Image is key to global agenda

A corporation’s brand image has a strong influence over sales. Communication of a consistent, upright image on an international scale is of paramount importance. By John Shannon. John Shannon is president of Grey International

The decision by Shell to incorporate respect for human rights more explicitly into its decision-making process highlights the social responsibility facing today’s marketers, and the increasingly international dimension that marketers have to take into account.

Two years ago the furore surrounding the disposal of the Brent Spar oil rig caused a boycott of Shell’s service stations in Germany, despite the fact that the issue was principally the responsibility of Shell’s UK operation.

Similarly, a recent decision by Renault to move part of its production from Belgium to Spain has led to protest and a bad press, not just in one local market, but across Europe.

Both of these cases clearly illustrate how easily local decisions or developments can have damaging repercussions on a company’s wider corporate standing.

While heavily promoting individual car models or petrol, com-panies must also seek to strengthen their overall prop-osition by providing – and comm- unicating – an acceptable and supportive cor-porate backdrop internationally.

Of course, the issue goes further than communications, touching as it does, on strategic matters such as how a company does business. But communications – and not just of the crisis kind – do have a key role to play.

Danone, for example, underpins the positioning of its brands in France with parallel initiatives which implicitly support every sale it makes. The Institut Danone conducts nutritional research, the recently introduced freephone customer line gives advice on all questions relating to food and nutrition and there is now a Danone customer magazine which has a print-run of 2 million.

Without such initiatives, and without also debating the wrongs and rights of the Renault decision, companies render themselves more vulnerable to the sudden release into the public domain of “adverse” news.

Some manufacturers, such as General Motors and Toyota with their Saturn and Lexus brands, have sought to divorce the corporate from the individual id-entity of the products concerned in order to tap new market segments and break with the past. But in cases where the corporate brand is present, such as is the case with Renault, it is important that it should serve a function. And to do so, it must be subject to continual attention at a strategic level.

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