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Is Reading Still Fundamental?

Steve McGrath · June 13th, 2014

The words in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” haven’t changed in 130 years, but the experience of reading it sure has. I don’t mean the sociological context; I mean the mechanics of reading the novel itself. Or any novel.

berodeur blog bokk girlWhat’s changed is our brains. They seem different. That’s because we’re
awash, day in and day out, in emails, tweets, Facebook posts, IMs, text messages, PowerPoint slides and Google results – bits of information we need for a multitude of simultaneous tasks that are interrupted every five minutes.

So after five days and at least 40 hours of this during the work week, it’s asking a lot of our scattered minds to immerse themselves in a great American novel on the weekend. We make this challenge even steeper when we try reading it on a computer screen instead of in a traditional book with paper pages.

Researchers are looking deeply into these issues – problems focusing and the potential shortcomings of the digital reading experience.

relevance egg We at Brodeur are fascinated, too. We already explore on a daily basis how variables like people’s sensory experiences make things more or less relevant to them. We also try to stay current on behavioral science, since we exist to help clients change the behavior of their customers, constituents and supporters.

 The feel of a good book

Logically, a novel is the same thing whether bound in leather or digitized in a Kindle. You’ll be reading the same words. But consider the sensory experience of a traditional paper-based book that is solid in your hands throughout the entire read versus an ephemeral digital image of pixilated text that vanishes when you scroll to the next paragraph.

“What I’ve read on screen seems slippery,” writes Brandon Keim in Wired.

Ferris Jabr elaborates in Scientific American:

In most cases, paper books have more obvious topography than onscreen text. An open paperback presents a reader with two clearly defined domains—the left and right pages—and a total of eight corners with which to orient oneself. A reader can focus on a single page of a paper book without losing sight of the whole text: one can see where the book begins and ends and where one page is in relation to those borders. One can even feel the thickness of the pages read in one hand and pages to be read in the other. All these features not only make text in a paper book easily navigable, they also make it easier to form a coherent mental map of the text.

In contrast, most screens, e-readers, smartphones and tablets interfere with intuitive navigation of a text and inhibit people from mapping the journey in their minds. A reader of digital text might scroll through a seamless stream of words, tap forward one page at a time or use the search function to immediately locate a particular phrase—but it is difficult to see any one passage in the context of the entire text.

As an analogy, imagine if Google Maps allowed people to navigate street by individual street, as well as to teleport to any specific address, but prevented them from zooming out to see a neighborhood, state or country. Although e-readers like the Kindle and tablets like the iPad re-create pagination—sometimes complete with page numbers, headers and illustrations—the screen only displays a single virtual page: it is there and then it is gone. Instead of hiking the trail yourself, the trees, rocks and moss move past you in flashes with no trace of what came before and no way to see what lies ahead.

(Sorry that was so dense. You still with me?)

That article, as well as this one in the Washington Post and Keim’s in Wired, cite studies with varying implications for digital’s effects on reading. Some suggest problems in the digital experience, others not really.

Your brain on Twitter

Book format aside, what have done to ourselves by disintegrating our days into micromoments? Can we really handle the cognitive burden of shifting gears from consuming small bytes of information during the workday to layers of lengthy narrative at night? Assuming we even still like books?

“We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scroll­ing and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habit of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you,” Andrew Dillon, a University of Texas professor who studies reading, told the Post. “We’re in this new era of information behavior, and we’re beginning to see the consequences of that.”

Maryanne Wolf, author and Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist, put a fine point on it in the same article: “Will we become Twitter brains?”

I think we will. At least I am. Or my brain is.

I’m reading “Middlemarch,” the celebrated Victorian novel, and I’m embarrassed to say how long it’s taking, even accounting for its 900 pages and my naturally scattered brain. Let’s just say months. You can’t scan that novel, but that’s exactly what my brain wants to do.

While there’s a lot more to study about reading in the 21st century, the questions alone have implications for communications. They hint at the limits of the time-honored white paper to sustain a reader’s attention as it makes a patient, elegant case. They challenge the wisdom of relying on 1,500-word case studies to sell a prospect. They suggest that any content worth producing needs to be distilled along the way into Tweets, dramatic photos, infographics and short videos to meet its potential.

These questions also suggest that we as marketers need to focus even more than ever on serving the interests of our audience. Obvious? Yes. Practiced? Sometimes. Blatantly self-serving communications, always cheesy, no longer stand a chance.

