House reception for several prisoners who were finally freed.  Kissinger remembered, “When we finally met, his greeting was both self effacing and moving. ‘Thank you for saving my honor.’”  It was all because as Kissinger noted, that in the McCain family national service was its own reward that did allow for special treatment.

    Kissinger noted that McCain, too, returned to an America divided over its presidency and the direction of the country. Perhaps in an affront to the current administration, Kissinger skillfully challenged the notion that America cannot retreat from the world stage.   McCain, he said, would never allow for it.  “In this manner John McCain’s name became synonymous with an America that reached out to the powerful to be loyal and reach out to the oppressed,” said Kissinger.

    Perhaps most powerfully, Kissinger reflected upon his own failings as a world leader to instill hope and set for a call for action.  “Like most people my age, I feel a longing for what is lost and cannot be restored,” reflected Kissinger.  He then hypothesized that if beauty and youth are fleeting and short lived, then sacrifice for the greater good is ultimately what endures—qualities McCain proved.

    His conclusion was as short and strong as his “gift of destiny” beginning.   As if to put an exclamation point on his opening sentence, Kissinger declared, “The world will be lonelier without John McCain.” But in perhaps a tribute to the late Senator he challenged all Americans to fill the void.  Kissinger concluded, “Henceforth, the country’s honor is ours to sustain.”

     But it was more than Kissinger’s words.  Students of speech and communicators who want to better connect with their audiences should also pay close attention to Kissinger’s delivery. He spoke in short, declarative sentences.  Each one commanded its own power.  They willed the listener to pay attention.  In a teleprompter world, Kissinger goes back to an era where oratory was delivered from paper and memory, not from glass.  For reference, go back and watch every JFK speech, especially his “We choose the moon” address.  It’s a skillset where the speaker delivers no more words than the simple sentences and thoughts in front of him.  With this style, Kissinger created a cadence and rhythm that drew in the listener.

      It was certainly not the most talked about eulogy of John McCain.  McCain’s daughter, Meghan delivered her own powerfully emotional and political charged memorial to her father.  In a headline news world, Kissinger didn’t make the cut.  But for communicators his words deserve serious study because they offer a highly focused rhetorical map in a Google Maps world.

Here is the text of Henry Kissinger’s eulogy on Sen. McCain:

   Our country has had the good fortune that at times of national trial a few great personalities have emerged to remind us of our essential unity and inspire us our sustaining values. John McCain was one of those gifts of destiny. 

   I met john for the first time in April, 1973 at a White House reception for prisoners returned from captivity in Vietnam. He had been much on my mind during the negotiation to end the Vietnam War, oddly also because his father, then commander in chief of the Pacific command, when briefing the president answered references to his son by saying only “I pray for him.” 

   In the McCain family national service was its own reward that did not allow for special treatment. I thought of that when his Vietnamese captors during the final phase of negotiations offered to release John so that he could return with me on the official plane that had brought me to Hanoi. Against all odds, he thanked them for the offer but refused it. When we finally met, his greeting was both self effacing and moving. “Thank you for saving my honor.” He did not tell me then or ever that he had had an opportunity to be freed years earlier but had refused, a decision for which he had to endure additional periods of isolation and hardship. Nor did he ever speak of his captivity again during the near half century of close friendship. 

   John’s focus was on creating a better future. As a senator, he supported the restoration of relations with Vietnam, helped bring it about on a bipartisan basis in the Clinton administration and became one of the advocates of reconciliation with his enemy. Honor, it is an intangible quality, not obligatory. It has no code. It reflects an inward compulsion, free of self interest. It fulfills a cause, not a personal ambition.  It represents what a society lives for beyond the necessities of the moment. Love makes life possible; honor and nobility. For john it was a way of life. 

   John returned to America divided over its presidency, divided over the war. Amidst all of the turmoil and civic unrest, divided over the best way to protect our country and over whether it should be respected for its power or its ideals. John came back from the war and declared this is a false choice. America owed it to itself to embrace both strengths and ideals in decades of congressional service, ultimately as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John was an exponent of an America strong enough to its purpose. 

