Axios Communicators

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January 26, 2023

Happy Friday eve and welcome back!

Today's newsletter is 1,388 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: The magic of a rebrand

Illustration of a magician pointing a wand at a trademark symbol emerging from a hat.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Moments of disruption are an opportune time for companies to rethink their brand and positioning. Due to transformative shifts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, more than half of U.S. businesses have attempted to reposition themselves within the last three years, according to an UpCity report.

Why it matters: Consumers, employees and shareholders increasingly want to know what a company stands for and expect corporate values, messaging and branding to align.

State of play: Rebrands typically happen in response to innovation, operational shifts, changing consumer needs or following a major crisis.

  • Amid the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, Pfizer launched its first rebrand in 70 years and replaced the blue pill-shaped logo with a helix to emphasize the company's focus on breakthrough science.
  • New Belgium doubled down on its commitment to sustainability by rebranding its beloved Fat Tire ale with the slogan, "High quality, low impact," and refreshing the logo to match its climate-conscious messaging.
  • Ariel Investments, the oldest Black-owned mutual fund company, got its first major facelift since being founded 40 years ago. While Ariel kept Aesop’s tortoise as its mascot, the firm introduced the tagline "Active Patience" to convey its measured approach to investing.
  • And the nearly 150-year-old Prudential Financial recently rolled out a brand campaign "Now What?" to acknowledge the current economic uncertainty and inspire proactive financial planning.

Yes, but: For a brand refresh to be successful, it has to penetrate the surface and there must be corporate action behind it.

  • We're seeing this play out in real time as BP tries to reposition itself as an energy company that goes "beyond petroleum."

What they're saying: To remain competitive and keep up with the pace of business transformation, brands typically need a refresh in voice or appearance every five to 10 years, advise Lippincott brand strategists.

  • "Companies need a visible marker of change. Sometimes that can mean repositioning themselves or launching a bold new look that's a major departure from where they've been, but signals where they want to go," Shelby Hawker, senior partner at Lippincott, told Axios.

Zoom out: Most brand strategy is now taking place on social. Platforms like TikTok have provided more creative runway, and Duolingo, Dunkin' and Taco Bell have seized the opportunity.

  • Plus, strong brand loyalty and buzz across social can create a halo effect around the employee experience.

The bottom line: Strategically launching a smart, substantive rebrand campaign can set a company apart, help it evolve and re-up brand loyalty.

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2. AI brand hype

Data: Google Trends; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

New artificial intelligence systems like ChatGPT and Dalle-E dominated conversations at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and have communicators, creatives and educators quaking.

Why it matters: In response, attuned PR pros are hopping on the AI bandwagon by attempting to position their clients as generative AI companies.

By the numbers: It's a bit of the chicken-or-the-egg effect as reporters increasingly cover the topic and PR pros scramble to take advantage of the hot news cycle.

  • In June, generative AI was covered in only 152 articles. Just six months later, the topic has generated roughly 12,000 news stories, according to MuckRack data shared with Axios.
  • Within the last year, reporters were three times more likely to respond to pitches that included the term generative AI, per insights from Propel.
  • Cision found that the use of the term "generative AI" in press releases has increased by 1,350% since last year.
  • And at this year's CES trade show, 579 exhibitors were listed under the show’s “Artificial Intelligence” category — more than double of those categorized as “Metaverse” (176), “Cryptocurrency” (19), and “Blockchain” (55) combined, Axios' Peter Allen Clark reports.

What they're saying: Brand messaging is a valuable tool to signal a major business shift, but it can't be fleeting.

  • "You might incorporate some new elements that center around the latest trend, but a brand's purpose and identity should remain at such a level that they'll endure through several trends as they come and go," Lippincott's Hawker said.

Go deeper with Axios' ChatGPT takeover.

3. Scoop: Memo's latest report points to surprising readership trends

Data: Memo; Chart: Axios Visuals

Keeping up with the news is like drinking from a firehose, but the question remains: How thirsty are readers?

Driving the news: Axios got an exclusive look at Memo's first State of Media and Readership Report, which shines a light on how and when people consume news.

