PR Winners: The Best Stories of 2018

For public relations and reputation experts, it’s easy to point out the brands and personalities who mishandled bad news or missed opportunities after public mistakes. Our list of the PR losers of the past 12 months is out, but what about the good news stories of the year? Here are my nominations for the best, most skillful, or just plain luckiest PR moves of 2018.

Parkland students keep the story alive

A tragedy like the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida will always dominate the news cycle — that is, until it doesn’t. Eventually the media and the public move on. Yet this time, a handful of student activists accomplished something difficult even for PR professionals – they maintained the story’s momentum.

The teens used their social media skills and journalistic savvy to quickly raise funds for future events, plan out media-oriented appearances, and offer an updated story for journalists and news crews.

First came a White House meeting, followed by a CNN town hall and a 17-minute school walkout in March. Things culminated in the March For Our Lives on the 24th – offering compelling visuals and fresh sound bites. Unlike other groups, like the bereaved parents of Sandy Hook, the teens didn’t hesitate to target the NRA and Congress directly. They knew the press would want new faces for interviews, so they organized a deep bench of media-savvy spokespersons and messages for journalists and news crews. A professional PR and social media team couldn’t have planned it better. The kids are all right – and I’m betting they’re not done yet.

Nike scores with Kaepernick

Marketers may have differing opinions on Nike’s brand advertising campaign around former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick this year. After all, the campaign sparked protests by those who took issue with Kaepernick’s refusal to kneel during the national anthem before games. But for sheer dominance of the news cycle, it was a clear winner. Not only that, but the brand surely knows its audience, and those aged 18 to 34 approved of its decision by a 67-21 margin, even as older voters disagreed. What may have been most impressive about the campaign was the surprise factor; Nike had maintained a lengthy silence about Kaepernick, who was actually signed to the brand since 2011, throughout months of protests, quietly re-signing him just before the deal was set to expire.

“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,”  was a powerful tagline. Did the revelation that it was planned well in advance undermine Kaepernick’s status as an exile and the “sacrifice” alluded to in the ads? Maybe, but the campaign’s omnipresence crushed everything else in the news cycle. According to Bloomberg, Nike generated $43 million in earned media and social buzz for its campaign in the first 24 hours after it was launched. Now, that’s a testament to the power of PR.

IHOP serves up a PR prank

If somebody had told me a year ago that IHOP would dominate social media channels with a prank re-branding as a burger chain, I wouldn’t have believed it. But the temporary transition from IHOP to IHOb dished up humor, suspense, a little nostalgia, and an extra dollop of controversy. The whole thing turned out to be a recipe for PR success. IHOP cleverly started things off by changing out some signage at select locations and flipping the “p” in its social media branding to a “b” without explanation, sparking speculation about what the letter might stand for.

Twitter critics jeered when it followed with the “news” that it was rebranding as International House of Burgers, of course. But there was a method – and a message – to IHOP’s madness. It wrapped the announcement around its plan to be known as a lunch and dinner chain, not just a stop for breakfast. And when was the last time someone was talking about IHOP anyway? Well done, IHOP, no matter how you spell it.

KFC’s colorful mea culpa 

IHOP wasn’t the only winning brand in the food service category. This year a regional ad campaign created as a customer apology after the UK unit of KFC ran out of chicken made international news. The campaign blended earned, paid, and owned media with spicy humor, self-awareness, and a cleverly crafted apology that stopped just short of being NSFW.

When it found itself in the embarrassing position of having no chicken for customers, KFC took on a humble, yet suitably British-flavored tone in its response. To soothe ruffled feathers, it posted cheeky notes on the doors of shuttered restaurants apologizing for “teething problems” with a new supplier. A webpage enabled UK customers to access updates about stores in their areas. Then the UK chain cooked up an extraordinary ad that ran in two daily newspapers. For most brands, the logo is sacrosanct, but KFC scrambled its initials in a shocking “FCK” headline that grabbed everyone’s attention and made the whole campaign work. It delivered on all fronts — as an apology to customers and franchise owners, as a creative expression of frustration, and a show of brand personality. It’s a useful reminder that, through creativity and quick decision-making, it’s possible to turn bad publicity into good PR.

