Towards a new corporate communication.
Multiple and hybrid crises (climatic, ecological, health, financial ...), political discredit, search for a new paradigm, questioning of elites, erosion of brand images, social and environmental concerns, slowing of growth, precariousness, communitarianism, institutional mistrust, moral crisis, withdrawal, frustrating schizophrenic search between community aspirations and individual achievements, between regulation and free enterprise ...
... the world is changing, corporate communication must change too, it must make its cultural revolution.
Today's major geopolitical challenges, the instantaneousness of the vertiginous correlation between financial, economic, social and political crises, the disappearance of economic and ecological borders, have made public opinion and decision-makers aware of the irresistible interconnection of phenomena. The complexity and interactions of contemporary issues are now everyone's business. It is now up to all stakeholders (international organisations, States, governments, local authorities, companies, trade unions, associations, the media, citizens, etc.) to work together to define convergent solutions. Hierarchy is disappearing in favour of a collaborative approach, we are moving from a vertical world to a horizontal world in which the question is no longer to choose but to associate.
The disappearance of borders creates porosity between our lives
Let us look at what we are experiencing. Two phenomena are to be considered absolutely major insofar as they incite us to define a new paradigm: ecological crisis and financial crisis. These phenomena at the beginning of the 21st century are major because they reveal our "humanity", our common destiny in the sense of a community of men and women, well beyond territorial, national, religious or community identities. There is porosity between our nations, between our lives, between our identities, our aspirations, our decisions. The financial crisis crossed the Atlantic in 2008, just as some clouds crossed the Alps in 1986, and men broke down walls in 1989. In other words, borders, despite the new protectionist aspirations, are a maligned species. From this point of view, globalisation is therefore also a form of re-humanisation, in the sense of revealing our common destiny. Even wars, like terrorism, no longer have borders, no longer take place on front lines that we could draw on maps, everything has become simultaneous and ubiquitous. As a result, and as we can regularly see through planetary social movements or immediately global news, everything unites and solidifies us, and simultaneously, because of the anxiety-inducing nature of the issues we face, everything opposes us and pushes us into isolation. If this second phenomenon can be considered as a reaction - or an attempt to react - let us consider that the basic trend, the real new phenomenon that we are experiencing in our unconscious consciousness, is the first: what unites us now prevails over what opposes us, and this despite the often misleading appearances.
As a corollary, in the fields of marketing and communication, let's say in the life of brands and companies, the partition between corporate communication and 'commercial' communication, between the company and the brand, between the citizen and the consumer, is also breaking down. All of this has "gone out the window". This is all the more true as current constraints are pushing for a rational and pragmatic awareness: corporate responsibility and its expression in terms of communication is resolutely reasoned and pragmatic. Corporate communication must not please, it must sell... an idea, a product, a service, a behaviour, a programme, a reputation... Corporate communication is an approach to differentiation and attractiveness. In this sense, thinking of it as disconnected from the advertiser's other communication strategies is often the first strategic mistake. Corporate is at the service of the product, and vice versa. The more mature the markets, the more difficult it is to create differentiation and attractiveness based on the attributes of the offer alone. Consequently, "corporate attributes" (brand equity, projective force, exemplarity, loyalty, proximity, sympathy capital, etc.) must be used as "institutional bonuses", especially in difficult times. It is these 'little' things that will make a position credible when it is so easy to call everything into question; that will encourage loyalty when so many new offers encourage people to flutter around; that will cushion bad news when 'business' calls for boycotts; that will make customers the first standard-bearers when it is so costly to recruit new ones; and internally motivated employees when it is pointless to try to make disengaged people creative and innovative. Tomorrow's leaders are those who have turned their corporate reputation into a competitive advantage.
From the welfare state to welfare enterprises
Stakeholders, including private companies and public institutions, have new responsibilities. Brands are increasingly talking to citizens, while political actors are increasingly talking to consumers. Potentially receptive audiences are changing, becoming both receivers and transmitters, and above all more informed and demanding. What if what 'people' say about the brand has become more important than what the brand says about itself? Corporate communication is changing, and so is the tone of corporate communication. The ecological and financial crises are crises of loss of reference points and values, they are also crises resulting from the inability to detect and react to weak signals, they are crises resulting from disrespectful and pretentious behaviour. Today, communicating on a corporate level means adopting a posture of modesty and sincerity, where actions must precede announced commitments, where the ability to listen is as important as the message delivered.
