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Conference Board wrap-up

By Hampton Bridwell

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Over two days this past week, I had the pleasure of attending the Corporate Image and Branding Conference, put on by the Conference Board. This is my 13th year attending this gathering of senior branding and communications professionals. As I look back, I’m struck by just how much its focus has changed.

Social, social, social.

In a tweet from the floor, I joked that the event should be renamed the “Social Media conference.” It’s clear that communications professionals are fully engaged in this currently hot medium. Roughly 80% of the content focused on the rise and impact of social media, and there were some excellent presentations on its use. Most important, I could see how the knowledge and knowhow in this relatively new area is growing exponentially. Compared to the more exploratory state of 2010, the contrast was striking. While there are still a large number of unknowns around social, it is clear that the value to companies is real and here to stay. The best takeaway: Don’t start with a discussion around “What are we going to do with Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn?” Instead, develop a strategy for social that embodies your brand, is true to your voice and lives in channels that build real and deeply connected relationships. The space is much bigger than the top three and the opportunities are growing by the day.

Intersection of Sustainability

Picking up on the presentation that I gave last year with Lee Green of IBM, I saw that sustainability practices are being more widely adopted by major corporations in the U.S.. This is affecting communications – specifically reporting – but there is a bigger picture being formed. Sustainability is influencing key elements of corporate strategy, brands, image and reputation. Companies like IBM and Apple are extending sustainability concepts into their brand stories. They’re taking action to protect their vibrant and valuable brands for the long haul. The goals: Make the company more appealing to talent, satisfy increasing demands from investors to understand risk and address the interplay of value creation in an interdependent world. The learning curve on sustainability is not too different from that of social media. Interestingly, the two are connected in what we see as a powerful opportunity for leaders. From our perspective, sustainability is good business and incorporated into business strategy, it will ultimately create advocacy with stakeholders and in turn, the brand. Social media is an incredibly powerful tool for that advocacy.

Have a purpose

One of the areas discussed was the idea of purpose. Why? Companies are finding that they need new guideposts to help employees live and be competitive in this instant-feedback, always-on information age. The collision of pervasive information technology, social media, new business platforms and sustainability is changing the very fabric of the corporate brands. And to add to the complexity, there’s strong competition for talent and investment as many developed economies emerge from a global recession. Corporations are being forced to address these new dynamics by reengineering their business and brand strategies. The central change that is that brand strategies are no longer linear in development and execution. The “command and control” approaches that have served so well for decades are less relevant than they once were. Elements as the simple brand promise and positioning are being replaced by bigger, broader concepts. “Purpose-driven brands,” as I call them, serve much better. Companies that have a compelling purpose, formed by their unique aspirations, culture and talents, are gaining an edge. That purpose must link to the needs of people not just consumers. Not surprisingly, those companies that have a higher purpose are the most innovative for customers and are creating higher value for all stakeholders. The best example discussed is IBM and its vision of a Smarter Planet where pervasive data is treated as a new kind of natural resource that can literally change the way everything is done.

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