ABC takes a stand  

It seems like a long time ago now, maybe because so many crisis situations have befallen media and entertainment brands (looking at you, CBS) but ABC Entertainment Group, then led by president Channing Dungey, deserves credit for its courageous and very quick decision to pull the plug on the successful reboot of its “Roseanne” series earlier this year. It’s easy to end a show or terminate a contract when it has fallen short, or when only a hefty payout is at stake. But in this case, the revived “Roseanne” was a true ratings hit, with huge future earning power for the network as the most watched new series of the season. It was renewed after only one episode and was ranked second in total viewers of all entertainment programs.

Yet when Roseanne Barr tweeted racist insults as part of a bizarre Twitter feud with former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, ABC swiftly canceled the show. There was no apparent hesitation, no poll-tested apologies, no mealy-mouthed mea culpa, just a corporate statement that was pitch-perfect. (Honorary mention to Sanofi for its rapid response to Barr’s tweet blaming her insult on Ambien. “Racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication,” from a major pharma company was real-time-marketing gold.)

Starbucks walks the talk

One of the things I admire most about brand Starbucks is its willingness to lead on issues that are both risky and difficult. After the manager of a Philadelphia Starbucks called the police on two African-American customers who took a table before ordering anything, the video of their arrest went viral, and the brand had a grande crisis in the making. Its initial response, in the form of a tweet a full day later, was slow and inadequate to the anger brewing after the incident. A formal apology issued the next day ignored the elephant in the room — the fact that the men were most likely treated differently from other customers  because of their race. Yet, true to its brand character, once it fully grasped the community and reputation impact of the incident, Starbucks engaged fully, leveraging its size, presence, and brand voice.

Two days after the arrests, the company issued formal apologies, both on social platforms and through media interviews and a CEO video condemning the “reprehensible” actions based on race. Starbucks followed up by announcing it would close 8000 stores on May 29 for a half-day of employee education around racial bias. Did it abolish racism with the partner education commitment? Of course not, but to its credit, it’s one of the few major brands that consistently talks up its values and, when challenged, takes the steps to live up to them.

Payless tweaks influencer culture

With all the moves from brands that addressed sobering issues like racial injustice or gun violence, it was refreshing to see marketing PR news made by the Payless shoe brand. Payless doesn’t attract a lot of third-party notice or make much news, but last month it pulled off a pretty brilliant stunt that worked as a legitimate marketing campaign.  In yet another of the successful brand pranks of 2018, Payless took over an old Armani boutique, renamed it “Palessi,” and stocked the shelves with its typical bargain-priced merchandise. Then, in a masterful PR stoke, it invited high-end fashion “influencers” to a special luxury footwear opening sale. The special guests unwittingly bought $20 shoes for $200 to $600 while raving about their quality and style — all captured on video for paid ads.

The ploy generated earned media coverage that cleverly reinforced the Payless brand promise of decent style for a great price, which was a strategic win for the brand. It also worked as a tweak of fashion influencer culture. The “experts” came off as posturing snobs, and the stunt was a reminder for those in the game that all influencers aren’t created equal. Beyond having lots of followers, a true influencer should be credible, with authentic expertise and legitimate appeal relevant to any brand it promotes. At a time when top brands are concerned about digital fraud as well as inflated ROI figures for influencers, it was a perfect fit.

The Thai cave rescue brought us together

It wasn’t a PR campaign, but the rescue of 12 young soccer players and their coach from a cave in northern Thailand tops my list of inspiring 2018 events that offered real-life storytelling lessons. It had all the classic elements: innocent children in peril; a true hero’s journey to their rescue; and a sense that we were all united in hoping for the best possible outcome.

There was more than one hero here, and there was a big twist to the story. At the point where it should have ended – the boys’ discovery by British divers after a nine-day search – the cave narrative was just beginning. When we realized the rescue would be risky, complicated, and perhaps impossible, everything changed. Our attention was divided between the boys and their soccer coach and the teams of rescuers who risked their lives to bring them out safely.

In its management of media relations, the Thai authorities seemed to follow the playbook from the successful 2010 rescue of the Chilean miners who were trapped underground for two months as the world waited and watched. The Thai rescuers were careful to paint the situation as grave, working to manage expectations, correcting the inevitable errors in reporting, and accepting expert help while maintaining control of the news flow.

Above all, it was an against-all-odds narrative that pitted a small number of rescuer “Davids” against a Goliath of terrifying natural power. In the face of worsening conditions and sudden setbacks —  torrential downpours, dropping oxygen levels inside the cave, and the death of an experienced volunteer, we weren’t confident of the outcome, but who wasn’t gratified to see light at the end of the tunnel?

