You Need the Steak to Back Up the Public Relations Sizzle – Managing Expectations

Overview: This first article in a series of three focuses on long-term PR as a sustained effort to expose a company’s innovation efforts to cement the consumer-brand relationship. The next article addresses short-term innovation PR for product launches and looks at metrics for gauging innovation PR effectiveness. The third article in this series discusses management and how to react to and emerge unscathed from events such as a security breach.

too much publicity was really what killed Google Glass.
— Astro Teller, Head, Google X research lab

Public relations (PR) for innovation should create a positive image of a product, service, or company in consumer minds. But that’s the easy part. The hard part is the delicate balancing between providing just enough information to stimulate the audience’s appetite – an “amuse-bouche” to use a French term – and creating media hype that makes expectations difficult to meet.

A good example of a failed balancing act was Google Glass. Glass launched in April 2012 with great fanfare, a concept video, and a blog on Google Plus. The media blitz focused on a live demo of Glass by an effervescent Sergey Brin at Google’s I/O keynote conference. Three months later, models at New York Fashion Week were strutting the catwalk suitably bedecked in the new accessory. Fast forward two years, and Glass had become the subject of ridicule.

This was a case where too much hype created massive expectations around a product that was fundamentally a prototype. When the product launched, consumers felt deceived because the features shown in demo videos – video conferencing and voice text messaging, for example – were absent in the product on the market, because they were still under development. Lots of sizzle, no steak.

Change Lives, Change Your Bottom Line – Consumer-centric PR

We advocate two types of innovation PR. The first type has an eye to the future and is a long-term process of educating, building a reputation, and securing a relationship with the consumer. Ideally, long-term innovation PR brings consumer interest to a low simmer, ready for the next reveal. The second type of innovation PR is short term in nature: for example, the run-up to a product launch. This type is more intense but equally complex as the long-term type when it comes to delivering it in just the right quantity.

Let’s first understand the long-term PR strategies – building the consumer relationship for disruptive PR, reputation, and branding.

PR for innovation is no longer just communicating or delivering information to the audience. It’s also a process of incorporating consumer opinion into the ideation and validation stages. PR should represent valuable input to the innovation process. We use PayPal as an exemplar of this theory later in this article.

Fundamentally, successful innovation changes people’s lives. But for innovators to do that, they must understand the needs of their customers and what would make a difference to them. New approaches to the innovation process are linking feedback from consumers at the ideation stage, and the results are successful products.

PR that leverages digital channels such as social media, product review sites, and big data have the potential to create and gather input for innovation. PR is about conversing with consumers and building a mutually beneficial relationship.

Chesbrough introduced the idea of open innovation in his 2003 book “Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting from Technology.” Chesbrough describes a shift that companies have made by transcending boundaries and reaching out to external parties to gather knowledge and expertise that is otherwise unavailable to innovators. Crowdsourcing, which provides access to myriad external sources, is a perfect example of this shift.  On the other hand, closed innovation, although it provides greater control over the process and intellectual property, relies on using processes, knowledge, and marketing from within a firm’s boundaries, which is extremely limiting and counter to creativity.

The mobility of individuals has increased as has the pace of communication and trade, including the movement of knowledge. Employee longevity at organizations is decreasing, but employee expertise is becoming broader as a result. Companies are looking outside of their own R&D facilities, hiring talent on a consultancy basis and building external partnerships with technology startups, suppliers, and competitors to capitalize on knowledge and facilitate innovation. Entrepreneurs and startups have easier access to funding, and spinoffs and licensing agreements are commonplace.

Consumers are part of that external world. By including them in the development of new products and technologies, the PR process becomes one of great value that can build a reputation for a company as a leader in the field, cementing a brand and invoking interest among consumers in innovation efforts through a feedback loop.

That feedback loop includes big data analysis. By accessing big data and capturing consumer sentiment, companies can gain insights into the world of their consumers and determine which products fit and which are peripheral. Big data analysis is market research on turbo boost. It can take innovative ventures in the right direction, which is imperative because barking up the wrong tree where R&D is concerned is a costly pursuit and not one that competitive companies entertain.

