Brand Transparency – A Conversation with Alan Siegel of Siegel & Gale
Last week, I received a copy of Siegel & Gale’s report, “Siegel & Gale Simplicity Survey: A Clarion Call for Transparency.” If you know anything about me, then you know that I am a big advocate of simple, clear and straightforward marketing messages and using common sense in marketing. I’m anti-shock advertising and hard sales messages. Consumers don’t have time to translate corporate rhetoric to try to figure out what you’re telling them. If you don’t get your message across quickly, you’ve wasted your time and money. Never has the need to be transparent been more crucial than it is during an economic downturn when consumers are actively searching for honest companies to do business with.
Reading the report by Siegel & Gale put hard numbers around much of what I always preach to clients. In short, consumers want simple language, honesty and clarity from brands. After reading the report, I was lucky enough to secure a few minutes of Alan Siegel’s, Chairman and CEO of Siegel & Gale, time to talk about his position on simple and transparent marketing.
I asked Alan what steps companies should take first to reposition themselves as transparent. His response was to focus on the inside first. In other words, policies must be set for developing clarity. He indicated that much of the information companies provide to employees (and customers, for that matter) is self-serving with little personality.
I completely agree with Alan. Employees are one of a company’s most valuable assets. We hear executives preach that all the time, but none of them put it into action. Employees are powerful brand advocates and they can have an enormous impact on a company’s bottom line if they believe in the company, brand, products, leadership and so on. The first way to achieve that is by showing employees they are valued through transparency. For an example of a company that doesn’t get it, check out this post I wrote for Corporate Eye about Microsoft asking employees to spam their friends about IE8.
Alan then provided direction on how companies can be more transparent externally, specifically, to consumers. He began by citing the example that we’ve all probably experienced – automated voice systems, the outsourcing of customer service overseas, and the impersonal form letters and emails consumers receive from companies in response to their written correspondence. Consumers want answers, and they want to feel valued (just like employees do). Alan explained that when companies try to save money by outsourcing customer service, they destroy any chances they have of developing meaningful relationships with consumers. By responding to written inquiries with form letters, companies do nothing more than undermine that relationship. Alan went on to say that even customer documents such as credit card agreements, mortgage documents, wireless phone contracts, and so on do nothing to solidify a relationship with consumers. Alan sums it up by saying, “Consumers are fed up with not understanding legalese. Business can benefit from clarity.”
Again, I completely agree with Alan. The top brands and companies of the future will be those that are capable of building relationships with consumers who are tired of companies controlling them and telling them what to do. With the evolution of the social web, consumers have more access to information than ever before, and it keeps growing. Companies that learn to give up some control and allow consumers to lead the conversation will prosper in the long-term.
That thought led me to my next question for Alan. I asked him to share his thoughts about the social web and how companies can use it to become more transparent. Alan agrees that blogs, Twitter, and so on offer a perfect, “opportunity to become more transparent, communicate directly with consumers, and have a conversation.” He went on to explain that leveraging the social web is important because, “an increasing number of people look to the web, especially rich media for answers.” He mentioned that younger consumers are particularly interested in rich media such as online video. However, he was quick to point out that the information companies share on the social web should not just be, “boring, talking heads.” Instead, companies must, “really convey” something to consumers. In short, companies, “can’t hide anymore because the media knows everything about you.”
I think Alan is absolutely correct. It’s pointless to waste time trying to lead the conversation. Companies must let consumers take control. In other words, put the messages out there, nurture the brand, and let the conversations evolve. Don’t be afraid to lead the conversation, nudge it in the right direction, and bring it back on topic when necessary, but don’t force feed it to consumers.
I also talked to Alan about the state of advertising as it relates to transparency in general and he said, “half of the slogans are nonsense. People need intelligent information.”
Again, this goes back to my anti-shock advertising and hard sales letters position. Tell consumers something meaningful and tell it to them quickly, or they’ll move on to a competitor who does meet their needs by delivering valuable information in a direct (and transparent) way.
Finally, Alan and I discussed how Siegel & Gale helps clients become more transparent both internally and externally. The company’s process is great because it starts internally. Siegel & Gale works with companies to develop their voice and creates programs to train employees, teaching them to speak with consumers in order to be more direct and transparent. Alan said, “you can’t con people. Your communication needs to have honesty, respect, transparency and creativity. Employees need to have freedom with responsibility.” In other words, the employee who writes your blog should be well trained to understand how to represent the company and communicate with employees, but he or she should be able to do so without constant legal or executive intervention, edits and approvals.
This is a point that I often preach to my clients, so again, I completely agree with Alan. In other words, by giving an employee freedom, like the person who writes the company blog, his or her personality is allowed to shine through. As a result, consumers can develop a connection with him or her and ultimately with the company. It’s a first step in creating relationships with consumers, which brings us full circle wherein companies that develop relationships with consumers now will position themselves for long-term success.
What do you think? Do you agree that it’s time for companies to be transparent, honest, and communicate in a simpler language?