In this interview, Sukhi shares how Capital One uses data to create content marketing campaigns that are outside the traditional realms of PR. Sukhi also dives deep into the continued role of storytelling to reach audiences, using data-driven insights to connect with stakeholders, and the need for PR to be ROI accountable

Feel free to listen to the entire conversation on Lippe Taylor’s Damn Good Brands podcast at the link below. 


Here's a recap of key takeaways from the interview:

  • Storytelling, today, is about meeting your audience where they are. The fundamental role of public relations and communications is to use stories to relay a message that influences your audience. What has become challenging in a post-digital age is identifying the strategies that ensure that your brand's story rises above the noise. Understanding your audience—becoming intimately familiar with the type of content they like to consume and where they are consuming—is the key to success. Without this fundamental knowledge, any content that your brand creates could have little or no impact. Communications professionals need a 360-degree approach to their efforts and need to be thinking about multiple ways to leverage their content so that they are maximizing ROI. The PR team at Capital One leans on the PESO model—paid, earned, shared, and owned—to deliver integrated marketing and communications campaigns. It's a guidepost and not every campaign incorporates each element of PESO into it, but it is a smart way to track your tactical approach to delivering effective communications.

  • Communications goals need to deliver results for the overall business by focusing on campaign measurement. PR, like any business function, must encourage bottom-line growth. As a strategic management function, not only is communications protecting and enhancing the reputation of a company, but PR is also creating awareness and consideration for potential prospects and sales (upper-funnel marketing). To showcase its value and purpose, PR practitioners must tie their communications goals back to business goals. Sukhi believes that our industry has more work to do to get better at this. She cites Capital One's Purpose Project as an example. Although it was considered a highly successful campaign, the project did not clearly define how it impacts Capital One’s bottom line. Measurement is a continuous challenge for PR practitioners as business leaders are expecting marketers to demonstrate ROI on all work done. One way to do that is to center your communication strategy around data-driven insights.

  • Storytelling based on data and insights is the only language anyone is interested in hearing or speaking. It's not a story unless it hinges on a key insight about your stakeholder. Capital One has made investments to create an internal team that works with business partners to mine insights based on data pulled from a variety of sources including customer feedback, stakeholder chatter on owned channels, industry news, etc. According to Sukhi, insight isn't culled from a database; it's an aha moment that comes from being deeply immersed into existing conversations and information. For example, Capital One credit cards offer numerous travel perks for card users. The business soon tapped into the insight that travel has a profound and positive impact on people and changes them for the better. The Purpose Project was born out of this notion. The idea was to have Capital One lead the conversation around how travel changes people without ever plugging Capital One products. The PR team's goal was to separate the brand from its products, which culminated in a campaign that offered real value for customers without hitting them over the head with marketing messages. 

  • Influencer marketing is an essential part of the PESO model, but what constitutes an influencer is broad and depends on the audience you are trying to reach. Influencers can be just about anybody and are determined by who your audience is following. Influencers include journalists, public advocates, government officials, and even your intended audience if they are producing content and driving the conversations where your brand wants to be involved. Regardless of whether or not you pay your influencer, you need to ensure that whoever you chose to help represent and promote your brand is authentic. Not only should the influencer's story be authentic, but they need to relate to your brand genuinely. The Purpose Project partnered with Tastemade to create feature-length videos documenting the journey of three world travelers. Each traveler possessed different experiences and financial backgrounds and each had a compelling story. Presenting these individual, relatable stories was one way the brand inserted itself into the travel discourse.

  • Collaboration and embracing a test-and-learn attitude is a good way to approach your future content marketing goals. The best way to tell stories today is to partner across business functions. PR practitioners need to work with creative teams (designers, copywriters), marketers, and others to tell a holistic story that resonates with stakeholders. Experimentation and learning fast from mistakes are essential to how Capital One operates. The Purpose Project was a content marketing experiment. It was also an opportunity to create an entire campaign centered on an insight (travel changes people) with the goal of ensuring that stakeholders relate to Capital One outside of its reputation as a financial provider.

Paul Dyer: Sukhi, thank you very much for joining us here today. You manage a team that produces original content, works with influencers, coordinates publisher partnerships—a variety of functions that, years ago, may not have fallen under the communications umbrella. Can you elaborate on how these functions work together in a modern communications process and the role of storytelling within communications

Sukhi Sahni: I would start by saying that the practice of public relations is as old as civilization. It's about telling impactful stories through the lens of informing, persuading, and gathering people together. Storytelling isn't new. It is the core of what we do in PR. What has changed is how and where people consume those stories. As part of the digital transformation that is happening all around us, it's critical to understand your audience and tell the stories which connect with them. Whether you are a large brand or a small community organization, you need to meet your audience where they are.

