business model ronn torossian

John Hancock Announces Shift in Business Model

In business, disruption in the market is inevitable. New ideas, better methods, improved tools, and sudden shifts can all create tectonic change. And, in the modern era, these changes can happen practically overnight. So, if you’re brand isn’t hearing your customers, they may be someone else’s customers before you realize it.

One of the largest – and oldest – currently operating businesses in the United States, John Hancock insurance, recently faced that stark reality. For more than 150 years, the life insurance market operated on pretty much the same business model. But, recently, consumer needs and wants have shifted, and these consumers, offered myriad options at the touch of a screen, are starting to find these needs being met in different ways.

For John Hancock, these market realities necessitated an abrupt and drastic change, explained in the following statement:

“John Hancock … will no longer sell traditional life insurance policies. All of our policies will come with John Hancock Vitality – a platform designed to help policyholders live longer, healthier lives by giving people incentives to make healthier choices linked to physical activity, nutrition and mindfulness. Our path here started with a simple, revolutionary thought: Your life insurance company should care how long and well you live…”

Someone who understands the insurance industry may read that statement and think, “well, sure, of course insurance companies want their customers to live longer… That helps their bottom line…”

Hancock’s message anticipates that perspective and addresses it, offering this:

“For too long, our industry wasn’t truly investing in the very thing it is designed to protect: life… The time to act is now – lifestyle diseases are now the primary cause of death in America. Today just four choices — physical inactivity, unhealthy diet, excessive alcohol and smoking — cause more than 60 percent of deaths and 80 percent of the disease burden in the United States, according to the Oxford Health Alliance…”

This statement reads as bold and bluntly honest. While, yes, Hancock knows longer-living people mean a stronger bottom line, the company is introducing initiatives to help improve the quality of those lives as well.

This message is communicated in simple terms, with an easy-to-remember list of “enemies” to combat: lack of exercise, bad diets, too much alcohol, and smoking. There’s also a collective call to action. John Hancock has announced its intentions, but the tone and the message implies an invitation for consumers to come along with them.

This is a smart tactic to take in communicating this change. Making it about responding directly to consumers’ needs and offering to partner with them in building a happy, healthier life, shifts the focus away from the “change,” which people often dislike, and onto the “features and benefits” being offered.

texas public relations

Texas School Superintendent Facing Uncertain Future After Comments

Sports can be a hot topic in Texas, especially football. And people can say things in the wrong way, or things they don’t mean in the heat of the moment. Happens all the time on social media. But, there are some lines that, if crossed, have greater consequences than comment thread infamy. Some lines you just don’t cross, especially if you’re in a position of public prominence or responsibility. Just ask Lynn Redden.

Redden is, at least for now, the superintendent of the Onalaska Independent School District in Piney Woods, Texas, just north of Houston. Recently, Redden was discussing his team, the Houston Texans, on the comment board of a Houston Chronicle article about Texans starting quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Watson was a big pickup for Houston, and he’s a popular player in east Texas, but he wasn’t very popular after the final whistle of the Texans game against the Tennessee Titans. Houston lost, 20-17, after Watson let the clock run down.

Redden, like many Houston fans, was upset by this decision. Unlike many Houston fans, Redden chose to offer this opinion on the Chronicle’s comment section: “When you need precision decision making you can’t count on a black quarterback.”

The race-based comment was quickly deleted, but — you’ve heard this one before — not until after it was screenshot and shared with the world, including the Chronicle.

Redden was suddenly a household name, being blasted by Texans coach Bill O’Brien: “I really don’t want to waste a lot of time responding to outdated, inaccurate, ignorant, idiotic statements… I’ll just let Deshaun (Watson’s) proven success on the field, his character off the field, speak for itself. He’s one of the greatest guys I’ve ever coached. He represents everything that’s right about football, about life… In this day and age, it’s just amazing that this B.S. exists.”

Watson, when questioned about the comment, chose the high road, saying, “May peace be with him. I worry about me, so I’m not worried about what he has to say.”

Some fans are openly and loudly calling for Redden to be fired. Meanwhile, Redden, when asked what he meant by the comment, told the news he “believed he was sending a private message…” then cited what he called the “limited success” of black quarterbacks in the NFL.

As of this writing, Redden’s ultimate fate has not yet been decided. The school board that employs him is planning a special meeting to determine what action to take, however, they have already issued a statement: “The OISD does not condone negative comments or actions against any race. The district values every individual and therefore the district will take the appropriate measures to address the situation expeditiously and completely.”

While it was necessary to make that statement, it’s what the district says or does next that will create the most public response. They would be wise to choose their public message a lot more carefully than their superintendent.


Netflix Star Hitches his Wagon to the Apology Train

Now, for better or worse, there is a response template when you are criticized for tweets or comments on social media that someone finds “suspect” or “problematic.” The template appears to be: Disavow previous comments with vigor, apologize using the most blanket and all-encompassing statements possible, take ‘full responsibility’ for offending anyone who was or was not offended… Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

I will not be the first to say this, but, as a PR policy, this is bad. Boilerplate statements and wooden-sounding, disingenuous language does not help your cause. If someone is upset with you, trying to walk it back by apologizing to absolutely everyone for absolutely everything just makes you look desperate, not repentant.

Take the recent case of Netflix star Israel Broussard, an actor in the Netflix original movie “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.” Broussard had the temerity to agree with some fellows on the internet whom an entertainment reporter at The Daily Beast dislikes. Broussard has, in the past, “liked” tweets from Ben Shapiro, President Trump and Marco Rubio. He has also made some pretty sad and inappropriate jokes on Twitter.

For these crimes, The Daily Beast went after Broussard with both barrels, tarring and feathering the actor just at the moment when he was being discovered by a wider fan base. So, in a knee-jerk attempt to save face, Broussard offered what has become the standard mea culpa:

“I am deeply sorry for my inappropriate and insensitive words and likes on social media… I take full responsibility for my actions and I sincerely apologize. This has been a pivotal life lesson for me. I am dedicated to becoming a more informed and educated version of myself.”

Complete and total preemptive surrender in the face of one reporter’s isolated opinion, lest she get retweeted too much too soon. Broussard may have been right to not try to defend his bad tweets, but throwing down your arms and just unconditionally surrendering is not the way to get them to leave you alone. Unfortunately, in many cases, this kind of response only invites more vitriol.

That’s not to say apologizing is a bad idea or a wrong move. In many cases, it’s a good idea and the best move, but you need good reasons and a good message to send.

Here’s the thing, when it comes to attacks, you need to consider the source before you cede the high ground. A cursory reading of this particular reporter’s Twitter feed shows some retweets of the same people Broussard retweeted, which seems to indicate that the reporter is trying to create controversy to raise her stock online. It’s a fair PR tactic, but, in this case, it’s also patently obvious.

While offering scant evidence, The Daily Beast labeled Broussard a racist, a homophobe, and a proponent of a host of other social ills. By unilaterally apologizing without at least challenging some of these accusations, Broussard seems to be acquiescing to too much too soon.

nabisco public relations

Nabisco Unleashes Lions and Elephants

It’s been about a year since Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey announced it would be closing down its namesake circus. Now, both in response to that decision and in a pretty clever play to get some attention for a brand that’s been more or less forgotten by today’s kids, Nabisco has “uncaged” the cartoon animals on its animal crackers box. Fully 116 years after “Barnum’s Animal Crackers” first appeared, the animals on the boxes are no longer “traveling” in circus train cages.

Now, the menagerie – which includes an elephant, zebra, giraffe, and gorilla – is free and seems to be charging right off the box. This posture is much more likely to grab the attention of kids wandering the grocery store… as well as their parents, who are being barraged with articles touting the change.

According to most reports, Nabisco’s decision to release the beasts was at the request of PETA, and having this organization involved certainly ensures the stories will be bigger and the responses louder. Of the many politically-tinged organizations out there, PETA is one of the best at generating headlines… as well as attention from both supporters and, especially, detractors. For media outlets, the connection was too good to pass up, and PETA, as always, was ready with a statement. Most of the stories covering this change are also reporting that PETA approached Nabisco’s parent company, Mondelez International, with allegations that circuses like the one depicted on the boxes “often beat, chain, and whip animals…”

Mondelez issued a statement downplaying PETA’s influence in the decision, saying: “It’s probably one of, if not the oldest, (product) in our portfolio… We’re always looking to see how to keep it modern, to keep it contemporary with customers.”