   But John believed also in a compassionate America, guided by core principles for which American foreign policy must always stand. “With liberty and justice for all” is not an empty sentiment he argued, it is the foundation of our national consciousness. To John, American advantages had universal applicability. I do not believe he said that there’s an errant exception any more than there is a black exception or an Asian or Latin exception. He warned against temptation of withdrawal from the world. In this manner John McCain ‘s name became synonymous with an America that reached out to oblige the powerful to be loyal and give hope to the oppressed.

   John lines of all these battles for decency and freedom. He was an engaged warrior fighting for his causes with a brilliance, with courage, and with humility. John was all about hope. In a commencement speech at Ohio’s Wesleyan University John summed up the essence of his engagement of a lifetime. “No one of us, if they have character, leaves behind a wasted life.” Like most people of my age I feel a longing for what is lost and cannot be restored. If the happy and casual beauty of youth prove ephemeral, something better can endure and endure until our last moment on Earth and that is the moment in our lives when we sacrifice for something greater than ourselves. Heroes inspire us by the matter of factness of their sacrifice and the elevation of the root vision. 

   The world will be lonelier without John McCain, his faith in America and his instinctive sense of moral duty. None of us will ever forget how even in his parting John has bestowed on us a much needed moment of unity and renewed faith in the possibilities of America. Henceforth, the country’s honor is ours to sustain.

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2018 Best Super Bowl Ads That Aren’t Dilly, Dilly

2 Feb

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    The NFL’S Super Bowl is often called the Super Bowl of advertising.  As the league’s best teams square off for the Lombardi Trophy, the world’s biggest brands square off for relevance and sales glory in front of a global audience.  It is the one place where the world’s most creative advertising minds compete for a high stakes game in creating brand value and boosting market share.

     There will be many polls and surveys by the end of the game determining the favorite ads among viewers.  Among them, USA Today’s Ad Meter, which gives viewers the opportunity to watch all of the released ads and vote.  But at $5 million a spot to air, this is more than a popularity contest.  It has to drive sales.  That’s why the best of these ads come with a highly focused game day strategy aimed at a specific audience, with a specific message, asking them to take a specific action.

     Of all of the pre-released ads, six of them stand out for their highly creative focused strategies.

Amazon: Alexa Loses Her Voice    

    Amazon’s ad called “Alexa Loses Her Voice” is one of this year’s best—and not just because it’s funny.   The ad asks viewers to contemplate a whimsical “what if?”  What if Amazon’s Alexa smart speaker actually lost her voice?  The ad features a cameo from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos who is assured that there are emergency back ups.

     Part of the creative brilliance of this ad is the writers take the viewer on a journey of surprises—each one engaging deeper thought into the story, the product, and the conclusion that the substitutes voices are a total disaster.   The ad successfully puts Alexa into a human form with the help of Chef Ramsey and Rebel Wilson only to show that humans are not as smart at Alexa.  

     The metaphors are not just funny—they’re powerful.  Amazon is strategically targeting not just its own Alexa users, but consumers who want to become smart speaker adopters.  In a marketplace where Amazon is competing with Google and now Apple for smart speaker market share, its message is to avoid the imitators because there’s only one Alexa.

Kia Stinger:  Feel Something Again

    I’ll make the prediction now that Kia’s “Feel Something Again” ad will not be among the most popular in the post game surveys, but I’ll argue it’s among the most strategic and brilliantly creative of the ads.

     In advertising terms this is called a product introduction ad.  Kia believes that its new 2018 365 horsepower Stinger car is a legend in the making.  And who better to establish its legendary status than a faceoff between racing legend Emerson Fittipaldi and rock legend Steven Tyler.   The ad is strategically targeted toward baby boomer men wanting to feel young again.  After all, no one under 50 will recognize Fittipaldi let alone know who he is—or was.  And Tyler is no fountain of youth himself.   But one of the creative giveaways in the message is when Tyler walks past the picture of his younger self and then keeps seeing the same image in the rear view mirror.

     Using a musical riff of Tyler’s “Dream On” this is an ad about nostalgia.  It metaphorically makes the message argument about racing backwards to one’s long lost wild side–it’s a supercharged time machine.  The desired response from viewers is to come test drive the Stinger for themselves.   The strategic message is that if you, like Steven Tyler are longing for your own Fountain of Youth, it just so happens Kia has a new car to drive you there.