And sadly, the mere sight of a dense essay, no matter how brilliant the writer and timely the topic, risks scaring “readers” away.

Am I right? You still with me? Anyone?!

Our body parts, ourselves

Steve McGrath · January 7th, 2014

Why do we clench our fists when we’re angry but struggle to get out of bed when we’re depressed? Why do we tingle all over when we’re happy or in love? And do these bodily sensations actually help us figure out what we’re feeling?

Scientists are still working all that out, but a novel experiment from Finland may give us some clues. Researchers asked people from Finland, Sweden and Taiwan to think about emotions they’ve experienced and, on a screen, “paint” the areas of the body that feel stimulated (hot colors) and deactivated (cool colors) during those times [try it]. When combined, the bodily sensation maps look like this:

Note how turned on the happy person is, how the loving person is glowing, and the depressed person is feeling, well, blue.

“Even though we are often consciously aware of our current emotional state, such as anger or happiness, the mechanisms giving rise to these subjective sensations have remained unresolved,” says the paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. “Here we used a topographical self-report tool to reveal that different emotional states are associated with topographically distinct and culturally universal bodily sensations; these sensations could underlie our conscious emotional experiences. Monitoring the topography of emotion-triggered bodily sensations brings forth a unique tool for emotion research and could even provide a biomarker for emotional disorders.”

Why we care

Although bodily sensation maps may never drive marketing decisions, we at Brodeur are deeply interested in the interplay of physical sensations and emotions. That’s because it profoundly affects whether people, things or ideas are relevant. Relevance breeds action, which is important to marketers, leaders and causes.

Relevance often starts with the sensory: Think of the first time you touched a smart phone, fell in love with it and bought one for yourself. Or when a candidate’s warm handshake, as much as her policy, won your vote. Or when you hugged a sick friend, yearned to help, and found yourself donating more than you planned to find a cure.

Our research uncovers sensory keys to consumer decision-making. In hotels, for instance, water pressure in the shower drives more conversation than bed comfort by a ratio of 2 to 1. Room noise is a hot topic, and breakfast offerings matter a lot more than lunch or dinner.

Can senses affect business-to-business purchase decisions? We think so. If you’re a chief information officer looking at storage solutions for your company, hard return on investment is certainly important. But won’t you also gravitate toward a vendor who will keep your data center tidy, give you the sweetest-looking-and-feeling user interface, and convince you your head will hit the pillow at night without a worry-induced stomach ache? These are sensory concerns.

As we’ve mentioned before, logic is just a small part of what prompts meaningful behavior. Sensations, emotions, values and social impulses quite often trump it.

Today, we go to work for the planet

David Zucker · September 13th, 2013

Like you, we try to give back. Individually and collectively, our agency supports people doing a wide range of phenomenal work for inner-city students, children, young musicians, people with disabilities and others.

Today, in our most important pro bono project to date, we go to work for the planet.

We’re helping the world’s largest forum on climate change – the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change– showcase tangible progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to help people adapt to climate change. It’s an exciting opportunity to make a difference on an issue that literally touches everyone on earth.

Given the tenor of public discourse, we sometimes forget: Innovators in every corner of the world are finding new ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to help people adapt to climate change. Brodeur Partners is creating the strategy for bringing their stories out of those corners and onto the world stage.

From the women bringing solar-powered light to African villages to new mass transit systems in India and China, the world is quietly making remarkable progress. Brodeur will collaborate with the secretariat’s Momentum for Change initiative to create a communications strategy and plan to drive greater visibility for innovative projects like these.

Who’s to say that Asian and South American women can’t replace their communities’ diesel and kerosene lighting with non-polluting solar like African women did? What did Chinese and Indian authorities learn about urban transit that Europe and North America can use to lure more commuters out of cars and onto environmentally friendly buses and trains?

Momentum for Change’s goal is to inform governments, businesses and non-governmental organizations about examples of positive change and, more importantly, to inspire them to follow suit.

This dovetails perfectly with our professional passion, which is designing communications programs that make organizations and ideas truly relevant. Relevance entails more than changing perceptions; it’s about changing behavior. And behavior is everything when it comes to climate change. As important as intelligent conversation is, hot air won’t cool the planet.

How to defeat the ignorance of the crowd

Steve McGrath · August 29th, 2013

The wisdom of the crowd turns out to be more of an oxymoron than we thought. Not only can vendors game online “star” ratings to deceptively promote their books, restaurants or hotels; positive ratings may be dramatically inflated even when consumers bestow them in good faith.

ignoranceofthecrowdSpecifically, positive ratings seem to trigger more positive ratings until the thing being rated is…well…wildly overrated.

