Brand Communication is imperative to the sustainable success of any brand. In the current competitive landscape, brands must go beyond narrating a compelling story, they need to communicate in a way that inspires and engages. Having a solid and consistent brand communication strategy allows the brand to stand  out, cut through the noise, build awareness and drive an emotional connection with the audience. The Berries interviewed Majdi Al Ayed, Executive Vice President and UAE Managing Director of TRACCS, to get his insight on how should brands communicate in 2017.

BB: Corporate communication used to be all about exposure and buzz via various media channels; with the rise of new communication concepts, brands find themselves with no choice but to adapt to change. From your opinion, what are the important new trends that corporate communication professionals should keep on their radar to lead in 2017?

MA: Responding to change is not enough anymore. Considering the pace at which the communications landscape is evolving, now is the time to respond to change in a way that will enable companies to anticipate the next big trend even before it unfolds. Now, more than ever, how well brands and corporate communication professionals adapt to these changes has a definitive impact on the survival, sustainability and success of any organization. After a challenging year, 2017 is certainly the year of restructuring or how I like to term it – consolidation. Trends that have been brewing for a while and are now starting to take precedence include:

  • Integrated communications

Increased focus on the development and deployment of integrated communications strategies and plans that span traditional and new age media channels and content formats, with a sharp focus on targeted messaging

  • Being direct and specific

Direct and stakeholder-specific communication efforts that require specialized talent and more man-hours but yield better results that can be better evaluated are rapidly gaining traction

  • Telling a common story

Brands with multi-market operations, regionally or internationally, are increasingly focusing on unifying their communications to tell one common story. This could be a result of consolidation in terms of resources or to optimize the brand’s online searchability commonly known as search engine optimization

  • Print versus Online

With the proliferation of the internet and smartphone devices which have altered reading and news consumption habits of consumers for good, online communications has certainly won the race. Brands that do not recognize or refuse to accept this change will soon be left in the shadows of those who do

  • Go Social, Go Digital

Any brand that is in it for the long haul and that hasn’t established an online presence has to do so right away. Adapting to and adopting technology is the way forward. However, the buck doesn’t stop there. Brands need to ensure that the entire company embraces and encourages a thriving social media culture wherein employees are seen actively engaging with each other and the brand’s target audiences on social media. In addition, brands need to find more creative ways of sharing engaging content, constantly monitor and analyze online conversations about the brand, sync their SEO efforts with Digital PR, connect with various micro bloggers/influencers to maximize brand exposure, and introduce online customer support where relevant.

BB: For brands, fake news on social media is an existential threat. Do you think this will affect the level of online brand engagement on social media platforms? In times of fake news, should brands remain silent, refute news or generate content in a different direction? Please elaborate.

MA: Any news about a brand will warrant some sort of online engagement. However, the type of news being published, real or fake, will determine the levels of interest and engagement. Fake news shared on social media is most often than not published on platforms that are not owned by a brand. Brands that are well-entrenched into the social media scene can exercise immediate control and nip the problem in the bud if any fake news is published on their own platforms. On third-party platforms, the course of action varies depending on the severity of the news, possible damage to the brand value, customer engagement rates and so on and so forth. At times, this can be ignored but there can be instances when immediate corrective measures may need to be taken, which could include joining the conversation, refuting the news and redirecting the conversation, or alerting the concerned authorities.

BB: The use of influencers has been one of the dominating highlights that gained momentum in 2016 with leaning on online influencers more than celebrity endorsements. How can the use of influencers for brands evolve in 2017 for a better ROI?

MA: As mentioned above, 2016 was the year when brands splurged on the opportunity to deploy a new channel of communicating with their customers. This resulted in online influencers hogging the limelight from celebrities; however, with brands reassessing their expenses and the ROI, a certain trend in 2017 will be a sharper focus on micro bloggers and influencers. Instead of placing all their eggs in one big basket, brands will look to diversify their influencer portfolio, which will collectively generate a better ROI. If this is true and a new formula for success, only time will tell.

BB: One of the historical industry debates has revolved around whether doing PR in-house or hiring a professional corporate communication agency. Can you mention some differentiators that would encourage brands do PR with a firm instead of doing it in-house?

MA: The biggest differentiator in my opinion is the sea of talent and experience that a brand gains instant access to when hiring the services of a PR agency, as opposed to what would be available in-house. Public Relations is a dedicated and specialized service which needs constant brainstorming and development of creative concepts and ideas in addition to a string of resources. An in-house team can get bogged down with multiple requests, time constraints and limited resources; however, an agency can always overcome these issues with ease. With full-fledged in-house teams leading different functions, very rarely do we face a challenge with turnaround times, quality or creative idea generation.

The second biggest differentiator or advantage of hiring a PR agency with a wide network of offices, especially if the brand has multi-market operations, is the on-ground intelligence and insight from the different markets. At TRACCS, we call upon our network offices on a regular basis to gain valuable information about market-specific current trends and developments, before developing client strategies and plans. Also, local presence means that our teams have constant liaison with their local media and these relationships that have been built and nurtured over the years, certainly and in many ways, prove beneficial to our clients.

BB: Nowadays, Brands are all about designing engaging experiences. How can corporate communication professionals help brands narrate their stories and create an emotional attachment?

MA: Well, communication professionals are storytellers. In our world, if content is king, context is queen. Our primary role is to find the right content-to-context strategy for the brand or campaign in question, identify the target audience, package the content in a consumer-friendly manner and publicize it in the right way to generate optimal results. Any content should have a call to action or else it is not worth publishing. The main purpose behind any type of content is to get the audience to react. The only way to do this is to focus on the impact rather than on the news itself. Consumers have needs and wants, and if the content fails to highlight how the news or announcement will cater to one or more of these needs and wants, then, in all honesty, we as PR professionals have missed the plot.

This is where communication professionals have a role to play. At TRACCS, we employ specialized content writers who only focus on developing engaging, thought-provoking and creative content that will spur a reaction from the audience.

BB: Corporate communication pros who work in the digital sphere are often faced with an all-time dilemma, Content Virality Vs Paid tools. How can they constantly find new content niches, social communities and influencers, organically?

MA: Content virality is very subjective and there is no set formula that can guarantee this. Plus there is no set timeline. We have seen instances where content has gone viral a few years after being published.

The only solution lies in content research and analysis. What brands need to do is to run different campaigns with different types of content and test the performance to gauge which content is performing better. There are several tools out there that can be used to run these tests. Content consumption habits change regularly and are affected by a lot of factors. Hence, regular monitoring of content on a brand’s own social platforms as well as content on its competitors’ platforms is a must. This will help identify the right content for that point in time.

Similarly, constant engagement with influencers and monitoring of the online space will help brands identify the right social communities and influencers to engage with. This again is very time specific and can change very rapidly.