Last month, Hollie raised a lot of excellent points about how to strike a balance between novelty and innovation in creating a communications campaign and as I read it, something interesting occurred to me. A company’s communications very much depend on its stage in a lifecycle – and there are often a few common ‘inflection points’ along this winding road.
Perhaps the most basic one is when founders realise that their product is viable; you go from ‘two people throwing an idea around’ to ‘this could really work’. Another is when you switch from ‘founder culture’ to being a more mature organisation and the company essentially acquires a life of its own – perhaps the founder stops being the jack of all trades and instead becomes the CTO, CMO or switches to whatever position really makes the most of their passion and drive.
One point in a company journey that I find particularly interesting is when organisations – particularly B2B companies – realise that their product is technically well-regarded, but that they are not necessarily a ‘household name’. This prompts a diversification from a reactive, news-led approach, to a consistent, focused approach – not necessarily throwing the regular news pipeline out of the window, but starting to consider how to embrace and own a mature theme and really take their communications to the next level.
Building Mature Reputations
This is a key period in building a reputation for an established, mature organisation. It’s clear from leaders like Mark Benioff when they realised that they couldn’t stage protests outside other CRM vendors’ events any more – there’s even a part in his biography where a rival vendor stages a protest outside his event and Benioff comments how far Salesforce has come since they used to do that.
There’s an interesting contrast here; during most PR campaigns, it’s common to avoid any quiet periods. After all, PR is only really effective when an organisation stays in front of its audience consistently. But you can embrace this at multiple levels – there’s a difference between compensating for gaps in product releases and case studies with opinion articles and news hijacking and planning a strongly themed campaign with a considered narrative.
Shifting to ‘Build-Mode’
So how do organisations turn from a reactive, news-driven approach to an effective, long-lasting reputation-building approach?
Well, storytelling is often one of those communications terms that makes people cringe, but this is exactly what this is about. Stories are well-structured. They have a rise and fall, heroes and villains, rewards for success and dreadful consequences for failure. It doesn’t have to be War and Peace but it needs to be well thought-out. For example, where does your story begin? How is your organisation showing its dedication to this theme? After all, if this is to be successful, it has to be interwoven at every level of the organisation – it can’t just be a story that marketing tells, it has to include new products and services, acquisitions and a focus for staff. It’s a big, strategic step for companies and must be driven from the top-down (or at least, forged by the comms team and then owned by the CEO!)
Alongside structure is scale. There are a few CEOs and CIOs who are interested in content that starts with ‘the great thing about NAT gateways / IP Sec / SDP is…’ but they’re in the minority. A good story has scale – a humble protagonist who rises to fame and glory, a sweeping shot that pans over a Star Destroyer spacecraft, understanding why 3D printing might change the world, or the impact of a technology on a single human life – all of these things set the stage and tell your audience why this is important.
And as I mentioned, you don’t need to don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater – but you do need to control your corporate communications. It’s not necessary to stop product marketing from releasing product update news, or occasional customer case studies, but you do need to make sure this content isn’t drowning out the overall narrative, especially if the link between the two isn’t obvious. Good narrative is driven from the top down, and if everyone in the organisation embraces it, then the product releases will fall into the overall story, supporting it – so it is possible to reconcile the two.
Finally, it’s crucial to avoid novelty for its own sake. It may be an easy win to open a 3D printed pop-up shop or float something down the Thames – you might get good results and be known for that thing for a while, but there’s also the danger of only being known for that thing, or simply establishing yourself as a brand that isn’t serious about an issue. You might think that this will cost you results in the short term but avoiding this kind of tactic is actually building up your credibility.
That's not a quick process. But it's worthwhile if you are to avoid being seen as a company that focuses on quick, short stunts, and instead as one that embraces mature themes that have been deliberated upon and executed at every level of the company.
Clearly, this is only a small fraction of the journey; deciding upon a theme or story for your organisation is not something that can be decided on quickly, and executing it is an even bigger process. But if done well, it has the potential to transform an organisation from ‘selling servers’ to ‘the cloud company’, or ‘a big reseller’ to ‘a solutions and software provider’, helping you punch above your weight and have a much, much bigger impact on the psyche of your prospects.