So suggests new research by scholars from MIT, Hebrew University and New York University. They collaborated with an unidentified news website and focused on the reader comment sections associated with each article. Each reader comment receives a numerical rating based on up and down votes that other readers have given that comment. Over five months, the researchers arbitrarily gave newly posted comments initial up or down votes, or left the comment alone, then watched what happened:

The first [real] person reading the comment was 32 percent more likely to give it an up vote if it had been already given a fake positive score…. Over time, the comments with the artificial initial up vote ended with scores 25 percent higher than those in the control group. “That is a significant change,” [co-author] Dr. [Sinan K.] Aral said. “We saw how these very small signals of social influence snowballed into behaviors like herding.” (New York Times)

Remember this the next time you visit a restaurant that Yelp promises will be a five-star experience. And if you’re a vendor, don’t assume your online reputation is as pristine as your star ratings. You may be getting absolutely ravaged elsewhere on the Internet.

Look deeper

A far better way to understand your own brand and market is to look at what people are actually saying, and do it methodically. For example, we recently analyzed online conversation around the hotel industry and went far beyond the numbers.

With our partner MavenMagnet, we looked at more than 18,000 online hotel-related conversations between May 2012 and October 2012 across social networks, profiles, forums, news websites and blogs. We examined:

  • Buzz volume (how much conversation there was about each brand)
  • Positivity of that buzz (positive/negative ratio)
  • Impact of that buzz (e.g., the likes, links, mentions, retweets and conversation volume a comment attracted).

Then we dug deeper, separating conversations of leisure travelers from business travelers. Then we drilled even deeper into leisure travelers, separating the comments of those traveling with children from those without.

When we looked at all of these conversations, we analyzed not only practical considerations like cost and location but also guests’ comments around their senses, values and social needs, which are the other dimensions of Brodeur’s relevance model. (On the sensory side, for example, we discovered that that water pressure in the hotel shower actually eclipses even bed comfort in online attention.)

We ultimately discovered that Hilton, Marriott and Four Seasons rated the highest in what we call Conversational Relevance™.

You can’t game 18,000 online conversations. And when you work this hard and smart to understand where a brand stands, you don’t get fooled. Here’s our report.

Do you ever wonder what people really think of your business?

Are ‘MOOCs’ right for your higher ed brand?

John Brodeur · August 16th, 2013

Education is priceless, so it might seem surprising that universities around the planet are “giving away” instruction and talent in the form of MOOCs – massive open online courses. With MOOCs, the same course material from the same professors for whom traditional students pay dearly is now becoming free to anyone in the world with a Web browser – no degree, no application, no SATs required. Millions have enrolled, and the most popular courses can attract tens of thousands of “students.”

Online schoolWhile the ultimate effect of MOOCs remains to be experienced, the vision is positively utopian: If ignorance is responsible for human suffering, imagine how universal access to the most rarefied knowledge could advance human civilization.

And while MOOCs are sweeping across the higher education landscape, there is little awareness outside of academia of this form of online learning.

MOOCs as brand builders

Surprisingly, three out of four Americans still know little or nothing about MOOCs, according to our new Brodeur Partners research, the first public opinion survey in the United States on the subject. The research offers many rich insights as well for any campus leader with MOOCs on their agenda. Although institutions will make their own decisions about whether to offer MOOCs, here are three quick takeaways, based on the research, for managing MOOCs from a communications perspective:

  • The institution can define its position and market. With so many people still discovering what MOOCs are, it’s too early to worry about hardened positive or negative perceptions around your involvement in the experiment. Perceptions are still fluid. You, as a de facto MOOC pioneer, would be able to lead the conversation. Decide what you want the world to think about your MOOC involvement (or not) and tell your story.
  • The institution is not obligated to offer MOOCs. Although many institutions are on board, there’s still only modest overall favorability for MOOCs. Thirty-seven (37) percent of the Americans we surveyed think it’s a good idea for colleges to offer MOOCs, and 26 percent think it’s a bad idea. The rest have no opinion or are undecided even after hearing a neutral description of MOOCs.
  • Be straightforward about MOOC commitment. Why you do something is actually more important to people than what you do or how you do it. Are MOOCs philanthropy for you? Marketing? Potential revenue-generators? All of the above? Our number one research takeaway is this: communicate why you’re doing MOOCs or, if necessary, why you’re not. Addressing MOOCs head on will keep you relevant. And your story should always be more about the student than the institution, the experience more than the infrastructure, and the content more than the methodology.

