Don’t Launch Your PR Campaign Before Having a Brand Platform!

The way most people approach PR is through tips & tactics.

We talk about finding the right journalists, writing a good press release, setting email templates, choosing good tools. We talk about the information gap, good titles, the RIBS test, virality or perfect one-sentence pitch.
[Edit: I receive this great suggestion from Thomas Owadenko, that used it with successfully for Octoly]

I won’t point my finger at anyone since I’m the first to do so. I even made a presentation about tactics for PR(you’ll find it at the end of the article).

However, this approach tend to put the top of the pyramid into light, while making us forget the very core. When you have a tough execution of great tactics, you end up having lots of press coverage for the most significant milestone of your company: launch, product release, fundraising, and other key milestones. Yet relying too much on tactics expose you to a great danger.

Giacomini Christian, founder of Rumeur Publique, one of the leading French agency specialized in influence, who works for many brands (Auchan Direct, Salesforce.com, Stripe, Dropbox, Nest, Talend) and start-ups (Younited Credit (ex Prêt d’union), AramisAuto, Dashlane, Lokéo, IbanFirstnamed) named this danger the “Death Valley“. He even sent me an impressive drawing to make sure I got his point. I don’t feel like I should comment the idea any longer, should I?

So the question is, how do we avoid the Death Valley? (and this kind of drawing)

Building the Brand Platform

The answer: build your brand platform. This is often said. Sometimes understood. Not so often done.

But what is a brand platform, you ask?

A brand platform is a living document that establishes the foundation for the organization’s identity. Every platform doesn’t look like exactly the same, but they are composed of the same essential pillars:

  • a vision (what your brand hope to achieve in the long run),
  • a mission (how your brand vision will be achieved)
  • values (principes, behaviour and manners)
  • a personality & a tone of voice
  • a position (desired position among competitor in its category)

Celina Barahona, CEO of SoCult, a studio “that shapes cult brands & brand cultures“ told me: “We all get the impression that branding is an old skill that most companies master. This is not true. Most companies don’t have a brand platform. Some of them have some of it. Some of them have nothing at all. Communication in most companies are still structured and thought around campaigns.“

A campaign being the peak before the Death valley.

She adds: “Branding is originally something visual. And what is seen is well managed. But what’s unseen is more complex. When you ask C-level “who are you?“, they often answer “Here is what we do. Here is what we say”. I might infer some of your personality through your behaviour, but it’s not just for fun that psychologists are making training analysis.”

It’s not just for fun that psychologists are making training analysis

The message is quite clear: you need to do the introspection to truly know who you are and to chose who you want to become. You can’t just write your résumé and tell yourself “job’s done”. Socrate wouldn’t be proud of you.

Grégoire Lucas, a partner in the strategic communication agency Image 7, who offers advice to big brands (Accor, Google, Kering, Cisco…) and startups (Openclassroom, Kartable, Oyst, Melty, Smartme up..), is supporting the idea: “It’s tough for a leader to take the time to stop and reflect. But there is a need to escape from the short term and the continuous flow of news. This is a necessity for a good communication“

He insists on the strategic component of brand platforms: “You need to know where you are and where you want to go. If you have a strategy, it’s not that hard to build a coherent brand platform. But the common pitfall is to do the opposite. You can’t tell B if you are A. People won’t believe. Or at least they won’t believe it very long: it’s like love, people need proofs.“

If you have a strategy, it’s not that hard to build a coherent brand platform.

For Grégoire, communication is useful only in two cases: when you are A and you need to make sure people know you are A; when you became B and people still think you are A. Communication is about finding stories, words, metaphors to talk about a state of things.

At that step, I was thinking to myself: “well, shouldn’t we just build a strategy and start working on campaigns?”. And I believe this is doable. But it might not be the most efficient way to do so.

Célina, of SoCult, warns me “In fact, a brand platform is very useful to save us time. You don’t need to start all again every time you have a communication issues or every time you want to start a campaign. Once you have a brand book [a more comprehensive version of a brand platform, where you find the style guide and the editorial platform, focused on the expression territories and key messages], you just execute. It’s like what you do with your style guide, but it’s not about templates and icons, it’s about tone and messages. And it makes sure your communication is consistent overtime.

Ok, that seem like a good idea. But, how to do it in practice?

How To Build The Brand Platform Concretely?

