The role of today’s chief communications executive is undergoing transformation. The rapid convergence of technology, new business models, an ever-shrinking mainstream media landscape, rising employee and investor expectations, the sheer speed of information travel and the always-on connectivity of social media has reached a tipping point. Sound scary – or like just another day at the office?
While senior communicators continue to oversee the day-to-day operations of building and protecting the company’s brand and reputation, the rapidly shifting landscape is forcing chief communications officers (CCOs) to take on new challenges and additional responsibilities. The top communications role is no longer just about having a seat at the table and serving as the conscience of the organization. It’s now about establishing oneself as the CEO’s right hand, helping to steer the enterprise through a constantly churning sea of transformation and disruption.
Fighting on an Ever-Changing Battlefield
According to a 2019 study by the CMO Club, the top two challenges facing corporate brands today are industry disruption and technological change. Marketplaces are anything but static, and the impact of things like artificial intelligence, improved manufacturing processes and innovative models can disrupt entire industries overnight. Case in point: According to the New York Post, a New York City taxi medallion sold for around $1 million on the open market in 2013. By 2019, a mere six years later, the average cost of a medallion had plummeted to between $160,000 and $250,000. This is almost solely due to emerging competition from ride-sharing services such as Lyft and Uber. Industries can — and do — change overnight.
We also see a trend of increasing consolidation within specific markets and industries. According to PwC, as a result of tax law changes, U.S. companies have more available capital now than in previous years. How are they spending it? According to the analysis, companies have increased their spending on capital investments, as well as in R&D, by about 8 percent.
By contrast, spending on M&A has skyrocketed by a whopping 59 percent. And, unlike in the past, when diversification and movement into adjacent industries were the primary drivers of M&A action, the largest deals in 2018 occurred between companies within the same industry. Unless your company is looking to make an acquisition, odds are that someone else in your space is looking to acquire you. This puts constant pressure on an organization. When and if a deal gets done, it’s the communications function that will be on the front line.
An added complication to a successful business strategy is the always-on, 24/7 nature of today’s world. There is no longer a defined news cycle. We live amid a blur of information from champions, critics and bystanders in which discerning “real news” from “false news” becomes ever more challenging. Everyone seems to have an opinion about your company and, thanks to social media, has a channel to share it.
But this always-on environment also holds the potential to usher in a golden age of communications. We now have the tools and technology at our fingertips to communicate with anyone at any time, at any volume and with any degree of personalization. But should we?
Historically, communicators were limited by the technology of the day to specific times and methods of communicating. Today, the only limitations dwell in strategy, content and resources. Companies have an unmatched opportunity to engage audiences in a way that builds awareness, loyalty and business. But it’s not just about staging, segmenting and hyper-targeting. To win the battle, brands need to effectively harness their most powerful weapon to cut through the clutter and disruption: their stories.
The Importance of Storytelling
As humans, we are programmed to learn from stories. They shape how we process and store information to make sense of a constantly changing world. Stories activate our brains in unique ways, set the foundation for learning and serve as powerful vehicles of persuasion.
The earliest stories were told on cave walls, imparting lessons about staying alive, celebrating the thrill of the hunt and teaching future generations about the dangers lurking nearby. As humans and society evolved, the words, pictures and methods for communicating stories became more complex and robust, but the foundational elements of a good story, and the desire to hear one, remained constant.
People crave good stories. Most of us live life just waiting for the next good story to hear and to share. This fundamental human affinity for stories offers skilled communicators an opening to cut through the clutter.
According to a G&S Snap Poll conducted in June 2019, two-thirds of U.S. adults think it’s important for brands to tell great stories. That’s the good news! The bad news is that 55 percent can’t remember hearing one. We have our work cut out for us.
The fictional character Tyrion Lannister probably best summed up the power of storytelling in the series finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones. After eight seasons of fierce battles, warring nobles and mythical beasts, the final decision of who would ascend the coveted Iron Throne and rule the world was determined not by the strongest warrior or most skilled politician. According to Lannister:
“What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? No, it’s stories. There is nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it. Stories tell us our triumphs, our defeats, and our past.”
It was the person with the best story who ultimately won the game. If you were like me, your mouth dropped at this simple, yet defining, summation of the power of stories.
The Corporate Brand, the New Realm of the CCO
As a result of the ever-changing corporate battlefield, with CEOs now endorsing the power of storytelling, communicators gain a new addition to their command: responsibility for the corporate brand. The simple reason? The connective tissue within the organization, and among its stakeholders, is formed by communications and storytelling. Yet notably, the corporate brand remains distinct from reputation and must be observed through a different lens. Beyond mere identity, it should be a source of competitive differentiation and ultimately enterprise transformation, ensuring that the company’s spirit, values and promise are delivered at every interaction. The corporate brand should reflect transparency, authenticity, accountability, experience and the standards that set the company apart in the marketplace – and among employees.
The corporate brand also stands apart from product and technology brands designed to facilitate a specific sale or deliver a particular experience to a customer. Instead, it embodies the totality of all stakeholder touchpoints and experiences with an organization. It singularly represents your enterprise’s operations, practices, policies, strategy and culture. At its core, the corporate brand is the essence of your story. And who better to own and tell the enterprise story than the corporate communications team?
Winning the Game
The key to winning the “Game of Brands” is to create a plan and stick to it. Experience tells us that this plan follows a defined pattern. Business strategy drives brand strategy. Brand strategy informs the brand story. And the brand story inspires the brand expression.
This approach derives its power from linking business strategy to the ultimate brand experience in a meaningful and logical manner. Following such a disciplined plan helps today’s communications leaders more effectively wield the sword of the corporate brand and to do so in a way that complements and builds on the foundation of reputation.
By packaging their unique skills as storytellers and elevating how the enterprise story is told through the lens of the corporate brand, today’s CCOs have an unprecedented opportunity to help their companies seize the advantage and win the game.
Are you ready for battle?
 Online G&S Snap Poll of 577 American consumers ages 18+ from May 31, 2019 to June 1, 2019.