Enjoy our data and let us know if you’d like to discuss this in depth. In the meantime, what do you think of MOOCs? Will the utopian vision prevail?

Short of the desired impact: Why are CSR communications failing to communicate?

David Zucker · August 8th, 2013


Too much CSR communications remains irrelevant or misses the mark because it fails to tell the story of who really benefits. Companies need to re-think how they talk about their CSR commitments so that what they say and how they say it is more meaningful to stakeholders.

csr-communicationCompanies that are committed to and engaged in corporate social responsibility invest significant resources in an attempt to increase awareness of their CSR commitments and leverage those to build positive corporate reputation. Consumers around the world express a desire to learn about a company’s CSR initiatives, a preference to do business with companies who are good corporate citizens and a willingness to stop doing business with companies whose practices have a negative impact on employees, communities or the environment. A 2012 survey of 47,000 consumers across 15 markets conducted by Forbes and Reputation Institute found that perceptions of a company’s social responsibility accounts for 42% of how consumers feel about that company. So, it certainly makes sense that companies would make shaping those perceptions a priority.

Are these CSR communications efforts having the desired impact? The evidence would indicate that, for the most part, the answer is clearly no. In a recent survey from Penn Schoen Berland, only 11% of US consumers said that they’d heard communications about CSR from any company. Only 13% say they have read about a CSR agenda on a company’s website. And who would? CSR information on those sites is usually filled with dry corporate language and CSR lingo that may connect with activists, regulators, procurement and policy makers but would leave most consumers scratching their heads.

So, if CSR communications are failing to communicate, how are perceptions about companies’ CSR efforts being formed? Based on the various surveys from a variety of countries that report perceptions of companies in terms of their CSR actions, it would appear that those perceptions are being formed relatively randomly. At the least, it is safe to say that there’s no clear link with actual CSR actions or with CSR communications efforts.

Fortune Magazine’s 2012 “Most Admired Companies” survey ranks Altria number 4 in social responsibility. Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris. Really? A tobacco company is a leader in CSR? GE, a company that has spent tens of millions of dollars on its ecomagination campaign doesn’t even make the top 10. And the Forbes survey has Microsoft in the number one spot from a CSR perspective. While Microsoft’s CSR actions may be laudable, are people confusing Microsoft’s CSR with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation?

What’s happening here? Are consumers paying attention to CSR communications? Are most of the communications efforts on the part of companies who are actually performing very well on CSR measures simply not connecting with consumers?

Understanding the shift

CSR appears to be the one area where many companies have failed to apply the important lessons we’re all learning about the shifting communications dynamic. Today, successful organizations understand that shift. The explosion in digital and social media channels has resulted in a highly networked, engaged and empowered set of stakeholders whose online conversations shape the perceptions, attitudes and behaviors that impact every brand.

The old model of a tightly controlled corporate or brand strategy and tightly protected brand expression has been replaced by a much more fluid and de-centralized dynamic where consumers, employees, bloggers and other stakeholders are weighing in on every aspect of business strategy from product design to pricing, distribution, marketing and, of course, CSR. A successful organization will track, listen and engage in their conversations and will understand how to shape these strategies accordingly.

Most CSR-related communications boil down to a company boasting about some particular initiative or other – a new solar-powered distribution center, for example. While that might indeed be a valid and important initiative, is communicating that fact going to connect effectively with consumers? Will it break through the noise and clutter that we’re all bombarded with? Will it change hearts and minds, and so build reputation, preference and behaviors? In other words, are companies communicating their CSR commitments and initiatives in ways that establish those CSR efforts as truly relevant to consumers?

Making it meaningful

Relevance is the key after all. It is about making any organization, product, service or social cause so meaningful to an individual that it becomes highly relevant and establishes a successful connection beyond superficial awareness. At Brodeur Partners, this is the point of view that we bring to every client assignment including CSR. Based on learnings from behavioral science, behavioral economics and social marketing, we have developed a framework and methodology that allow us to understand and shape the four most important factors that drive human beings’ perception of relevance:

• Thinking: It delivers solutions and makes life easier, better
• Social: I want to be associated with it
• Sensory: I like the feeling I get, it inspires me
• Values: It stands for the same things I do

The more an organization can deliver across all four of those factors, the more relevant they will become for their audiences. That same rule should be applied to establishing relevance for a company’s CSR platform.

