Around the world, corporate brands are being activated like never before, replacing product claims with family values and cultural relevance in 2014 global platforms, like the Sochi Winter Olympics and the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. In the United States, the Super Bowl and college basketball’s March Madness are still dominated by celebrity spokespeople and talking animals for product brands, but social media is starting to level the playing field.

Four in 10 of the 300 respondents to the 2013 global "Reputation Leaders Study" felt like differentiation was easier said than done in a world where the gap between front-end corporate strategy promises and back-end execution returns has never been wider. Nevertheless, one of the top three reputation management priorities for 2014 was developing competitive positioning through the right message in the right channel to the right audience.

Leading companies realize that their own employees and key influencer groups are essential “swing voters” when it comes to keeping existing customers and wooing prospective ones. Let’s take a closer look at how three very different organizations in different industries are coming to grips with leveraging who they are in how they communicate.

One of the top three reputation management priorities for 2014 was developing competitive positioning through the right message in the right channel to the right audience.

Washington Post
2013 was a year of tradition and transformation for the Washington Post and General Manager Stephen Hills. The Washington Post experienced an ownership change to well-known billionaire Jeff Bezos in the rapidly commoditizing newspaper/media industry–but Hills feels like finding new sources of competitive advantage for his organization is both a personal leadership commitment as well as a knowledge management opportunity to stay one step ahead of Politico, Huffington Post and even TMZ.

“In the news business, there is real competition to get the story first–but that sometimes leads to cutting corners and getting the story only partially right because of the ‘need for speed,’ Hills told Reputation Institute. “The Washington Post would rather get the story right and be second but uphold our 140-year-old reputation for probity and objectivity that has led to scores of Pulitzer Prizes than get there first with half a loaf and be forced to issue multiple corrections or admit that one source misled us. Maybe that makes us “uncool” in the eyes of some, but not the audiences that matter most to me: Mr. Bezos, our newsroom and our loyal advertisers and readers.”

For the Washington Post, being able to deliver on its editorial mission and future promises come down to being able to prove to the skeptics that it can be consistent across channels. Hills believes that Bezos’ track record in building out world-class knowledge management from scratch at Amazon will serve the Washington Post well as it turns the corner and enters 2015 with a full head of steam.

As the largest private company in America, Cargill has started to move beyond its comfort zone of individual food brands and towards more enterprise-wide, purpose-driven messaging for the organization in recent years. CMO Paul Hillen knows how difficult differentiation can be in today’s crowded marketplace, but he feels like leading marketers are now in the reputation game for good, actively leveraging the company’s mission to drive external perceptions in 2015.

“It takes 3,000 to 5,000 repetitions to build muscle memory, but 12,000 to 14,000 to unlearn behavior,” Hillen said. “With so much emphasis on product brands historically at Cargill and most large organizations, it is a massive change management exercise to first get employees speaking with one corporate voice and then, choose the market segments and stakeholder groups you want to commercially mobilize on your behalf. But there is nothing we can do about it–the future is here, and it’s time to change their hearts and minds.”

Aiming to create more consistent messages across channels about issues and topics, such as sustainability, is no easy task for a $100 billion company, and Hillen knows that “blocking and tackling” by the knowledge management organization is a critical success factor on Cargill’s reputation journey.

Allstate’s decade-long effort to reinvent insurance from the reputational blowback that ensued in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has borne fruit in recent years. Organizationally, Sanjay Gupta has been in charge of marketing, innovation and corporate relations at Allstate since 2013, and he has spearheaded efforts to bring the 50-year promise of “You’re In Good Hands With Allstate” to life across multiple products, programs and channels.

“Allstate’s senior management provides a mandate for our reputation journey, but we never stop proving the business case for reputation,” Gupta said. “Our reputation strategy leverages stakeholder data to drive targeted engagement and business results. In fact, the product development behind our Good Hands Roadside Assistance, targeting non-customers, and the Allstate Claims Satisfaction Guarantee, for customers, were both heavily influenced by reputation concerns and expectations from multiple audiences. We also see it play out in rolling out highly tailored local community programs to preserve and expand our license to operate.”

However, the remarkable transformation of the Allstate Technology Support Center (ATSC) between 2012 and 2014 has also been a major driver in Allstate’s reputation rebound. By focusing on critical success factors, like executive commitment, enhanced measurement and reporting, building the support organization, robust performance and recognition systems and rapid enablement of self-service, the ATSC is an unsung hero in making sure Allstate mitigates reputation risk across multiple channels and communications.

While there is no guarantee of future success for the Washington Post, Cargill or Allstate on their reputation journeys, each organization has learned that finding its corporate voice can unify warring internal factions and start to win over hardened, external skeptics. Knowledge management is an often overlooked aspect of proactive reputation management, but this monthly column will focus its efforts this year in shining a brighter light on the intersection of document strategy and corporate strategy before, during and after the
DOCUMENT Strategy Forum in May 2015.

John Patterson is a NY-based senior advisor at Reputation Institute where he has been responsible for thought leadership and global account strategies for the consulting firm since 2010. Follow Reputation Institute on Twitter @Reputation_Inst.


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