But beware, the end of the corporate monopoly does not authorise anarchic monopoly. On the contrary, it is enough for the boundaries to dissipate between the citizen and the consumer, between the offer and the strategy, for this need for coherence to once again become a communication imperative, but above all an essential architectural rule for connecting the different ways in which the brand speaks, in order to finally give them perspective, echoes and resonance.
It is because corporate communication should not be considered in isolation and disconnected from the brand that it is essential to spread the spirit and expertise of corporate communication throughout all the communication expertise at the service of the brand, because if no one has a monopoly on corporate communication, then corporate communication will be all the more beneficial to everyone. Moreover, at a time when more than ever it is necessary to learn from different points of view, to draw lessons from related approaches and to avoid losing information, multi-culturalism is becoming a source of creative inspiration and a lever for efficiency.
There must be coherence, a 'positive resonance', between the product and the brand, between the external and the internal, between the commercial and the corporate. Any offer intrinsically conveys a corporate dimension, through its more or less innovative, relevant, reliable and attractive character. A customer/user/administrator relationship obviously has a corporate dimension. These small, everyday customer experiences reveal (often much more than the big speeches of major campaigns) the way in which the brand considers its customers. It is this indirect message, often not even pronounced, not deliberate, which will often constitute the memorial trace, it is an indirect, diverted corporate communication, perceived without being formulated.
Reasoned and pragmatic corporate communication
Corporate communication serves the attractiveness of the offer, the market share, the capacity to seduce. Why, with equal performance, are we more convinced by one brand than another? Why do we prefer the generic of a laboratory we know? Why do consumers buy more private label yoghurts? They don't force themselves to buy bad products (!), they are convinced that they are as good or even better, they trust these brands, and conversely "believe" less in the quality differential of other offers. All commentators and political actors have widely commented on the financial crisis as a crisis of 'trust'. Trust is a corporate attribute, not a supply-side attribute. The current crisis is a corporate crisis. The solution to the crisis will be the corporate revaluation of the relationship to private and public institutions.
The current climate of suspicion and even distrust of politicians, but also of companies, in a context marked by a questioning of the "economic model" and by the revelation of irresponsible behaviour does not, paradoxically, diminish the level of expectations and demands of public opinion in terms of "corporate governance", ethics, eco-citizenship, etc. In other words, the general public and opinion leaders, who are often critical and sceptical of companies, are nevertheless neither resigned nor fatalistic about the societal role that companies can and must play.
This expectation is particularly strongly expressed by employees who wish to "find themselves" in the values and commitments of their employer and the group they represent. But here too, the challenge must be posed in a pragmatic and rational manner: at a time when competition is fierce, when the capacity for innovation must be stimulated, when company strategies must meet with support and enthusiasm, corporate communication with respect to the internal staff is an essential tool for overall performance.
Resonance and dissonance
It is difficult to measure the impact of corporate perception, but it is obvious that a corporate void in a relationship with the brand or public issuer is unfavourable to the relationship of proximity and the capacity to adhere to the discourse. A critical corporate relationship with an issuer will also be strong enough to call into question any argument or offer, whatever its quality. The quality of the corporate relationship must be considered as an asset that amplifies (or inhibits) the other elements of the discourse and the offer.
We have entered an era where the risk of dissonance is a risk to sustainability and effectiveness. This risk must be approached with vigilance insofar as it can emerge at any time and from any place. It can start with a communication strategy that clashes with current political and social events, with a product attribute that is inconsistent with an environmental position, with a dissatisfied user starting a devastating online community buzz, etc.
In such a context, corporate communication, but above all the relationship with the issuer that it must create and maintain, plays a role of life insurance, of guarantee, sometimes of shock absorber.