For Christian Giacomini, of Rumeur Publique, building a platform requires going through several steps. Everything begins with the exploration of the ecosystem around the company. “You need to have a clear understanding of the different stakeholders, how they behave, how they are related, what are their incentives, how do they learn and communicate, etc.“ And this ecosystem has to be put into the broader picture: what are the macro-trends, the shift of usages, the political context, the legal frameworks. “It is an ongoing process of research.

On one side you have the reports and the data; on the other side you need to make interview of real people to gain specific insights, to know what are their true perceptions about the ecosystem and the company in particular. This requires to work like strategic consultant with the best knowledge and understanding of the ecosystem and its trends.”

You need to have a clear understanding of the different stakeholders […] and this ecosystem has to be put into the broader picture.

Only when this exploration is done, you can start the working of building the brand platform with the people inside the company. There are several frameworks and exercises that are useful to verbalize the vision, the mission, the values, etc. We like to ask our clients 5 questions: “Who are you?”, “Where is your brand?”, “Where is your brand going?”, “How to tell it?”, “How to make sure it is heard?”. They also love to use what they called the Starck’s Stack. The famous French designer Philippe Starck once said in a radio interview that to work properly, he needed to align his vision and his ethics, to build concepts that will be embodied in projects which will eventually lead to objects.

So Christian is asking his clients to tell him their vision, their ethics, their principles & concepts, their projects and their product & services. And they make sure everything is well aligned.

Célina, for her part, likes to ask people to write about their company as it was a character in a fiction. What would he be like? How would he behave? How would he speak?

Synchronizing everyone in the room is never easy. And it takes always longer than people would imagine. There is an unavoidable stage where you only speak with jargon.“ Grégoire Lucas tells me: “you need to make sure people don’t let themselves trapped with platitudes.“

“you need to make sure people don’t let themselves trapped with platitudes.“

For that Célina Barahona has a tip. “I ask them to talk to me like I was a kid. Give me concretes exemples with your activity, your touchpoints, about real experiences, from employees, from consumers. Talk to me about narratives“

The three of them told me the same thing over and over: communication is about seeing clearly where you are and where you want to be. And to do so you need external checks. You need to talk to the clients, the stakeholders. You need to understand the usages and perceptions in the real world.

Communication is about seeing clearly where you are and where you want to be.

One other trap is to fail having a good positioning. Célina comments: “you need to stop using only codes from your category. In the attention economy, you need to step up your game. To learn from the best. Look at gaming, movies, series. Learn from professional storytellers, learn from iconic brands that shaped the pop culture.

She adds: “eventually, you have to have a consistent brand. Schizophrenia is everywhere in the business world, especially in the biggest companies. People need to talk to each other: between the departments, between the business units but also within teams. Even people in executive committee might not have the same perception of their brand.”

Once we have managed to do all of that (Ding! You reach level 98), once you have your identity in consistency with your business objectives, you can focus on the editorial side of your brand book.

Célina told me about two of the crash tests she likes to use. The first one is a cover magazine, like Monocle. “Why the journalist would put your company on cover? What angle would he chose? What would be the title? What story would he tell?“ The second one is a simulated press conference. “You have the stage for you in front of all the top journalists worldwide: what would you say?“

This helps you avoid thinking in terms of what you want to say, but in terms of what the public is willing to read. Having that in mind and choosing the right territories of expression are surely the two key success factor for a good editorial strategy. In the P&G era, we used to say that repetition leads to memorization. You cannot just repeat the same message over and over now. But you need to have a pattern of communication, which is only the expression of your brand platform.”

You need to have a pattern of communication, which is only the expression of your brand platform

Last advices before take-off

The bigger danger of building a brand platform would be to forget making it evolve. In our last post, we talked about the Red Queen Effect, which is one of the key reason why an organization is never stabilise. Yet communication sometimes is lagging behind. For Grégoire Lucas, “advisers need to remind their clients to “wake up and smell the coffee”. If there is a gap too big between what people think they are and what journalists tell, there can be only two options: either you don’t see clearly what you are (and you need to work on your strategy) or your communication is flawed. Advisers have two missions: (a) help people realize where they are; (b) optimize their messages.”

Advisers have two missions: (a) help people realize where they are; (b) optimize their messages.”

He adds “Oftentimes, when you tell your story you go back to the genesis of the idea. But it could be misleading. When your company evolve, or when the market evolve, you might need to adapt the story. Identity building is an ongoing process.”

Bottom line: brand platform matters a lot, because it helps you pause, look inside you and around you to save time later and optimize your communication. Yet communication is grounded on empathy, intuition and adaptability, so you need to use a brand platform for what they are: a catalyzer, not a prison.

As promised, my presentation about tactics for good PR: