Last week at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, Weber Shandwick and PRovoke Media hosted a roundtable discussion with marcomms leaders from some of the world’s biggest brands. The conversation focused on the power of earning consumers' trust, loyalty and business, even as it took place at a festival that has traditionally prized paid media above all else. Participants were:

  • Joy Farber Kolo, chief brand officer, Weber Shandwick
  • Bea Perez, chief communications officer, Coca-Cola
  • Molly McKenna, senior director, brand communications, McDonald’s
  • Kelly Mahoney, VP of member marketing, Ulta
  • Lauren Taylor, managing director & partner, BCG
  • Josh Earnest, chief communications officer, United Airlines
  • Arun Sudhaman, editor-in-chief, PRovoke Media (moderator)

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The earned effect
"Fundamentally, to earn value, you have to contribute value" The conversation began by examining examples of how earned media can create a difference for brands, whether in terms of attention, advocacy, loyalty or business. At a time when companies are facing enormous volatility across politics, technology and business — there is an opportunity for smart brands to create value by contributing to consumer lives in a meaningful way. As Weber Shandwick's Earned Effect research with the IPA reveals, campaigns that earn are 53% more likely to drive very large business effects, and 2.6x more likely to generate very large profit growth.

Kelly Mahoney (KM): As a marketer, I’m so blessed to be able to run our ultimate rewards program. We actually took a compilation of their posts and just pulled that together. That’s where the conversation is and is most authentic. If there’s something people are passionate about, it’s beauty. But beauty’s everywhere, so how do you get them passionate about our brand. And our loyalty program is where we can drive that.

Molly McKenna (MMK): We are actually seeing earned as an indicator of how our broader marketing campaign is going to perform.  [The] BTS [campaign, for example]. There hasn’t been a dollar spent on earned media but there are people showing up at our stores. That really helps demonstrate the power of earned.

Josh Earnest (JE): We restructured and downsized our marketing team because of Covid. Advertising, PR and social are all effectively part of the same team. In many ways it was the inspiration for the brand campaign we launched one year ago. A lot of the news coverage was actually highlighting airplanes, empty airports and empty airplanes and worries about layoffs. A lot of that was the prism through which people evaluated the impact of Covid. We recognized there was an opportunity to tell our story. We were among the first businesses to require your customers to wear masks. Rather than let the news get out there, we decided to announce it. The reaction was tremendous – much more positive than we expected. It did position United and our brand in a way that was positive, in the midst of all this negativity.

Bea Perez (BP): Relationships, passion and communities. We always talk about 'how do we build relationships with our consumers?'. It has to be deep, meaningful and relevant. We try to flip the marketing script – our brands are for everyone. People who love sports, music, the environment. How do we think about the things that are most relevant to them? In Pakistan, this was a paid program, but we wanted it to go viral. We launched Coke Studios — we took all the top musicians, and then worked with content creators to transcend geographies. There was a real appetite for people to gather and enjoy, celebrate music. What happened is — the amount of chatter and the viral nature — how Coke brought something to people that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Now we’re building it around the world. We see the impact for our brand — purchase intent goes up, sales go up.

Lauren Taylor (LT): It’s understanding what are the individual needs for a particular consumer or occasion in that moment. Cutting marketing/brand spend typically is detrimental. But the place we’ve most seen companies break through is that value proposition that resonates with a particular consumer at a particular occasion.

Joy Farber Kolo (JFK): Fundamentally, to earn value, you have to contribute value. You're starting in the wild – as opposed to an artificial brand world. You’re picking the communities that also matter to you most. You’re not going to break through unless you’re doing something that matters enough.

BP: It’s constant, and its nurturing. And when you make a mistake, you have to be honest about it. I think about New Coke all the time. We forgot that the consumer owns the brand. We forgot that they are the ones that matter. 

The challenges of earning
"It makes us nervous every single time"  
Charged with protecting their brands, comms and marketing leaders are finding the very elements that differentiate earned from owned efforts are also the disciplines’ greatest challenges. Our panelists said ceding elements of control is the one of the toughest parts of operating in the earned arena, and an issue that comes up throughout the lifecycle of campaigns — from enlisting influencers to spread the brand word to managing the onslaught of unvetted content that can quickly spread as the result of such efforts. As Coca-Cola’s Bea Perez said, “It makes us nervous every single time.”