Here are some tips to help establish relevance specific to CSR:

  1. Listen, listen, listen – We have unprecedented access to the conversations consumers are having about a company and about the social and environmental issues that concern them. Listen to those conversations on social media and let them inform what content and programs you deliver. Find the particular segments of your audience that are most inclined to engage around CSR and the individuals in those segments who are highly networked. Stay in the conversations and don’t stop listening. Ever.
  2. Align with the company’s core vision, mission and social assets – Keep it real and authentic in terms of who the company actually is. Align CSR communications so these assets drive credibility.
  3. Back it with solid commitment from top management – Management’s commitment is the ultimate litmus test. Communications will be most successful when a company’s values, management’s values and consumers’ values are all in sync.
  4. Deliver on that commitment with consistent behavior – Consumers have little patience for companies who don’t carry through on their stated commitments with consistent behavior. Witness the (appropriate) hits to CSR reputation as a result of the horrible factory tragedies in Bangladesh. Those lapses in stated commitments trump even the best communications efforts.
  5. Prove it with products or services with clear social and environmental benefits – These are the ultimate proof points since it is where the consumer actually experiences a company’s CSR agenda. Consumer perception of Toyota’s corporate citizenship is driven, to a great extent, by its early roll-out of the Prius hybrid. No communications effort can beat that for establishing relevance in CSR.
  6. Connect with employees and consumers on shared values – The real opportunity for CSR communications is to strengthen the connections with these audiences based on shared values. It is imperative that a company understand which values are shared with these audiences and then tie everything back to those values. Build values-based relevance.
  7. Ensure that employees are front and center – Establishing relevance for CSR activities among employees should be the top priority. Employee-focused communications should be organized around the key factors that drive relevance just as for consumer audiences.
  8. Offer easy ways for consumers to connect, engage and support – Relevance is established through the experience of a company’s CSR, not by merely reading or hearing about it. UK retailer Marks & Spencer gets this. They invite consumers to join with them to achieve CSR impact in meaningful ways through their “Plan A.”
  9. Contribute skills and product, not just money – When it comes to philanthropic and community-focused components of CSR, communicating how a company creates social value through the application of employee skills and through its products will strengthen relevance. It’s where function meets values.
  10. Demonstrate impact beyond numbers – Numbers are important of course. CSR data must be collected and reported. Go beyond the numbers and show impact through the voices of those who are benefiting from CSR efforts and those who are participating (management, employees, partners, consumers). Collect and share these individuals’ stories and make them the CSR heroes, not the corporation.

It is time to refresh our approach to CSR communications. It is time to stop wasting corporate resources on communications that miss the mark. Focusing on building relevance will result in higher awareness, enhanced reputation and, most importantly, truly engaged employees and consumers who participate alongside companies in tackling some of our most pressing social and environmental challenges.

Make this the Summer of Love 2.0

Steve McGrath · June 24th, 2013

Have you found your true love, your one and only, your match-made-in-heaven soul mate? Do you love unconditionally? Eternally? Is everyone in your loving family really loving one another right now? If you answered yes to any of this, congratulations. You might be the only one.

love_definitionLove is not what the movies say it is, argues “Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become,” a new book by Barbara L. Frederickson, PhD. Love is intermittent, fleeting and biological. It’s a “micro-moment” of “positivity resonance” that can be experienced with a stranger as easily as with a spouse. It opens you to the world and makes you grow. What could this mean for communications, branding and PR?

“I need to ask you to disengage from some of your most cherished beliefs about love … the notions that love is exclusive, lasting and unconditional,” Frederickson writes. “These deeply held beliefs are often more wish than reality in people’s lives. They capture people’s daydreams about the love-of-their-life whom they’ve yet to meet. Love, as your body defines it, is not exclusive, not something to be reserved for your soul mate, your inner circle, your kin, or your so-called loved ones. Love’s reach turns out to be far wider than we’re typically coaxed to imagine. Even so, love’s timescale is far shorter than we typically think. Love, as you’ll see, is not lasting. It’s actually far more fleeting than most of us would care to acknowledge. On the upside, though, love is forever renewable.”

Love stories

Here are three true stories that fit the Love 2.0 pattern.

