Papa John’s Camaro Link and Other Social Media Tales

Last June, when PR agency Weber Shandwick kicked off its first Voiceboxx Executive Roundtable speaker series, the topic was all about how companies were competing for their fair share of eyeballs in a Web 2.0 age. Now, the focus has shifted from marketing in an “attention economy” to that of engaging with consumers in a “reinvention economy.” The difference is that communications plays a more prominent role in how companies innovate. This year’s Voiceboxx panelists included David Steel, svp of North American Headquarters marketing for Samsung Electronics America; Chris Preuss, General Motors’ global communications vp; and Anita Larsen, media relations director for packaged-goods giant Unilever. The speakers (pictured below) previewed some of the table talk prior to this week’s event. Excerpts are below.

Brandweek:  Marketers are increasingly moving communications from the end of the supply chain to the forefront of the reinvention process. Why are we seeing this shift, and how is it impacting brand marketing?

Anita Larsen:  Our chief marketing officer Simon Clift appeared at a digital conference a few months ago, and I’m going to paraphrase a few things he said: “In the old world of top-down one-way communication, a company basically told you what you wanted to hear, and you had the choice to take it or leave it. [But] in this new world [of marketing], the plethora of communications vehicles and technology available [to us] also calls for greater transparency.”

Jack Leslie: 
Communication is now playing a central role in innovation. We’re no longer talking about what used to be the case—where innovation came from a couple of guys in a garage. Now, communications is being used in the digital area and through things like crowdsourcing, and you’re seeing [great examples of it] across a lot of different industries. Starbucks’ MyStarbucksIdea is a good example. They’re reaching out to consumers and getting them much more involved in the company. It allows you to directly engage with all of your different constituencies and really involve a much broader set of people in the invention process.

[With Unilever, for instance,] we may want to talk about skin moisturizers through Dove, the Dove Self-Esteem Program or the Campaign for Real Beauty. But consumers raised the issue in the spring of sustainable palm oil, and that became an integral part of the conversation. We then committed to sustainable palm oil by 2015.

David Steel:
  The way I think about it is we’re really rediscovering the meaning of the word “communication.” Communication, by definition, is a two-way street, and I think sometimes we’re [too focused on] broadcasting information to people and hoping they absorb it. But now we’re really defining a new paradigm for communications, which is exactly that it’s about engaging with customers. It’s about listening to them and listening to them not only talking back to us, but also talking to each other. That’s an entirely new paradigm…It is a new breed of communications, especially in our industry of consumer electronics, which has a very short life cycle. Recommendations from family and friends are now a big factor in the purchase cycle.

BW: Marketers are also increasingly relying on consumers to build global brand ambassador networks. Do you have an example of that in action?

Chris Preuss:  Owners of cars in general tend to be great enthusiasts. This gives you a great base to work from. You look at the Chevy Camaro brand, and it was actually someone outside of G.M. that helped do this. That person was [John H. Schnatter], owner of Papa John’s. This enthusiast was on a quest to find his 1971 Camaro [which he’d sold in 1983 to raise money for his fledgling pizza business], and it [created] an entire national grassroots and viral campaign around the Camaro. [Schnatter appeared on TV, created a Web site detailing his search, and Weblog Jalopnik also followed him on his quest. Schnatter eventually offered  $250,000 for it.] From this sprung a whole new crop of enthusiasts around [the Camaro]. This opened up a whole new network of customers, and it’s just an example of how things spiral on the Web very quickly. Enthusiast groups can be small, but their impact can be very large. This was a case of one man [who generated a lot of buzz] around the Camaro.

Jim Whaley:  Through our [Siemens Generation21] corporate responsibility program, we built an alumni network with folks who have now become great advocates of the support of science and education, which, of course, helps define what Siemens is all about. As a company that has 20 to 25 patents every day, we have an interest in the next generation of scientists, practitioners and engineers. And how better to tell that [story] than through the next generation of students coming up through the system? They know what our company does, and they know the impact we have.

BW: How is communications helping marketers reach consumers nowadays and really understand what they want?

  The big point for Siemens is we’ve been in the U.S. for many, many years, but we’re not as well-known as we’d like to be. So it’s been a matter of struggle for us, the last couple of years, to tell that story. What we’re doing now is using our leadership team to help Weber tell those stories in a compelling way and working with our communications board to tell a good story—and, more importantly, how does that story affect you? So, when we talk about things like reducing one-third of the electrical power in the U.S. or [making technology] that helps treat 20,000 cancer patients a day, we have to tell those stories not just by numbers and percentages, but by impact. That’s what we’re trying to do by using our employees to tell those stories. We just recently combined a lot of our companies into one company. It was a major merger for Siemens, to combine 33,000 people. We talked about that around the concept of, “We are Siemens.” We did that in a way where we took the number of different people from different industries across the country and had them tell their story and impact and what it means for them. That’s how we’re trying to use communications, to humanize what the company is about. [And that’s important because] otherwise, it gets boiled down to stats and facts, and those are things that don’t really resonate well with people who want to know more about our company.

AL: One example of a brand that’s embraced the changing face and pace of communications and driving conversations with consumers is Axe. The Axe Hair word-of-mouth program is designed to take the brand’s “girl-approved hair” positioning and translate it into real conversations among girls and guys, both online and offline. This program has successfully mobilized a community of brand advocates via Twitter conversations, which are moderated by a real girl—@CarlyWithAXE—who talks to guys looking for hair advice, and girls interested in sharing Axe Hair products, communication and tips with their boyfriends. [By] talking directly with female bloggers and online influencers, the campaign has targeted girls as a primary catalyst for conversations and recommendations that lead to great looking hair.

BW: How are marketers adapting to this new mix of online and offline communications?

DS:  The challenge of marketers right now with this new paradigm is to weave together offline and online and to do so in a way where each one leverages the other, and allow consumers to engage and interact with a lot of your offline communication. Ad campaigns this year for new product launches like our LED TV have really focused equally on online and offline—offline to drive that awareness and to reach a broad audience and so forth, and online as a place where they can go for more information. And it’s not just information from us, but information that is being shared from other consumers so they are getting information from third-party sources, putting that together in ways so they build off each other—through consistency of communication and consistency of design—and to have it all reinforce each other. The sea of business moves so quickly that you have to be right on with the communication.