The Road Ahead: Six Observations for 2011

The leaves have finally turned in North Carolina. An intensely hot summer that stretched into October generated deep, vibrant colors set against clear blue skies. It’s time to take stock of the waning year and prepare for the road ahead in 2011.

Fortunately, we’ve had time to do some clear-headed thinking over the past few weeks. RLF recently participated in three significant public relations industry events: the WorldCom Public Relations Group’s Americas meeting in Cleveland, Ohio, the Public Relations Society of America conference in Washington, D.C., and the Council of Public Relations Firms’ forum in New York City. In all, we heard from more than 30 leading business, advertising and public relations leaders and engaged in conversations with corporate and agency professionals from across the United States, Canada and Latin America.    
As all of us begin to plan, prepare and budget for 2011, here are six key observations we pulled from the events.  These and other thoughts will guide RLF in 2011 as we amplify our efforts to live up to our mission to be devoted to ideas, strategy and service that advance our clients’ business objectives.  
1.  The Strong Are Surging
The buzz among top agency executives is restrained optimism. The restraint is easy to understand. Unemployment remains high, credit is tight and confidence among consumers remains elusive. But optimism is finally muscling aside the gloomy predictions of recent years.  Across almost every business sector, corporate clients are gearing up for an aggressive 2011. Companies who made it through the great recession are ready to reap the rewards of aggressive cost-cutting and conservative business practices over the past three years. Companies intend to spend on programs and campaigns that will generate revenue and increase market share. As one speaker noted, the companies (and agencies who serve them) that can tap into helping consumers recover from the recession and regain control over their lives in small measures will see great success in 2011.   
2. “My Friend Recommends…” 
A great deal of discussion focused on social media and word-of-mouth’s continued rapid rise and influence on consumer behavior. One startling statistic shared – 78 percent of consumers “trust” a peer recommendation, but only 14 percent “trust” what a company says directly about a product or service…” 

The good news is that the fundamentals of marketing, branding and public relations have not changed. Reaching “key influencers” has always been a critical component of our work, but it is now taking on different forms.  As one action step, companies should assess if the relationship between marketing, public relations and customer service teams is working. These teams need to be constantly talking and sharing information about what consumers are saying, thinking and doing. Leading companies are establishing rapid response teams to monitor what is being said online about their products and services and addressing problems before they spiral out of control. As a senior vice president from American Express said, the logistics and time commitment are “enormously challenging” to do this kind of work, but the payoff appears to be worth it.      
3. Ideas, Trust & Courage
Corporate marketers were steadfast in their belief that “great ideas” are more important than ever in building brands, and they are open to those ideas no matter which agency they come from. “The best idea will win” was repeated, in one form or another, at every forum we attended this fall. And the ideas need to not only be good, they must also be “big.” We heard little support for embracing ideas that would generate only incremental improvement. Two ingredients — trust and courage — will be required significantly by marketers and agencies in 2011 to transform great ideas into workable, measurable campaigns. 

Dos Equis Beer's The Most Interesting Man in the World
A Mexican beer company's popular campaign, "The Most Interesting Man In The World," was a tremendous leap of faith by the brewers.

The chief marketing officer for Heineken USA talked about the genesis of a very popular campaign for Dos Equis beer. “The Most Interesting Man in The World” campaign has generated tremendous sales based on the strength of integrating paid advertising, online marketing, social and earned media. Coming up with the approach and concept was a challenge, but the larger task was convincing the brewers funding the campaign that it was “okay” for the main character to say, “I don’t always drink beer…” For people who make beer for a living, supporting a creative campaign that discounts beer drinking takes a tremendous leap of faith. However, including that phrase makes the campaign “authentic” and one audiences have been willing to embrace, watch on YouTube, “like” on Facebook (at last count, the fictional spokesperson for a small Mexican beer had nearly 800,000 fans) and buy in the store.       


 4. The Value of “Value”
Winning consumers with “the lowest price” is not going to be as effective a strategy as it has been for the past few years. For example, one speaker noted the average shopper now spends 30 minutes more in the grocery store – comparing, sorting and judging – to better assess “value.” And increasingly, consumers are willing to spend money on items at all price points, but expectations have been reset.    

Figuring out what “value” means to consumers in your business, and then creating ways to deliver that “value,” should be a top priority for companies who want to increase market share in 2011.     
5. “Going Viral” Requires Creative Content…And Money
Consumers are drowning in content. The media and information channel explosion created a world of “constant communication” that must be filtered for value. For example, there are 24 hours of video uploaded on YouTube every 60 seconds. It’s not just that quantity exceeds quality; it also exceeds our ability to process it.    
Reaching consumers requires both sides of the media equation – paid media (advertising, marketing, sponsorships, product placements, etc.) and earned media (media relations, social media, industry leadership, contests, etc). They support, influence, and feed off each other’s strengths.    
For a corporate campaign to spread via word-of-mouth and social networks, creative content has become more important, not less important. And good content must be buttressed by paid media (in whatever tactical form that needs to take) to have a fighting chance of success.     
6. Give Your Team Direction and Boundaries, Then See What They Can Achieve
One of the most fascinating speakers out of all the fall events was Vinton Cerf, vice president and chief evangelist for Google. Cerf, one of the earlier pioneers of the Internet and the person we can most likely praise (or blame) for the creation of email, spoke eloquently about the Internet’s meteoric rise. Cerf and his colleague Robert Kahn created the “rules of the road” for the Internet, the basic architecture for how people should program in this new frontier. “We didn’t tell people what kind of car to make or drive, just what side of the road to stay on,” said Cerf. “And by focusing on creating a solid infrastructure, we’ve seen an explosion in applications and programs.”    
Looking ahead, Cerf foresees the same explosion taking place in mobile devices, and that view was shared in every forum. How we use mobile devices is still in its infancy, but companies who can provide consumers convenient and value-added applications will gain market share. Companies should challenge their marketing and public relations teams to envision how they can tap into mobile marketing and generate market share ahead of competitors. And then fund the big, game changing ideas.