  • One of my colleagues was battling cancer a few years ago. She was going from specialist to specialist as she put together a treatment strategy. “What brings you here?” the doctors would inevitably ask as if reading from the same script. Apparently, it’s a standard question that elicits a lot of information about the patient’s understanding and attitude. It doesn’t comfort. One day, a particular doc flipped that script. “I’m sorry we’re meeting under these circumstances,” he said, looking his new patient in the eyes. It was a small thing, certainly, but it made a lasting impact. “I still remember how that immediately put me at ease,” my colleague says. “It was kind and human and unclinical. He understood I was anxious and needed sympathy – not the handwringing kind of sympathy, but just some kind of assurance I was more than one more ‘case.’ It made a huge impact on me.”
  • Another colleague’s story goes back decades. “I was in college and visiting friends at their campus,” she recalls. “I wanted to leave a bar, but none of my friends did. A guy I’d never met, the roommate of one of my friends, kindly walked me home with no amorous intent at all. He tucked me into a safe bed and made sure I was okay. I’ve never seen him again, but I always remembered his kindness. Actually, I decided that night that if I ever had a son, I would name him Sam because of that experience. I did have a son. And his name is Sam.”
  • I was riding my bike to work one day and spotted an elderly woman using a walker and dragging her empty trash can across her front lawn. Since then, I’ve stopped by on garbage day and toted the empty can across the yard for her. I was doing this the other day and heard a knocking sound from her house. For the first time, she’d spotted me in the act. She was in the window waving and smiling. I smiled and waved back. A nice moment for both of us.

Love 2.0 is relevant

Best friends self portraitMicro-moments of positivity resonance (“Love 2.0 affairs?”) like these have tremendous implications for communications. This new love model affirms the bedrock premise of our strategic relevance platform, that humans yearn to connect with people, brands, ideas and causes. Love 2.0 also dovetails with our recent findings that more Americans label themselves as compassionate than any of the nine other adjectives we offered them. Compassionate isn’t something you can be alone. It implies a connection.

A fleeting connection can be a powerful one indeed and may even – at that particular micro-moment of positivity resonance – transcend all of the more important loves in a person’s life. That’s not to say it will be more profound or enduring or monumental than a family or marriage tie – just that it will matter a lot when it occurs. And it may leave a lasting impact.

familyThe owner of my local wine store asks customers to tell him about the best wine they ever drank. They rarely tell him the grape variety, vintage or origin. They talk about the moment. “I was vacationing in France with my fiancée and the sun was setting over the Alps on our second-to-last night, and a local farmer walked up the porch and handed us a bottle without a label….”

Be a love machine

So how do you trigger Love 2.0? Storytelling is one way. You assemble random ideas in a way that enables brain patterns between storyteller and listener to converge, as the author says, in “a single act, performed by two brains.

We’d also suggest making sure your communications mine all four quadrants in our relevance model: not only logic (overrated), but senses, social impulses and values – all of which can help spark a Love 2.0 experience.

Meanwhile, the Love 2.0 paradigm helps explain some things we already know: that people are more interesting than things, that shaking hands and slapping backs works for politicians, that a hug can undermine decades of estrangement, that pictures are more powerful than words, that free samples work, and that for many, cat videos are like crack.

So, are you ready to have a Love 2.0 affair with your customers, followers or constituents? Can you deliver?

What makes a financial services firm relevant?

Jerry Johnson · May 31st, 2013

Money is a commodity. You won’t find much difference between the dollar bill you have in your pocket today and the one that may show up next week. Indeed, even the physicality of money is disappearing. Now it is just a number on your banking app.

But while money is a commodity, it is also a lightning rod. There are few things that spark more emotions and personal sensitivities than money. While this has always been true (remember, like politics, it isn’t something to be talked about in polite company…), it is particularly true in today’s environment where people lurch from one economic crisis and financial meltdown to another.

We learned a lot about the topic when recently for a related project; we reviewed hundreds of financial services firms’ advertising campaigns over a five-year period. The idea was simple. Companies spend billions pouring money into 30-second ads. We thought it reasonable, therefore, to assume that these ads are somehow reflective of what these companies assume is most relevant for their potential customers.

We found that the campaigns tended to fall into one of five positioning “buckets:”

  • You can have confidence in us;
  • Our size makes us important;
  • We are the intelligent choice;
  • We cherish relationships; and
  • We have values beyond the accumulation of wealth.

