February 10, 2016

When it comes to building—or rebuilding—corporate and industry reputations, I hear three questions most often:  

 

1. How do we position ourselves as innovative?
2. How do we get credit for all the good we do?
3. How do we respond when our company faces controversy?

 

These questions are not easy to answer. In the post-trust era we live in, where the public is skeptical of every message from large companies, it’s easy to come off as irrelevant, insincere, or arrogant.

 

Many companies get the answers to these questions wrong. They talk to themselves instead of listening to customers. They miss opportunities to get credit by trying to overstate their impact. Or they make controversies worse by missing the mark with their responses.

 

We can find some good models for doing it right--advertising campaigns that not only stand the test of time, but that also are arguably more relevant today than when they first aired. Here are three I believe every marketer should know about:

 

Innovating With AT&T


It seems every company wants to be Apple today—an innovator in its space. This is easier said than done, especially if you operate outside of tech. Calling yourself innovative isn’t enough. Talking about past innovations doesn’t work in a “what have you done for me lately” world. Showing pictures of fast-motion taillights and the sparkling lights of high-tech data centers is pretty, but not likely to shift brand perceptions in a meaningful way.

 

When AT&T launched the “You Will” campaign in the 1990s, it was perceived as Ma Bell—more utility than innovator. The campaign changed the image of the company.

 

By painting an amazing picture of the future—in which a woman rented and read a book on her computer, a couple used a GPS-like screen in their car to navigate rainy, dark roads, and a man used a tablet to send a letter from the beach—AT&T successfully positioned itself as an innovator brand.

 

The message followed a simple model: AT&T made it about the future. Innovation is about what’s new or now, not what you have done in the past. AT&T made it tangible. Saying you are innovative is not nearly as powerful as showing what that innovation looks like. Lastly, AT&T made it about me. The campaign was all about how innovation would impact consumers.

 

Taking Credit With BASF

 

How do you get credit for all the good you do? How do you get people to emotionally connect with your business if you are an ingredient brand or a component manufacturer?

 

From corporate social responsibility efforts to brand campaigns, companies often miss the mark when they try to get customers to appreciate them more. When a big healthcare company tries to get credit for giving $10 million to local charities, it is viewed as more PR than CSR. When an electric utility tries to get credit for making it possible for customers to watch their flat-screen TVs, it’s seen as overstating its role and impact.

 

Over and over again, our research teaches us two lessons: The key to getting credit is giving credit, and you’re more likely to get credit if you’re humble.

 

German chemical maker BASF turned the challenge of recognition into an opportunity with its “Better” campaign in the 1990s. With a simple tagline—“We don’t make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better”—BASF captured the right tone and a credible role in consumers’ lives.

 

The line disarmed consumer skepticism and gave them reasons to think about the impact of this company that they had never heard of before.

 

Responding To Controversy With BP


It seems like every week, another company faces a major controversy. And in almost every case, the response to the controversy is worse than the controversy itself. Ego, willful blindness, and naïve optimism often drive companies to avoid confronting controversy in real time and addressing directly what customers and the public expect of them.

 

BP learned this lesson in the immediate aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Ultimately, the CEO was fired, and the company recognized it needed to change course. Politicians and the public alike were calling for heads to roll. The energy company reached a crossroads: It could either continue to flail or turn disaster into opportunity.

 

BP chose the second option, taking responsibility for the disaster and creating a campaign with a simple message: “We will make this right.” They showed real people from the company, talking directly to the public. They spoke from the beaches of the Gulf Shore, not from boardrooms in big cities. They spoke sincerely, talking to locals about solutions and how dedicated they were to them. They owned both responsibility for the damage and the direction of the rebuild. (They also spent a ton of money on media.) The result was a much faster turnaround in reputation than anyone could have anticipated.

 

Learning From Yesterday


Getting the message right matters more than anything. If AT&T had looked to history instead of its future, it would have been ignored. If BASF had tried to convince people of something they didn’t want to believe, it would have come across as arrogant. If BP hadn’t poured labor and resources into fixing the spill, it would have appeared insincere.

 

An authentic message, a humble tone, a tangible example—for skeptical consumers, these are critical ingredients to effective campaigns. And the approaches these companies took years ago still serve as effective models for building and rebuilding trust today.

 

This article originally appeared on CMO.com. You can read it here.

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