Engaging Shanghai

Twenty years ago, I confidently entered the business world with a freshly minted master’s degree and doe-eyed optimism. Over the next few years, stints in politics, business and the recession of 1991 slowly adjusted my view of the world.
It only took one week in Shanghai recently to reshape my perspective.
Much has been written about the opportunities emerging in China. It is a country pulsing with energy, determination and focus. You are engulfed in it the moment you step off the plane into an airport that defies your expectation of what an airport can be – spacious, clean, beautiful, efficient – and hurtled into the city at 263 mph on a magnetic levitation train. China may still be a communist country, but there is some form of beauty in the trains running on time and every person you encounter taking pride in their work.
My focus in China was two-fold: develop relationships with agency leaders from communications firms throughout the globe and gain perspective on what opportunities might exist in China for my own agency. I was successful on the first front. I am uncertain about the latter.
But from a communications and marketing perspective, the China market is not so different from the world we know.
In the keynote address for the conference I was attending, James McGregor, an American expat who has been in China for 20 years, offered sage advice for those seeking to do business. Be patient. Demonstrate that what is good for your business is also good for China. And above all, think about the people you deal with as individuals, not as bureaucrats. If you take time to understand what can help them be successful – what matters to their boss, and their boss’s boss – then you are more likely to be successful. Listening is learning, and that is sound advice for communist and free market systems alike.
During our trip, we visited the World Expo (the modern day version of the World’s Fair) with hundreds of countries hosting giant pavilions to showcase their culture, music, food, art, history and commerce. There were fascinating exhibits, but they all paled in comparison to the stunning visual of more than 300,000 people a day crowding through the gates. Most pavilions had lines that made Disney at spring break seem like a ghost town, but without the reward of rides or games. The reward was knowledge and understanding, the desire to be engaged in a way that is not possible via television, radio or the Internet. The allure of touching, tasting, hearing and seeing a different world come to life was worth every minute that people experienced standing in line for two, three or four hours to enter a single pavilion.
On a more intimate scale, I witnessed the power of personal engagement. We heard before going to China that blonde-haired, blue-eyed children were popular. But nothing prepared us for the throngs of people who crowded around our young daughters, stopped them for pictures, reached out to touch their hair, gave thumbs up signs and watched until they disappeared into the next throng. It was wonderful, even if at times it was almost overwhelming.
Those experiences reinforced for me that even in an age when likely every person we met had seen blonde-haired children on television, magazines or billboards, there is something magical about connecting with them first-hand. The sight of my daughters stopped thousands of people in their tracks, and the ability to interact with them – for a photo, a smile, a touch – opened up their eyes to the world in a new and wondrous way.
Corporate brands need to harness that same type of power. To connect with people in a way that transcends words or images in an advertisement. Brands stand for something. They bring experiences, emotions and expectations to life — not just in China or the US, but around the world.

2010 Sabre Awards Dinner

Even in a deep recession, the public relations profession is turning out amazing and meaningful work for clients.
That thought has resonated for me during the last month, since I attended the SABRE awards dinner at the gorgeous Cipriani building across from Grand Central Station in New York City in May. More than 1,000 public relations professionals had gathered for one of the big three awards shows to honor the best campaigns and teams in our industry (the PR Week Awards and Silver Anvil Awards are the other two major national awards).
Paul Holmes, the organizer of the SABRE Awards – which stands for Superior Achievement in Branding and Reputation – set the tone for the evening when he remarked that despite all of the economic troubles that have challenged our industry, the number of entries for SABRE recognition set a record (1,700) and the quality had never been higher.
As Paul noted, public relations has demonstrated that reach and frequency are not enough to create successful outcomes in today’s world. There must be engagement as well, and public relations has taken a leadership position among the communications disciplines in creating engaging, meaningful campaigns. This is particularly true in the realm of social media, which our profession has done a remarkable job of weaving into the overall communications mix.
Over the course of five hours (from the first cocktail to the closing coffee), Aleasha Vuncannon and I had the opportunity to talk with fascinating professionals from around the country, review the lists of finalists for the awards in each category, and enjoy the pageantry of an event as a participant (instead of as a behind-the-scenes organizer, which is our normal role!).
And when our time came, when the finalists for the top campaign in the category of Educational & Cultural Institutions were announced, we were thrilled to hear that our work in partnership with the International Civil Rights Center & Museum had been recognized as the best in our business. We had felt like it was worthy of this recognition. We knew how hard our team had worked and how much had been accomplished. Yet, we still held our breath in anticipation as the winner was announced, because every campaign that had made the finals had strong results.  It felt good to scream when we heard the results.
Here is a brief glimpse into the work that we did for the grand opening of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum:

After the dinner, Aleasha and I walked through Times Square at midnight, dressed in our best clothes, carrying a deceptively heavy trophy and reflecting on the evening (not surprisingly, no one batted an eye at us or thought we were out-of-place in the crazy scene that is Times Square). It feels good to do great work for clients, to create campaigns that generate meaningful results and advance our client’s objectives. We do this work not for awards, but when we strive to be one of the very best agencies in our industry, it is evenings like this that provide the mileposts to let us know that our agency is on the right road.