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.

brad pitt foundation

Brad Pitt’s Foundation Facing Lawsuit

Sometimes, tying a famous name to a charity work can put a big target on that organization. If everything goes well, it’s great PR, but if things go poorly, for whatever reason, there’s that famous name in the headline.

A recent example of this is an Associated Press story in which the Make it Right Foundation is being sued over homes built in places that were devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The famous name associated with Make it Right? Brad Pitt.

The A-list Hollywood actor’s name was all over the headlines recently because of the lawsuit, which was filed on the behalf of residents of New Orleans Ninth Ward, which was one of the areas hardest hit by flooding after the hurricane. Their attorney, Ron Austin, was all over local media talking about “sicknesses, headaches, and infrastructure issues…”

Of course, Pitt’s name was mentioned prominently in all the reports. According to the story, Pitt created the foundation about two years after Katrina and hired “award-winning architects” to rebuild communities that had been scoured away by wind and fast-moving flood waters. The organization planned to build 150 new homes, billing them as “storm-safe, solar-powered, and green.” Residents could purchase the relatively affordable housing through a combination of government grants, resettlement financing, and donations from the Make It Right Foundation.

At least, that was the plan. But things didn’t quite work out that way. A decade after the first ground was broken on the project, 110 house have been built, and some are, reportedly, already falling apart. The attorney, Austin, complained of mildew, roof leaks, and sagging porches… “Essentially, Make It Right was making a lot of promises to come back and fix the homes that they initially sold these people and have failed to do so…”

So, in an effort to help devastated hurricane victims, Brad Pitt has harnessed himself and his brand to a PR catastrophe. Images of frustrated families, who already suffered unimaginable horror and loss, have been tied to his image.

In response, the Foundation sued the lumber company that provided a lot of the suspect wood, but there’s no news about how or if that suit was settled. Through all of this, Pitt has chosen to focus on the bright side, telling local media:

“I get this swell of pride when I see this little oasis of color and the solar panels… I drive into the neighborhood and I see people on their porch, and I ask them how is their house treating them? And they say, ‘Good.’ And I say ‘What’s your utility bill?’ And they’ll throw something out like, ‘24 bucks’ or something, and I feel fantastic.”

That position may not be one he’s able to hold for much longer. The recent headlines marking the demolition of one of the Make It Right houses brought this issue back into the spotlight even before the lawsuit hit the headlines. The demo, according to the media, was in response to neighbors complaining of the eyesore. In response, Make it Right, though not Pitt, responded with this statement:

“Our homeowners’ well-being and privacy are some of our top priorities and we work closely with them to address their concerns… Each situation is different and we are currently coordinating the necessary follow up with the appropriate parties to address any areas of concern.”

Given the direction this narrative is going, they may want to consider “coordinating” faster… and shifting to a more empathetic message.

 

netflix

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

zimbabwe public relations

Zimbabwe Bond Notes Create PR Nightmare

Back in 2016, The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe began using $10 million worth of “bond” notes as a replacement for traditional money, in an attempt to ease the problems, the country currently has with liquidity. Not only where the bond notes met with uncertainty when the country first began to introduce them, but they could pose a serious problem with PR nearly two years later, as they’re harming the area’s ability to attract international investors.

According to financial analysts from South Africa’s Rand Merchant Bank, Neville Mandimika announced that while the local feeling towards the bond notes has softened over the last two years, there’s still a lot of problems for the country to overcome. For instance, many people stare still confused about the bond notes and how they can coordinate with existing financial policies.

Problems for the Zimbabwe Brand

It’s often easy to forget that countries and locations, like businesses, can come with their own brand and reputation. In a time when Zimbabwe is desperate for the attention of the right investors, the country could be facing some serious troubles with this bond note issue. Particularly, investors have no idea what the bond notes are going to mean to the company in the grand scheme of things. Will the bond notes still be in place fifteen years from now, or is it just a part-time policy?

If they want to improve their chances of investment, the PR organizations responsible for boosting Zimbabwe’s identity will need to implement a plan to improve confidence about the future of the country’s currencies. On the international scene, the very concept of bond notes can be enough to conjure up dangerous images with fixed-income investments. One particularly important thing to remember is that the term “bond notes” in Zimbabwe is likely to mean something very different to the phrase used in the US.

For most investors looking to drive their money towards Zimbabwe, the concept of the bond notes is something that’s not easily understood or articulated right now. PR exercises need to be put in place to improve understanding about what the bond notes mean, and how they’ll affect investments in the long-term.

What Zimbabwe Needs to Do Next

During a conversation about Zimbabwe’s reputational standing, Mandimika suggested that the country needs to start taking advantage of the changing international sentiments around the space and look for ways to strengthen their policies. To some extent, prospects for Zimbabwe are looking much better today because many people no longer think that the area is going to be struggling from financial woes for the next four or five years.

As the conversation begins to change, there are opportunities for investment out there, but there are policies to clarify, positions to address, and plans to set in motion before anything significant can happen. Sentiment is on Zimbabwe’s side right now, but the country needs to make sure that the policy proposals going forward are as clear as possible – particularly after the elections take place.

5WPR CEO Ronn Torossian – founder of 5W Public Relations.

nba pr

Rough Ratings Signal PR Problem for the NBA

What’s the matter with the NBA… and, when they figure it out, how can the league solve it? Opinions vary. Some say it’s the lack of star power. Others point to a serious dearth of parity, to a league of haves and have nots.

That’s not to say there isn’t interest in the Finals. Games 3 and 4 of the NBA Finals, which pitted the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Golden State Warriors, drew huge ratings for ABC. But, while those games were watched by a good number of fans, they also illustrated what’s wrong with the NBA, and why viewership is down across the board.

The Cavs came in, once again, the Beast in the East. In fact, they have made it to the Finals four straight years… And they faced the Golden State Warriors. No other NBA team has come close to vying for a championship in years, and the best in the east can’t even win a game against the best in the west.

Sports leagues fare best when there’s a chance another team could win. Parity brings drama, and drama creates interesting narratives for commentators and fans to share.

Sharing narratives – from arguing about games and players to talking about them the day after – are a huge part of spectator sports. For more than a few years, now, the biggest storyline in the NBA is “what’s LeBron’s legacy?” Fans who are not diehard James fans are long-since tired of that.

Even young fans who were not alive to remember the glory days of the Lakes, Celtics, Pistons, and Bulls — when NBA drama dominated this time of year with “fantastic” action and suspense — are talking about the Great Ones: Magic, Bird, Jordan, Thomas, and Kareem. Others pine for Kobe and Shaq and Duncan. When fans are tweeting and talking about whether Jordan is better than Kobe while LeBron is on the court, that’s bad for the NBA. And it’s a narrative the league can’t seem to shake.

Coming out of yet another Golden State victory – they swept the Cavs this year – the “big story” in the NBA is if and when James will leave in free agency. Teams considered top contenders: San Antonio and Houston. If these or any other Western Conference team gets James, the NBA will have another serious problem to content with. When the best player and the best teams are all in one conference, the good rivalries die, and the good stories fade.

A trade might not happen, but if it does, the League will enter PR crisis mode. Hardcore basketball fans will tune in, but casual fans will drift away, leaving the league wondering how to manage having both the best player and the best team in at least a decade… and a fan base that’s just not interested in watching. And, even if it doesn’t, the League is still in a tough spot, trying to keep the interest of fans who believe the end is inevitable.

5WPR CEO Ronn Torossian is the founder of 5W Public Relations.