Freud on communications

With consumers becoming as influential as the brands that target them, PR guru Matthew Freud explains why great advertising alone is no longer enough to earn the trust of today's customer.

When I was 11, I quite liked Gary Glitter. While now that sounds like the beginning of a confessional, then it was merely a playground preference. Slade, Sweet and the Glitter Gang were the main contenders; their music was pretty much the same and image was everything.

Image was everything.

That is our generation, isn't it? Our industry, too. We turn products into brands. We conceive, create, manipulate image (and indeed imagery) to ascribe, or at least imply, attributes that crisps and trainers and beers don't actually have. And we are good at it, too.

So was Gary. The shoulder pads, the hair, obviously the glitter.

Oh, yes. He is a convicted child molester. Maybe that's why he always looked so surprised.

Where am I going with this? Well, how would you manage the Leader's return? I mean, if Zeppelin and the Eagles and the Spice Girls can come back, so can Gary. Surely the image would still play (retro, camp, sort of a Scissor Sisters elderly uncle)? Oh, yes, and he's a convicted child molester.

That last bit, that's not image. That's reputation. Image is what we say about ourselves, reputation is what other people say about us. Image is a statement, reputation is a judgment. Image is primarily the role of advertising, reputation is where PR really comes into its own.

But it's not really about "PR" and "advertising" any more, is it? Reputation is something that exists in our minds. It ignores the lines between different marketing disciplines. It's the rebellious teenage brother of image - hard to control and harder to predict. It's a real handful.

And it will destroy us if we do not treat it with a strong hand. We must be bold and ambitious, step outside the silo of our individual discipline. Champion total communications, not fragmented marketing. Marketers, brands and agencies ignore this at their peril.

Just look at Cadbury. When it allowed salmonella to infect its chocolate and then seemed very slow to come clean about it, look how it damaged the company. It lost sales and its share price dropped. It even had to pull its TV sponsorship of Coronation Street for a few weeks. The value of associating with Britain's best-loved soap was clearly not going to work when Cadbury's own values were in question.

And it's not just the catastrophes that can neuter a brand's image these days. Non-ethical sourcing, environmental policies, boardroom compensation, labour practices, fluctuating share prices, takeovers, product formulation, marketing to children: all of these day-to-day corporate issues, which used to be under the consumer radar, are now open to media and, perhaps more scarily, new media scrutiny.

The fact is, we can no longer just focus on what we are saying about ourselves, but also on what others are saying about us. However powerful and painstakingly assembled your image, your reputation can now be quickly destroyed by a few badly chosen words, an opportunistic camera phone and a wildfire of rumour, speculation and reputation mismanagement.

There was once a time when all a company had to do was to put on its best regional accent and shout loudly about how good it was, how white its products washed and how much better it was than its rivals. People can see through that now. Even if you do speak like a Geordie.

The most carefully conceived brand strategy and the best advertising in the world will not protect a brand if its core trust with the consumer is seriously threatened. Because the horror of the image/reputation axis is a real doozy: while you must clearly and proudly communicate your brand values, if your reputation is one of mistrust or dishonesty, then nothing you say about yourself will be believed.

So image and reputation have fused. They are inextricable. In the longer term, it's not about debating whether the value of image (advertising) or reputation (PR) is greater, it's about taking a holistic view. Consumers rarely see or think about the divide between disciplines, so why should we? We need joined-up thinking that recognises the link between the two.

After all, when you see an ad for Northern Rock's new savings product, is it possible not to question what you already know about the bank's financial security?

When an oil company tells you how much it cares about the environment, do you not have a nagging cynicism about its real commitment and priorities? If a brand says it's all about you, don't you look for the evidence that it's actually all about them?

So, what has happened? What's changed?

We used to believe that Coca-Cola was teaching the world to sing, now I think we believe it leads a global corporate conspiracy to make our kids fat so it can make more money.

We used to buy Tesco's hero status, now many of us think that what "every little helps" is is Tesco squeezing the life out of the High Street, destroying local communities and stifling competition.

When did we start caring about the pay structure of factories in Asia to the extent that it would influence what brand of underpants we wear? When did a product's packaging have to be minimal and biodegradable before we would allow ourselves to consume it? When did we start checking salt and fat content before buying a salty, fatty snack?

The answer, I think, is that we started caring as soon as we knew, and that "with knowledge comes responsibility" (to paraphrase Spider-Man).

