Wise Cracks: A Q&A with Andrea Coville, Author of ‘Relevance’

Relevance_ModelWe often think communications that yield awareness and belief are successful, but author Andrea Coville believes differently. She contends that relevance occurs when those communications not only resonate, but also create a change in behavior. In her new book, “Relevance” Coville shares how this is done, and how one good egg can be a game changer.

No regular business guide, “Relevance” provides sensible, honest direction on how to influence change that benefits all involved. Coville, also CEO of Brodeur Partners, a Boston public relations agency, took time to answer my questions with insights about brand magnetism, the importance of authenticity and the Relevance Egg. Our Q&A follows.

Question: What event inspired you to write this book? 

Answer: I was taking a long run a couple of years ago, training for a half-marathon. Running is when I do my best thinking.

Anyway… I realized that for my life’s work to have real meaning, I needed to share what we’ve discovered rather than keeping it to ourselves. Although relevance has been our trade secret, it’s an important enough idea that it warrants sharing with the world. We hope not to just promote our business but to elevate the general commercial discourse. Putting our ideas into the public domain was a good way to start that process, and good way to contribute to the greater good.

Q: How do you define relevance? 

A: In simple terms, relevance is that which provides meaning in our lives. It’s the full experience of a product, brand, candidate or cause that we can relate to. It changes not only minds, but behavior. And it sustains that change.

Q: You mention that a key step in creating relevance is in focusing on a single guiding principle, which you describe as “magnetic.” Can you give me an example?

A: Great question! It’s hard to articulate, but it’s the principle that permeates your brand or company. As metal keeps being drawn to a magnet, communicators are drawn back to the genuine core of a company’s identity. By identity, I don’t mean a brand constructed for public consumption; I mean what the company is about day in, day out, at the peak of their success and through their toughest times. What is Calvin Klein’s magnetic principle? Clean, simple style. What is IBM’s? Getting business done. What is John Deere’s? Helping farmers farm. Of course, it’s not enough to identify those “headline” principles. You need to mine them for truths.

Q: You write about qualitative and quantitative relevance. What is the difference?

A: The simplest way to think about it is this: Quantitative relevance is about sorting prospective customers into categories based on their needs, which tend to be very measurable. Qualitative relevance is about understanding their relationships to products, most fundamentally though the Relevance Egg.

Q: What is the “Relevance Egg”?

A: It’s our conceptual model that simply and memorably lays out the relevance pathways: sensory, thinking, community and values.

Q: I’ve often looked at relevance through the guidelines of content and context, but you add a third C: Contact. Can you explain it?

A: That’s about how a message is conveyed to you. The same message may have different impacts depending on the source. Let’s say you get some legal advice. Is it coming from a lawyer who advertises on TV or from your daughter? We categorize our contact channels as family, economic, community, society and personal.

Q: What is the biggest mistake organizations make in determining relevance?

A: I’d have to say it’s confusing press coverage or social media metrics with true behavior change. Press coverage and metrics are great and valuable; but if you’re getting attention without changing behavior, you are not relevant.

Q: I believe relevance is a requirement to achieving emotional loyalty. But what else can it achieve?

A:  Emotional loyalty is nothing to sneeze at! But what relevance can do is leverage that emotion to change behavior, individually and collectively in ways that make a difference. It can mean the difference between knowing you should quit smoking and actually doing it. It’s the difference between a communications “campaign” and a true movement driving positive change on a large scale.

Q: What tips would you offer to achieve relevance without appearing manipulative?

A: Always go back to authenticity. Search your soul. Do you believe what you’re saying about a brand, product, candidate or cause? If you don’t, your audience won’t believe it, either. We as a society have consumed so much media and listened to so many talking heads that we have become immune to spin, and our BS detectors are finely tuned. That doesn’t mean you have a mad passion for every product you sell. It does mean you have investigated the offering and fully explored its true value to the world.

Q: Say you’ve achieved relevance as an organization. What’s next?

A: A run!


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