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If brands gave commencement speeches

02 Jun 2011

Euro RSCG PR's Marian Salzman is your North America ThinkTank commentator until the summer. She will be responding to events in the region on a weekly basis, offering a provocative view of the PR issues at stake. You can reach Marian at marian.salzman@eurorscg.com

Having attended my reunion recently, I can’t help but be fascinated by this year’s crop of commencement speeches, featuring various A-listers at universities across the country. From Michelle Obama to Elie Wiesel to Conan O’Brien, the speakers this year are sounding the usual inspirational call to arms to follow one’s dreams, work hard and seize the day.

But with unemployment at nine percent and a class that is deeper in student loan debt than any before it, how can we talk to today’s grads and tell them that following their dreams is a lofty pursuit but perhaps it’s also wise to whip up some lemonade when life inevitably gives you, well, you know.

In the New York Times, columnist David Brooks warned of over-promising to young minds that still have a bit of growing to do before they can even contemplate success. “Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life,” he says. “They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.” Not exactly uplifting stuff, but true.

So in this age of full disclosure, maybe it takes better sense for political leaders and celebrities to make speeches about a 24/7/365 work/life blur. And that perhaps in the first few years of their career they should do less talking and more listening. And that maybe, just maybe, they might have to make some compromises to “reboot” their version of a dream career and/or life? Because sometimes life itself just gets in the way. (I can picture Jerry Seinfeld doing a great speech that begins with something like, “What’s the deal with all these young people and their dreams?”)

Which brings me to an interesting analogy about big brands: If your brand were giving a commencement speech, what values would you want it to share with the world? Think of every piece of advertising, PR and branding as a sort of commencement speech to a group of young, impressionable graduates. Or, in this case, a chance to win over consumers who might or might not be familiar with your brand. After all, today’s consumers are quite “consumed” by what a brand stands for - and if its values are in line with their own beliefs. Are you going to overpromise? Over-deliver? Give them false hopes of what your brand can do for them? Or are you going to make them relate to you by infusing your speech with a sense of calm, humor and, most of all, smarts and common sense?

Perhaps it’s time for today’s brands to retake the stage as advocates for their core values and be transparent at the same time. Because for brands and speakers alike, whether you’re addressing a new graduate or a seasoned consumer, it’s important to never underestimate the value of engagement—especially when a potential new audience of fans is hanging on every word in these incredibly murky and uncertain times.

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