Navigating the Forever Different

Comms and brand advice to CEOs and founders from the new Mixing Board Community

The value of having a strong, adaptable brand in the face of constant and, often, unpredictable change has never been higher. Yet, it’s too hard, too time-consuming, and often too expensive to get the right advice from the right person at the right time.

Launching today, Mixing Board is a community of deeply experienced comms and marketing leaders. It offers easy access to strategic advice and fast-tracks to solutions from people who have solved big problems and created even bigger opportunities for the world’s most innovative brands and movements.

Members are current and former CMOs, heads of comms, public policy veterans, speechwriters, and practitioners renowned for their creative approaches to brand building, community activation, content strategy, and market research. Their seniority and diversity of experience means they can deliver against a vast array of needs, provide empathetic mentorship that accelerates the development of individuals and teams, and help build future-forward comms, brand and marketing organizations stacked with top talent.

But Mixing Board members’ primary motivation to coalesce runs deeper than filling a gap in the marketplace. They are intent on sharing insight, advice and experience, supporting, collaborating, and learning with each other, to elevate their practice and the value of their work. Indeed, a member in good standing doesn’t need to contribute to paid engagements. They can choose to actively contribute to the community — both within and outside of Mixing Board.

In the spirit of sharing insight, almost 40 of Mixing Board’s 60+ community members recently provided their thoughts and advice on brand and comms as the industry navigates choppy political, social and economic waters coming out of 2020 and entering 2021. Here’s a distillation of that advice focused on what members would tell CEOs right now. (On most multiple choice questions, members had the ability to choose more than one answer.)

Take a Stand.

It was hard enough managing a company’s brand in normal and relatively predictable years. In 2020, we were firmly thrust into the forever different by profound forces that have made doing so exponentially more complicated and important.

In the face of a global pandemic, social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, a critical election, and rapidly growing economic inequality, the expectation that companies and their leaders fill the void left by distrusted institutions grew exponentially. Fortune 50 companies like Disney, Marriott and Bank of America quickly froze donations to congressional Republicans who voted against certifying the presidential election. Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon and others have rushed to help a new administration speed up the U.S. vaccination process.

In this changing landscape, if brands don’t step up, as noted by Mixing Board community member, Tony Weisman, consultant and former CMO of Dunkin’ US., “what was considered the safe route is the unsafe one. You lose credibility with stakeholders, investors, employees if you don’t take a position. Don’t stay neutral.”

Anjelica Triola, creative strategy lead who has worked with top brands from LEGO to Figma to Adidas, advises:

“Take a stand. Pick a fight. Find friction. You don’t need to take a negative tone to draw a contrast between what’s been and what can be. Align yourself with possibility, and show others how to model what you hope to see in the future. “Controversy” isn’t as risky as it seems. Show up and do something for people.

“There’s an endless list of real problems to solve, and countless ways in which our government is falling short. Take your budget for a giant commercial campaign and spend it on something useful, instead. Earned media will make up the difference.”

The adage “actions speak louder than words” has never been truer. As Camille Estimé, brand strategist and independent consultant, says, “Your brand isn’t what you say about yourself.” Rather, “your brand is the amalgamation of everything you do and say as a company in the eyes of the stakeholder.”

Indeed, according to members, the brands that took action on issues that affect their stakeholders were those that most successfully charted 2020’s rocky terrain. From the point of view of Laura Anderson, former Communications Chief at Intel Corp. and Silver Lake, one reason “Walmart has been one of the most successful brands of the pandemic is that it took social stands early and often on the most pressing issues this year — that were close to the base of its actual business. It was the first retailer to do mask mandates nationwide for stores when the government wasn’t doing it and took stands on guns and BLM — even at risk of losing revenue.”

But proceed with caution. As Todd Hansen, community builder and former Head of Conference Programming and Strategy at SXSW, advises, “Brands need to avoid trying to shoehorn their brand narrative into whatever zeitgeisty moment is happening on any given day.”

And, Eric Glass, Chief Communications Officer at Ceridian, adds:

“Brands that try to lend their voice to issues but only as lip service without clear actions tied to them will be held accountable by employees, customers, shareholders, and the communities where they operate. Further, shaping policy and the political landscape isn’t necessary or appropriate for every brand. Brands can lean too hard if they haven’t done the homework with their stakeholders.”

How should companies best navigate where to take a stand and where to lay low? Colin Crowell, consultant and former VP of Global Public Policy & Philanthropy at Twitter, puts it simply:

“Your comms, marketing, and public policy colleagues are your allies. They are your guides in an increasingly complicated world that has both employees and the general public seeking to conflate corporate interest with the public interest. They can help manage employee expectations as to when the CEO (and/or the company) will take public positions and when they won’t. It’s advisable for comms/public policy teams to get out ahead with standards & guidelines so companies are not scrambling to react every time there’s a major news story. Some topics may seem tangential to core business interests at first, but when they have major implications for society — such as addressing racial justice, human rights, or climate change — employees and the public will increasingly be looking to corporate leaders to have an opinion, to speak out, and to take action.”

