My Facebook page has exploded around two stories this month – Susan G. Komen and Ellen becoming JC Penney’s spokesperson. Controversial topics – abortion and homosexuality – in bed with national brands.
Both stories abound with viral videos (in the case of Komen, one rather graphic video of a cancer survivor showing the world her double mastectomy as she slams them for letting politics into the world of cancer; and in the case of JCP a loved celebrity talking about what it means to have traditional values), petitions, new Facebook groups, hash tags, national news stories, and endless speculation. But such different outcomes.
Susan G. Komen – one of the most well respected non-profits in the nation that runs hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate licensing sponsorships. And JC Penney – the struggling retailer that’s been squeezed by trendier discounters like Target and savvier value department stores like Kohl’s.
In January, if someone had said one of these organisations would drive millions of positive media impressions and social discussion while the other would undo years of brand building, the smart money would have been on Komen to swing into 2012 with a brilliant brand and communications strategy.
It doesn’t take a brilliant brand or PR pro to tell you that politics and healthcare are rather volatile these days. Someone should (and probably did) have the sense to say, “this is a bad idea.” But somewhere along the way, leadership became disconnected from the brand.
Somewhere along the way, somewhere between the NFL pink shoes and “save the ta-ta’s” t-shirts and thousands of annual walks, they lost their true north – the millions of women and their spouses and children and friends and family who rely on Komen for life saving fundraising and research.
The PR case study will point to the response time, the misleading statements, the viral buzz, the finger pointing, the bad interviews, and likely a lack of knowledge down the communications chain that this funding shift was coming. But at the core of Komen’s massive fallout with the public was a seemingly small leadership decision that was massively off brand.
And for an organisation that has walked a tight rope for decades to build public trust and engage thousands of corporations in sponsorships based on that brand, even small shifts must be thoughtful, deliberate, thoroughly vetted and well-planned. Today the smart money is that this decision was none of those things.
Contrast to JCP. Homosexuality has just as many political hot buttons as Planned Parenthood. It could have been a nightmare. It could have been a big misstep in the face of new leadership and big retailing shifts.
It could have signaled that this company still can’t find its footing, doesn’t know its audience and has a half-baked vision for the brand. Instead, Ellen was a part of a larger shift in the brand’s vision – a move to become more relevant while modernizing and holding true to the company’s core values. Take a few minutes to hear Ellen talk about her values:
And then check out Ron Johnson’s, JCP’s new CEO’s follow up on CBS This Morning:
Does that feel reactive to you? Does it feel like JCP didn’t see this coming?
Maybe JCP got lucky and was able to learn on the fly from Komen’s mistakes. But the smart money is that Johnson and his team have a vision for the brand and clearly saw how Ellen fit into that picture – and they didn’t waiver. The company’s response to the controversy came swiftly and with clarity and they let Ellen be Ellen – exactly what they hired her for in the first place.
The timing of the Ellen announcement, the controversy that popped around it, the company’s fast response, the shift to the values conversation … all while JCP rolls out a new pricing strategy, and hits paid media hard with a new, more contemporary brand plan.
These things don’t just happen. These things happen when brand shifts are thoughtful, deliberate, thoroughly vetted and well-planned. These things happen when a leadership vision takes the brand to a more aspirational place while remaining true to the brand’s core values. These things happen when leadership sticks to that vision.
JCP – As a marketer, I’m impressed. As a consumer, I’m inspired…and may just see you this weekend for the first time, well, ever.
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