That's why today's PR and communications functions need a holistic, 360-degree approach. A brand or organization can't only be present in one aspect, channel, or medium. Your story must come to life on a variety of channels. At Capital One, we leverage the PESO model—that's paid, earned, shared, and owned—to remind us of the strategic approaches we can take when planning a campaign. The strategy is useful for helping us think about where our audience is, and the channels and mediums they are using to consume content. The point is to start your communications efforts using a broad perspective but then diving into what would make your campaign successful.

The two takeaways here are that storytelling is not new, but it's how you tell stories that are continuing to evolve. And that communicators need to be mindful about where their audience is and stay 10 steps ahead of them.

PD: You're quoted as saying that PR sits at the epicenter of the branded content ecosystem. Coming from the brand perspective, can you elaborate on that comment and how it relates to your PESO model?

SS: Content drives the PESO model, but understanding your communications goals for your business is also essential. Is the goal to create awareness for your brand? Is it a brand advocacy play? Is the goal to partner with publishers to build a new audience? Focus on your communications objectives first, and then, by analyzing your audience, you can determine the right type of content to create and the channels where you need to operate.

You're also trying to tell your story to regulators and influencers who are responsible for helping to shape public policy. Additionally, we live in a global economy; therefore, content needs to have a global perspective, regardless of whether your organization is only U.S.-based. Social media, for example, isn't confined to certain countries or demographics. With these trends in mind, PR is vital to reach your various stakeholders. I think the key is to find the right piece of content which can be leveraged across multiple platforms such as your newsroom and branded social channels.

PD: As part of this series, we have spoken with Torod Neptune from Lenovo and Ken Hong of LG. They both expressed different opinions when it comes to the nature and experience of their communications teams. Torod believes that his teams need to think and function with a global mindset. Ken said you need to be an expert in your market and just think with a global mindset. I'm curious what your reaction is to those two different ways of thinking.

SS: I would have to agree with the former, that all members of the team should be thinking global first. We're seeing the rise of insights-driven storytelling and the consumer's desire to see purpose-driven organizations and campaigns. However, promoting a social purpose is easier to do when that is the real mission of a company. For older legacy brands that may not have a purpose-driven identity, it's sometimes difficult to shift your operations and begin inserting purpose into everything you say and do.

Our purpose at Capital One is to ensure that people understand their finances by having access to information, financial, and educational tools. This purpose is embedded in our DNA. So whether it's a business function or whether it's thinking about the product evolution, we keep our purpose top of mind, and regardless of whether you're a communicator, an end-user, or in business development, everything you do is about bringing our purpose to life.

I believe having a global mindset prepares you to understand your surroundings. When you're telling stories, you need to know your audience. What's their background? Where are they coming from? What issues are they facing? A lot of times, those issues are a reflection of where people live, the culture that they embrace, and the conversations they are having. That's why I think a global perspective is imperative, especially as we explore addressing broader societal issues.

PD: That's a great segue into something we were hoping to ask you about. At Capital One, you guys have launched The Purpose Project, which is a campaign showcasing how people are rethinking the power of travel to change us. Could you walk us through that?

SS: We are continually experimenting at Capital One. Capital One has credit cards that offer a lot of different rewards for people traveling. One of the goals of the credit card consumer PR team is to take the product out of the story. We wanted to see whether the Capital One brand would resonate with people if the conversation had nothing to do with the product or the brand.

One insight we've gleaned is that there is a lot of conversation around the idea of "traveling changing people." With this idea, The Purpose Project was born. We wanted to identify people and partners who could help us create this broader narrative about how the experience of traveling—trying different food, meeting diverse people, and sharing new experiences with a new community—can change people into better versions of themselves. Traveling has a profound impact on the human experience and we wanted to engage people in this discussion without any call to actions or sales pitches.

As for execution, we dug into learning about our audience. Who is the audience we want to encourage? Where are they? What travel influencers does the audience follow? What shows do they watch? What type of media are they consuming? Together, all this information helped us make an informed decision about the kind of content we needed to create. For example, one type of content was online blog posts created through influencer partnerships. In another type, we partnered with Tastemade to create three television-based episodes around travel, each one documenting a different traveler's journey. As I mentioned before, we deliberately avoided focusing on the product as a key performance indicator. Instead, we focused on brand awareness. Would people be surprised to see a financial institution like Capital One engaging them in a conversation about travel? This project helped us learn how to engage people with our brand, aside from focusing purely on products.

The Purpose Project was a PR driven campaign, but we also learned something big, which is that communication professionals don't do a great job of showcasing the direct link between their work and its impact on the business.  Our campaign brought together a different variety of partners and introduced a new way of working as a team. We collaborated with graphic designers, storytellers, copywriters—people from many different professional backgrounds and experiences to tell a full story. What was missing, however, is the tie in to how the campaign impacts the business. As far as purpose-driven campaigns go, it is critical to think about how to bring the business story in it through the lens of impact-driven storytelling.

