In Communications, Failure Is An Option

IBM's messaging around its super-computer
Watson wasn't all peaches and cream.

Traditionally, a good chunk of PR has been the promotion of positive news and brand values. However, at the Association of National Advertisers' Creativity Conference, held Wednesday, Dec. 5 in New York City, presenters on behalf of big brands like Fisher-Price, IBM, Volkswagon, Jack Daniels and others showed just how far communications is straying the traditional. In fact, showing vulnerability, even failure, shouldn't be ruled out when developing brand messaging.

Take IBM and the communications around the company’s super-computer Watson as it went up against two formidable human opponents on Jeopardy! in 2011. IBM's longtime creative agency Ogilvy was looking to tap into a more human story in the communications leading up to Watson's Jeopardy! appearance. One way to demonstrate emotion: Show Watson's failures as the computer was prepped for the show. Steve Simpson, chief creative officer, Ogilvy & Mather North America, said revealing Watson's shortcomings—and showing the computer's developers angst—along the way made the story much more human and compelling. 

Volkswagon is another example of a brand that's not afraid to tackle the darker aspects of humanity in its creative. For years, the car brand has strived to show a full range of emotion, from laughter to downright despair, says Justin Osborne, general manager, advertising and marketing communications, Volkswagen of America. It's a strategy that bucked the marketing system. "VW was the original brand that called B.S. on its own marketing industry," he says.

Indeed, storytelling was the buzzword at this event. The lesson: While its good to accentuate the positive in PR, don't be afraid to show failure. It will give your brand a sense of transparency and vulnerability that will make it stronger in the long run. 

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About Scott Van Camp

Scott Van Camp is editor of PR News, an executive-level, reader-supported publication that helps enhance the business impact of PR. Scott has a rich background in both journalism and PR/marketing. He has more than 15 years of experience as a writer/editor at various consumer and trade publications. Scott was with VNU Business Publications for five years, including stints as managing editor at IQ News and Technology Marketing magazines and senior editor at Brandweek. In the PR/marketing sphere, he has served as corporate communications manager at MarketBridge, a marketing and sales consultancy, and as editorial director for the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Council. While at the Council, Scott led several high-profile marketing research projects. He has also operated his own communications and media consulting firm, SVC Communications.

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