Engaging communities supports industrial brands’ license to operate

Brands often have operated as business to consumer (B2C) or business to business (B2B) organizations, choosing a lane largely based upon the industry in which they functioned. Consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies defaulted to B2C, while industrial manufacturers and heavy industry defaulted to B2B. Today, an emerging lane — Brand to Community — is rising to an equal place of importance for a company’s reputation and social license to operate. This is especially true for industrial organizations because community members typically don’t have the chance to interact with them through point-of-purchase or advertising.

In 2016, the Global Cities Business Alliance published a report that showed 41% of executives didn’t know or didn’t consider how satisfied they were with business interactions with communities, while only 17% were extremely or very satisfied with their interactions. Just three years later, it’s obvious that failing to invest in engaging and influencing communities puts an organization’s future at risk.

A brand’s purpose and societal impact are critical to millennials and even more so to Gen Z. Broadly speaking, communities today want companies to be more than an employer, economic driver and philanthropic contributor. They want companies to actively demonstrate that we care about a community’s well-being and way of life, and that we’re emotionally invested with them. Communities seek a relationship akin to the friendships they have as individuals, or at least a collaborative working relationship many of us enjoy in our professional environments. While that doesn’t mean we necessarily agree on every community issue, it does require companies to invest in greater levels of outreach and engagement than perhaps they are accustomed.

CPGs, more than manufacturers, are in tune with this mindset. CPGs historically have understood the value of empathy and building one-on-one relationships. Industrial and heavy industry organizations are now starting to embrace that strategy by positively positioning their companies as influencers in their respective communities.  

At its core, influencer communications is just a different version of spokesperson communications. While influencers have their skeptics — The Drum’s 2019 report found 4% of survey respondents trust online influencers vs. 16% who said they believe in Bigfoot — brands see positive marketing results from working with influencers. It follows that communications pros — particularly in the industrial sector — can use our storytelling skills to position our brands as influencers within their communities.  

Researchsupportsthisapproach.The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer reports a record peak in trust inequality between the informed public and the mass population. This difference creates the motivation for brands to inform their various target audiences and gain their trust.  

A 2019 Pew Research Center report shows 90% of U.S. adults go online to connect with family, friends, search for information and get news. For that reason, content delivered by influencers, which are less scripted and more authentic, often works harder for brands than advertising. Content marketing can speak to a company’s values and reputation, with stories explaining the “why” more than just the “what.” GE has been masterful at this, both in telling stories and promulgating them to audiences across the web.  

One of the ways Union Pacific shares its impact and engages audiences is telling stories about outcomes stemming from our community-giving program. For example, one of our grant recipients, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, exposes high school students to career opportunities in automotive mechanics. The headline “Teens Learn Auto Skills One Mustang at a Time” attracted thousands of clicks via a small paid promotion. More importantly, that compelling and authentic content generated significant positive community engagement as part of our brand-building effort in Southern California.  

As brands look to the future, communicators who create meaningful community connections will best position their brands for growth and will generate the social capital to cushion the impact of whatever crisis lands at their doorstep.  


To download a full copy of the 2020 Relevance Report, click here.

Tom Lange is a senior communications advisor and strategist specializing in crisis management, media relations and C-Suite thought leadership.