Start from the Inside Out.

If set up well, comms and marketing teams will be in position to do the right kind of listening to employees. Mixing Board community members were in strong agreement about this. All this work starts from within. Your employees are your first and most important audience. If they don’t believe you, no one will. If they believe you, they can be your biggest champion in attracting other audiences.

Smita Saran, former Airbnb Internal & Executive Comms, says, “Employees will shape public perception on how ‘good’ a company is, with its products and treatment of others. They are realizing how much power they have.”

Indeed, Mixing Board members rank the employee Slack (or similar tools) as just as important as traditional media in shaping perspectives in 2021.

“Comms and marketing has traditionally been focused externally,” says Katie Dreke, strategy and innovation consultant and former Nike executive. “Going forward, it must start inside and work its way out — meaning — the story gets built first internally with employees. Only then can the narrative take shape externally.”

“Your employees are as crucial an audience as your customers — because without their trust, buy-in and commitment, you will not succeed,” says Amanda Atkins, Senior Director, Head of Internal Communications & Culture, Slack.

Tom Galvin, CEO of Concentric Circles, agrees: “If you don’t act in an authentic manner, your internal stakeholders will call you out. Companies can no longer largely ignore internal forces.”

On the other hand, adds Jason Waskey, CEO, Blue Crab Strategies and Founder, Civic Nation, with their trust “your biggest opportunities already reside inside the house.”

Internal Community > Internal Comms

As the influence of employees rises, so, too, does the importance of internal communications. “Internal communications should be considered as a high priority, strategic leadership function,” says Atkins. “Ignore that need, and things will break.”

So, what does truly strategic internal comms look like today?

In shifting from a way to talk *to* employees, to a mechanism to connect with them and hear them out, strategic internal comms is more of a community facilitator than a broadcast medium. It also should reflect a recognition that “tenure no longer means authority” as Tony Weisman suggests.

Bailey Richardson, Partner & Co-Founder, People & Company, predicts: “I expect micro-communities to form within companies — led by passionate employees regardless of leveling. Companies can either proactively participate in building distributed leadership, or have it happen to you.”

The Value of (True) Values and Doing Something About Them

With pressing social issues colliding with the rise of the employee voice, it’s no surprise that expectations around a company’s stated values have never been more fraught. Thomas Vladeck, Managing Director of Gradient Metrics, provides more context on why now:

“Nothing is apolitical, to the extent that every brand is now playing in the political sphere. And while in the past you could have one life at home and one life at the office, employees now have much more at stake when it comes to their personal values because of the disintegration of the spheres.”

Katy Zack, who works with high-growth companies across Europe, sums this up: “With work taking up so much of our lives and being such a strong part of our identity, employees demand companies that state and live up to their values.”

This is no longer just a Gen Z or Millennial thing, says Eric Glass:

“People at all levels and of every generation want more alignment around values from the place they work. Employees want to understand alignment to a greater purpose, vision, and mission, and how those are driven through values and culture. For organizations that have not prioritized this work, it’s a long road ahead as it is not easily reverse engineered. There is always a culture that forms — even in the absence of values and intent. Leaders who have not prioritized this work may be startled to find out what tribe-sourced values were created in their place.”

This opportunity extends beyond employees to customers. According to Aimee Woodall, CEO & Founder of The Black Sheep Agency, “Consumers want to know that you, as a brand, are aligned with their values, especially in the quiet moments, a thread running through your narrative.”

Indeed, the gamut of stakeholders, including suppliers, shareholders, and communities in which a brand does business are holding companies to greater account. It’s not just about the ‘what’ but also about the ‘why’ and the ‘how’.

As Katie Dreke says, “Companies are no longer being judged merely by what they make, but who they are, and how they behave in the world. This means that the product is not the hero anymore, it is mere table stakes. The emerging opportunity for brands going forward is to surround their product with a meaningful brand ethos and spirit that moves and acts in the world with measurable purpose. ‘Walking the walk, not just talking the talk.’”

Transparently Authentic

To break through today’s noisy environment and have any impact, you can’t add to the noise with hedges, obfuscations or word salad. Tony Weisman says that “a CEO’s authentic and unfiltered voice is the one that matters most.”

Says Alex Dimiziani, consultant and former Global Marketing Director at Airbnb, “In the situation we’ve found ourselves today, a social context in which we don’t know which way is up and cannot decipher the truth anymore, there’s going to be a great deal more onus placed on companies for transparency and truth.”

The worst thing you can do, says one senior media strategist, is “to subsidize nutrient-poor information, misinformation, and sensationalism.”

If you avoid easy paths for attention, and go for more substantive ways to get your point of view across, you will need new channels. Mischa Vaughn, Director of Content at Webflow says: “Authentic vision will resonate but it will be hard to find a place for this in the press. This is all the more reason to create and own communication channels that can support this.”

Meet Customers Where They Are

The only thing changing faster than the socio-political environment may be how consumers get information and who they trust.

