Thursday, February 19, 2009

Reaching More Responsible Communications

a conversation with peter knight

CG: Among the stories various companies tell to the marketplace, are ones about their corporate responsibility (CR), social responsibility, sustainability and citizenship. But many of these are laden with masses of data or top-heavy with detail, does this make sense?

PK: Data is important because it differentiates hard performance from soft assurances. But more vitally important to many groups is the nature and quality of the [top-line] corporate narrative. Because these people want to read the stories that are told [by and] about the company, not concentrate on all the metrics and supporting detail.

CG: Most of the reporting and messaging that’s done looks largely backward, like annuals do, at prior-year performance. But couldn't they do more heavy-lifting, both for themselves and for their audiences? Especially by being more, and more meaningfully – not just lightly – forward looking.

PK: Yes. A lot of companies have a big opportunity to use a CR report to show and discuss [for stakeholders] their road map for taking the business toward a higher plane of responsibility…and profitability.

It's a powerful but underused platform, one that could be far better leveraged to convey the company narrative; from its management to its vision. In a way that can go beyond [the limitations of] what’s possible with often hidebound and jargon-filled annual reports.

CG: What role should designers of CR reports, sites and other communications play beyond making content look and lay out well?

PK: It depends on the medium for the given messages, whether that’s on paper or the web or something in between, like PDFs. But regardless, good design is imperative. And, it must always be done with the understanding it’s just a tool to help convey information successfully, and not an end in itself. It should support but never trump the content.

Designers need, as well, to look carefully at each audience and each medium involved, and figure out the right visual styling for each. Because it can vary widely. Some audiences, for instance, are only interested in data and not in pictures.

Designers can also add value by helping clients define and differentiate the needs of given audiences, and by recommending the right channels to reach each of them.

CG: You believe the practice of communicating CR is still too immature. Why? And what growth agent is needed to mature it and improve all these stories and messages?

PK: Only when CR is taken more seriously by a large majority of the more important stakeholders in companies; only when they demand this kind of content – as I'm sure they will in time – will the whole exercise evolve. Right now, for most, this messaging is only a nice-to-have not a must-have.

As for improving these communications, my advice is look to an inspiration like George Orwell: stick to fundamentals. Write simply. Be direct. Be brave. Be adventurous.

CG: So why isn't the ‘Orwell Approach’ in wide use? If it would make companies’ stories of their responsibility all the more engaging and impactful?

PK: Because so many companies are spineless when it comes to corporate communications. They're terrified of breaking the mold. They benchmark furiously. Never want to step out of the fold. They retreat into soft assurances and old shibboleths, where they feel safe. That’s the tragedy of most forms of corporate communications.

CG: Paging the brave and adventurous out there...we need you.

CG: What useful things can companies, and the design, marketing and other consultants assisting them, learn or borrow from the corporate responsibility realm, to enlighten other parts of their business narratives?

PK: Talking straight. Corporate responsibility stories demand it, even though those who practice this straightforwardness are still in the minority. There's no question every company would benefit by it.

In addition to this, recognize that “negative” topics can actually enhance [through contrast and balance] the positive elements of a story.

CG: Do you also believe companies have a ‘responsibility’ to tell their audiences richer and more dynamic stories, ones aligned with readers’ needs? Versus giving people vacuum-sealed presentations that miss a sense of active listening [by the company], or lack the feeling of a desired kind of "conversation" or running dialogue happening between the lines.

PK: Some companies want to be more engaging. You can see this in the corporate responsibility blogs by McDonald’s, Intel, Sun Microsystems and others. But these are early days, and these blogs are suitably sanitized. Unfortunately, the willingness to put forward edgy, engaging stories -- even though it would be welcome and beneficial -- is outweighed by the perceived risk of litigation.

CG: How far away are we from truly enlightened or at least more enlightened stories in this area?

PK: Very far away. Especially since the dysfunctional economy is making it more difficult for companies to behave with integrity. Maybe the economic change we're going through will catalyze business to align its values more closely with those of society.

That said, never before has integrity been so high up on the scale of need than it is today.

CG: And I would add, never before has the integrity of companies’ stories themselves, and telling those stories more responsibly, been more important – to everyone on the receiving end.

Thanks, Peter, for your good thoughts.

Peter Knight is President of Context America, a leading corporate responsibility communications group, that advises some of the world’s most well-known businesses on CR strategy and content, He is also a former UK Environmental Journalist of the Year, and was a regular contributor to the Financial Times in the 1990s and 80s.

Colin Goedecke

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Content Drives Everything

a conversation with sebastian kaupert

CG: Sebastian, as a seasoned creative director and design educator, why do you believe “content drives everything?”

SK: Shaping the delivery of a message is no longer enough. The most enlightened designers bring a wholly fresh point-of-view. That’s the new price of entry: an original form and visual point-of-view around equally original and interesting content. This is what will engage and is engaging people; what will drive brand and business success now and into the future.

You have mainstream marketers today who 'sponsor' original art, entertainment and thought; and support creative endeavors of all kinds, somewhat like the Medicis did during the Renaissance. The quality and relevance of this content casts a welcome glow on their brands, and on the 'patrons' behind it.

