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Authentic business storytelling builds trust: ask Carlsberg


Written by Chris Hewitt

Trust is heading in the wrong direction. Truth has become debatable. Facts are not facts. In the face of these challenges, effective business storytelling has never been so important.

If you’re in B2B tech, you might be wondering how this relates to your business. In this post, I’m going to walk you through the implications and how I believe you can hit the challenge head-on.  

I’m also going to talk about beer.

Facing the fire

Facebook, Huawei, Amazon, Samsung and Google are just some of the big companies to heave wrestled with major reputational crises in recent years.

For some, it’s the perception of dubious business practices. For others it’s the company they keep or their close government links. And in some cases flagship product launches have gone spectacularly wrong.

In each instance the companies themselves are increasingly concerned about the potential impact the erosion of trust will have on their bottom line.

They are realising the need to look beyond pure communications and start to marry it with meaningful action. And that means living as well as telling the brand story.

Probably the best case study in the world

Now, I don’t know if you like beer so I’m taking a bit of a punt by calling out Carlsberg as a great example of how to hit this challenge head on. Bear (or should I say ‘Beer’) with me…

If you’re in the UK, you may have seen the recent re-launch of the flagship Carlsberg product, its Danish Pilsner, but if you haven’t, let me give you a bit of context.

Carlsberg developed the strapline, ‘Probably the best beer in the world’ many years ago to promote its Danish Pilsner. More recently, it evolved to highlight how things – other than beer – would be better if Carlsberg was behind them.

The, ‘If Carlsberg did [insert activity here]…’ line was fun. It saw them make huge billboards with an actual beer tap in the middle, dispensing free Carlsberg to passers-by; TV ads showed fantastical hi-tech apartments for beer drinkers to watch the football with their friends. You get the idea. With Carlsberg, everything was better.

But there was a problem.

The UK brew of the lager wasn’t competing with ‘premium’ lagers, it was in the budget bracket. It was a vanilla beer. A volume over quality experience along with the likes of Fosters, Carling, etc.

The market for beer in the UK has shifted massively in recent years too. The rise of the ‘craft’ beer has been significant. Drinks of true character, created by artisan brewers instead of the mass produced generic lager, now have a serious pull.

Drinkers are actively seeking different beers, not settling for the standard.

Carlsberg Danish Pilsner was a beer out of time.

More than words

In days gone by brands would look for creative ways to rejuvenate their proposition. They might get a new agency in to re-think branding and advertising, for example. That can work wonders, but Carlsberg knew the core problem wasn’t so much how it positioned the drink but the Pilsner itself.

They didn’t just need to tell people their product was the best, they needed to show people why.

And they took the brave but necessary decision to change the product itself.

Gone was the run-of-the-mill lager of old and in came a new recipe. Now, not only could they give beer drinkers a valid reason to try the product again – possibly for the first time in years – they could set themselves apart from other beers by positioning themselves as an innovator.

It wasn’t just the beer that got a makeover. The packaging did too. The plastic rings that used to hold multi-packs together and had become the scourge of wildlife went and in their place was a new type of glue to hold the cans together until you needed to snap one off the pack.

It was a world first from a major brewer and further increased the brand’s relevance through catapulting its green credentials.

They even updated their strap-line to ‘Probably NOT the best beer in the world’ to signify the change. Carlsberg started promoting tweets from customers who had made disparaging remarks about the Pilsner prior to its re-engineering. They understood the product wasn’t aligned with the claim anymore and they made bold decisions to tackle it.

The foundation for change

The key learning for other brands here is that talk is cheap in the world of marketing. For Carlsberg, the words changed once the issues had been addressed.

Your customers and prospects are living in an increasingly connected world, one in which perception is king and queen.

They expect the real deal. They value authenticity, transparency and honesty in brands.

If you want to be seen as the best, show it don’t say it. Give people a reason to say genuine positive things about your brand themselves by delivering on your brand promise.

If you want to demonstrate you’ve changed, change. Don’t just say you have.

If you’ve got something wrong, admit it, apologise and show what you’ve done to stop it from happening again.

Above all, be human. Especially if you’re a tech business.

A growing number of tech brands have embraced these principles to change the way they’re viewed on certain issues.

Vodafone, for example, was embroiled in allegations of tax avoidance several years ago. Its initial reaction was to use social media and responses to media questions to attempt to set the record straight, but that wasn’t enough to turn the tide on its own.

The Vodafone comms team knew it needed to show, not just tell. So the business introduced a detailed annual report to show exactly how much it contributed in tax across its global operations and, crucially, why some figures were higher or lower than perhaps people might realise.

The company is now been lauded for its transparency on tax, quite the contrast to a decade earlier.

Developing the currency of trust

When big tech brands start to embrace these levels of transparency, authenticity and accountability there is a transformative effect on the way they conduct their business that goes way beyond a PR exercise.

That’s where companies need to focus their efforts at this critical time and here are the steps your business should follow to make it happen:

1.     Understand your weaknesses

Listen to what your customers, prospects and industry commentators are saying about your operations, products and services. Use research specialists.

And when you have the full picture, draw up a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis of your business as it relates to these perceptions.

2.     Evaluate the biggest changes

Objectively determine where you need to make the most substantive changes. Put the customer need at the heart of the process and considerations.

3.     Develop a mechanism to show

When you understand the underlying issues, start to think about what it’s going to take to shift the dial on trust. This isn’t going to be a quick win, and it’s unlikely to simply involve adjusting an existing approach, so think broader than that. Work with a third-party facilitator to help this process.

4.     Use business storytelling to tell people about it

With your solution to the problem decided upon, ensure you bake crystal clear, consistent communications into the project from the off.

So, plan your communications. The what, how and when.  Cover internal comms, owned, earned and paid channels in the mix.

5.     Keep at it

Be under no illusion – if you’re going to make these efforts count, it’s not going to happen quickly. Your audiences will need to see the substance of your efforts over time. You need plan how the mechanism is going to continue to evolve and how you will continue to communicate about it to keep it front of mind with all stakeholders.