Nov 28

Mega problems for mega industries

I never thought I’d be writing a blog that included the NFL and Big Tobacco at the same time but, hey, social media makes for strange bedfellows.

Both obscenely rich businesses find themselves in a world of hurt due to denial, deception and delay.  

Let’s kick-off with the NFL.

Did you know there are 72,000 FEWER high school students playing the sport today than just four years ago? Would you believe that outdoor track has overtaken football as the most popular high school sport?

Somewhere Jesse Owens must be smiling.

The reason why is obvious. Parents simply won’t let their sons play the vicious sport which, despite a few superficial changes to the rules by the NCAA and NFL, remains the ultimate end zone for players suffering from CTE and other debilitating brain injuries.

By the way, here’s an interesting stat that was buried in the articles I read about the slow, but steady, death of high school football: The number of girls in 11-player high school football has nearly DOUBLED in the same time frame!

The rate at which football is losing future generations of players is so acute the game may disappear completely by the year 2050 (Note: I hope the Jets can win another Super Bowl before the Lombardi Trophy ends up being sold for scrap).

Enough with football.

Let’s turn to an even deadlier pastime: smoking.

Recently the Food and Drug Administration finally stepped in to restrict all flavored e-cigarettes (also known as vapes) and is in the process of banning menthol cigarettes.  

And high schoolers are once again at the heart (and, sadly, lungs) of the controversy.

The FDA’s move was driven by a just-released study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing a 78 percent increase in vaping by high school students, with 3.6 million high school and middle school students now using e-cigarettes.

Try inhaling this statistic: current e-cigarette use among high school students increased from 1.5 percent in 2011 to 20.8 percent this year! Holy smoke!

In addition to cracking down on vaping, the FDA plans to ban menthol in ALL combustible cigarettes and cigars which it says is a gateway sweetener used to entrap otherwise unsuspecting teens into  a lifelong nicotine addiction.

The NAACP welcomed the ban, saying: “For decades, data have shown that the tobacco industry has successfully and intentionally marketed mentholated cigarettes to African-Americans and particularly African-American women.”

Not surprisingly, Big Tobacco is in complete denial. An Altria spokesperson said, “We continue to believe that a total ban on menthol cigarettes or flavored cigars would be an extreme measure not supported by the science and evidence.” Unreal.

The NFL and Big Tobacco can continue to deny their products lead to serious illness and death but time is slowly running out on each (at least in this country).

I can’t speak for football’s prospects in other continents, but tobacco will continue to thrive in those areas where poorly educated people of all ages are oblivious to its dangers and highly susceptible to glossy advertising.

If Big Tobacco was the name of an NFL player I’d ban him for life (for the sake of millions of future lives).

Nov 27

How Does a Beloved Brand Apologize to Billions?

Today’s guest blog is authored by Melissa Vigue who suggests a few things Dolce & Gabbana might consider doing if they ever want to sell another product in China….

This weekend, we observed as one the world’s iconic luxury brands took a lashing following a huge cultural misstep in China.

ICYMI, Dolce & Gabbana released eating with chopsticks, a series of videos, in the lead up to what was billed as one on China’s biggest fashion events ever, expected to draw not only the fashion elite but China’s most revered cultural icons.

In an effort to grab attention by being humorous (?), the brand and its patriarchs have deeply offended those of Chinese descent worldwide and the rest of us who don’t think using race or cultural practices as fodder for marketing is acceptable. The situation was further exacerbated by supposedly racist Instagram posts by Gabanna. He and the company have since said his account was hacked but the excuse rings hollow to this communicator.

The issue at hand today is how damaged is D&G’s reputation and can they win back the hearts of the market that buys more than 30% of the world’s luxury goods to shore up its bottom line? In the case of D&G, this goes far beyond perception and has immediately impacted the brand’s value with retailers and e-commerce sites dumping thousands of SKUs and multiple brand spokespeople vocally jumping ship.

The outcry began immediately and was not muted by the founders’ somewhat unusual yet well-intentioned video apology. The brand was forced to postpone its major fashion show in Shanghai, dubbed the country’s “biggest fashion gathering of its kind” amid models and guests announcing a boycott of the event.

