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Better to Go Bold Than to Go Bland

Dan McCue

Oct 14, 2021

Brand-building expert Marie de Foucaud has some timely advice on improving reputations and avoiding the hazardous shoals of the cancel-culture

NEW YORK — Marie de Foucaud, the brand-building expert and founder of Elovation Consulting, was on a summer road trip with her kids when The Well News called to ask how her global clients strive to improve their reputations and brand identity.

Already well past the half-way point in her trip home, she’d driven from New York to North Carolina, and now, heading north, had just put Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia in her rearview mirror.

“It’s beautiful. I loved it,” she said of the attraction that bills itself as a living-history museum.

“The reconstruction of the Colonial village was very well done,” de Foucaud enthused. “It’s very, very, very nice.”

And as will become evident in the conversation below, de Foucaud knows a thing or two and then some about things very well done.

But first, a few biographical details.

After spending her earliest years in Paris, Marie de Foucaud moved to the French countryside — specifically the Chateau de la Loire region – where her family owned land.

It was a location rich in the architectural heritage of the historic towns, and her initiation into what architecture and images could mean in terms of establishing an identity would continue in the town of Saumur, where she went to boarding school, beginning at the age of 10.

The town, which overlooks the Loire river, is dominated by the remains of a medieval castle that houses a museum displaying art and tapestry and a wealth of ceramics and other archaeological finds.

But it was college that proved to be the real turning point in her life.

After enrolling in business school in Angers, France, she applied and was accepted into an exchange program that brought her to the United States and saw her spend her senior year at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri.

She credits the experience with introducing her to the American way of life, and to her dual majors – public relations and international communications.

Not wanting to leave the U.S. when she graduated, de Foucaud got a job at Nike Communications in New York, a public relations firm that specializes in the luxury market.

The dream of remaining in America lasted only two years, but upon her return to France, she met her future husband and together they had four children, now ages 8 through 13, the youngest being twins.

Six years ago, the family’s life changed dramatically, when de Foucaud was offered the position of chief marketing and communications officer at Richard Attias & Associates in New York. She was previously global communications director for the high-end Boucheron-Kering jewelry brand.

Last year, while the rest of us were thinking about little else but when the pandemic would end, she founded Elovation Consulting

The family now lives in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn, New York.

TWN: Your background includes a lot of heady experiences. How did that all come together to make you an expert in brand identity?

MdF: Well, let me sort of draw a map for you of my past and current situation. I wound up in New York because I was offered a job with Richard Attias & Associates. I had known him from years earlier when I worked at the Communications Group Publicis, and he was one of the CEOs.

He’s famous in Europe as one of the co-founders of Davos, the World Economic Forum. Klaus Schwab, who is the event’s executive director, was already doing the forum when he met Richard, but it was super small and didn’t have much influence, so they formed a joint venture and made it the Davos we know today.

It was during this period that Richard moved from France to New York and started the company I later joined, which is what I guess you could describe as a nation branding company. It’s a company that offers nations with a very specific kind of strategic advice. I’d say 95% of the clients are heads of state or governments.

So, I wound up leading everything related to communications and marketing. I would build teams of internal and external people according to the subject matter and geographical areas we were dealing with. It was a wonderful experience, also super time and energy consuming. After five years, I began to look for a new job and was offered one, back to luxury, my previous industry.

But just then, in the middle of COVID and despite the fact I had signed a contract with this new employer, 10 days before I was to start I got a call. They’d withdrawn the offer. And I was in a real fix because at that point, I had no job. I had four kids and I was the primary breadwinner in the household, and on top of everything else, I now had 60 days to leave the country. It was a super, super challenging situation.

TWN: So what happened next?

MdF: I immediately, and very organically reached out to work on projects on a freelance basis, and then I built my own company. Very fortunate in being able to work on a selection of extremely varied projects championed by innovative passionate people that are going to be useful in building a better world.

And at the end of the day, I feel very lucky to have all these interesting projects to lead and contribute to. At the end of the day, I like my new freedom and independence.

TWN: Pandemic aside, what’s the state of branding these days?

MdF: It’s interesting. One of the major discoveries in my career was that cities, countries and leaders of the world have the same needs for branding as any corporation or product.

It was striking to me to realize how many similarities there were in regard to a luxury brand compared to a country. Both need to be clear on a core message platform, have clear branding and they’ve both got to work on building awareness of that brand and developing traffic.

With governments as well, the first question is always, “How do they want to position themselves?” “What is it that they want at the end of the day?” Is it tourists? Investors? Is it to develop new industries? And then you work, building teams, to help them develop the brand appropriate to their attaining these things.

Sometimes a client might have two goals, such as, “I want to attract tourism and investment.” In a case like that, you have to ask yourself, “How do I frame this message differently to achieve those two goals?”

TWN: How do you do that?

MdF: After coming to an understanding and deciding on a direction together – agreeing on some priorities – we would develop action plans.

And many times, when it comes to an action plan for a country or government, the plan entails a major forum or platform or conference.

For instance, look at what Saudi Arabia has done in recent years with its future investment initiative, which the media calls “the Davos of the desert.”

Here’s an event that’s really focused on inviting and bringing worldwide investors and CEOs to Riyadh and organizing meetings for them with local leaders and investors in the hope of some good coming out of it.

Now, to circle back to your question, it’s hard to answer because it really depends on the project and so on.