And further, what we found was this: while historically financial institutions have focused on confidence, recently more and more financial institutions focus on the “softer” elements of relationships and values. In general, we’re seeing institutions move from the colder elements of “big,” “smart,” and “bold,” to the softer elements of “connections” and “ethics.”

For years, the most common theme in financial services was that of “confidence” and its sister emotion, “fear.” Why? Because so few of us are confident and so many of us are fearful about money and our financial futures. We saw this 20 years ago in doing work with The Prudential. People want a “rock of Gibraltar.” We see the counter – confidence vs. fear – in a series of ads from John Hancock (done by Hill Holiday) with two people texting and coming back to that lingering question … “will we ever get through this thing called retirement?” There are many, many other examples of this (e.g. Ameriprise’s “You Need a Plan” with the late Dennis Hopper), but it all is an interplay of confidence vs. fear. The idea is to gain relevance by providing confidence in an uncertain world.

Then there is relevance through scale. That is, reminding folks that you are big and therefore important. Some 20 years ago, Riggs National Bank launched a famous commercial that touted the Washington DC institution as the “most important bank in the most important city in the world.” Size, scale, heft is another primary theme that runs through financial services messaging. Back when too big to fail was still too big to fail, this was the natural evolution of a “fear” message. Don’t be afraid, we’re big. Moreover, with “big,” you can do anything. “Big” is empowering. “Big” is macho. Taken to its extreme, you can see it played out in one of my favorite commercials, Anthony Hopkins’ spot for Barclay’s appropriately titled: Big.

The “when E.F. Hutton talks … people listen” campaign was the epitome of positioning a financial company as the smart, intelligent choice. Relevance comes by being the company with unique insight into what is a chaotic and scary world – that of finance. State Street follows this approach. State Street’s advertising features a dog who, in turn, signifies the intelligence and tenacity of the brand and “the need to be precise … designed to please … precise in a world that isn’t.” Of course that makes State Street the intelligent choice.

But the trend is clearly moving away from fear, size and intelligence to those things that take a more human and humane form.

We see a lot more focus on relationships. This runs counter to the popular notion that finance is cold and impersonal; that money comes first, people second. Financial companies often try and position themselves against this stereotype by showing that they put people before profits and actively seek to know their clients on a personal level (e.g. “every client is different”). It is relevance through relationships.

No financial services brand has done more in this area than State Farm. It is their motto … “like a good neighbor.” We know it is based in part on their corporate franchise structure where offices are staffed by local professionals. [Note, in the aftermath of the recent recession, State Farm has drifted into the “values” campaigns. Their recent “back to basics” campaign is a great example.] This “everyone is different” approach is also at the heart of HSBC’s advertising that takes the concept of “big” and applies it to the neighborhood. By showing the same image can mean opposite things, HSBC underscores its knowledge and understanding of the local market.

Many regional banks, seeking to exploit their “smallness” as an asset, often use this relationship theme in their brand marketing.

But what we see even more of as institutions and brands adjust to the new world of austerity and uncertainty is a focus on values. That is, convincing the public that despite the fact that you are a financial services firm, you actually have them (values, that is). The famous MasterCard series is a great example. The line “for everything else” tells you that MasterCard recognizes that what they do is small potatoes compared to what is really important. Recently, financial institutions have pitched this in a much more blatant manner. The Ally Bank series that accepts the central belief that banks have no values … and then uses that to tell people what Ally is NOT. On the positive side are the current ads by Liberty Mutual showing that “caring is contagious.” The “responsibility, what’s your policy?” is a clear value statement that they want people to recognize when they think of Liberty Mutual.

Values and finance. Many would label the two incongruous, especially since values deficits have contributed to debacles like the subprime mortgage crisis and raised pervasive doubts about the entire financial industry.

Many consumers are now desperate to see evidence of solid values from their institutions, financial and otherwise. That’s likely why values are increasingly relevant for financial services today. Just as acting on values is the right thing to do, demonstrating you’re committed to values is a promising path to relevance. If you’re in that business, try it.

Is ‘The Academy’ Losing Relevancy?

Jerry Johnson · March 31st, 2013

Late last fall, reporter Amanda Ripley wrote an article for TIME magazine with the ominous title “College is Dead. Long Live College!” It was the latest in a long litany of articles by reporters and pundits who have been doing a lot of rethinking lately about the institution long known as “the academy.”

college_classIs the “academy” losing its relevancy? There’s evidence this may be the case with groups important to its future, notably parents, students, alumni and opinion leaders.