Michelob Ultra:  I Like Beer

     Of all of the beer ads, Michelob is the only one to come to the Super Bowl with a highly focused game plan and unique selling proposition.  This ad is both nostalgic and contemporary.   The ad for Michelob Ultra takes Tom T. Hall’s classic drink til you drop sing-along-song and collides it against Rocky.  Unlike the fuzzy Super Bowl strategy for AB Inbev’s other brands, Budweiser and Bud Light, this one is highly focused.  It targets middle-aged achievers and adventurers who count carbs along with their workout reps. The desired response is to switch brands—Ultra is the new “tastes great, less filling” beer. The message argument here is simple: the beer you like for the body you like.

Febreze:  The Only Man Whose Bleep Don’t Stink

     Meet Dave.  His bleep don’t stink.  This simple and creative assault against a favorite insult takes a new whiff on an age-old complication: bathroom odor.   This is a classic problem-solution ad.  The creative idea by ad agency Grey New York is to use humor.  It works.  Proctor and Gamble makes this a duel strategy ad.  For consumers who don’t know Febreze now makes bathroom spray, this is a product introduction.  For those consumers already using Febreze Air, this is a rate of use ad—encouraging them to stock up for the Super Bowl party.

M&M’s:  Human

     Advertising researcher and retired University of Minnesota Professor John Eighmey likes to argue that the most effect advertising puts the product into human form. Amazon’s Alexa did it with Chef Ramsey and Rebel Wilson.  And now M&M’s does it with Danny DeVito.  By making the red M & M human, it makes a direct cognitive connection to the message argument that M&M’s are more than just candy—they’re fun!  The ad is targeted not just at other candy lovers to switch brands, but also at lapsed M&M’s users who need to be reminded about the simple pleasure of portable, easy to eat candy.  The targeted and strategic message to candy lovers is that M&M’s are your lucky penny, find a bag and live a little.

Coca-Cola:  The Wonder of Us

     I’ll admit it.  I’m a sucker for Coca-Cola.   But Coke Classic has a problem.   Its gloriously satisfying sugar-filled bottle is a product that long ago matured in a marketplace demanding reduced sugar beverages.  Coca-Cola now has to retrain its customers to think of Coke not as a single product, but as a brand with many Coke products.  That’s exactly the strategy behind this year’s Super Bowl ad.

     It begins with a childhood game of spin the bottle, a metaphor for the unexpected joys in life that have long been the core of Coca-Cola’s brand image.   It wastes no time in hitting the new strategic message, “There’s a Coke for all of us.”   The ad implores us to understand that, “No feet have wandered where you’ve walked.”   This is all about individualism.  In a marketplace where consumes want customized experiences and products, Coke is reminding us that they have drinks as unique as we are.    In telling us that there is a Coke “for we and us” it pays homage the great Coca-Cola branding of the past that simply wanted to teach the world to sing.  The great harmony and power of the Coke brand is that it’s always been about inclusion and sharing.   Coke is now reminding us that in addition to sharing a Coke, the new harmony is in sharing yourself.

     Together these are six ads that take a creative, yet very business-like approach to the Super Bowl.  They may not be among the most popular after the big game, but I’ll argue they are among the most strategic.   There are plenty of ads that offer up “Dilly, Dilly.”  But if they don’t achieve business goals, they’re just silly, silly.

When a Meme Becomes a Social Movement — Chaos Theory and the Al Franken Resignation

16 Jan

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    In Shakespearian tragedies, kings and lovers alike are brought down with daggers and potions.  In today’s tragedies, they are brought down with tweets and hashtags.

   The remarkable and sudden fall of US Senator Al Franken is a unique case study in chaos theory, contagion, and the resulting social movements that create new order.  It is not just the story of David throwing a single tweet at Goliath—it’s also the story of ten thousand re-tweets, each with the weight of a stone.  The social narrative gives cover for suppressed victims to thrown their own stones.  Despite all efforts at containment and crisis management, the outcomes are as unpredictable as a creative Saturday Night Live sketch that bombs, or a brilliant legislative package that can’t gather enough votes.  In Franken’s case the unpredictable became inevitable.  It forced Franken to resign from the US Senate.  Goliath fell.