But we will develop action plans, which would be a mix of in-person platforms, online platforms and public relations. And along with that, we’ll strive to create networking opportunities. Because from my experience, at the end of the day what really makes a difference is when people end up meeting each other and experiencing the city or the country … entering and discovering the culture.

Nothing replaces the relationships that develop when you physically meet the people, and the emotion that you feel when you have someone or a group of people in front of you.

To come back to the bigger picture: That’s how you wind up developing true communities of ambassadors, people who will ultimately influence others according to your objectives.

TWN: I think most of our readers have experienced the power of big events first hand. But what about social media as an extension of, or a tool to, develop a brand? Is it as powerful as in-person interaction?

MdF: That’s a good question. Social media is of course absolutely key now — for everyone. It has to be considered part of the priorities. But from my perspective, it’s never enough. It can’t be. Again, I’m a firm believer in the importance of one-to-one relationships, together with personalized online experiences.

And I’ve seen this in retail. Where people say, “The future of retail is online.” And I agree it is very much online, but not completely. I’ve seen in my own experience retailers open purely online and then in time, many of them want to open a brick and mortar store – or a number of them.

What’s happened? They’ve realized it’s not enough to simply be online. You also need some kind physical platforms to create your content. To have that thing that you communicate to people through your social media.

So, social media is key, but I still believe very much in traditional public relations. I still believe major media – to have someone read about your product or brand in The New York Times – makes a big difference.

I believe a lot in holding some kinds of events, even if, in light of the pandemic, you have to do at least some of it online. It’s all about the experiences that you are going to offer your consumers and your communities.

I guess the bottom line is, to be successful in establishing a brand, you need to create as many touchpoints as possible.

TWN: What about this trend that we’re seeing – with companies getting involved in social activism and in defending things like voting rights? Has the nature of what companies want to communicate about themselves changed?

MdF: I think we can all agree that the purpose of companies has absolutely changed in our society.

The consumer has come to understand the power of their money when they buy something, and they expect the companies with which they do business to do something besides provide them with a product. They want the company to understand their values and to become part of the community espousing those values.

And I think we all want to feel that even in the way we consume, we’re contributing in some way to a better world. As a result companies are really working hard to highlight that they are genuinely contributing something to the world.

At the same time, it’s complicated. Because some companies can’t honestly say they’re doing something good for the environment or that they are perfect in diversity. And if they did say something that really wasn’t true, I think everyone would feel it. That’s when it would become counterproductive. And that’s when you run the real risk of a backlash from consumers.

The whole point is to try to be authentic and to truly find something philanthropic or philosophical behind your business activities.

One thing I’ve been trying to work on of late is educating companies that it’s not enough to say “sustainable business is good business and we’re a sustainable company.” What consumers and even people who aren’t your customers want to see is a demonstration of how you’re sustainable.

It’s not enough to say “We are doing good.” You have to prove it. You have to really explain exactly what you are doing and exactly how it has an impact that contributes something good. So you have to really be concrete.

Now, that’s a big change from when I was working for luxury brands 15 years ago. Back then, this awareness was just starting to make itself evident. So you started out by saying, “We are working on being better” or “We work on sustainability” or “We’ve established a sustainability department.” Again, today, it’s not enough to say that.

You have to have your sustainability team out there and working and you have to explain exactly what they are doing and what the results are and you have to present actual figures that show you are concretely contributing to something.

TWN: How do you measure the success of a marketing or communications effort?

MdF: That’s very challenging, finding ways to have key performance indicators. It’s very challenging, but absolutely necessary.

So, let’s go back to what I just said. Say you and another company are collaborating on an initiative that is supposed to achieve some good for a local community.

Well, the first key performance indicator can be the concrete figures and examples of what has been done through the collaboration.

Another KPI is utilizing social listening tools so that you know what’s being said on social media about what you are doing and also how your brand is doing on social media. What feelings are being expressed about it.

Yet another KPI could be the number of followers you have on social media because usually, if you start doing interesting things, and good things, people will want to engage.

And then there’s – I don’t like the phrase “traditional PR” – but public relations can also be a KPI because if the media start talking about what you’re doing, it’s usually a good sign. It means that you are doing something that’s really happening.

TWN: One last question for you. How has the pandemic changed what clients are asking of you? Are they looking for something new or different as they try to recover?

MdF: What’s been striking to me is this acceleration of the so-called cancel-culture. Clients, I think, are more afraid than ever of any kind of backlash or boycott because we’re all seen so many examples of the success of the cancel-culture these past months.

The challenge is, at the same time that we have this cancel-culture, we also know that it is not an option for any company to keep people indifferent.

When you are too flat, when you are not strong enough or brave enough, when you have no aspiration to anything, you’re just not interesting … to customers, especially the younger generation of customers.

So I think there’s a fine line that exists. But you have to make a decision. You mentioned brands becoming involved on some level with activism … and obviously, they are doing so because on some level it is rewarding to them.

From my perspective, it is better to have built up some communities who love you because you have deep convictions and you have deep thoughts and you have some kind of activism in your organization beyond the creation of products.

The other option is to be absolutely super careful and not say anything that might annoy some people, and I feel that at the end of the day, that will hurt rather than preserve your brand.

I don’t know if you’ll agree with this, but I think what’s happening is that they have come to expect some deeper and stronger points of view from the private sector than ever before; points of view and action that they turned to the public sector and government entities for in the past.

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