The reasons for this swift response are twofold:

  • This isn’t the first time D&G has poked the bear. Last year, the brand released DG Loves China, a campaign depicting D&G clad models alongside what the culture viewed as “low class” and “old” China. The perception was that it was intentional behavior by a western brand looking to minimize China’s reputation and growth as a global power.
  • The pride in country, as indicated by this quote, is strong in China and cannot be understated. “The motherland is above everything,” stated D&G’s China ambassador and singer Karry Wang Junkai while renouncing the campaign and her relationship with the brand. What’s most fascinating is the fact that China is known for the use of stereotypical and sometimes downright racist depictions in its own material.

With this debacle fresh in our minds, we wanted to share a couple of parting thoughts for brands when architecting campaigns outside their home country:

  • Don’t rely on the creative “genius” behind the brand for what will resonate globally and culturally. It can gravely impact your brand value.
  • Learn A LOT about the markets you are entering and always socialize input from cultural experts.

It remains to be seen if this iconic fashion house’s rep can be repaired in the eyes of the market that makes up over 30% of the world’s luxury good sales but you can be sure we’ll be watching.

Nov 16

Ho. Ho. Whoa!

Some organizations throw lavish holiday parties to celebrate the season. Others set aside a full day to help a local charity.

And then there’s a Wisconsin company that is, hold for it, giving every employee a handgun for Christmas.

I do my best to stay apolitical in blogs, but there are so many reasons why CEO Ben Wolfgram (pretty cool name, no? Fits his gift-giving idea like a gun to a holster) really shouldn’t be adding to the proliferation of firearms AND tying it to the season of peace, joy and glad tidings to all.

Wolfgram, whose business, BenShot, sells beer mugs, wine glasses and shot glasses with BULLETS planted into their sides, says he had NO concerns about providing employees with firearms.

“We wanted to give something nice and memorable to our employees,” said Wolfgram (who could be Instagram’s evil twin for all we know). “There were two aspects for us. One was for employee safety, and the other was we wanted something that’s kind of fun and exciting.”

Fun and exciting, eh? I wonder how he’ll top this year’s employee gift when Christmas 2019 rolls around? How about:

– Sidewinder missiles

– Body armor

– Nuclear warheads?

My problem with giving guns to employees includes, but is not limited to:

– The very real possibility a disgruntled employee might use the weapon after receiving an unfavorable review, pay cut or termination.

– The very real possibility an employee brings the gun home, one of the kids stumble across it and, well, you know the rest.

– The very real possibility other pro-gun entrepreneurs will think a 9mm Glock is an awesome holiday present for their employees and play copy cat.

I respect the Second Amendment and certainly understand the passion hunters have for their “sport”, but gifting employees with handguns is akin to waving a red cape in front of a bull. It only takes one of those employees to go off the rails and create a very different type of news story for BenShot. And when that story runs the “shot” will truly hit the fan.

Nov 08

All Things Must Pass

I’ve always likened agencies to baseball managers and football coaches. We are hired to be fired.

Make no mistake. The termination clock starts ticking as soon as the letter of agreement is signed. The relationship may last a month, a year, a decade or, in the case of Ogilvy, 75 years. But it will end.

In Ogilvy’s case, the “Dear Agency” letter came from Ford when the latter decided it was time to seek a divorce from WPP (Ogilvy’s owner).

The reasons for the break-up included: “….Ford’s slumping sales, weak demand in Europe and trade tariffs with China.” Mix that toxic potion with the reality that “….clients are increasingly taking work in-house and using the giant online platforms of Google and Facebook” and you have the perfect storm for any freshly-minted CMO whose most logical first move would be to blame the incumbent agency and hire fresh thinking. It happens all the time.

Simultaneously, Ford is filling 100 new in-house global marketing positions (while Ogilvy probably laid off just as many employees who had worked on the account).

Expanding in-house marketing teams is a trend and Reuters says “….has stripped the big advertising groups of some of their income in recent years.” No question about it.

That’s why I’m so happy to be positioned as a mid-sized firm led by public relations but offering an array of strategic integrated services ranging from web design and employee engagement to societal crisis management and all forms of content creation.

The most vulnerable firms right now are in the digital and advertising spaces. That’s because those service offerings can easily be duplicated by an in-house team.

PR is a relationship-based business in which long-standing personal relationships with influencers, reporters, producers and editors are owned by individuals at the agencies. Those expansive and valuable relationships are difficult to replace.

Even if PR is slightly more strategic and less tactical than its sister disciplines, I know the clock is ticking with every single Peppercomm client (and we have terrific clients at the moment). I know the clock is ticking because I’ve experienced longstanding relationships end in a heartbeat due to:

  • A new CCO or CMO deciding they wanted their own team.
  • A major retailer deciding it made more sense to allocate the PR/social spend to upgrading their IT.
  • A clueless PR manager who believed that “….every relationship has a five-year window before things get old and tired.”