   By itself, the tweet seen around the world from Los Angeles radio host Leeann Tweeden of Al Franken appearing to grope her chest during a 2006 USO tour was a powerful image.  Even though the picture was taken before Franken became a US Senator, it creates a strong cognitive intrusion into the known and expected behavior of a person of power.   But the visual dissonance of the image carried even more weight against the backdrop of social chaos already underway with the sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.

   When actress Ashley Judd accused Weinstein of harassment in a October 5th “New York Times” investigation it created its own cognitive intrusion into the reputation of one of Hollywood’s most successful film makers.  The Times investigation uncovered eight settlements paid out to women for their silence on Weinstein’s alleged predatory behavior.   The story was David’s stone cast into a pool of water.  The ripples are the basis for what social scientists call the modern embodiment of chaos theory.

   Chaos theory has its roots in mathematics and physics where researchers such as Edward Lorenz found that even minor variances in complex computational models led to unexpected and contradictory equations.  Lorenz called it the butterfly effect, where the flap of a butterfly’s wings could ultimately affect weather patterns weeks later.   Increasingly applied to social science, chaos theory holds that small events cause ripples that eventually amplify into meaningful movements.  University of Amsterdam researcher Jaap van Genneken notes that within a collective adaptive system such as public opinion, those small events or voices can multiply through media channels to become a powerful and shifting force.

   That’s exactly what Ashley Judd started.  Within seven days, former actress Rose McGowan also publicly disclosed Weinstein had assaulted her and reached a settlement in 1997.  Two days after McGowan, actress Alyssa Milano encouraged victims of sexual harassment to tweet #MeToo.  By the next morning 30,000 people did.  The hashtag shot like its own stone into the public consciousness.  The voices of three women suddenly identified an issue that had been covered up for too long.

   In an age where we communicate at the speed of light, more women saw the light.  Chaos became a contagion.  But it was more than Weinstein.  Accusers came forward targeting politicians, actors, ceo’s, musical directors, even Today Show host Matt Lauer.  Perhaps the most famous target, Alabama US Senate candidate Ray Moore, was accused of sexually targeting teenagers when he was in his 30’s.  

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Figure 1 – December 6th tweets of women U.S. Senators calling on Sen. Al Franken to resign

   This was the chaos and contagion that encircled Al Franken like a swarm of Davids.  By the morning of December 6th, a seventh woman accused Franken of attempting to kiss her.   That same morning TIME named the “Silence Breakers” as its Person of the Year.  In its cover story TIME wrote, “When a movie star says #MeToo, it becomes easier to believe the cook who’s been quietly enduring for years.”   Within hours, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand called for Franken’s resignation—seven more women senators joined her in short order. (Figure 1)  Those were David’s final stones.  The next day, Franken announced his resignation on the floor of the US Senate.

 

 

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  Although Franken’s communications team tried to counter the attack by producing testimonials from former women staffers on his thoughtful and supportive treatment of them and his championing of women’s issues, it couldn’t compete in a climate of #MeToo contagion. (Figure 2)  Google Trends data clearly shows a timeline of the chaos and the shifting social attitudes.  A TIME/Survey Monkey poll conducted between November 28th and 30th showed 82% of respondents were more likely to speak out about sexual harassment since the Weinstein allegations.  Furthermore, 85% said they believed the women making the allegations of harassment.  

Linear vs Networked Models

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   But the phenomenon also speaks to the changing nature of influencers in an environment of fragmented media.  It demonstrates how the old rules of linear communications models with thought leaders at the center have given way to randomized networked systems of influencers. (Figure 3)  Columbia University sociology researcher Duncan Watts has established a model where movements are not necessarily driven by a single person or media channel, but instead by cascades of easily influenced people.  Those cascades turn global—or large—when a critical mass of early adopters connect with each other in the influence network.  Although Watts argues the critical mass may only occupy a small fraction of the population, the cascade effect becomes global when the remainder of the population activates as well.