Bailey Richardson’s advice is:

“Especially now, if you need a group of people to know and trust your information, you need to think about who’s telling it to them. That could be publications or it could be other people. Understanding the path to belief or the path to trusting is more convoluted, complicated, multi-player and important, than it has been before. Are there stakeholders who are really important and can help you tell your story, and have you thought about those people with enough rigor? How can you tell stories or create language that other people will grab to be able to tell your story for you and have you given them what they need to actually communicate for you?”

In order to get ahead of the changing dynamics and ensure the message lands, Linzie Janis, Media Strategist and Coach, tells leaders to “empower your teams to get the data, research, and insights they need to learn about the customer and react quickly.”

Anna Ondaatje, VP of Global Brand and Franchise Strategy at Playboy, adds:

“Consumer discovery has fundamentally changed — accelerated as a result of the pandemic and the move online, as well as increased fatigue with media new cycles and distrust in consumer-focused editorial content. It’s no longer about being found by consumers, but about proactively seeking out, identifying and FINDING consumers oneself — engaging with them where they already (passively) exist. Organic content is going to play an even bigger role than it has in the past as a result.”

All the attention on and from employees in the current environment can make this harder, says Ondaatje:

“WFH is creating echo chambers within organizations that make it much harder to understand how external audiences are interacting and engaging with brands. Employee feedback is magnified, and in many cases, drowning out the data and feedback of consumers.”

The Brass Tacks: 2021 Advice

Here are a few additional recommendations for CEOs as they navigate through 2021.

Cody Keenan, Partner at Fenway Strategies and former Director of Speechwriting for President Barack Obama:

“Actual *good ideas* are more interesting and important than ever. Goods and services that actually *work* and fill a need. There’s too much crap out there.”

Ricky Engelberg, CMO, Vistaprint:

“Being solely reliant on spend ratios from 2020 as people’s worlds evolve post-vaccine is a good way to get stuck. I think a lot of companies want to plan 2021 as if it is a normal year and it still doesn’t feel that way yet.”

Ashley Mayer, enterprise and consumer technology communications veteran:

“While every business was rocked by 2020, very few were at the center of public attention during this period, given far bigger concerns. Once we are through the worst of the pandemic (fingers crossed), 2021 is an opportunity to reset, to find your new narrative and proactively frame how this unexpected moment in history has shaped your path forward.”

A senior crisis communication strategist:

“Q1/Q2 will be a completely different experience than Q3/Q4. Different politically, different economically, and different socially. My advice is to keep your head down in Q1+2, focus on the things we see and know, but thinking about a more aspirational, almost political agenda for Q3+4.”

Jeremy Briggs, Director/Executive Producer, formerly at Twitter and Buzzfeed:

“I think now more than ever brands need to focus on the positive. Not in an insensitive way or one that avoids needed topics to touch on, but in a way that gives people common positives to focus on.”

Members were also keen to remind today’s business leaders that all the marketing in the world can no longer cover up deficiencies in diversity and inclusion, and that doing this work superficially or sporadically can negate all your growth investments.

As Nils Erdmann, VP of Investor Relations at Oportun, said: “DEI initiatives should be recurring and consistent — there’s no “one and done” solution.”

Laura Anderson says that there “needs to be genuine commitment and follow-through for corporate boards to become more diverse and to go beyond gender diversity.” She notes that “NASDAQ’s commitment to institutionally drive this change over the next three years will be the most significant driver of this.”

Likewise, Katy Zack says that “companies need to do far more than annual reports on issues such as diversity, environment, gender pay gap.” She says that this likely will need to happen whether companies like it or not, adding that “disclosures are already requirements or becoming requirements in many global markets, and the US is far behind.”

And, other members encouraged CEOs to start thinking beyond 2021 by beginning to work on climate action.

Colin Crowell:

“There’s a big opportunity for renewed action on climate change. Going forward, I don’t think companies will be able to get away with making mediocre pledges on climate action and hope to get a brand boost. Employees and the public will want to know what concrete, impactful steps companies are going to take beyond just happy green talk. Real action will get noticed and will put companies right in the jet-stream of where consumers are trending.”

Onward with agility

We’re not out of the woods yet. Katie Dreke nicely encapsulates so much of what was covered by other members:

“Agility is key in 2021. We are in a current moment of quicksand shifting actively beneath our feet, but also *just enough* stabilization to be able to see the horizon and plot an accelerated (and differentiated) path towards it. Weird things will still happen in 2021. There will be surprises. Some will be ugly or dangerous to the business. Being nimble and actively anticipating the need for many adjustments will be critical. We can and MUST think beyond the quarterly report. We can and MUST plan and execute for more than the bottom line alone.”

And, as Ashley Mayer reminds us, this agility and flexibility that Katie underlines, is about being ready for whatever 2021 brings us:

“We’re going to emerge from the pandemic with some major assumptions about what its aftermath will look like. Let’s be humble. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we don’t know what’s coming next.”

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To learn more about Mixing Board, get in touch here.

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