Having seen and experienced it all I totally empathize with the fine people at Ogilvy. And, I also know I need to double down on feeding the new business pipeline at my shop. What’s here today may be gone tomorrow. Or 75 years from tomorrow.

Oct 11

Did you hear the one about the executive assistant we’ll never forget?

The Peppercomm team will be coming together next Thursday night to salute our late, great colleague, Dandy Stevenson. We’ll be holding one of our patented stand-up and improvisational comedy fundraisers in her name. All proceeds will be donated directly to the ASPCA (like me, Dandy had a soft spot for four-legged creatures).

This blogger will be serving as emcee, and seven or eight current and former Peppercommers will be performing seven to eight minute sets. We’ll also be joined by sereval professional comedians as well as Peppercomm’s Chief Comedy Officer Clayton Fletcher.

Having held countless fundraisers in the past I must tell you this one will be very special indeed. I hope you (and your BFFs) can be there to experience it with us.

For information, how to purchase tickets and to reserve your seat, visit the event page here.

Sep 07

How do you judge success?

Today’s oh-so-timely guest blog is authored by Laura West, Peppercomm’s Head of Analytics. Btw, we’d love to know your take on the Nike campaign, so comment at will…

There are any number of ways to evaluate Nike’s Kaepernick campaign. Some call it: “shrewd.” Others say it’s “a bold statement.” The president called it “a terrible message.” Pundits say it’s “a calculated risk.”

Is Nike’s ad a success? What do the facts say? There is always a friendly bit of data pointing at an answer we may like, no matter our political/social opinions:

  • Fact: The President of the United States has denounced Nike’s ad
  • Also fact: Lebron James has lauded it
  • Fact: #NikeBoycott was trending on Twitter on Tuesday
  • Also fact: #Nike and #JustDoIt were trending on Wednesday

As most people in the industry have come to appreciate, it is not an isolated bit of data that leads to true insight. It is contextualized data; not “there were this many mentions” but “there were this many positive/negative mentions.” And not “someone denounced the company” but “X influencer or X% of the target audience denounced the company.” The context is determined by the prioritized goals.

Is the most valuable metric sales? If so, the ad may have been a bad decision (since Morning Consult reports that purchasing consideration is down). Is the most valuable metric the amount of buzz generated? In this case, the move was an unquestionable success (generating more than $43 million worth of media exposure according to Bloomberg).

Morning Consult reported that Nike’s favorability has dropped by double digits since the campaign announcement. However, if Nike cares most about what certain athletes think of the company’s move, then favorability among more general audiences may not be the most important data point, since success would be measured according to this elite audience’s reaction.

So, how would you measure success?

 

Sep 04

23

It’s hard to believe that Peppercomm began its improbable rise to fame and fortune 23 years ago today.

I say improbable because there was no reason to expect success. After all, why would yet another start-up in the highly competitive PR firmament succeed?

The answer? Our name.

I decided to name the firm in honor of my late black lab, Pepper.

The name turned out to be a godsend.

It was at that precise moment in time the dotcom boom was in overdrive. Venture capitalists were pouring billions of dollars into dotcoms with any semblance of a business plan (as well as many that did not).

The phone began ringing off the hook. Why? Because dotcoms mistakenly thought Peppercom (there was only one M in those days) was a dotcom specialist. We weren’t.

But we hired tech PR specialists faster than you can say IPO and, by 1998, O’Dwyer’s had TWICE named us the fastest growing PR firm in the country (which isn’t that impressive when one considers we started with no billings whatsoever. But, still….).

Our firm shot through the PR firmament like Halley’s Comet. And then, just as suddenly as it had all started, the dotcom bubble burst.

One $35,000 per month dotcom client after another either declared bankruptcy, stopped all work or, in the case of a true dotcom wanna-be called iFrame, took us to court demanding a refund (we won).

Thankfully, we had managed to attract, and win, blue chip clients such as Steelcase and GE (the latter courtesy of The 10 Company’s Valerie Di Maria. Thanks for your Peppercomm service, Val).

And my superb partners took it from there.

Fast-forward to today and tomorrow.

Peppercomm’s success has always been fueled by innovative products and services (some of which exceeded beyond my wildest dreams while others withered and died on the vine).

We’ll be building on a 23-year record of innovation by introducing a first-of-its-kind “societal crisis” offering next week.