We’ve worked on numerous research projects with groups of people both inside and outside colleges and universities across the country. Everything suggests higher education faces significant challenges in three areas: financial, technological and institutional relevance.

Is the academy financially relevant? This question is being asked by both students and parents facing skyrocketing tuitions as well by alumni who, in light of the ever-increasing pressure for giving, are rethinking the utility of both annual giving and capital campaigns. Tuitions at many schools are out of the reach of the average family. That, in turn, has led to an unprecedented (and unsustainable) level of personal tuition loan debt. A recently released survey by The Princeton Review suggest that while in years past people’s primary worry was getting into the “right school,” today the primary worry is how to pay for whatever school you get in to.

On the other side of graduation, the academy is facing headwinds from alumni. The competition for gifts to “good causes” among affluent alumni is increasing. Moreover, the younger Gen X and Gen Y alumni show distinctly different attitudes and giving patterns to giving compared to their boomer counterparts. Add to this the declining government funding, and there are many nervous development officers wondering where the next funding dollar is going to come from.

Is the academy technologically relevant? Technology is fundamentally changing the academy the same way it changed the business of news media over a decade ago. As popular New York Times columnist wrote in a piece titled “The Campus Tsunami,” “what happened to the newspaper and magazine business is about to happen in higher education: a scrambling around the Web.”

Why go to a university when one can get a considerable amount of instruction on the Internet for free? Indeed, the global demand for access to knowledge and the emerging opportunities for innovative technology to deliver it presage dramatic changes in “the academy’s” value proposition. Innovations like Kahn University and the explosion of MOOCs are just the beginnings of what will likely be very fundamental structural changes.

Is the academy institutionally relevant? Perhaps the biggest challenge is an uptick of people questioning the very being of the academy. Rightly or wrongly, almost every important audience we talk to – particularly employers and opinion leaders – are seeing a “profound disconnect” between what young people are learning and the world they’re going into. As one public policy executive told us, “The public institutions are in a crisis of declining public support … they’ve been slow to come to the reality that this decline is permanent.”

We don’t think it has to be. Amidst all this, we do see many colleges and universities successfully navigating a critical time of change. They have at least three things in common.

First, they are taking risks and taking action. The challenges of financing and technology will not change over the short- and medium-term. Institutions are experimenting, innovating and taking needed risks to restructure funding and curriculum.

Second, many of the best institutions are focusing as much in the “how” as the “what.” With the commoditization of information, the premium for the education experience increasingly will go beyond the lecture hall and into the streets.

Finally, we see colleges and universities rethinking, restructuring and rebuilding their ties to key communities – everything from students and parents to alumni to the towns and business sectors that they serve.

Those within “the academy” that best navigate the “digital disruption” taking place in education will be those who are most likely to be relevant to the students and alumni of tomorrow.

Today’s forecast: changing climate views

Steve McGrath · February 27th, 2013

We had a blizzard up here the other day, the second biggest in our history. Yet a few days before that, the thermometer was pushing 60 degrees. This certainly feels like global weirding.

IcebergAlthough I’m generally concerned about climate change, I worry more about the fate of this planet on days when the temperatures don’t match the season. When it’s balmy in February, that’s troubling.

On the other hand, when the snowbanks tower over my head, warming doesn’t seem to be an issue. Doubts chip away at my climate change convictions, notwithstanding the statements of NASA, NOAA, the United Nations, 34 science academies and countless other credible agencies.

I’m not the only one who’s fickle on climate.

A University of British Columbia study found a strong connection between weather and climate attitudes over the past two decades “with skepticism about global warming increasing during cold snaps and concern about climate change growing during hot spells.”

The University of New Hampshire came up with similar findings, especially among independent voters in the state. “Interviewed on unseasonably warm days, independents tend to agree with the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change,” said researchers Lawrence Hamilton and Mary Stampone. “On unseasonably cool days, they tend not to.”

Why do our attitudes change like this? Because despite what we know, we just can’t deny what we see and feel. Yes, sensory experiences do play a big role in what’s relevant to us, maybe more than we think. You can see it in our new Conversational Relevance study. Although hotel guests value location and recreational facilities for the kids, these highly rational concerns are only part of the mix. Guests also chatter online about water pressure in the shower and the view from the room, and about abstractions like a hotel’s culture and cachet.

The bottom line? When it comes to decision-making, whether it’s a hotel room or the destiny of the human race, logic is overrated. Think about it. Rationally, if you can.