Can Corp Blogs Build Brand Without Mentioning Product?

 BenettonTalkA TALE OF TWO BLOGS The Benetton Talk blog is interesting, professional and doesn’t mention anything about product. Read tales of activism, coming of age, exploration and adventure, intellectual pondering, the difficulty of being young and gay in a repressive country. See really cool graphics. It all fits into the world-view, diversity embracing brand of Benetton.

But the posts are written by a small group of the same people (paid by Benetton?) and the sameness of the language discourages give-and take that is edgy or engaging (isn’t that really Benetton’s brand?).

McDonald's corporate responsibility

The McDonald’s Corporate Responsibility Blog is more self-serving and elicits even fewer comments and trackbacks than Benetton (two comments in five posts – remarkably low for such a large corporation).  The blog is written by the Senior Director for Corporate Social Responsibility. One of the topic threads is “Balanced, Active Lifestyles.” Strains credibility? 

The Benetton blog knows its audience – the consumer. The McDonald’s blog suffers from an identity crisis. They want to convince us that McDonald’s understands corporate responsibility but who is the audience. Will I seek out this information on the web before my next impulse buy of a hamburger and fries. A better target for this blog would be McDonald’s suppliers, partners and investors.

Both blogs fail to create community or a meaningful dialogue and are good examples of how corporations are shackled by their intrinsic restrictive nature when attempting to build brand in interactive communications.  

Wal-Mart Takes The PR Offensive

In the past year Wal-Mart has been banged around by activists pushing the company to improve wages and benefits and to assist the communities in which it does business. Finally, the company has been forced to alter its practices because of bad PR. The word to emphasize here is forced.

State legislatures forced Wal-Mart to offer increased benefits to workers by passing laws requiring them to do so. A widely publicized Wal-Mart bashing movie hit the theatres, forcing Wal-Mart to answer critics in the media. All this negative attention prompted Edelman set up a “war room” in Bentonville, Arkansas to aggressively combat negative Wal-Mart news. The NY Times reported that Edelman fed bloggers pre-packaged positive comments that some dutifully disseminated in their blogs.

All this activity was in the wrapping of a battle. Wal-Mart was beleaguered, on war footing. The CEO, the General of the largest retailer in the world, recently decided that he can’t deal with it and he is taking May off for vacation – see Associated Press story. Why is that so shocking? Because Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, with 6,500 stores in 16 countries and nearly $316 billion in annual sales. How many of Wal-Mart’s 1.3 million employees gets to take a month off?

Now it seems like Wal-Mart is using its brain as well as its brawn. The company realized it needed to make deep, systemic changes in how it operates in order to effect a more positive image. That in itself should not require a constant public battering followed by a revelation but apparently it does.

The 4/5/06 NYT headline was brilliant: Wal-Mart Announces Plan to Help Its Rivals The story: Wal-Mart, under increasing assault by critics, announced a wide-ranging effort to support small businesses near its new urban stores, including the smaller retailers with which it competes. Wal-Mart said it would offer those businesses financial grants, training on how to survive with the retailer … (Also see Wal-Mart Works to Polish Image – But Detractors Gear Up Too, 4/19/06 story in the Los Angeles Times ).

The real battle of Wal-Mart is fought in thousands of local communities where the retailer comes in and permanently and inextricably alters the economic as well as sociological landscape. It is a polarizing stance – you are either for or against Wal-Mart. Now, Wal-Mart is shifting from corporate warrior to mediator, from polarizer to good neighbor, respectful of the traditions and history of the communities where it does business. This is a good example of (negative) PR forcing a company to change its behavior. Follow this story. The result should be a better image of Wal-Mart as a respectful neighbor. The big question, of course, is how will this shift in behavior and better treatment of workers effect the bottomline, and in turn Wal-Mart’s share price?

Google politics shapes nations

It wasn’t long ago – a couple of years – that Google was simply a cool little search engine that could. Now, what Google does and how it does it is helping to shape the culture and economics of nations. Witness Google’s self-censorship in China (see NY Times, 4/13 Google Chief Rejects Pressuring China)  so it could play in the world’s biggest market, and the decision of France, in a fit of chest thumping nationalism, to throw 150mm euros at Quaero, a European search engine.  France pushes creation of European Google killer. So much for the global village and creating opportunity without borders through the Internet. 

“We must meet the global challenge of the American giants Google and Yahoo,” say the French.

Don’t do evil is the Google credo but one man’s evil is another man’s quarterly earnings report. As a public company Google’s goodwill rises and falls with its stock price. In other words, since it went public about 20 months ago Google has amassed a huge amount of goodwill with its stock rising from 80 to 400, enriching many investors and giving the company a market cap of $120 billion. 

That kind of penetration and capital brings clout. It also brings new challenges for communications – injecting global politics (public affairs) into PR, which will be buffeted by stock performance and and financial expectations (investor relations).