Called StandSmart (sm), the service will provide CCOs, CMOs, CHROs, CEOs and boards of directors with:

– A predictive, data analytics tool that helps our clients anticipate relevant industry and societal crises as they initially bubble up (Think: NRA, NFL or NAFTA;  Internet privacy, phishing and prevarication; trade and Twitter wars to name just a few).

– An overlay to any organization’s existing crisis response/management plan that leverages the company’s higher purpose to respond quickly and accurately to any news, false or otherwise. Google’s response to last week’s POTUS attack is a superb example.

– Sitting down with the client and her team to identify each, and every, issue that is relevant to the organization and preparing responses in advance, and in cooperation with the in-house general counsel and CEO.

StandSmart is the logical next step for an iconoclastic agency named in honor of an iconoclastic canine.

Here’s to the next 23 years.

#Woof

Aug 29

Google “Trapped Animal”

Today’s guest blog is authored by Steve Goodwin, a principal at Brand Foundations, a strategic branding & purpose partner of Peppercomm’s. Enjoy…..

Yet again this week, we’re reminded that a trapped, wounded animal is dangerous. Like an orange pain-riddled bear with his leg hopelessly caught in a snare trap, President Trump lashed out at Google, accusing the search giant of baking the results in favor of liberal media outlets so that a search of “Trump news” always returns negative stories. [An aside: I’d offer the president the same gentle advice I’ve been giving to clients for years: “Uh… you have more control over this than you may think.”] As is far too often the case, the president’s info started as a discredited story being peddled on Fox before it made its way into his never-used-a-computer brain and out his tiny tweeting fingers.

Google, to its credit, responded with a statement within what appeared to be minutes of the nastygram. That statement leads with purpose: “When users type queries into the Google Search bar, our goal is to make sure they receive the most relevant answers in a matter of seconds.” Bam! Pure “north star” stuff that:

  • was clearly the result of a thoughtful process;
  • was 100% on-brand as a result; and
  • enabled a speedy response because Google’s comms team had it at the ready: they didn’t need to create a one-off statement in a panic and then run it up the chain in a frenzied attempt to get agreement on a final version by the end of the day’s news cycle.

It was also a powerful opener and a perfect springboard for the rest of the statement, which went on to refute the president’s charge in greater detail. The statement wouldn’t have been nearly so strong had the order been reversed.

Of course, Trump vows to “look into” the matter, ensuring the story will stay in the news for a bit… as does the fact that the leaders of Facebook, Google and Twitter are slated to appear before a Congressional committee next week to talk about censorship and election interference.

Like the trapped bear striking out in fear at what it can’t comprehend, Trump’s howling at the tech world at least proves that there is no industry he won’t go after. No matter how big, deep-pocketed or popular, no company is safe. And the fact of the matter is that in our current fractured climate of tribalism and corporate reckoning, threats to an organization’s brand and reputation can come from any direction at any time… not just from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave or Mar-a-Lago during yet another fitful night.

That’s why smart organizations that play on the national stage are well-advised to proactively undertake a process that identifies, assesses and monitors for enterprise-wide reputational risks and guides the creation of purpose-driven plans and content that allow for taking a reasoned, rational and rapid stand… one that rises above the level of the incoming attacks.

Funny I should mention it, because that’s exactly what StandSmartSM – a new in-the-works joint offering from Peppercomm and BrandFoundations – is designed to deliver. Stay tuned for details (but reach out now if you want a preview).

With trapped animals as with trapped presidents, the only predictable thing is their unpredictability. And as Google and countless other companies have learned, you don’t need to pick a fight in order to find yourself in one. Stand ready. Stand strong. Stand smart.

Aug 23

Updated Packaging Keeps Animal Crackers Out of the Soup

I had the distinct pleasure of working with Chris Tennyson at Hill & Knowlton at a time in history when H&K was considered the Tiffany’s of the PR universe. There was H&K, and then there was everyone else.

But, that was then and this is now.  

After leaving H&K in the mid-1980s, Chris went on to build a formidable career on both the corporate and agency sides of our business.

Today’s guest blog is excerpted from his upcoming book, “The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm.” 

The excerpt, just like the book itself, is a MUST read for anyone counseling a CCO, CMO or CEO. Enjoy!

This week the Nabisco division of Mondelez International unveiled a newsworthy packaging redesign of its Barnum’s Animals cookies. Since 1902, small boxes of America’s favorite brand of animal crackers have been adorned with images of circus animals caged in boxcars. Not anymore. The majestic lion, elephant, zebra, giraffe and gorilla on the updated packages now roam free.

