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Co:Collective’s Neil Parker explains how Covid-19 is shifting corporate communications priorities
Neil Parker is not happy with Budweiser.
The brand strategy veteran, and Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at New York-based creative agency Co:Collective, believes that the beer brand has checked all the wrong boxes for corporate communications during a crisis.
Parker is specifically referring to the American beer brand’s ‘Reunited with Buds’ commercial, which celebrated the reopening of bars in the U.S. after lockdown restrictions were eased. The commercial features Budweiser’s signature mascots – Clydesdale horses and a Labrador retriever – reuniting, presumably after a period of social distancing.
In no uncertain terms, he calls it a “criminal abnegation of responsibility that large-scale organizations have, to help in a moment when there’s a real problem.”
“Why are they not talking about mask-wearing and social distancing, why are they not saying ‘Delay having a party, enjoy a Bud at home’, why are they not influencing public behavior?” he asks.
The COVID-19 pandemic has paralyzed world systems. In times like these, communicating a message that is sensitive, responsible, and cognizant of the times is crucial for companies scrambling to protect their bottom lines and survive the crisis.
At the same time, social agitations such as the Black Lives Matter movement have explicitly exposed the vast differences between a brand’s messaging, values, and actions.
Parker aptly summarizes public opinion on the matter: “I’m dismayed at the gap between the potential for action, and the actual communication that’s happening,” he says.
Correcting corporate communications
A tricky question companies are facing at this time is how they can correct their communications to reflect authenticity and solidarity. With experience in this sector spanning decades, Parker knows exactly what will work, and what brands proactively need to integrate in their communications strategy.
“I think we’ve seen wave one [of how brands should adjust their messaging]. Wave one has been a tonal adjustment, adopting an empathetic tone. It means acknowledging that there are difficulties. You don’t want to be tone deaf,” Parker says. But he’s quick to add that ‘wave one’ was just a necessity, and much more needs to be done.
The crux of the matter, Parker points out, is not in expressing support but in putting words into action, and delivering on the promise of being a responsible brand. This is especially true for companies that have a pool of resources that can be put to use amid a severe shock to global systems, such as healthcare and employment.
Parker believes that companies can make themselves valuable in these times of crisis in two ways: by using their content platforms to spark a cultural shift amongst the hundreds of thousands of people following them, and by embracing their responsibility to act.
On the content front, there are several crucial conversations that brands can trigger on their platform, and concerns they can address, especially when a lot of the information about the COVID-19 crisis is either unavailable or unverified.
Companies can start by using their communication spaces to extend support by way of knowledge sharing, which is the rationale behind the wave of webinars and online talks taking place during lockdown months.
“[If] you have a platform, you can use the platform to influence opinion. It’s exactly the marketers craft of helping change minds and influencing culture that is needed in winning, in the U.S., this acute cultural battle around whether to socially distance or not, or whether to use a mask or not,” Parker points out.
The second, and more powerful way for a brand to send out a strong message is by taking action. This is rooted in Co:Collective’s own philosophy of storydoing (versus storytelling)–the best way for a brand to implement its communications strategy is by acting it out.
“The most effective brands today are rooted in action much more than in communications,” Parker says. “Product performance is table stakes, but trust is built for brands that are perceived to treat their employees well, and even more that are perceived to be contributing society.”
For instance, IBM, which is one of Co:Collective’s clients, developed Watson Works in eight weeks to help large businesses reopen safely using artificial intelligence. Airbnb, another example Parker cites, pivoted its business to provide virtual experiences to connect owners of spaces with Airbnb customers.
For Airbnb in particular, this makes business sense because the pandemic has hit the travel industry harshly, and the startup recently underwent a down round. However, a growing perception within the business community has been that decisions that are good for business and decisions made as a responsible business are not always a tradeoff.
Parker puts it this way. “These actions don’t all have to be philanthropic, they can be good for your business as well but it gives you the authenticity of being relevant [to the current situation].”
Do as you say
Over years, companies have perfected the ability to cultivate and project the brand image they desire through tried and tested techniques passed around in the business community. It’s what CMOs and brand evangelists are trained to do.
Yet, reports on companies such as Theranos, Away or even smaller businesses such as WorkTech stick out as sore reminders that businesses do not often practice what they preach. A gap between a company’s communicated culture and its actual culture is a sure sign of future trouble, and reflects in the short term through high churn rates.
CEO need to think carefully about who will lead the company’s human resources team, and whether the company’s leadership is endorsing behaviors that promote authenticity and transparency, Parker says.
This is especially true in COVID-19 times, where teams are separated by physical distance, and non-verbal cues may be lacking in their virtual interactions. Workspaces and workflows are being restructured for workers across the world amid a remote working revolution.
Parker echoes a thought shared by his colleague and Co:Collective’s Head of Organization and Culture Design, Kit Krugman, in her article Covid-19 and the Welcome Collapse of ‘Professionalism’.
“I now know my team members’ context and personal lives in a way that I never did before. We’re all playing corporate identity, and I think that’s breaking down,” he explains. “I really hope that the sense that we can just be who we are, while doing the work that we do, sticks around.”
This level of authenticity and organic interaction is high maintenance. It requires of leaders that they actively and positively build trust within the organization, including, as Parker points out, having uncomfortable and difficult conversations, and being willing to listen.
Parker condenses the crux of this debate in a simple thought: communications is not a veneer to drop arbitrarily over poor internal practices.
Connecting communications to company mission
In terms of what the future will look like, Parker believes that there are two likely outcomes, and there is a strong chance that both will play out.
On one hand, he sees brands continuing to allow old capitalism dictate the way they communicate, driven solely by the bottom line and commercial motivations. However, he is hopeful that more brands will transition to making themselves valuable in society, contributing to “today’s moment”, and allow their corporate communications to reflect that.
To Parker, the announcement on stakeholder capitalism by Business Roundtable, an American association of CEOs, represents a breakthrough moment for company culture in the U.S. The announcement recommitted the purpose of corporations to stakeholders rather than shareholders, upending the traditional business view of wealth creation.
This is pivotal to Parker because it extends corporate responsibility from shareholders to employees, impacted communities and the environment as well.
“I don’t know if Budweiser will ever do what I would love them to do,” he quips. “But we have data that shows that companies that are driven by a mission and act on it, perform better and grow faster… because their actions amplify in the most valuable communication channel of all, which is human word of mouth.”
What Parker says comes back to something that businesses have, perhaps, been taking for granted: the trust of their customers. His last piece of advice is a neat summation of contemporary business communications:
“You only get people to talk to people about you, if you’re doing things that they trust, that they believe are authentic, and they believe are valuable.”
Header image courtesy of Co:Collective
This article is part of our coverage of Collision 2020