Rapid Transitions: Changing Brand Meaning in Plain View

A lot has happened since the elections three weeks ago: a government is forming and campaigns are transitioning to a new identity. At the same time, private enterprises are adapting to the demands of a worsening economy.

And yet, these are transitions. Events beyond their control are causing organizations to fundamentally change. Unlike during crises, where the outcome is necessarily negative, leaders of transitions have the opportunity to help determine whether the outcome is positive or negative.

Transitions are occurring in a digital media environment in which people expect greater interaction and greater transparency. And this expectation may make transitions easier for some and more difficult for others.

Robert Rasmussen, executive creative director at R/GA, said marketers must create interaction between brands and customers. Organizations have worked hard to develop a dialogue with their different constituencies, so what should be done when there’s no “time out” during a period of transition? How can an organization even have the time to develop a point of view or a road map?

In this media environment, organizations and brands no longer have the luxury of thoroughly pre-testing messages and decisions before they’re communicated. The demand for interaction becomes non-stop.

In the digital media environment, there are two boundary lines now governing the communications playing field during transition: transparency and interaction. The question for communicators is how transparent and interactive to be while the substance of an organization — its brand meaning — is being formed or fundamentally changed.

The formation of the new government by President-Elect Obama’s team is providing great insight into creating present and future expectations regarding transparency and interaction.

Interaction Needed to Sustain Loyalty

Leading up to the election, Obama’s campaign distinguished itself for the level of interaction it provided to its actual and potential supporters. Post-election, the Obama political team is carrying forward this interactive disposition by polling supporters to determine its purpose.

But will this be enough?

Times of transition also create opportunities for competitors. Marketers certainly must gauge whether the level of interaction they’re providing will engage supporters sufficiently to prevent waning loyalty.

For example, Moveon.org held gatherings in November for Obama supporters to celebrate the election victory and launched a new campaign to help Obama. Certainly, more campaigns looking toward elections in 2009 and 2010 are providing platforms for leaders who gained experience during 2008.

The communications strategy followed by the automakers during this time of transition provides a sharp contrast to the Obama campaign. Last week, leaders of the auto industry arrived in Washington, D.C., in their private jets to ask Congress for a bailout. As of Sunday, only General Motors tried to explain its position to the general public via its corporate Web site.

Automakers didn’t even solicit opinions from the public on how to improve the industry’s fortunes while they asked for their money. In lieu of their own plan, they could have at least solicited guidance. Is it any wonder that the auto industry’s initial request was denied?

Obama’s team is also showing appropriate limits of interaction. In forming the new government, the transition team isn’t soliciting the public’s view of who should be the secretary of state or the treasury secretary. It’s a positive sign that we’re not seeing the “American Idolization” of the cabinet selection process.

Transparency

Similarly, Obama officials are showing the tensions of leading in a transparent world. They’re doing an excellent job of signaling that governing requires a degree of communications control.

With governing comes great responsibility. The consequence of a miscommunication is much greater — it could mean life or death.

Former presidential adviser Tom Korologos has told future White House staff to: “Be accountable for every activity you undertake. An errant e-mail will find its way into millions of homes and blogs and the gossip columns. Follow the rules of the excellent little e-mail guide, ‘think before sending…'”

Numerous news stories have highlighted Obama’s personal struggle with the prospect of giving up the BlackBerry. In addition, it has been reported that applicants for office are being required to disclose their past digital communications activity.

The Bottom Line

During transitions, the digital world requires marketers to be interactive and transparent. That said, the degree to which they do so may limit their ability to be leaders and innovators. All marketers should watch how Obama makes the transition from candidate to president for guidance on what does and doesn’t work.

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