5 Steps to Leading a Conversation that Builds Your Brand

Nobody wants more advertising in their lives. Not your customers if you’re a B2B business, and not consumers if you’re B2C. We’re swimming in it from the physical world, to the web, to our smartphones. In fact, there’s so much competition for everyone’s attention that brands must now reframe how they market and think in terms of leading conversations that are meaningful and relevant to their customer’s lives if they hope to command their attention. That’s why Unilever talks about sustainable living, Tesla talks about breaking our dependence on fossil fuels, and IBM talks about making the planet smarter. All of them have seen the research that shows consumers want to support brands that are doing good, and want to work together to support those efforts (see Nielsen’s 2014 report, ‘Doing Well by Doing Good’). They are embracing these new market drivers and authentically committing to making a difference in the world by leading these conversations and tangible action.

This same opportunity exists for every brand but there are several things you must do:

1. PROJECT FORWARD AND WORK BACKWARDS: Advertisers typically plan a brand’s future by looking at the past and projecting forward. In contrast, the key to leading a cultural conversation is projecting 5 years out to the future and working backwards to position your brand for future leadership. Tesla is a great example of that strategy as they roll out charging stations, open up their I.P., and strike partnerships with competitors to serve their mission of creating mass-market, sustainable transportation.


2. FRAME AND CONTROL THE NARRATIVE: No brand is perfect and no brand has completely solved whatever social issue they want to address. This means a purposeful commitment opens up companies to the risk of cyber, media, or consumer activism (at worst) or feedback and ongoing dialogue. To mitigate this risk, brands must control the narrative by:

  1. Clearly stating the goals and actions steps for their positive impact.
  2. Clearly communicating areas of weaknesses (internally or in their external efforts).
  3. Clearly outlining how they are addressing these shortcomings.

Patagonia gives a great example of this strategy in its ‘Footprint’ Chronicle campaign where it lists The Good, The Bad, and What We Think in relation to how its products are made.


3. LEAD A COMPELLING CONVERSATION: Once a brand has defined where it wants to go and how it wants to get there, it must inspire employees, customers, and consumers to partner in that effort. To do that, the brand must lead a cultural conversation as defined by the following parameters:

  1. Key Message: In a single, simple sentence, define your company’s mission in a way that includes functional and emotional benefits.
  2. Key Attribute: Define the one key attribute you want your brand to own. For example, Chipotle talks about food with ‘integrity,’ while Whole Foods focused on ‘values.’
  3. Key Impact: Define the specific impact you want to have in your customer’s lives so you can communicate that in your marketing.


4. MAINTAIN A CO-CREATIVE DIALOGUE: With a clear understanding of what conversation you want to lead, the brand must bring it to life in different ways in places that will engage its audiences. The variety of ways to do this are as varied as media channels and your audience members themselves. A few suggestions include:

White papers
Guest blogging
G+ Hangouts
Member interviews
Cause marketing
Photo/Pinterest competitions
Internal brainstorming sessions
External crowdsourcing efforts
Leadership video blogs
Press interviews
PR coverage
Facebook contests
Vine/Tumblr video lessons
LinkedIn campaigns
YouTube debate series

Patagonia does a masterful job of engaging consumers in a conversation about responsible business growth and consumption on a planet with limited resources. Here they invited consumers to share the stories behind the Patagonia clothing they own and have not replaced for a long time.


5. CELEBRATE CUSTOMER SUCCESS: If you want your customers to stay engaged in conversation, you must share your brand story in a way that celebrates its positive impact on their lives. Only then will they readily share that content because it’s equally about them. Such content will not only be shared, but these customers will continue to act as brand ambassadors and build the business. The key is to act as the chief celebrant of your customer community, rather than to position your brand as its celebrity. In doing so, you empower customers to co-author and co-create the brand’s storytelling relieving your company of much of the content creation burden and marketing costs. P&G gave us a great example of this strategy with its, ‘Thank You, Mom’ campaign for the Olympics that promoted the brand by celebrating the contributions of mothers to children and their sport over the years.


Combined correctly, these 5 strategies allow you to stop advertising and to start unlocking the true power of the web, social media, and smart phones to inspire employees, customers, and consumers to share brand content that is meaningful to them. Anything short of true dialogue in a purposeful conversation faces the uphill battle of overcoming the risk of being yet more advertising in a world where consumers seek inclusion not intrusion.

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