Great move by Mondelez to keep an iconic brand in step with the times – and avoid a crisis.

In Chapter 3 of my book, The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Company’s Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm, I discuss nine common sources of crises. They all start with the letter “P”: people, products, priorities, policies, performance, politics, procrastination, privacy, and past. “Packaging” didn’t make the list, but I believe the Barnum’s Animals redesign provides an excellent example of a company knowing when it’s time to address a problematic “policy.”

According to an article in the August 21, 2018, USA Today (“Nabisco uncages its animal crackers after 116 years”), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals first called for a change in what they considered insensitive packaging back in April 2016. Commenting on the redesign, Modelez’s Chief Marketing Officer Jason Levine explained, “When PETA reached out about Barnum’s, we saw this as another great opportunity to continue to keep this brand modern and contemporary.”

Good move. The new art in no way diminishes the appeal of the product (the brand’s distinctive yellow and red color palette and fun illustration style have been maintained to draw in customers of all ages). And the folks at PETA are happy. The group’s Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman confirmed, “PETA is celebrating this redesign.”

No shaming, no boycott, no crisis.

Smart policy updates should not be seen as any less heroic just because they were made in response to outside pressure. CVS discontinuing sale of all tobacco products, SeaWorld ending its controversial orca whale breeding program, and the Miss America organization’s elimination of the swim suit competition are examples of corporate decisions, generally well-received, influenced at least in part by looming reputational threats.

Timing is important. Slow response to changing mores contributed to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus folding its tent for good in 2016, just a year after begrudgingly announcing that it would phase out elephant acts. So, the responsive cookie brand survives, while the stubborn institution it was named after no longer exists.

There’s a valuable lesson in that scenario for marketers and communicators wanting to improve their crisis preparedness quotient.

*Animal Crackers in My Soup was a hit song performed by child star Shirley Temple in the 1935 film Curly Top (it’s probably not on your playlist).

Aug 22

Another brand is being roasted for not taking a smart stand

Today’s guest blog comes courtesy of Matt Purdue, one of my Peppercomm colleagues who started his career as a sports journalist yet still can’t win our fantasy football league….

When will brands finally realize that standing in the middle of the road on controversial issues of the day is only going to get them run over? And maybe even run over by the most powerful influencer on Earth.

Our latest victim is ESPN, which is being blindsided for doing…well…nothing really. In the midst of the NFL’s bubbling anthem controversy, an ESPN executive recently stated that the network was sticking to its longtime policy of not broadcasting the anthem before games. In fact, most networks don’t broadcast the anthem unless it’s a special occasion.

Our president, however, has chosen to ignore this reality (as he is often wont to do). Last night, President Trump blasted ESPN at a rally. “It was just announced by ESPN that rather than defending our anthem, our beautiful, beautiful national anthem and defending our flag, they’ve decided that they just won’t broadcast when they play the national anthem,” Trump said. “We don’t like that.”

As I’m writing this, ESPN has not responded — and that’s a huge mistake. Love him or hate him, Trump has a huge following. His approval rating among Republicans is 87 percent! If you don’t believe the power he wields, check out the exploding #BoycottESPN on Twitter. ESPN staying silent is tantamount to condoning Trump’s stance.

However, ESPN ’s biggest flub occurred on August 17, when new network president Jimmy Pitaro simply restated the current anthem policy. “We generally have not broadcasted the anthem and I don’t think that will change this year.”

He added: “It’s not our job to cover politics, purely, but we’ll cover the intersection of sports and politics.”

It’s not ESPN’s job to cover politics? Excuse me? It’s 2018, and we’re living in the most polarized political climate since before the Civil War in the 1850s. ESPN and every brand must realize that it’s at risk of running into a political firestorm at any time, 24/7/365.

So every brand must be prepared to take a smart stand based on what’s best for its stakeholders and its business. In a perfect world, ESPN would respond just like Texas senate candidate Beto O’Rourke did when he was asked if he thinks NFL players kneeling during the anthem is “disrespectful.”

But this is far from a perfect world. In reality, ESPN has two choices: 1) Stand firm on not airing the anthem because our “beautiful, beautiful” national hymn has become a political hot potato; or 2) commit to airing the anthem before every game to bring viewers real-time reporting of how players and fans are reacting during the song. They still have an opportunity to take a stand, but will they?

Instead, ESPN is sitting in the middle of the road. And now it’s getting run over.