Crowdsourcing software, another boon of the digital age, takes market research to new levels in the realm of customer-company engagement. Using software such as Qmarkets, companies can generate new ideas based on real-time consumer feedback and engage in disruptive PR.


The Slow Burn – Reputation and Branding

Part of the feedback loop is leveraging partnerships so that innovation heads in the right direction – the back end of the feedback loop if you like. On the front end, it’s all about building and maintaining a brand relationship with consumers. This requires providing information and educating audiences on business directions and practices.

For example, consumers and employees are increasingly drawn to the idea of “making a difference” and prefer companies that help them achieve that. To this end, a company should place corporate social responsibility (CSR) and philanthropic activities front and center of PR channels such as the company website and social platforms. A recent study on the shipping industry showed that CSR influences the relationship between a firm and the consumer by increasing levels of satisfaction with a brand or company and increasing loyalty. Consumers want to do business with a firm that shares their values.

A company should also, then, provide information on its innovation pursuits. But there is a need for caution here to avoid what has been termed “innovation theater” – in other words, the use of clichés and embellished language or tech babble to convey innovation activities.

The recent trend in corporate accelerator programs, at least in some cases, is a symptom of innovation theater. Companies sometimes use these initiatives to increase their PR bang for the buck, but whether the initiatives yield products that consumers value is questionable in many cases.

Although an audience is interested in advancements, the main reason is to determine if it can improve the bottom line in the case of companies or, in the case of individuals, their lives. News of random R&D findings are not going to attract or keep consumer attention.

I think people start the accelerator. They get the announcement in Tech Crunch and then they feel like they’ve done something, and they’ve actually done jack.
— Arnand Sanwal, CEO, CB Insights

Accelerator Fever

Venture capital-funded startups are a result of converging factors, particularly technology advancements, globalization, and capital markets. Startups are also becoming prolific beyond technology centers such as Silicon Valley.

Startup accelerators support early stage, growth-driven companies through mentorship, education, and financing. They are often grouped with other early stage support and investing organizations such as incubators, seed-stage venture capitalists, or angel investors.

There have been many examples of successful accelerators. Boom Startup in Salt Lake City, Utah spurned SimpleCitizen, a platform where once-complex immigration processes, such as green card applications, have been made so much easier for users. The same accelerator created Ardusat, which teaches STEM educators how to run classroom experiments, and ProMD, which is a mobile app simplifying the discharge process for patients.

Visit the website of Boom and you will see “open innovation” and external knowledge-seeking through partnerships and sponsors front and center. The company highlights its “mentor-led” model and its network of partners on its opening page. These types of partnerships allow mutual PR efforts, increasing visibility for everyone involved.

However, these successful examples are real commitments to well-researched products that change business processes or people’s lives. They are not examples of innovation ventures for PR purposes only. Many companies are making the mistake of creating initiatives purely to improve their image, and some even fund them from the marketing budget.

On the BrandZ Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands list, brands that are perceived as innovative by consumers – which include Disney in 19th place and Pampers in the number 37 spot – grew nine times faster than those seen as less innovative
— Adnews, 2016.

Innovation as a Brand Differentiator

While innovation theater is overkill, communicating innovation with a genuine purpose nets rewards. An Innovation Kernel study shows that 90 percent of consumers say that innovation is important to their brand preference, and almost 70 percent of consumers are willing to pay on average 20 percent more for a brand they consider innovative.

Not surprisingly, innovation matters to consumers even more when it comes to tech products such as computers, mobile phones, gaming systems, TVs, and audio products. What is the right way, then, to differentiate a brand and convey the right message to the right audience? Put simply, branding for innovation is about “finding a match between who you are as a company and what your customer really values.”

Oreo’s Trending Vending Machine, introduced at SXSW Interactive in 2014, was a good example of branding for innovation. The machine customized and printed Oreos for attendees based on trending Twitter conversations and using 3D printer-type technology. The message customers took away from this effort: Oreo was interested in listening to and reacting to what consumers had to say.

Oreo’s innovation ticked all the boxes:

  • Surveying target consumers before developing a design,

  • partnering with outside technology providers to bring in the required expertise, and

  • avoiding hype until Oreo could be sure that the product would scale.