Whatever you feel about the decision to redraw the boxes and the animals adorning them, from a public relations perspective, this was a well-executed campaign. Not only did Nabisco get the media to plaster a photo of its boxes in print, on TV, and online for days, PETA was able to piggyback on the campaign, getting a lot more mileage out of the story than they may have otherwise. PETA, of course, used the incident to remind the media of its successful campaigns against the actual circus, as well as other performing animal shows.

For Nabisco, the benefit is that untold numbers of parents are now going to make a point to look for the animal crackers on grocery store shelves coast to coast, something they may not have done since their children were toddlers.

5WPR CEO Ronn Torossian

taco pr

Chipotle Stares Down Yet Another PR Crisis

Remember when Chipotle was the toast of the restaurant industry? They were the top “fast casual” joint, a place Millennials flocked to the same way their parents flocked to McDonald’s and Taco Bell. Families loved Chipotle too. The impression was that the food was fast, but it was also “healthier.”

That was before people started getting sick…

The brand endured a massive PR crisis, struggled through lost revenue, then started the long, hard climb back into the good graces of their somewhat lessened legion of fans. It had been months of “no news is good news,” then, another devastating headline. Hundreds of diners were reporting becoming ill after eating at a Columbus, Ohio area Chipotle. When the food at that location was tested, a bacteria that grows on food left at unsafe temperatures was found… and that was just the beginning of the bad news.

Once again, Chipotle faced a PR crisis. This time, though, there was precedence. People were beginning to think of the trouble as a trend. The company had to do something big, something bold, and something drastic to show disaffected and disgusted diners that they were serious about food safety.

Recently, Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol released this statement: “Chipotle has a zero-tolerance policy for any violations of our stringent food safety standards… We are committed to doing all we can to ensure it does not happen again.”

That, of course, would not be enough. After all, this was “again,” and customers were quick to let the company know that. In response, the company said it will take the time to “retrain the entire staff on food safety and wellness protocols…”

That certainly seems ambitious. Chipotle employs 70,000 people in about 2,450 locations. But, this time, “training” may not be enough. After all, Chipotle did the same thing last time this happened. Back in 2016, the company shut down all its stores to deliver a food safety seminar to employees at every location. Now, about two years later, here they are again.

It would be tough to fault customers who are thinking “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice…” Even if they have never, personally, had an issue with Chipotle food, they may not think taking the risk is a great idea. Especially since there are so many other options out there. Since the success of Chipotle, the “fast casual” industry has exploded. There are popular chains and standalone diners catering to just about every taste, and these customers are happy to go elsewhere.

Going forward, Chipotle will have to offer customers more than another training day to get them to feel comfortable eating there again.

5WPR CEO Ronn Torossian

Why GM Loves the Transformers

Critics may love to mock director-producer Michael Bay, but he continues to laugh all the way to the bank, stacking up hundreds of millions in profits on movie after movie, mostly summertime popcorn fare with as many explosions as lines of dialogue. Audiences know they’re not getting Shakespeare. They love Bay movies for exactly what they are, and big-name brands love Bay movies for the massive exposure they receive for splashy and obvious product placement.

While Bay is known – and some would say renowned – for his myriad products prominently placed in every film, it’s probably safe to say that no brand has been more prominent in a Bay film than General Motors.

When the world first learned that Bay would be at the helm of a live action retooling of the hugely popular 80s cartoon and toy line, Transformers, it had to be a watershed moment for many automotive manufacturing marketing departments. This was going to be a series of movies where the cars were the stars. Whoever got in on that stood make a huge impact.

Turns out, that company got to be General Motors, who used the first Transformers movie to roll out a new model of an iconic sports car, as well as signature models of just about every auto body style imaginable.

There was the Pontiac Solstice, the GMC TopKick, the Hummer H2, and the most visible star of the show, the brand new Chevrolet Camaro concept car. In fact, the human characters in the film also say the word “Camaro” multiple times, in case the audience missed the ‘slow-roll’ vignette of the new Camaro gliding up to the lead actors. GM would go on to sell fleets of “Bumblebee” inspired Camaros, making this partnership with Bay’s Transformers a massive PR win.

In the follow up Transformers film, GM would introduce a concept Corvette Stingray, as well as a Chevy Volt, Beat, and Trax concept vehicle. In every scene, along with the prominent Autobot emblem, the automaker’s logos are front and center.

There’s no doubt both Bay and his main product placement customer, GM, benefited greatly from the partnership. The vehicles look impossibly cool, and the target fan base of 18 to 40 year old guys found themselves dreaming – and eventually going out and buying – their own “Transformer.”