In Bold Move, ABC Boots Roseanne Reboot

There were bigger stories breaking on the Tuesday after Memorial Day, but on social media the news was all about Roseanne. It started with @therealroseanne’s revolting tweet about former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. The post was bizarre, horrible, and nakedly racist, but at the risk of sounding cynical, I didn’t think anything much would happen as a result. I was wrong, and I couldn’t be happier about that. Not just because ABC did the right thing, but because of what I think it means.

By now there’s a numbing familiarity to the cultural outrage cycle, especially on Twitter. A celebrity (or possibly the president) tweets something offensive, and it triggers a backlash from other celebrities, pundits, media, and active social media users. Cable news shows are pumped with fresh material, indignant ripostes bounce around the internet, and boycotts are launched. Most of the time it’s sound and fury that signifies very little beyond how divided we are, how much time we spend on social media, or how tough it is to fill the cable talk cycle.

This time, however, things were a bit different. The tweet about Valerie Jarrett wasn’t @therealroseanne’s first offensive post. It wasn’t even the first racist one. But it was the one that brought swift consequences, both for the star and her future income stream. ABC’s announcement that it would cancel the Roseanne reboot just hours after her offensive tweet wasn’t just surprising, but it skipped several steps in the typical outrage cycle. Roseanne did apologize and delete her tweet, but ABC cut straight to the chase, avoiding a painful drip-drip of negative coverage and threatened ad boycotts. It not only canceled the show, but it took a clear public position against the ugly racism of her tweet, calling it “abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values.”

What’s more, the ABC decision was quickly followed by a tweet from Roseanne’s talent agency, ICM, that it had dropped her. Then came the news that Hulu would remove the old show from its library, joining Viacom and its channels in pulling all Roseanne reruns. One after another, the dominoes fell.

Maybe it was the fact that the rebooted show’s ratings had declined by the end of its season. Or it could be that ABC was ultimately exasperated with Roseanne’s erratic and bigoted behavior. But Roseanne was the network’s top show, and I like to think that its swift move heralds a tipping point. Like the #metoo movement, which was a long time in coming, it’s just possible that we’ve had enough of racism, or to be precise, of people who think it’s okay to tweet racist or bigoted thoughts in the guise of humor.

Even Sanofi, the maker of Ambien, got into the mix after @TheRealRoseanne tweeted Wednesday morning, blaming her original racist post on “ambien tweeting.”

Importantly to those of us in the PR business, the swift death of Roseanne is another case of a corporate brand stepping up where you might not have expected it. Sure, the show’s ratings had leveled off, but the rebooted Roseanne vehicle was the number-one show at ABC and the most successful new sitcom in years. Roseanne herself headlined the network’s upfront meeting presentation to advertisers just two weeks ago.

By way of explaining ABC’s decision in the face of a $60 million revenue loss, several have pointed to the fact that Channing Dungey, its relatively new entertainment president, is an African American woman. And that may be part of it, but I posit that this wouldn’t have happened the same way a year ago. Heck, it may not have happened even a month ago. And it feels good not to be jaded about this one.

On the very Tuesday that Starbucks closed 8000 stores for racial bias training, a bigoted star performer got what was coming to her, and the corporate entities involved didn’t even seem to flinch. And in the midst of a shambolic administration where presidential opinions and conspiracies are tweeted as fact, and faith in institutions from government to media is shaky, corporations are stepping in to assert their values – and maybe even remind us of ours.

When Brands Get Political: Is It Good PR?

PR.TweetA couple of weeks ago, I was called by two journalists wanting public relations insights on companies hit with blowback for comments about our new president. Should brands get political, they wanted to know? I shared my perspective that brands shouldn’t always shy away from controversy, summarizing with, “You can’t put your head in a hole, shrink back, and avoid the entire dialogue.”

The quote seems almost quaint after this weekend’s events. Social and media channels were blazing following the president’s executive order restricting travel to the U.S. from seven primarily Muslim countries. Even for those favoring a tighter refugee policy, the execution of the ban, which stranded travelers and caused confusion at airports and among government agencies, left a lot to be desired. But for the public relations community, the instant reaction of many large companies also signaled a change in our little world. For major brands, it’s getting harder sit on the sidelines.