Erik Roscam Abbing is a consultant and teacher in design management and the brain behind brand-driven innovation, a four-stage method to conceptualize growth and value for organizations and their customers. The four stages are:

  1. Human-centered branding. Linking the development of new concepts to the lives and aspirations of customers and linking the marketing function with innovation.

  2. Innovation strategy. Identifying how to deploy resources to develop new products and services that delight customers from the ideation stage to the point at which they can hold the final product in their hands.

  3. Design strategy. Creating a brand for sustainable growth means that ideas must become tangible experiences with value.

  4. Touch point orchestration. Each time a consumer encounters the brand, it is an opportunity to influence and strengthen the brand-customer relationship. These touch points include social media, advertising, website content, customer service, the payment process – essentially any exposure to any brand information.

Today, a single tweet from the right Kardashian could be worth more than your entire advertising budget. Your consumers are looking up your business online, reading reviews, tweeting about products, and crowdsourcing their experience with your brand.
— Forbes, 2014

Building a Human-centered Brand – Connecting the Internal Organization with the Outside and Connecting the Marketing Function with the Innovation Function.

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Who Really Controls a Brand’s Reputation?

A CEO should accept the job of corporate brand manager, not the CMO. Steve Jobs was unquestionably the ambassador for Apple, partly because he was a control freak, but also because he knew that innovation and brand management are in powerful lockstep when the CEO is the chief evangelist for both.

But that much is obvious. Less straightforward is the rise of influencers on social platforms. Influencers have been a component of marketing and branding for decades, and many were sports stars, well-known actors, or other celebrities. Now, nearly anyone can influence a brand from a social platform.

Companies are increasingly following social media to identify regular people who are attracting attention and who might be endorsers for their brand. This is where predictive analytics can be useful by building a profile of a brand’s ideal influencer.

For example, a company that sells meat sauces might find a food blogger who would be willing to include that brand’s products in their recipes or blogs. Influencers produce content that people want to share, tweet about, and link to, which increases a brand’s exposure exponentially. And, as with the relationship with external partners, mutual PR creates a win-win for both parties.

The role of journalists as influencers, too, is changing. AI-powered bots can and do produce news items and information crafted for a targeted audience, and these tools are predicted to occupy more and more chairs designed for warm human bottoms.

To be effective, influencers should react to and engage with followers. Influencers must be trusted by the target demographic and offer content, not just brand marketing. An influencer that is fully aligned with the brand’s identity, vision, and strategy is called a “brand soulmate.” Soulmate AI “reads” social speech to capture a specific target group, understand their personas, and create a brand soulmate for PR.

Employees are often neglected as advocates for a brand. Realizing that many of its 15,000 employees were using cards or other payment options, PayPal invited employees to use its payments services instead – to be customers and to collect award points for usage or suggesting improvements when they found bugs. Business rapidly improved.

Acting as ambassadors and a link between the internal and external worlds is a role that employees can play within limits. Some might be happy to be interviewed for a PR video to be posted on the company website or Facebook page. Employees should not, however, be coerced into posting content. That type of strategy can backfire quickly.

The Future and the Digitization of the PR Department

PR is being impacted by fast-emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, augmented intelligence, virtual reality, and the bottomless resource of big data. Technologies such as Storymap and Timeline are tools for digital storytelling, which is great for PR professionals and journalists. In the Global Communications Report 2017, PR executives were asked which communication trends would be prominent in the next five years: digital storytelling ranked highest, followed by social listening, social purpose, and big data.

Wildfire PR interviewed PR experts to ask them how they envisaged the future role of PR Directors. Their responses emphasized that PR directors would need to be able to think globally and to perform the balancing act of providing the right amount of information through growing digital channels such as websites, social media, organic searches, paid searches, and mobile use.

The digital revolution has spawned many new communications channels, but it has also greatly fragmented communications. New communications mediums do create more opportunities for direct outreach to customers, but they also create new ongoing risks. Information travels in real time in the digital world, and it is easy to lose control of brand messaging and the shaping of perceptions. Reputations can be destroyed with one tweet. The close coordination of marketing and PR is now an absolute imperative for consistent messaging and brand reputation.


Up next in Public Relations: The Run-up to Product Launch Should Not Be the Run-up to a Ruined Reputation