Whether fans love the product placement in Bay’s movies, or they love to joke about it, companies will continue to line up to get the exposure as long as he keeps producing massive blockbuster hits.

5WPR CEO Ronn Torossian

Build a Bear Promotion Goes Bust

It could have been the marketing coup of the summer. Had Build a Bear successfully pulled off its “pay your age” promotion, people would be talking about it for years, especially every time they saw their child’s favorite stuffed animal. Now, though, millions of people will be talking about the promotion for very different reasons.

You probably know the story by now. Build a Bear advertised that it would hold a very special discount day. Parents could bring their kids in, and they tykes could build a new fuzzy friend for only the cost of their age. The news spread across social media like wildfire, causing tens of thousands to flock to Build a Bear locations across the nation, and elsewhere.

Many showed up well before dawn, waiting in line for their chance to capture the deal. Unfortunately for untold thousands of parents, with tired, cranky kids in tow, waiting in line offered them little more than disappointment. Stores ran out of inventory. Some malls cut off the line because the crowds were blocking access to many other stores. There were arguments and fights, and reports some children were injured in melees.

And, based on the company’s initial statement explaining why the deal was canceled, it seems at least some of those safety-related reports may have some basis in fact:

“Based on the unprecedented response to our Pay Your Age Day event in our early opening stores, we are experiencing significantly longer than expected lines and large crowds. Local authorities are requiring us to limit the lines and crowds due to safety concerns. We understand this is disappointing, we are working to address the situation, and we will be reaching out to our valued guests soon…”

So, after hours waiting in line, tens of thousands of disappointed parents and sobbing, confused children were led away, unsure if they would ever get what they came for. These people, of course, were live-streaming and tweeting their experience in real time. As word spread on social media, local news started showing up, taking video and interviewing frustrated parents and kids.

The complaints continued to pour in, criticizing the apparent miscalculations and disorganization both in planning the event an in executing it at the store level. What was supposed to be a huge win for Build a Bear turned into a constant, day-long embarrassment. Over the next days and weeks, planners will review the event, looking for where it all went wrong. They may want to start with why no one asked: What if everyone shows up?

Regardless of what they learn and what they decide, now Build a Bear has to rebuild its reputation with some very aggravated core customers.

These Brands That Risked Their Reputation to Take a Public Stand

Taking a public stand can be a risk for a brand, but when it works, it can pay off handsomely. Here are a few examples of brands that took the risk and enjoyed a serious PR payoff:

Stella Artois

You may not expect an international beer brand to be at the top of the list, but Stella Artois makes it for their brilliant and compassionate campaign that helped bring safe drinking water countless people in regions where safe drinking water is a luxury, not an assumption. The campaign, called “Buy a Lady a Drink,” combined the thrust of Stella with the star power of Matt Damon and the boots on the ground of to encourage consumers to engage with the movement. Stella Artois even debuted a limited-edition bottle that, with each one purchased, sent a month of clean water to families in developing countries. Buy a sixer, and that represents six months of clean water for a family.


Who buys most of the groceries? Mom. Who gets most of the criticism about how kids are being raised? Mom. Who did Yoplait yogurt target with a powerfully-affirming, feel-good social PR campaign? You guessed it: Mom. Ostensibly in response to the constant critiques mothers get for every decision they make for their kids, Yoplait invented “Mom On,” which showed a series of moms responding to common complaints about how they parent. The women addressed issues ranging from breastfeeding to when they went back to work with well-placed humor and confidence. Moms – and women in general – loved the campaign, rewarding the company with their business in droves.

Uber v. Lyft

Rideshare companies Uber and Lyft waded into the heart of a very controversial situation: President Trump’s travel ban. When other taxi companies chose to strike to protest the travel ban, Uber chose to keep operating. When that resulted in an avalanche of criticism, then-CEO Travis Kalanickdefended the choice, saying his company was dedicated to work with the President on urban transport issues. Lyft, however, came down strongly and solidly on the other side of the issue, condemning the travel ban and offering to donate a large sum of money to the ACLU, which was fighting the ban. Now, regardless of how most people feel about the issue, most of Lyft’s and Uber’s customers sided with Lyft, which gave Lyft a net win.

5WPR CEO Ronn Torossian, Founder of 5W Public Relations.