Take L Studio, Lexus’ Internet channel and its bleeding-edge content. None of it has to do with cars or selling cars, but draws instead on and across art, entertainment, science and literature. The intent is to have the Lexus brand thought of more favorably.

The other big dynamic: the many millions of people who curate their own media diet. They go wherever they need to go in digital space to get messages. But only messages that are relevant, that make sense to them. Those that aren't relevant they pay no attention to.

CG: Are creative groups still living in an old paradigm? And where do social networks fit in?

SK: Yes, mostly groups resisting giving up their well-oiled but failing business models; and those unwilling or unable to evolve with our new paradigm. Consider Facebook: in December of 2008 it had 222 million members. Its demographic has gone from mainly young people to people of all ages and places. It’s a vital part of how a lot of us communicate and get information we're interested in. It's a valuable part of the media mix now, or should be. All marketers need to tune into these social networks,but only with customized, relevant and rich content; that’s well designed-and-delivered, in order to engage and compel audiences.

And let's be clear, it's not about 'using,' manipulating the Internet as a marketer: it's about being where your audience is, where it hangs out. If that's in and around social media, then it's simply sensible, not revolutionary, to be there. If your audience is watching a lot of television, then by all means that's where part of your advertising and/or marketing needs to be happening.

CG: How do creative professionals get their clients to this essential next dimension?

SK: They need to think of themselves as higher level program directors. They need to look beyond the creative brief, strategy, themes and goals, and also understand the conversations audiences are having with each other. It’s not about creating beautiful images and layouts or clever visual puns. It’s about inventing original stories and brand worlds that relate to those conversations, and intuitively express and validate a brand and its promise and experience; and do all this within a context not in a vacuum.

CG: What do you mean inventing "original stories?”

SK: I mean originality like the Japanese artist Murakami. Or Damien Hirst, who makes art from industrial materials, formaldehyde and dead animals in ways that both attract and repel, but ultimately engage, move us, make us talk.

It requires all of us as designers to rise to a next level of creativity and ingenuity; one that doesn't look for validation in focus groups, but begins and sustains a rich, real-world conversation; creates a new and worthwhile brand currency.

CG: What creative groups are already out front, thinking and working in this way?

SK: There are more and more that are breaking the old mold. Crispin Porter + Bogusky
is one. Look at their work for Burger King, Ikea, Mini Cooper. Often it’s more an event than an expected campaign, and it creates starting points for conversations...that take on lives of their own.

Also Anomaly, which has the right business model to deliver this kind of compelling approach. A great example is outofyourleaguegirl for Converse. The paid-for media was just a small portion of the significant actual ‘distribution’ it achieved.

CG: Is B2B marketing a much different story than B2C?

SK: No. When you look at the most successful marketing in either category, you'll see it transcends all the usual statements about the product or service, and speaks to audiences’ real-life issues; seeks to inspire them where they live and work and think.

CG: So what about those who believe there’s nothing wrong with plain-vanilla marketing messages that are “well designed.” Are they out of synch?

SK: Yes, because this kind of marketing has little impact or credibility today; engages no one; builds no equity. Anyone selling this isn't serving their clients, or their own best interests. But some marketers and designers just don't know how (or why) to take any other path than the familiar one.

CG: How do you teach this to up-and-coming designers, like your students at Pratt?

SK: I start by helping them develop critical communication skills. I also push them to stretch their notion of creativity to include business thinking. Especially how to understand a client’s business, and marketing issues, and to see as their first and foremost goal solving those challenges.

CG: What distinguishes the best designers? What should clients look for? Or expect of them?

The best designers aren't distinguished by their design skills, but by their human skills: their capacity to listen, observe and analyze, and help create genuine connections that lead to lasting relationships.

This is what transforms our value as designers; and leads to entirely new insights and stories. This is what helps our clients succeed, in a marketplace where success revolves in an increasing way around the viral power of individuals' preferences. It cannot be bought, is has to be earned -- by the quality, originality and relevance of their stories, messages and other content.

CG: Thanks for your good thoughts, Sebastian.

Sebastian Kaupert is an inspiring thinker, creative director and design educator. His Brooklyn-based practice is Cradle Studios; his professional profile can be found at

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Reality Check Up

Is your story in excellent shape, inside and out? Diagnose how healthy, unwell or at risk it is, by giving it a proper check up, looking for telltale symptoms and treating issues including…

Chubby or bloated stories put too much stress on readers’ systems. Slimmer is better. And those that are too thin – in character, or too slight on benefits – are even worse. Add calories and build more message mass; more muscle.

When a story markets too hard, readers black out or back away. Don't force it: take care to convey thoughts and points in a low-or-no pressure way.

Well worked-out stories move with vigor in the marketplace, and leave lethargic ones gasping for air. The best exercise programs include voice toning and rigorous editing.

Fluid stories are far more quenching than stories bone-dry in style or spirit.

Put all the right nutrients into a narrative, from premise and promise to relevance and openness, to enrich and energize audiences -- and satisfy their needs.

Actively observe the condition of your content, as internal and external realities change. And use a trained eye. It’s good preventive medicine.

Regular check ups will help ensure a story’s well being, and enhance the long-term fitness and vitality of the business.
strategic story development