Because of the media explosion of the last decade, consumers have infinite knowledge at their disposal. Google is our guide, not just to learn, but also to teach and share. If consumers don't like something, they can tell everyone, they can join together with other people who share their concerns and they can change things. The pendulum has swung. Now what consumers say can be more important than what they are told.

In our upcoming Freud 100 Report, Philip Gould makes a critical point about consumer influence being transformed. Once, the only way that a consumer could influence a brand was by not buying it, effectively a passive pressure. Now, with the power of the internet, and the quantum increase in the opportunities for the public participation in the media, the consumer can proactively intervene to influence a corporation in unprecedented ways. Every consumer has the power to be an activist, creating, in effect, a new form of corporate democracy. This is a different world. Consumers are now citizens demanding values as well as value, seeking influence not just through the power of purchase, but through the use of power in ways conventionally associated with politics.

Thanks to this power-shift, the age of reputation has arrived. That's not to say reputation as a concept wasn't important already (if that was the case, I'd have had nothing to do over the past 20 years). But let's face it, it's come of age.

One interesting manifestation of this reflects the change in the work that Freuds has done for brands over the past 20 years. We grew as a consumer PR agency on the back of our celebrity and entertainment clients. Products were keen to borrow the image of a star who reflected their brand values. Transferring fame from a footballer to a packet of crisps or from a comedian to a pizza was our bread and butter. And it worked: the bigger the star, the bigger the bang. It was the age of celebrity, or talent, as we used to call them.

Well, talent's not really an accurate descriptor anymore, is it? With the advent of reality TV, the media's insatiable appetite for "real people" stories, we now know that celebrities are very like us (in many cases much less talented than us), and so their association with brands is much less valuable.

In the past few years, we have seen a huge increase in our cause-related marketing activity. From (RED) to the pink of breast cancer, the black and white of racial tolerance, the yellow of Lance Armstrong's wristbands and every shade of green, products and brands that we work with are now using issues and causes in much the same way that they used to use celebrity. As a way of amplifying brand values, a way of saying to their consumers that they care about the same things that you do. So we have moved, in effect, from an age of image and celebrity into an age of reputation and cause, where brands are increasingly seeking to associate themselves with more meaningful, social and responsible initiatives, causes and organisations.

If borrowing equity from celebrities was image enhancing, aligning companies with charities and noble endeavour is surely reputation enhancing. And at the heart of all of this is a single bigger issue. One thing that has become the make-or-break attribute for all consumer interaction: trust.

It comes back to the doozy. If consumers don't trust you, they don't believe you. If they don't believe you, then no amount of media spend is going to really return its investment. Brands have to secure their reputation to empower their image-makers.

Securing reputation is our speciality. Image-making is yours. Our skills are so complementary that it is absurd that we do not work better together, PR and advertising. Clients look for and deserve productive inter-agency relationships. So we need to work better together, understand our respective strengths and limitations and combine so that the whole can be much more than the sum of the parts.

However, the advertising versus PR battle is really just that - a battle. Or, possibly, more of a street fight. Often with knuckledusters and ear-biting. The war itself is about something bigger, something further-reaching and something far more serious.

It's about survival. Our world is changing and we must change with it (or before it).

People are no longer linear consumers of communications. They hyper-task. They watch the news while surfing the web. They check facts online as they read the paper. They listen to digital radio as they browse magazines. They pick up samples as they read the billboards on the way to work. They change their opinions hourly. They are smarter, more investigative, more informed and more powerful than ever before.

And we have to keep up, if we are to survive in this new era. Old boundaries have collapsed and communication is seamless. We need new thinking, new structures and a holistic approach. We must be more fluid, more consistent and faster-moving. We must be more transparent, more collaborative and less controlling.

We must understand that a reputation has to be built on trust, not half-truths. On dialogue, not monologue. On transparency, not opacity. On values, not opportunity. If we don't, we will wither and die.

For people will know if our clients are financially unstable, even if we tell them what a robust company they are. They will know if our clients are slowly making their children obese, even if we tell them how great their products are. And they will know that we are a convicted child molester, even while we swagger about and seek adulation from them.

And when they find out, they will buy less of our products and hate us all the more for cheating them, regardless of how much we blind them with science, glamour and glitz.

So the new era of reputation is upon us and we at Freuds are feeling pretty good about 2008. Our reputation is built on reputation. We're good at it. We have everything we need.

What about you? Feeling confident? Well-equipped for what lies ahead?

Because if not, you're in for a rough ride. Trust us.