Sandra Ericson|Oct 16, 2012

Hello from PRSA International Conference in sunny, I mean foggy, I mean sunny San Francisco! What a fabulous city but it’s not without its severe multiple weather personalities.

Last year’s overall conference vibe in Orlando played to storytelling, primarily led by Disney’s Imagineer Joe Rohde. In 2012, no doubt steered by the Bay-area’s history for innovation and revolution, the theme leans toward how PR can help the greater good and the humanity all brands must embrace to make an impact with audiences thirsty for meaningful connections.

Twitter Founder Biz Stone kicked off the conference with an inspiring speech about his road to success, that started with a basic desire to showcase the good in us all.

“If we were to be a triumph, then we were not just to be a triumph of technology, Twitter was going to be a triumphant of humanity,” Stone said. “It didn’t matter how many servers… it only mattered that people were basically good. If you give them the right tools, they’ll prove it to you every day. That’s what got us up every morning to work on Twitter — that it wasn’t about us, it was about people doing amazing things around the world.”

Today we heard from Tim Westergren, the founder of Pandora, which is now the largest radio station in the world with 150 million registered viewers. The most candid and heartwarming moment came when Tim asked the 1,000+ crowd how many were Pandora users. When nearly every hand in the room went up, you could see his sheer elation.

After showing us his goosebumps, he then followed up on an earlier question about how it feels to be a millionaire by simply saying: “No financial reward can ever equal that.”

So for those of us that are charged with affecting a brands’ bottom line with more than just goosebumps, how can we take this passion we all must feel about our respective industries along with the good we all have inside us and turn that into PR success?

To answer that question, PRSA brought in Dr. June Cotte, a consumer behavioral expert and Associate Professor of Marketing at Richard Ivey School of Business at University of Western Ontario. Dr. Cotte reviewed several scientific experiments conducted to determine if, and how much, consumers will pay for brands that do the right thing.

Following up on Biz Stone’s assertion that the future of marketing should be all about philanthropy, Dr. Cotte helped us understand the complicated gap that exists between consumers’ attitudes about wanting to buy from ethical brands and the potential roadblocks that get in the way from them acting on their behaviors. The bottom line? Well, it’s somewhat inconclusive (shocker).

Here’s what we know – consumers will pay a premium for the belief that a company is ethical and doing the right thing. But how much of a premium varies. We do know that the punishment of not doing the right thing far outweighs the reward in that customers will want to pay much less. And although the degree of ethical, green or organic behavior can vary widely by brand – consumer behavior doesn’t. Consumers see brands as black and white – good or bad – so there is a drop off on how much of a premium they’ll pay for more good work.

All of this talk about consumer behavior and brand perceptions reminded me of how timely rbb’s recent research on the Breakout Brand philosophy is. Learning about what our audiences care deeply about, and ensuring its genuinely tied to what we care deeply about, can make a world of difference. When a brand invests in innovation and connection, consumers may be willing to invest along with you.

Tim Westergren talked about the best investment he ever made – answering each Pandora customer email personally at first, and then hiring a team of consumer advocates to do it. To this day, all 80,000 emails per week receive a personal answer – and its because of that commitment that Pandora is perceived as a human company who does the right thing.

That brand loyalty is what kept Pandora from going out of business when regulators tried to double the royalties Pandora would pay to musicians. A grassroots campaign to subscribers resulted in 1.5 million calls to Congress on the topic – more than the totality of calls received on the Iraq War.

Later this month at the Holmes Report Global PR Summit, rbb will reveal more research on how to design your Breakout Brand strategy, and what areas to invest in to change your focus from being a top brand to being a loved brand.


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