Pressure to speak out, but risk either way

On Saturday, Uber stepped over a picket line when it failed to honor a New York City taxi strike in solidarity with those affected by the travel ban. #DeleteUber began trending almost instantly. Rival Lyft was quick to ride into the breach by pledging a $1 million donation to the ACLU, which dispatched lawyers to assist those stranded in airports and elsewhere. Then, Airbnb’s Brian Chesky announced his company would offer lodging to refugees stranded by the ban.

As outrage grew, more tech companies spoke out against Trump’s action, and Google’s Sergey Brin even showed up at a protest at San Francisco airport. Brin, who emigrated from the Soviet Union at the age of six, emphasized that his motive was personal, but there wasn’t much doubt where Google stands on the order. CEO Sundar Pichai announced a $4 million “crisis fund” and criticized the ban in an internal email, calling it “painful to see the personal cost of this executive order on our colleagues.”

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings capped the outcry by calling the ban “un-American” and Slack cofounder Stewart Butterfield tweeted that “every action seems gratuitously evil.” In one of the more dramatic commitments, Starbucks’ Howard Schultz — never one to shrink from a principled position — vowed to hire 10,000 refugees in 75 countries over the next five years. Schultz’s announcement, naturally, triggered a #boycottStarbucks hashtag that trended throughout the day Monday.

All this in the first 48 hours after the executive order. Certainly, large technology companies are invested in a progressive immigration policy and it’s in their interest to make those views known and to reassure their workforce. Studies show that CEO activism is safest – and probably most effective – when it involves issues with direct relevance to their business. But the new administration is setting up daily challenges for all kinds of companies and their leadership, as well as the communications teams who advise them. As the Trump administration moves forward, it will be critical for major brands to carve out their own positions on a range of hot-button topics.

A cost for remaining silent

There are risks in taking a stand on any controversial matter, particularly in our divisive political environment. You’ll never please everyone, and dealing with the inevitable customer response is a distraction from the day-to-day business at hand. An errant quote or hasty decision can precipitate a social boycott or worse. And as we’ve seen, a nasty tweet from Mr. Trump can cause a public company’s stock to drop.

But there’s also a cost in remaining silent. It’s more subtle, but it’s there, and it’s looming larger these days. Especially for our biggest and most socially visible corporations – from global technology companies to major consumer brands – the expectations are growing. Look at the pressure on Sheryl Sandberg, who until very recently had not spoken publicly about Trump’s policies or rhetoric. Expectations of business leaders, particularly those who’ve articulated social values, are very high. They’re driven even higher by those who set an example, like the CEOs who spoke out over the weekend on the immigration EO, or the many who publicly condemned North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” last year. Both situations evoked a response that merged business concerns and social values, and both grabbed public attention for the companies involved.

Millennials expect more

Another reason for the growing pressure on big brands to speak out is that most crave the approval of millennials, the customers of today and the future. This rising generation wants to know where the brands they support stand on key issues, and they’re quick to use the power of their pocketbook to support, or punish, where they see fit.

So, what’s a brand to do? The task for most organizations is to understand the attitudes and values of their own employees, customers, and other stakeholders on high-priority social and political matters. Their engagement with their best customers and advocates should transcend traditional marketing and PR research to work at a gut level. Then they must articulate their own corporate values relevant to burning issues and communicate them consistently and thoughtfully.

Above all, authenticity matters. For any brand that jumps on a breaking story for some quick publicity without a true commitment to the issue, or absent preparation for all types of customer reaction, there will be a steep downside.

It’s not easy. But something tells me the tough and divisive issues aren’t going away any time soon. As one protestor’s sign read, “We’ll be here tomorrow.”

Teams are choosing sides; companies and their brands should be ready.

Public Relations Is A Powerful Storytelling Tool

Brand storytelling and PR – what’s really new here? The truth is, marketers have been telling brand stories through paid media, branded events, and, lately, brand journalism, also known as owned media. Make no mistake, a well-crafted 30-second television spot can tell a resonant story. But the heart of brand storytelling lies with public relations.

I first heard the term from my friend Robbie Vorhaus, at least a decade ago. Robbie was ahead of his time. It took a few more years for storytelling to become a buzzword, and for public relations to realize that it’s what we do.  To paraphrase Seth Godin, “Marketing PR isn’t about the stuff you sell; it’s about the stories you tell.” Here’s why.

PR breaks news. A new product or, even better, a new category, means a fresh story. Traditional public relations tactics are therefore inherently valuable in helping to break and shape those stories. While true category creators are rare, any business or brand that disrupts the status quo has a huge opportunity to define its category and own the narrative over the long term.  Think about Amazon, Starbucks, Red Bull, and Facebook. Different categories, but each was a creator, and each was able to craft a unique brand narrative through traditional and social media. In most cases, it happened without benefit of advertising or direct marketing.

