PR Wisdom, Delivered with the Credibility of a CEO
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PR Wisdom, Delivered with the Credibility of a CEO

Public relations people are going to get a kick out of David D’Alessandro’s new book, Brand Warfare. In the first 50 pages he skewers advertising agencies (“perpetual spinelessness… the general character of the advertising business is sycophancy”) and cli

Paul Holmes

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Public relations people are going to get a kick out of David D’Alessandro’s new book, Brand Warfare. In the first 50 pages he skewers advertising agencies (“perpetual spinelessness… the general character of the advertising business is sycophancy”) and clients (“the most common thing [they] do to destroy their own advertising is to allow little minds to improve it”), and lawyers (“I have yet to meet a lawyer who, when he sees a piece of advertising copy, doesn’t add a creative idea.”)

He has also shared a couple of anecdotes with which even junior practitioners will be able to identify, one involving a press party for a doomed product that featured a trained crow (and a dead carrier pigeon) and another recounting a nightmarish new business pitch at a trade show in a sweltering summer New Orleans.

D’Alessandro, of course, is chief executive of John Hancock, a Fortune 500 company and one of the best marketers in the financial services sector. But he’s also a former public relations executive—he began his career on the agency side, at Daniel J. Edelman in New York, and worked at Citibank and Control Data before joining Hancock in 1984 as vice president of corporate communications, ascended rapidly (and quickly transcended his PR roots) and became CEO in October of 1999. Even in his new role, he sees maintaining the Hancock brand as his first responsibility.

Says D’Alessandro, “While the importance of a strong brand is widely understood, nothing is as misunderstood in American business as the question of how to use it. Businesses routinely milk their brands without investing in them, extend their brands without asking consumers what they think of the idea, buy up valuable brands in ‘merge and purge’ binges, and then throw the brand names away in favor of corporate control.”

Drawing on his experience at Citibank, he recalls dealing with executives who seemed to think the company could get away with turning out inferior products because it had such a strong brand. In his mind, the opposite was true: “We had to work harder and be better than anyone else because we had a reputation to uphold.”

Like many companies, Citibank at the time knew it had a great brand but was not aligned behind the brand.

“Despite the lip service given to the concept of branding, the entire infrastructure of most corporations is hostile to brand building,” D’Alessandro says in the introduction to Brand Warfare. “The truth is that even the best American corporations tend to be full of people who actually think they are doing their job by keeping the brand down. 

“There are lawyers who slow down a company’s response in a crisis because they believe that short-term liability concerns ought to trump long-term brand considerations. There are the clerks who allow scandals to brew because they feel they have little to gain by reporting the dicey things they uncover. There are the financial types who allow good brands to atrophy because they resent the dollars it takes to build a brand. And there are the advertising managers who spend millions on campaigns that mean nothing to consumers because they fail to understand that the brand ought to drive the advertising and not the other way around.”

He also offers up an essential truth even many professional advertising and marketing executives sometimes forget, a truth that indicates he has not forgotten his early experience as a public relations man: “Brand is everything, the stuff you want to communicate to consumers and the stuff you communicate despite yourself.”

It’s PR wisdom, delivered with the credibility of a CEO.

And D’Alessandro has impressive credentials as a brand builder. When he joined John Hancock as head of communications, his assignment was “to take its sleepy old brand and turn it into something as appealing in its own way as Orville Redenbacher’s bow tie.” Fifteen years later, the insurance company made The New York Times’ list of the 100 best brands of the 20th century. Under his direction, the company had become a principal sponsor of the Boston Marathon and one of the largest Olympic sponsors, and had earned awards for two advertising campaigns, “Real life, real answers” in 1985 and “Insurance for the unexpected. Investments for the opportunities” in 1996.

“We created a brand that is all about empathy,” he says. “We don’t brag about ourselves; we demonstrate that we understand the fears and hopes of our customers. We simply do not make commercials that say, ‘You can buy any financial services product you want from us.’ If the commercial does not express our empathy with the consumer, we don’t make it.”

At the same time, D’Alessandro has not been afraid to make risky decisions in both advertising and sponsorship. One of his early ads featured a woman talking tearfully to her ex-husband, who had forgotten to call his son on his birthday. Hancock’s sales people hated the ad, and the company received calls from divorced dads furious at being portrayed as deadbeats. “We ran the sport for often,” D’Alessandro says. “We knew people were watching…. Great advertising takes something rare in business: courage.”

More recently, the company has come under fire for an ad in which two women are bringing back a baby from Asia. Although there’s no indication of their sexuality in the ads, many consumers assumed they were a lesbian couple, and the company received protests from religious fundamentalists. “We could have shot the cliché insead,” D’Alessandro admits, “with the new dad peering into the bassinet… but not a single person outside the company would have paid any attention at all to that spot.”

His biggest risk, however, was threatening to pull out as an Olympic sponsor after the exposure of corruption at the International Olympic Committee. Alone among major sponsors, Hancock pressed for significant reforms—and got them. D’Alessandro seemed to be the only CEO who recognized that the tarnished image of the Games could have a knock-on effect on the brands of those companies that paid millions to be associated with them.

Stories such as that one make Brand Warfare an entertaining read, but its subtitle is “10 Rules for Building the Killer Brand” and interspersed among the anecdotes are several pearls of wisdom, many of them dealing with the right way to manage client-agency relationships, or the need to take a hands-on approach to managing sponsorship, and others dealing more directly with public relations concerns.

D’Alessandro makes a strong case for the primacy of branding in corporate decision making—he’s a brand zealot—but he also makes the case that in a world in which consumers are overloaded with information and faced with dozens of product choices, they need brands too. Good brands, he says, help consumers save time and communicate something about their own identities.

He also makes the classic public relations case for insuring the brand by building relationships. “People’s relationship with a brand is like a relationship with a spouse,” he says. “If there is a foundation of trust and respect, the relationship is likely to survive a single indiscretion…. On the other hand, if there’s been suspicion all along—or even just coldness and neglect—the same indiscretion may be unforgivable.”

A good brand, he says, “will protect a stupid company in a time of scandal, but it will not protect an irresponsible company. Consumers and investors will forgive you if you make a mistake and own up to it. But they will punish you badly for withholding, covering up, or stalling.”

Finally, he cites a Fortune study comparing employee attitudes toward its Most Admired companies and its Best Companies to Work For, which found applicants considerably more likely to interview at firms on the Most Admired list. His conclusion: job seekers are drawn to companies with strong brands.

And strong brands use their employees to spread the good word. “At the very best companies, every employee within the organization shares this same instinctive grasp of the brand message,” he says.

At just 177 pages, Brand Warfare is a quick read. But it’s unusually candid, refreshingly practical, and full of both entertaining examples and useful insights. D’Alessandro leads one of the most successful companies in America, but he hasn’t forgotten what he learned as an account executive in the PR business, or any of the lessons along the way.

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