State of play: Throughout 2022, tragedies like Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and the passing of Queen Elizabeth II saw the most readership.

  • Bad news also drove business coverage. As conversations around inflation and a potential recession rose, so too did readership of news about business leaders — which saw an increase of 94%.
  • Other hot topics for business leaders included the future of work (91k average readers), leadership style and advice (70K average) and personal profiles (50K average).

Zoom in: The report also provided several counterintuitive findings:

  1. Midweek news dump. Wednesdays are the busiest news days, so news is easily buried in the middle of the week, the report finds.
  2. Weekend coverage is prime. There's less coverage on weekends, yet readers are still engaged. Articles published on weekends received 63% more readers on average than those published during the week.
  3. Social listening isn't what it used to be. Referral traffic from social channels is trending down — with less than 10% of article traffic originating from social — as platforms deprioritize news sharing. According to Memo’s research, not only does social engagement not indicate actual readership, it’s not even directional.

What they're saying: “Corporate communicators are responsible for managing narratives that regularly move billions of dollars in market cap value for companies," Eddie Kim, CEO of Memo, told Axios. "Yet PR and comms receive little credit for this. Understanding readership helps give credit where it’s due.”

The bottom line: Having strong intuition is valuable, but understanding readership trends is critical in the world of modern public relations.

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4. Communicator Spotlight: Alan Sexton, Prudential Financial CCO

Photo illustration of Alan Sexton.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Courtesy of Prudential Financial

Alan Sexton, chief communications officer of Prudential Financial, is shepherding the 150-year-old institution into the digital age.

Why it matters: Sexton's team is revamping the way Prudential engages with its stakeholders across the globe — particularly its digitally savvy employees and young consumers.

📍How he got here: Sexton grew up in Ireland and studied international politics, then took strategy roles at Ogilvy, Global Strategy Group and Burson-Marsteller (now BCW) before joining Prudential Financial in 2018.

🏗 How it’s structured: He oversees a team of 130 people who manage internal and external communications, creative services and corporate affairs.

  • It's Prudential's very own diplomatic corps, says Sexton, because they gather, analyze and interpret intelligence and then implement the findings.

📈 Trend spot: The evolution of employee engagement.

  • "We want to make sure to connect the dots for employees at the enterprise level without bombarding them with so much information, particularly information that may not be as relevant to them in their daily work."
  • "We are embarking on a project that will allow employees to choose what information they receive and how they receive it, while also providing us with an ability to serve up necessary corporate announcements. I think it really has the potential to radically change the way we communicate with and learn from employees."

🏍 De-stress routine: He unwinds on twisty roads.

  • "I bought a motorcycle when I moved to the U.S. and took two months off to drive it around the country — 12,000 miles, through 30 states. It was a life-changing experience."

💡Best advice: "Stay relentlessly curious."

Read the entire Communicator Spotlight.

5. 🤔 1 head scratcher to-go: M&M's PR stunt

Image of a M&M tweet explaining the end of their branded "spokescandies"

Screenshot: Twitter/@mmschocolate

M&M's is the latest brand to get caught in the culture war crossfire ... and possibly on purpose.

Catch-up quick: M&M's has been slowly modernizing its "spokecandies" with new shoes, shapes and colors.

  • Right-wing pundits descended on the brand, claiming these cosmetic tweaks were too progressive, and M&M's responded to the backlash by benching the spokecandies (who were first introduced in the 1990s) and replacing them with comedian Maya Rudolph.

What we're watching: Twitter is in a tizzy over this announcement, with some speculating this is just the curtain-raiser for a larger (albeit puzzling) Super Bowl ad campaign.

💭 Eleanor's thought bubble: The world is too fragmented and polarized for PR stunts like this. While the spokescandies controversy did generate buzz, it backfired by creating more confusion and divisive language. Not worth it.

❓What do you think? PR stunt, marketing misstep or both? Shoot me a note.

✅ Thanks to editor Nicholas Johnston, copy editor Kathie Bozanich and to you for reading!

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