PR digs deep.  A well-crafted public relations campaign can typically go much deeper than paid media. Advertising space and time comes at a cost, so explanations about brand origins, background, or how things work take a back seat to a sales message. The backstory is particularly valuable in healthcare and technology PR sectors, where products often require a degree of education. Storytelling naturally lends itself to earned media, including long-form journalism and blogging. As a bonus, it’s often more credible.

Brand trust is at a premium. Corporate scandals, executive misbehavior, privacy breaches – these and more have been amplified by the relentless news cycle, and they’ve threatened public trust in major brands. Moreover, millennials, the largest demographic in the U.S., are known to be skeptical of traditional marketing and advertising. It adds up to a picture where brand stories told by others – customers, stakeholders, partners, and journalists, – have greater resonance than those told by the companies themselves.

PR blends creative packaging with a journalistic sensibility.  We specialize in grabbing the attention of journalists and influencers with a story pitch that plays up what is relevant and compelling about the narrative;  in other words, we package the story. Yet, to rise to the top, it needs to conform to a journalist’s needs; the classic “who, what, when, where, and why” that seizes an editor’s attention and makes it legitimate.

PR connects the dots. A skilled practitioner knows how to make connections between brand messages and attributes and other, larger stories. And its outcome is ultimately about building a bridge between a brand and its audience.

Download your tipsheet to learn about five powerful PR strategies for brand storytelling.

Secrets of a Successful CSR Campaign

It’s no surprise that public trust in corporations, along with government and faith institutions, seems to be at an all-time low. According to the Reputation Institute’s 2012 Corporate Social Responsibility RepTrak 100 Study, only 17% of respondents trust what companies promise in their marketing. What’s more, a mere 6% perceive the top 100 companies as good corporate citizens. That’s one reason why so many major companies make reputation management and Corporate Social Responsibility a priority.

Microsoft has the best reputation for CSR in the world, according to the study, followed by Google, The Walt Disney Co., BMW, Apple, Daimler, VW, SONY, LEGO and Colgate-Palmolive. But what about a more typical company? How do corporations who do not happen to be globally recognized brands make CSR work for them?

Look for a strategic fit. The best CSR campaigns are intuitive to the companies or groups who underwrite them. Often a corporate CEO or other executive has a personal or pet project and somehow it snowballs into a CSR commitment. But it’s far better to analyze your corporate values and focus in on a strategic bullseye. Tide sending a mobile fleet of washers and dryers to disaster-hit areas makes perfect sense. KFC supporting the Komen Foundation? Maybe not.

Get buy-in at the top. A successful CSR program usually needs more strategic heft than an executive hobby or pet project, but it stands a far greater chance of surviving if the C-suite champions it. Buy-in should start there, and be vigorously reinforced. Look at Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz, who personally gets behind its corporate social programs.

Make it horizontal. Any corporate social responsibility campaign will be longer lived and more powerful if it transcends corporate communications. Take a cue from Microsoft, which describes its CSR commitment as a horizontal function, not a series of vertical tasks. In fact, Microsoft’s Dan Bross explains that it has the added benefits of breaking down silos.

Start small. A new CSR campaign can die from ambition. It’s far better to start with a manageable program, say, in a local market, or even a pilot effort, before rolling out a larger campaign.

Take the long view. Many companies, by design or due to corporate executive changes, alter their programming in a CSR flavor-of-the-month strategy. That’s a mistake. It typically takes years for a social commitment to fully penetrate key constituencies and become linked with your brand. Let it happen naturally and organically, but with some help from good PR practices.

PR Blunders And Some Lessons Learned

With the year more than half over, we couldn’t help but cringe over some badly handled company communications. So please join us in reflecting on these “PR don’ts” and giving thanks that they weren’t committed by YOU or your clients!

Starbucks Ireland tweets about Britain
Five years ago no one would have thought a 140-character message could stir such outrage. In June the Seattle-based coffee purveyor asked its Irish clients via Twitter to “show us what makes you proud to be British.” The customer response? A refusal to visit Starbucks stores without an apology. Starbucks issued a statement asking forgiveness, but the brew-haha raises the question, what action is best? Delete the tweet? Offer freebies? Go wild with new Irish coffee drinks? You make the call!