Public opinion has changed, and behind it the whole of society, because contrary to popular belief, opinion often precedes rather than follows. Moreover, reasonably speaking, no 'great' strategist today can claim to have had any predictive talent in recent times. Returning to values also means returning to the common sense of a great, very great, capacity to listen. Beyond words, this means that we must now consider each client, consumer, user, and administrator as a partner and as a watchdog. Listening to each of them can lead to the ability to detect weak signals, some of which will be tomorrow's trends. It is no longer tenable to imagine one-way communication, but beware, not for technological reasons, on the pretext that other vectors are available, but for reasons of efficiency: "people" no longer believe in it, are not fooled, and are developing their own expertise and opinions.
Aspirational, sincere and credible corporate communication
The general public, and of course the company's stakeholders, are aware of the constraints imposed on private and public players. But this does not mean that the dream has disappeared, on the contrary, never before has the quest for an ideal, almost revolutionary, been so strong, but it is a call for a rational dream, the dream we believe in, an aspirational dream, but accessible, a kind of daydream. It is a revolutionary approach insofar as corporate communication, rational and pragmatic, must also be emotional and know how to create a strong capacity for projection and adhesion. This is achieved by reinventing its mode of expression, the idealising and boastful prism is gone. Today, the 'courage' of the new corporate thinking consists of considering that assumed weaknesses will reinforce the power of the assets, when weaknesses that are hidden - but decoded by all - reduce the assets to nothing.
Corporate communication consultancy must have the strength to burst the bubble, to place the sender in unison with its audiences. Corporate communication is first and foremost a posture before it is a message.
Public institutions and private advertisers now have a related and converging challenge in the corporate dimension, that of being the guarantors of their public, social, economic, health and environmental responsibilities. The missions of educator, change agent and guarantor of results are no longer the prerogative of one or the other. All of them must act within a logic of efficiency and public service mission. For both public institutions and private actors, the current period is one of change in terms of missions assigned, assumed and expected, perhaps even more so for private actors.
The institutional dimension as an element of sustainable differentiation.
Faced with the need for differentiation, it is a question of restoring value to brands via differentiating and exclusive elements, while integrating the entry into the phenomenon of dissymmetry: if bad quality is a handicap, good quality is no longer an advantage when it is considered (rightly or wrongly) as acquired or common. Similarly, innovation remains imperative in a logic of race ahead and one-upmanship, but every innovation is destined to be temporary by being outdated or copied. A "real" innovation never remains the exclusive property of a brand for very long. The brand must consider its corporate capital as an intangible, perennial and exclusive base, beyond fashions and launches. Its role is to provide that "plus", that "bonus", which will make the difference if the product or service alone no longer does. This is why the corporate dimension should also be considered as an essential attribute of strategic marketing. From this long-term point of view, corporate communication is also an 'economic' communication strategy, which is also quite 'revolutionary'. Indeed, as a powerful and lasting foundation, corporate attributes are a support for every communication campaign, every speech. A product will have less effort to make to claim this or that benefit or attribute if these dimensions are carried throughout the year ... a new Apple product is necessarily innovative. We are indeed in the business of articulation, of mutual support, of decompartmentalisation. But if this corporate attribute of the Appel brand has been built for years by the products, it is also an attribute that is eroding because of products that are perhaps considered less innovative today. In other words, the hero will always be the product, the corporate cannot be an income if it is not regularly fed by reality, by facts, by actions. The ideal is of course for the corporate and the product to 'work' together and combine their strengths. This was the case with Steve Jobs - Appel - iPhone, it is even more so today with the example of Elon Musk - Tesla - Model S. A triptych Man-Mark-Product where the contributions of each entity resonate to build a unique global dimension. Elon Musk has a mission ... which is not to sell cars, but to fight against global warming; Tesla is the tool that must accomplish this mission by revolutionizing the automobile market; the Model S (in the vanguard followed by the other models) is the product that makes this mission possible, attractive and shared.
Fleeing the risks of dissonance, corporate communication today must resonate positively through its different modes of expression, in dialogue with the different stakeholders, in order to succeed in turning 'institutional preference' into a competitive advantage.
Alain Renaudin, president and founder of NewCorp Conseil, founder of Biomim'expo.