PD: Capital One is the kind of company where the corporate brand and the consumer brand are the same. And there's been a lot of discussions recently around how, even in companies where that's not true, that consumer PR and corporate communications are merging in many ways and the consumers are no longer distinguishing between the two. How are you handling that coming together of consumer and external stakeholder expectations? Is that changing how you think about things? Is it making you more cautious?

SS: It hasn't changed much for us. We are driven by the desire to help consumers with their finances and offer them tools to make informed decisions. This is our DNA, and it drives everything we do. Whether it's corporate communications focusing on reputation management, or my team proactively promoting products, or our brand team telling the company story through advertising—we're all grounded in the same mission.

Regardless of industry, we should all stay on top of our consumers and understand how they like to be approached. Brands who do that tend to come up with unique campaigns and continuously showcase a combination of good content creation and quick dissemination, which creates brand affinity over the long run.

PD: Concerning The Purpose Project, you mentioned the challenges around measuring and connecting it to the business, and you've previously said that PR lives in the upper funnel around awareness and consideration. Does the business team that you work with accept that as the role of PR, or are they looking for something different? Are you able to measure what you're delivering to them beyond The Purpose Project in a way that is satisfactory to both the teams that you're leading?

SS: PR is much more than a press release or media relations. It's about relationship building, understanding your audience, and sharing stories that make them feel a connection with your brand. That said, all practitioners must continue to educate our business partners as to the value and impact of PR on the business.

Measurement continues to be a challenge not just for PR professionals but for marketers, as well. Recently, I attended the CMO Insight Summit, and the number one concern that came up across performance marketing was how to determine ROI, knowing that some of the biggest brands have shrinking budgets. At Capital One, everything we do is driven by customer insight. Using that knowledge to help create campaigns that help drive business is the best measurement we can propose.

PD: How do you get those insights? Is it by working with central teams, a measurement team of some kind, or a research team that's separate from you? Is it having your internal people mine the data? Is it relying on third parties?

SS: It's a combination of all three. Capital One has made significant investments into having a centralized team that focuses on identifying trends and insights that drive the conversation that we want to have with our stakeholders. Insights aren't something that you simply pull out of a database. You almost need to be deeply steeped into existing conversations to understand what's going on.

For us, it's a combination of making the investments in the PR team and also working closely with our marketing partners and our data analysts. We've also been scanning the industry to determine which other brands are pushing the envelope on insights-driven storytelling.

PD: It feels as though I'm continually reading different opinions about whether influencers should be part of the paid media world or whether they're part of the PR world. You've got this massive landscape of software companies that are now trying to automate and make influencer marketing turnkey, but what is your perspective on where that belongs and how you should manage it?

SS: Influencers are varied. It includes journalists who are writing about issues where your business has a point of view, activists who are driving social change, elected officials who are responsible for public policy, and even individuals who have found a passion point around specific topics and broadly engage with like-minded people. Sometimes, there's a paid component to it.

In general, you need to focus broadly on how to persuade people, and you could do that with an expert without a paid relationship. Or, if you feel like Instagram is the right channel to do it, then you need to consider who could be the best person to share your message.

What's going to differentiate influencer marketing of yesterday, today and tomorrow is going to be authenticity. Brands need to be cautious around making sure that whoever they bring onboard is authentic, not just to their brand story, but authentic to their own story. Be thoughtful about who you're picking to represent you and why.

For The Purpose Project videos, our travelers were diverse. Some of them were traveling on minimal budgets, while some of them were able to travel because they leveraged their rewards. But everybody talked about how travel had changed them, and I think that's where the authenticity piece came into play.

PD: What is it that you are most excited about this year?

SS: I am excited to continue to understand how we can drive business impact and focus on positioning communications as a strategic lever for the company. PR needs to be consulted before the brand is ready to go to market with products or campaigns. PR can drive the product journey and bring in the consumer behavior science aspect of the journey, as well.

One thing I would love to explore is the different ways our industry peers are leveraging insights. And as I mentioned, there's a lot of data out there. Some brands tend to do some brilliant work with insights, but I would love to understand how someone can create an insights-driven campaign in real-time. For example, Burger King does a fantastic job analyzing real-time moments and jumping into conversations with consumers. Heinz does terrific work on social media, where they almost make the conversation their own. So I want to understand more about how brands are doing what they do.  

PD: That is great. It's a wonderful way to wrap our conversation. Sukhi, thank you so much for your time and your insights.

SS: Thank you so much for the opportunity.