Yet brand leaders are more heartily embracing the art of co-creation and the resulting reach and results. We started off the next segment by asking them to address the specific challenges they face.

BP: Trying to avoid the chaos. Letting go and giving control to somebody else. You still have to protect the brand. You have to make sure people aren’t using your brand for bad. We did a relationship with OpenAI. We said, what if we let the consumers design the campaigns that go on Picadilly Circus. We had almost a million images. How do you look at all of those before they go up? We said, ok well – we need some controls on the front end. We have to make sure that any explicit language cannot be used etc - we tried to do that via the algorithm. We had to have teams of people quickly looking and intercepting. That’s a new skill – we had to learn all of this.

LT: The need for the North Star. What are the guardrails where you are trying to break through? It doesn’t necessarily mean good or bad – how do we focus that on where we can win and break through. There’s so many new things, that companies get distracted, and companies run the risk of getting diluted if they don’t have those guard rails. At the same time, there’s so much localization, by market, by sub-market. Within that, how do we get scale but also manage the complexity?

KM: The challenge in retail – how do we pivot. We’ve been working on agile, it’s a transformation that’s very deep and almost counter to the traditional ways you run retail. That’s our biggest challenge, is shifting to a more agile, fluid way of working.

JE: The real importance of differentiation. Why are we different? That’s another way of being able to capitalize in an authentic way.

JFK: United is very interesting because it was very clear, your employees matter. That to me, is grounded in listening, but also grounded in being about something real. Especially in today’s world — know your place but have a place. Know your people, but have people. It’s not just about call to action but call to co-creation. Are you comfortable with your brand as a promise that you share with others?

BP: It makes us nervous every single time. What’s the worst someone can do to the brand if you lose control. Then you have execs, who are like ‘do I want to own this?’. Inevitably something will go wrong, and you don’t want it to stifle the innovation within the organization.

MMK: The pace of innovation in the earned space has grown so significantly. The LA Times delivers its news with puppets on TikTok. Sometimes it’s social first. We’re trying to test and learn new ways, but that can be uncomfortable too when your leadership is more comfortable with tried and tested ways of earning media. Our whole strategy, which can apply to any brand, is trying to be big on culture – but leaning into our brands and what our customers love about McDonald’s. Having fun with those types of things, that has really worked well for us.

Measuring the impact  "With all of our data, I feel we should be further along" Measuring the impact of earned work is still problematic for PR, despite the data-heavy industry we’re now working in. Our panelists said that while there have been advancements, they are still waiting for the tools to laser-focus their measurement and glean the insights necessary to guide decision-making when it comes to questions like which influencers to work with. But the measurement tools they do have are enabling companies to see the results of big initiatives. Using its reputation impact tracker, for instance, McDonald’s saw favorability spike after the fast-food giant decided to pull out of Russia.

BP: It still poses a challenge. I think there’s some directional data…I haven’t found anything that is as precise as I want it to be. I have found that a lot of research doesn’t zero out other externalities. I’m in search of a little bit deeper, more functionalities.

JFK: We have further developed the approach to see, can you isolate the impact of earned.

LT: There are two things. What is your mindshare, goes up significantly when you target at a specific demand occasion. That’s when you start to see disproportionate impact. How do you see when something is more predictive of purchase or ultimate market share. It’s at that intersection of demand and occasion. It’s understanding which journey for which moment matters.

KM: You’re talking to more of a performance marketer that wants to see test vs control. We don’t have it down to a perfect science. How are we able to do better attribution. We’re talking about demand occasions a lot. There was a new demand occasion that we really leaned into. There’s our spot. We’re on that journey. With all of our data, I feel we should be further along.

JFK: It’s not a conflict [between brand building and performance marketing]. It can be complementary. Trying to make it a conflict does it a disservice to everyone managing marketing and communication budgets.

JE: It’s hard to know – is that an old- fashioned way of thinking about it, or an artificial way of thinking about it? I’ve often been confounded when people talk about, let’s just talk about building our brand.

JFK: An incredibly short-term view which is driven by how people are measured on the inside and how they are incentivized on the outside.

LT: How much is the incentive internally? The metrics for different parts of the business. It is another version of short-term and long-term. We want to be known for building this purpose.

BP: We had to start reminding people with sustainability, there is no short-term without the long-term, and no long-term without the short-term. It was much harder than what I realized it was going to be. I think it’s a language thing, we need to talk about PR and sustainability in terms of capital investments and economic growth.