Adidas Shackle Shoes
When I look at these shoes I cannot help but think, “who really thought this was a good idea?” Sometimes companies release products with damnable features in the hope of garnering valuable hype. In this case, however, there is nothing fashionable, feasible, or marketable about a sneaker with plastic chains. The Adidas Facebook page exploded with comments referencing “an attempt to make popular more than 200 years of human degradation.” The company decision was to remove the post from their page, which I think was the right move.

Chick-fil-A and marriage equality
Oh, the Chick-fil-A media disaster. It’s impossible not to mention. Of course, a CEO is entitled to his opinion and has the right to express it, however ill-advised it may be, but was it smart? Well, it seems the jury is still out on this one, since what looked like an unquestionable PR blunder may actually prove to be a sales wonder! With the conservative crowd urging folks to check out Chick-fil-A, the stores drew huge crowds and the ACLU sided with the CEO.

Aurora CelebBoutique Tweet
CelebBoutique, a UK-based online store, committed the blunder of the uninformed when the fashion company tweeted about “Aurora trending” following the horrific shooting in Colorado. The store deleted the tweet, of course, but what remains unknown is how quickly it was taken down. Call me crazy, but I do believe their “tweeter” did not know about the shooting when posting, and they did respond by apologizing and explaining that their PR is not U.S.-based. However, CelebBoutique’s main blunder was in not performing a wee bit more due diligence as to why “Aurora” was trending. Lesson learned.

Does Matt Lauer Hate PR?

People in PR-agency-land are getting steamed this week about our industry’s reputation. Again. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz appeared on the NBC-TV’s “Today” to talk about his jobs creation fund, which will raise cash for micro-loans to small businesses, and host Matt Lauer was less than gracious.

Lauer allowed Schultz to outline the program, but he seemed to be trying to get the Starbucks chief to admit he launched the initiative to sell more lattes. Or, as he rephrased it later, for “PR” reasons. Schultz calmly responded that the fund has nothing to do with marketing or PR for Starbucks.

So, why is “PR” a dirty word, we ask? In a post wonderfully titled, “Matt…Matt…Matt…You’re Glib,” PRSA stirred things up about Lauer’s discourtesy towards Schultz and his dismissive attitude towards what we do.

PR Newser‘s Tonya Garcia has a different take. She suggests that Schultz could have responded along the lines of, “We want people to know that Starbucks cares about the issue and we’re going to let people know about it. And if that makes us look good, great.” In other words, de-stigmatize the question, and the term, by returning to its literal meaning. The broader point, of course, is that PR and philanthropy can coexist.

I love Garcia’s point, and she’s right. But I think the Matt Lauer brew-haha goes beyond that. As an industry, we’re being just a bit overly sensitive about our own reputation issues. Yes, they’re real, but sometimes, it’s just not about you.

This is one of those times. The point here isn’t Matt Lauer’s view of PR, or what the word “public relations” connotes. It says less about our industry than it does about, …well, my list is pretty long, but it includes the following: the deplorable state of morning talk show infotainment; the demonization of “big business”; the presumed liberal media bias backlash; and Starbucks’ own reputation, which has been shaded with misunderstanding. (I worked with Starbucks as a client for several years, so count me as possibly biased.)

But I think the PR mavens should simmer down and wait for the next opportunity to defend ourselves from attack. It’s bound to happen soon.

And for the record, there’s one word Schultz used that sums up the jobs fund program more accurately than “marketing,” “reputation,” or “PR,” at least for my money. That word is “leadership.”

Whole Foods, Healthcare, And The “S-Word”

Partly because it’s in my building, but also because I like and admire the company, I feel bad when Whole Foods is attacked. I’m referring to CEO John Mackey’s Wall Street Journal editorial that has many customers threatening to hang up their reusable shopping bags for good. The piece, which essentially argued for fiscal restraint and individual empowerment, has generated a firestorm among progressives.

So, let’s break it down. Many in PR have said that CEOs have no business taking on controversial issues. I strongly disagree. For a chief executive to take a stand on a matter of national importance, even a contentious one, can be a powerful differentiator and a strong expression of corporate and personal values. I admired Howard Schultz for advocating for healthcare reform several years ago. Schultz’s position dovetailed with a key aspect of the Starbucks workplace culture; it offers healthcare benefits to part-time employees. My rule for this kind of advocacy is to be general in public, specific (or partisan) in private.

