Ted Gournelos
Associate Professor and Plank Educators Fellow
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What do you do when customers stop trusting you, or stop listening entirely? Consumer behavior is shifting rapidly, and we are seeing decreased return on advertising and corporate communication as a whole. Customers trust online reviews more than they trust corporate voices, but many companies don’t create opportunities for that kind of feedback or attempt to “stack the deck” in reviews on Amazon, Yelp, or even Glassdoor.

So customers look instead to more concrete forms of word of mouth (that Holy Grail of communication), focusing on tangible experiences and authentic engagement. In other words, to be successful in many ways means changing our perspective from attracting and retaining customers to converting those customers into ambassadors and loyal stakeholders whether or not they’re purchasing from us or using our services.

While this is across the board, more or less, it is also a generational thing. Millennials and “generation Z” now comprise almost half the population (48%) in the US, and stand to inherit trillions of dollars from their baby boomer and gen-x parents (although that can be a misleading statistic). They also came of age during the insane rise in college tuition and the cost of student loans, as well as the shift from “yes we can” rhetoric to Nazis marching openly in the streets of supposedly progressive college towns.

These generations are also very active, volunteering at high rates and emphasizing a social conscience in the products they buy and the services they use, as well as feeling perfectly at home pressuring those companies they don’t like to get in line (the best recent example would be the unprecedented pushback against US gun culture after the Parkland shooting).

They spend, they don’t save, and they certainly don’t trust anyone they don’t know (and certainly not if that voice sounds corporate). They’re even more hungry for tangible good, demonstrable impact, and authentic experience (e.g., craft and maker culture, immersion into other cultures and community service, etc.) than other demographics, and are intolerant of smoke, mirrors, and half-truths just as much as they are easily obsessed with the idea of being an “influencer.”

All of this means, however, that the millennial and gen-z demographics are primed and ready for public relations as a positive force for trust and relationship building (rather than spin, agentry, and reactive crisis communication). There are a few ways that organizations can develop to suit their needs, and luckily those are in line with best practices for economic sustainability as well.


Cause-Related Marketing (CRM) and Social Marketing

Build engagement and identification with your stakeholders by aligning your corporate interests with their personal/social interests. Leverage your brand identity (or redefine it) through a social identity, remembering that audiences now are looking for social change, and are willing to back it as consumers. Be careful not to be cynical, though; using social good to mask huge profit margins, greenwash your products, or for publicity itself can backfire.


Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Creating Shared Value (CSV)

Engagement marketing doesn’t have to look like marketing, and your brand can sell itself. If your employees want a socially responsible company, and they are some of your best ambassadors, make sure to engage with the community in such a way that the 4Ps (product, place, promotion, price) of marketing become the 6Ps (adding people and planet). Just be sure it’s strategic and brand-aligned (strategic CSR or “creating shared value”): Cliff Bars encourage healthy living (and teaching that to the community), Google pays its employees to spend their time on pet projects, and companies like Target, Starbucks, and IKEA have pushed gender equity, sexuality equity, and environmental responsibility in various ways to connect both to employees and their customers (with incredible success).


Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Let’s not forget that Gmail came from Google’s 20% idea, and Starbucks gained much-needed brand goodwill (and talent retention) from its stance on marriage equality and its efforts to support employees with education and healthcare. But the idea that we can find inspiration and opportunity by combining social needs with corporate strategy isn’t new; it’s just becoming even more important with millennials and gen-z. The key is to always innovate, but also always consider suitability and sustainability of the project. But even if it doesn’t work (right now), the push towards an innovative mindset always pays off.

Regardless of which road you take, it’s essential to remember that the stakeholder/user comes first, and that a good strategy not only means a good story, it also means you might need indirect tactics to get your message across in a way that doesn’t alienate or sound fake. While your personality makes you visible, memorable, and engaging, it also is still corporate; find a balance between who you are and what you want, and the potential ambassadors that the next generations want to be and listen to.



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