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How to create a digital corporate brand strategy that will bridge the corporate-consumer divide

How to create a digital corporate brand strategy that will bridge the corporate-consumer divide

By Cathal Smyth, managing director, The Group

Where does the divide between a consumer brand and a corporate brand start and finish? The answer for many companies and consumer brands is of course, that the divide between corporate communications and consumer marketing has disappeared.

The process of convergence between what was once seen as two distinct domains has accelerated over the last decade with a variety of intertwined forces driving this change.

The internet and its provision of universal access to content has smashed the partitions between the corporate and consumer realms and exposed any differences in how companies communicate in different markets and to different stakeholders.

Social media has turbo-charged this process by creating digital channels that enable anybody who feels the urge to publish and disseminate any kind of content or information. Highly empowering for consumers or pressure groups but uncomfortable for many brands and organisations who are now exposed to microscopic inspection and public commentary and debate.

Audiences have changed too with consumers now more aware and actively concerned about the behaviour of corporations. It would be difficult to find many consumers today who do not have a view on the environmental impact of oil companies or the socio-economic legacy of banks in the wake of the financial crisis. More and more, products are no longer consumed at arms-length from the companies that make or distribute them.

These factors have created demand for a more holistic view of how a company and its products or services impact on society than the one presented through traditional corporate communications or marketing. Not only is this split untenable it also prompts the need for a richer understanding of corporate reputation and corporate branding particularly in a digital context.

For a start there are many different variations of the corporate-consumer brand. Looking at some of our own clients in the FTSE100 you can see businesses like Tullow Oil, British Land or Balfour Beatty that are pure corporate brands in non-consumer-facing businesses. The spectrum then shifts to companies like SABMiller, which is a corporate umbrella for a wide range of consumer beer brands; and on to a Prudential or Barclays, which are consumer brands but with separate corporate sites – although the consumer most likely will not distinguish between the two. And recent years have also seen some classic corporate-only brands such as Unilever being actively promoted to consumers.

In truth the corporate part of the equation is itself fluid and multidimensional. There has never been a monolithic corporate brand as such, but rather a set of relationships between companies and a diverse range of stakeholders and audiences – including employees, communities, shareholders, analysts, journalists and the varied sub-specialists within Corporate Social Responsibility – integrated to differing degrees within the corporate brand narrative.
Any effective online corporate communication strategy must bear all these groups in mind as well as the consumers – who we have regarded as a legitimate audience for our corporate web sites for many years. So the key to bridging the corporate-consumer divide is to go beyond it and think instead of a more complex brand narrative of interdependent strands.
There are practical things that we do in planning our online communications and cross linking user journeys and content, but the main point is that those who work with and manage corporate brands need to get in the right mind-set and go beyond a simple corporate-consumer split.

  • When defining a message platform it has to work credibly for all audiences because they are all present online with their particular take on your corporate reputation in their minds
  • Think from a brand architecture point of view, but understand that all parts of the model are exposed and interacting at the same time and in the same place
  • When planning content and features they have to work for the intended audience but bear in mind they will and should also be used by others
  • Take a systems view of your web site – it is not a discrete entity, but part of a connected whole that works across countries, markets and audiences and includes your other sites and social media
  • Understand that even if many consumers do not visit the corporate site others who are part of the influencing group will including NGOs, journalists, bloggers  and campaign groups
  • Define a broad range of goals for the web site that include audience-specific and joint objectives from a user and a communications perspective
  • When thinking of web metrics you should go beyond simple measures and to get a true picture of online communications performance, a systematic set of metrics for all audiences based on site goals is needed
  • Editorial planning – understand and plan the site, its internal channels and any social media – as a series of overlapping editorial schedules united by common brand-building content and themes

A corporate reputation is a nebulous entity that exists in the minds of multiple and varied stakeholders. It is no-longer neatly partitioned and hidden from consumers but there for all to see and influence through the internet and social media. It is not fixed or unified or amenable to simple measurement but, with an effective framework and set of principles in place, digital corporate communications can create a robust, seamless approach to communicating and demonstrating a whole and authentic brand.

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