Still, there was nothing wrong with the thrust of Mackey’s piece, which contained reasonable suggestions like tort reform and tax benefits for private health insurance, along with a call for a healthier lifestyle.  Mackey’s reputed to be a libertarian, and several of his ideas seem consistent with that philosophy, but that’s beside the point. Here’s where he veered off the path.  His article led with a quote, “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”  The original author of the quote? Margaret Thatcher.

That’s right. The Iron Lady and the “S-word.” It doesn’t take a PR genius to see how likening the current reform proposal to “socialism” might strike a sour note among the Whole Foods crowd. It’s kind of like invoking Bill Clinton at a right-to-life meeting…confusing at best, offensive at worst.

Since the food fight erupted, Mackey has stated that his views are personal and don’t reflect the values of the corporation. He also protested that the paper’s editorial staff had added the subhead, which refers to Obamacare.  (This is true, but irrelevant.)  What is relevant – and regrettable – is that that Mackey showed a surprising lack of sensitivity to the values of his core customers. He should apologize for politicizing the debate with the reference to socialism and focus more on his company’s own commitment to employee healthcare – which makes his argument for individual empowerment very nicely.

For me, the whole thing leaves a bad taste, because the backlash will have a chilling effect on other corporate officers who want to express a well-reasoned point of view about a critical national issue. In my view, we actually need more CEOs like John Mackey to participate in the public dialogue. It’s also regrettable that one of his major arguments – that diet and lifestyle can address the root causes of poor health – seems to have gotten lost in the (organic) sauce. Now, there’s a credible position. Who better to make the case for individual commitment to better health than the CEO of a company that helps people make better food choices?

In late 2007, Mackey, a very wealthy man, announced he would forego further cash compensation, saying he no longer wants to work for money, and citing a call to service. That’s admirable. So is his passion for the brand he built after so many years. But, as CEO, he still personifies that brand, and he would do well to remember where his (whole grain) bread is buttered.

When Brands Try To Be Cool

Recently, RadioShack announced that it’s changing its name. Or, more precisely, it wants you to use its nickname. In what’s billed as an informal move, the retailer has launched a campaign inviting us to call it “The Shack.”

I can understand wanting to lose the dated “Radio,” which connotes a bygone technology era.  And, the chain is known as “The Shack” by regular customers and employees. But, if the name of the stores doesn’t change, which isn’t yet clear, it’s a confusing, halfway measure. Plus, it’s a bit like your boss calling you by an embarrassing childhood handle, or my mother telling me her new sofa is “fly.” Even if the expression is hip, when it’s coming out of your parent’s mouth, it’s… well, not.

In perhaps a similar quest for its own slice of cool, Pizza Hut went the extra distance and removed the “P-word” from some of its stores so that they’re now simply “The Hut.”  The signs feature a new typeface and the red-roof logo redone to look even more like a hat. The company says the new moniker “ties in nicely with today’s texting generation.”  Um, as the kids say, IDTS. Pizza Hut later issued a statement that the name will not change after all.

In the most interesting branding experiment, Starbucks is dropping its name from three Seattle stores. One has already been remodeled in a new, rustic style and reopened as “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea.” According to the The Seattle Times, the unbranded stores will feature a traditional coffeehouse ambiance, complete with poetry readings, live music, and wine and beer. Starbucks has been accused of “stealth branding”, but, having worked with the company, I get the idea here, which is to “blend in” with the community and give each store a local personality….and, perhaps, a touch of that indie cred. Since the company has been open about the test, transparency isn’t the issue. It’s really about authenticity. If the un-Starbucks can offer an authentic experience, “glocalization” might be our next retail trend.
Cool retail brands in non-cool categories are usually born, not re-made. Despite its recent battering by the recession, I still think Target takes the prize. Many assume Tar-zhay got its chic from its hip merchandising deals (the Michael Graves housewares line was inspired), or the iconic bullseye ads.  But, as author and Target biographer Laura Rowley points out, it really goes back to the retailer’s department store roots, and its blend of design, merchandising, and value. It was also about the reverse-snob appeal.

From the start, Target was authentic, and like that cool kid in junior high, it rarely appeared to be trying too hard.

Finally, it took time to build the brand persona. In fact, Target’s former president, Douglas Dayton, says he first heard the faux-French pronunciation of the name, not on a Coast, and not in the nineties, but in Duluth, Minn. when the first Target store opened in 1962. Now, that’s cool.