TRUE spoke to Nissan CMO Simon Sproule about how companies should approach the concept of strategic integration. Nissan embarked on its own integration effort in 2011.
Q: You have described the strategic integration of the communications and marketing functions as inevitable. Why?
Sproule: For many reasons really, but probably the most convincing is the current environment in which any big global brand finds itself today. At Nissan we started the journey towards integration several years ago, and while we started off challenging the concept of integration, everything in our environment was telling us that kind of change was necessary.
As a global brand, our environment has been experiencing radical changes on an increasingly frequent basis. There has been a dramatic multiplication of screens and devices, phones and tablets, in the last 10 years. At the same time, people are consuming media in very different ways now. They’re not sitting down at 6 p.m. to watch a news bulletin anymore; they’re catching what they want when they want. Then there’s the globalization of brands, the globalization of media, the fact that everyone is broadcasting all the time. It was clear that we had to change and that change had to involve getting rid of the silos and that mentality of a one-way marcomm model where we dealt with traditional marketing in one area, traditional PR in another and then employee communications in a third and our dealers talking in yet another. Each different part of the company was doing its own thing, and it was massively inefficient and worse still massively ineffective in today’s climate. Consumers, in fact all stakeholders, are now getting multiple touch points for any brand, and they’re very quickly able to see if a brand is not being consistent or genuine in each of those touch points.
If you accept all those things as true, that conversations are overlapping, then logically you have to conclude, “How can I not integrate my communications?” Now it may be that an organization isn’t set up to do it that way; there may be political obstacles, or maybe people don’t want to work with each other. Maybe the CEO has a different view, blah, blah; but fundamentally that’s where we’re headed. I can’t say that by such-and-such date we will all be integrated. But really, there are just so many almost daily reminders of why integration is inevitable that I think the case is very compelling. We need to stop debating the question.
Marketing implies a certain discipline and a certain type of activity, and so does public relations. Neither of them capture fully what is going on today in the marketplace, but each is a part of it.
Q: So there is still pushback to the idea of integration?
Sproule: There’s still skepticism, grudging acceptance. I still see that very much in evidence. I don’t think people have completely emotionally bought into integration yet. But if the same people who are fearing integration forget what they’re doing as a day job and just put on their consumer hats, then I think they would start to realize that whether we’re buying a cup of coffee, or buying a car, or taking a flight somewhere, or staying in a hotel, we as consumers don’t expect to have to work hard to understand what a brand or a company is about. You expect that company to present itself in a way that’s convenient and comfortable and consistent. And when it doesn’t, there’s a disconnect. From a brand’s point of view, that isn’t something you can afford.
Q: What is the first question a company needs to answer before it embarks on integrating, and then what are the first steps it should take?
Sproule: I think they need to be able to answer the question about why they are changing. What are the business outcomes they hope to achieve? While integration is inevitable, I think there is timing to consider. Is this the right time for the organization to attempt this? Is there something that has to happen first? Integrating for the sake of integrating may be just as dumb as not considering it at all. Is your brand weak, dispersed and fractured? Are you overspending to compensate for an inconsistency in your communications? You’ve got to know what the problem is you’re trying to solve and what business outcomes you want to achieve so you know what success will look like.
Q: Is the new communications a combination of marketing and PR or something else entirely?
Sproule: If you believe everything that you read, then some consumers want to form relationships with brands. They want brands to relate to them. In a sense, what we’re talking about is a conversation, and it’s a conversation between a company or a brand or a product and an end user. The purpose of that conversation is obviously about changing an opinion and/or transacting a deal, a purchase. At the moment, communication to me is probably the safest term for what’s going on here. It’s probably as generic as we’re going to get. Marketing implies a certain discipline and a certain type of activity, and so does public relations. Neither of them capture fully what is going on today in the marketplace, but each is a part of it.
In fact it could be a golden era for communications and PR, but I think PR people need to realize the opportunity and grasp it.
Q: How is the idea of mission and purpose involved in this conversation?
Sproule: There’s no doubt that consumers want to know that they’re dealing with a trustworthy, ethical brand. They want a corporation that is not only delivering a high-quality product, but is also doing right by society—even if they’re not always willing to pay for that. And a purpose or mission is a great starting point for integration. I see it as a logical step, absolutely.
And here is a point that needs to be made. Integration isn’t just talking about org charts. It’s about how a company behaves, how it thinks and what it stands for. The luxury brands are among the best integrated in the world. Take, for instance, the classic Italian or French luxury brands. These guys are incredible. Whether you’re in a Louis Vuitton flagship in Shanghai or in New York, in Moscow or in Sydney, it’s the same promise, the French craftsmanship, the haute couture. They just relentlessly communicate their set of values. It’s completely joined up; it’s completely consistent. That reflects much more than just what is coming out of the marketing or PR department.
Apple is another great example. That is a case of integration from the top down. It doesn’t matter if there is a marketing department and a PR department because everyone at Apple knows the mission and purpose of that company so the message is always consistent. I think the org chart approach can make it easier at a lot of companies, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter whether PR and marketing report to the same person if you have very, very strong top-down direction from the leader of the company. But not every company can depend on that.
Q: Why has the idea of strategic integration provoked so many power struggles within companies?
Sproule: That’s a great question. Not many true marcomm folks really exist right now—people are basically either marketing or communications. Maybe this is a radical statement, but frankly most companies don’t have many, if any, people with deep experience in both disciplines. And that makes sense. The two disciplines have grown up in their own silos—you got a marketing degree and went into a marketing department or worked at an ad agency. In communications, you might have started out as a journalist and made the jump into PR, or you went straight into PR. So when you choose an integrated leader it can feel a bit random. That sets up conflict. Moving forward, that won’t be true as a new generation of leaders develops, which is truly comfortable and competent working in an integrated world. Until then, there’s no obvious answer and it usually falls to the CEO to make the choice.
So the problem right now is one side or the other gets picked and lately you’ve had a lot of PR people in particular saying, “Well, I don’t want to work for a marketing guy,” and I get that concern, but the “Woe is me” attitude is only going to keep PR sitting at the small table when I think the PR discipline has the tools and the skills to be very successful in integrated communications. In fact it could be a golden era for communications and PR, but I think PR people need to realize the opportunity and grasp it.
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