PROFIT Magazine: “Unconventional Wisdom” Column September 2010

By evoke
September 30, 2010


By Ian Chamandy and Ken Aber, September 13, 2010

BP CEO Tony Hayward didn’t expect to become poster child for one of the most fundamental problems with traditional marketing communications. But underlying the handling of BP’s oil leak-induced PR crisis is a valuable lesson in designing communications that sell more.

Traditional marketing communications is an exercise in content development. To illustrate the flaw in this approach, imagine you are shopping for clothes. As you try on various items, the salesperson gives her negative opinion of some, which you take in stride. When your spouse disapproves of some of your purchases, you are more peeved. And when your mother-in-law shares the same dislikes, you are angry.

Same message, different messenger, different reaction — which shows that the relationship between two parties trumps the communication they exchange. Smart marketers consider relationships first, content second.

In stark contrast to Hayward, Michael McCain received universal praise for his handling of the listeriosis crisis that side­swiped Maple Leaf Foods. When he famously stated that he was not going to listen to his lawyers or accountants, McCain acted according to a strong corporate ethos that compelled him and the entire company to ask “at all times, what do we have to do to be respectful of the relationships we have with everybody involved?” This approach earned Maple Leaf the benefit of the doubt even when its communications were off.

What Maple Leaf didn’t do was ask, “What are our communications objectives in this situation and what are we going to say, in terms of content, to achieve them?” But BP did — it was managing optics to try to preserve the reputation of the company. As a result, it got attacked for everything it did, both good and bad.

The first step in focusing on relationships is to imagine your company as a person and your customer as a close friend. With that goal in mind, you define the characteristics the relationship needs to develop. The resulting relationship profile will reveal broader marketing opportunities and provide more specific guidance for your communications (i.e., content). This will strengthen your bond with clients and expand your opportunities for sales.

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