About a month ago at 7:30 a.m., I was standing in line at Starbucks — you all know the drill — when the customer four spots ahead of me struck up a conversation with the counter staff about the difference between Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance certification. Faced with the prospect of eschewing my morning latte so I could make an 8 a.m. meeting, I did what any rational professional would have done and texted the office that we’d need to start the meeting 15 minutes late.
Now, this wasn’t because of my well-documented caffeine addiction. This was billable work. Playing out right in front of me was an unadulterated case study on how the products and services we all buy are becoming overshadowed by the stuff used to make them.
A good chunk of PR industry revenue falls into a category we call — in a somewhat antiquated manner — business-to-consumer, or B2C. The reality of the supply chain, from raw material to Jane Doe, is that B2C is actually made up of a series of business-to-business, or B2B, relationships. Even at the near-end of the chain, the brands many of us represent sell their wares not directly to consumers, but to big-box grocers and retailers that place a series of B2B requirements on suppliers.
And, like any meme with a kitten in it, those B2B requirements are creeping onto consumers’ radar.
Just a few days ago, Target announced that it is working with suppliers (e.g., brands) to evaluate the sustainability of ingredients in household cleaners and personal care products. Wal-Mart announced last month a plan for suppliers to phase out certain chemical ingredients. Worker suicides at an iPhone supplier rocked headlines a few years ago. The Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh summoned a thousand magnifying glasses to the supply side of major fashion labels.
This trend presents an enormous opportunity to evolve PR in a manner we haven’t seen in some time. B2C organizations are seeking strategies to increase brand loyalty using their supply chains. B2B organizations are seeking strategies to increase product preference with consumer value propositions. The old rules that put extra-thick cubicle walls between the consumer and corporate practices no longer apply. Integrating the best of both practices into hybrid business-to-business-to-consumer (B2B2C) programs is the next frontier for the industry.
Whether you think this is a passing fad or a new paradigm in doing business, this new genre of integrated B2B2C PR requires audacious strategy and the best talent at the helm. In hyper-scrutinized markets powered by YouTube exposés and a passionate blogosphere, pulling up the blinds so consumers can see the kitchen is fraught with reputational risk.
I’m excited about the chance to share some of my team’s experience navigating integrated B2B2C programs at the PRSA International Conference later this month. On Tuesday morning, Oct. 29, I’ll share a case study on how we developed a B2B2C program that used a mayonnaise supply chain, all the way back to the farm, to create value for consumers and preserve market share for the brand owner. I’ll also touch on other B2B2C campaigns, identifying common themes in these integrated programs and best practices that can lead to success with these highly unique efforts.
I’ll take time in the session to address what’s at the center of the integrated B2B2C program — the practitioners. Award-winning programs that link supply chains with consumers won’t be run by the same B2B or B2C rock stars we’ve had in the past. The industry needs its own Lindsay Wagner/Lee Majors prototypes, hybrid practitioners that blend critical skill sets from both B2B and B2C fields. That means looking for different types of raw talent in hiring and mapping out new professional development paths. It also means new career paths for PR professionals. My own experience in shifting from midtown agency to director of sustainability is evidence of that.
Earlier this year, I was on a cotton farm as part of a fashion brand’s tour of its supply chain with a group of urban mom bloggers. At one point on the tour, the farmer posed what was probably expected to be a rhetorical question, to see if the guests could spot the difference between the genetically-modified (GM) and non-GM cotton on the farm. One of the moms cleverly replied, “the difference is the GM cotton won’t make it into any clothes I buy.” So much for great fit and great comfort.
No, this isn’t our grandparents’ stakeholder anymore. And we’ll need a whole bunch of integrated B2B2C PR to deal with them.
Josiah McClellan will be presenting Making B2B and B2C Work Together: The New Integrated PR at the PRSA 2013 International Conference on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 8–9:15 a.m. He is the director of Food Market Issues and Sustainability at the United Soybean Board, where he manages sustainability programs across the food value chain. His work entails connecting stakeholders from the farm through the factory through the grocery to deliver quality, reputation-risk-free products to consumers. He’s proud to note he has yet to be uninvited to NGO-sponsored receptions. Most of them, at least.