   This is essentially what happened on the morning of December 6th, when the seventh accuser stepped forward against Franken.  She may have been a small influencer, but timed with the release of TIME’s “Silence Breakers” it built the critical mass that gave cover for the coordinated call among women senators for Franken to resign.  Accelerated by social and digital media, the cascade became unstoppable.

   One of the principals of chaos theory is the self-organization that occurs after the chaotic state or crisis.  In other words, there’s a return to a new order.  In the case of the chaos brought on by the Weinstein accusations there is an emerging re-organization on several fronts.  First, in Hollywood, the creative community has formed the “Times Up” movement creating new awareness and expectations for worker treatment in the entertainment industry.  Second, industrial giants such as Ford have already reexamined HR policies including harassment training at its manufacturing plants—especially in Chicago where complaints surfaced.  As for Al Franken’s senate seat, there is also new order.  A woman—former Minnesota Lt. Governor Tina Smith has replaced him in an orderly transition.

   Like the butterfly’s wings, a single voice can still create the stone in David’s hand, or the dagger in Shakespeare’s play.  And in today’s world of digital communication the contagion they can generate are exponentially powerful at creating disorder and reorder.

How 3M’s Inge Thulin Fought The Charlottesville Crisis with Code

14 Sep

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       3M’s CEO Inge Thulin recently found himself caught between a meme and a movement.  The violence in Charlottesville, Virginia during a neo-Nazi rally and President Trump’s half-hearted condemnation of white supremacists put Thulin and other business leaders in an uncomfortable spotlight with the president generating the wattage.   How to respond to an emerging public relations threat is not just a business decision, it’s also a strategic communication decision.

        Thulin along with 26 CEOs joined Trump’s Manufacturing Council at the beginning of his administration.  For these business leaders, joining the commission not only gave them an important seat at the table in forming government policy that could benefit their core businesses, but it also could provide valuable insights into economic trends and how to strategically position their companies.  There was little to lose.

       Then came Charlottesville.

       The images that spread at the speed of ones and zeros also captured a fractured nation at the speed of smartphones and social media.  President Trump’s ultimate failure to condemn the white supremacists simply fed the outrage.  The business leaders on the president’s manufacturing commission quickly found themselves caught in the contagion.    

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       Knowing how such a contagion starts and evolves is also helpful in navigating a response that protects and elevates a brand.   Social psychologist Jaap Van Ginneken holds that such a coalescence of public opinion forms when diffuse ideas congregate around an idea or strong replicator.  It’s a process he calls entrainment.  In Charlottesville, one of the replicators was the image and video of the car that killed a woman as it was driving through the crowd of those rallying against the white nationalists.   The image forces the viewer to associate the experience with their own closely held beliefs.  The stronger the beliefs, the more likely it will affect their attitude toward action to align themselves with those who share their beliefs, and just and important, align themselves against those who do not. (Figure 1).  It’s classic balance theory.   In this case of entrainment, the image turned viral, a contagion was born, and it coalesced around pop-up movements, vigils, and rallies across the country to denounce the violence in Charlottesville. 

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       For the CEO’s on the president’s commission, the contagion prompted viral petitions for members of the Manufacturing Commission to stand up to President Trump and resign.   3M’s Inge Thulin was among those in the cross hairs.   For most multi-billion dollar corporations, responding to such a crisis typically involves a team of attorneys, advisors and corporate communicators who look at everything from the effect on stock price, supply chain, and potential investor lawsuits.  To complicate matters, Charlottesville happened as 3M shares were already falling on Wall Street.   One question 3M certainly asked itself was whether to associate the fortunes of the company to a president experiencing dismal approval ratings. (Figure 2) 

      It’s complicated.  Thulin made it simple.   He resigned from the commission and announced why on social media.

 

            In making its decision, Thulin and 3M looked no further than their own corporate soul–their code of conduct.  The 3M code spells out in detail the values and expectations of not only its business practices, but how employees are to treat each other.  Among its core principals: be good, be honest, be respectful.  

            Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky made a similar decision.  Gorsky too, leaned on his company’s own credo.  Over the years the J&J credo has famously guided the company in responding to the Tylenol tampering crisis in the 1980’s and other product recalls in 2009 and 20010.  To this day, the J&J credo is considered the gold standard of corporate ethics.  After Gorsky, Thulin and several other CEO’s decided to leave the president’s council, the remaining members dissolved it.

            During a time when a polarized public and consumer attitudes shift like the fog in a crooked canyon, brands and their communicators need a guiding light.  3M had one, and Charlottesville helped its CEO focus the beam.

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United Airlines & Sean Spicer — Two Case Studies in Crisis Communications

28 Apr

 Crisis Comm Title Grapihcs.002    United Airlines and the White House are among the world’s most powerful brands and both recently gave divergent examples in managing crisis communication.  Within a 24-hour span, one had to foam the runaway for a public relations crash landing, while the other managed to grab the stick in a mid-air tailspin and get back on course.  Together, both United Airlines and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer offer unique case studies on how to manage and not manage a crisis.

    By its very definition, a crisis can happen at any moment.  And how organizations immediately respond and manage the messaging can make all the difference in either containing potential damage, or creating a contagion that spins out of control and causes severe damage to the brand and the business.  That’s exactly what happened on April 10th.

    When United flight attendants forcibly removed passenger Dr. David Dao from an overbooked flight 3411 in Chicago, it not only caused a scene, it caused severe social turbulence.  With the speed of a smartphone shutter button, the images and videos flew faster than non-stop flight on a clear day.

  As outrage virally spread on social media, United issued a tone deaf response apologizing only for having to “re-accomodate passengers.”  Spokesman Charlie Hobart told the New York Times, “We have a number of customers on board that aircraft, and they want to get to their destination on time and safely, and we want to work to get them there.”

    It took took two full days for United’s CEO Oscar Munoz to issue an outright apology and launch a communications strategy, but by then the damage was already spiraling out of control.  United’s stock price stalled like an airfoil.  Within five days United lost $1.15 billion in market capitalization. (Figure 1) That’s a steep price for forcibly removing passenger who refused to give up his seat for $1000 voucher.

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Figure 1

    Less than 24 hours after United’s crisis, White House spokesman Sean Spicer created his own self-inflicted PR wound.  In trying to frame the seriousness of Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own people, he invoked Adolf Hitler.   At his daily press briefing on live television, Spicer said Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”  Never mind that Hitler’s SS used chemical gases to exterminate Jews in Germany’s concentration camps during WWII.  The reaction was swift, incredulous, and furious.  The difference in Spicer’s crisis is in how me managed it.  Within an hour he not only issued an apology, he was on the air live with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer retracting his remarks and admitting he made a tremendous error in judgement.

     By owning his mistake and taking immediate action to correct the record and apologize, Mr. Spicer managed to deftly keep the story out of the next day’s news cycle.   As I’ve written in this forum before, there are established best practices for crisis communication:

  1. Cease and desist—stop doing what you’re doing.
  2. Apologize to those you’ve wronged—and mean it.
  3. Change your tactics.
  4. Communicate the change to employees and customers.
  5. Establish performance measures for how the change is working.

     Mr. Spicer followed the most important of these mantras in a mater of hours.  United’s Oscar Munoz took a week and a half to form a cohesive and strategic response that was finally posted on Facebook and communicated to its employees and customers.  The response issued a strong apology and pledged to customers to no longer force anyone out of their seats, and to reduce the amount of overbooked flights.  United’s attorneys also settled with Dr. Dao.  But the changes come only after United had already caused significant damage to its brand.

 

     What’s especially troubling for United is this incident completely destroys a unique brand equity that it has spent decades earning with its customers.   For years before its merger with Continental Airlines, United implored air travelers to “fly the friendly skies.”    It wasn’t just a marketing slogan, it was a brand promise.   When passengers flew with United, they expected something special–it was part of United’s ethos.  Many successful brands such as Johnson & Johnson have famously made their own brand promises part of their corporate culture.   Johnson & Johnson has a credo that dictates its core values in guiding everything from product development to employee relations and customer service.   In responding to the passenger incident, United’s customer service and communications team lost site of its historic brand promise to use as a guidepost.

    United may now be in the process of charting a customer service flight plan, but it took a disastrous grounding to make it happen.

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