Written by:

Charlélie Jourdan, Creative Strategist, Trainer & Speaker at 75percent.eu

70 years ago, one of the best communication strategists of the European Union came up with a series of steps to ensure that Europe would always shine.

In 1950, Robert Schuman stated “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.

Put in communication terms: “stop using big intangible ideas for branding” and instead “focus on what is already being done”.

Schuman laid out the exact step-by-step path to make the European Union work, during a time when there were no other political structures in place that could serve as rolemodels.

Since Schuman said these words, it seems that every expert, specialist and professional has been trying to do the exact opposite – and their approach has clearly been failing.

So what can we learn from a long-dead strategist, and how does this apply to our own problems of communication?

Every year, the EU spends hundreds of billions of euros making sure that real projects are helping real people. For example:

  • We finance school programmes for Roma people
  • We help emergency services get phone calls to report gender abuse
  • We help recycle, sort trash, and create new sources of income for local authorities
  • We even re-activate old train lines that rail operators consider obsolete and we show them a new business model.

The European Union literally finances over 100 000 projects every year and some even estimate that number to be over a million. Every single year.

However, every time I’m invited to lead a strategy workshop, the first question I get from everyone in the room is “How can we send an inpiring message to all citizens showing how great we are”?

People who contact me seem to want big shiny things.

They want to convey big messages.

But these big messages could apply to a bank, an insurance company, a car brand, a dentist, or anyone for that matter without distinctions.

They think these messages work because they saw them on TV, without questioning if a TV advertisement actually delivers.

Hence, we end up with the following messages:

  • … stronger
  • Your choice. Your future.
  • This time is your time.

Try reading these 3 slogans as if they were coming from a dentist’s office. They all work! Now, try reading them from a bank’s perspective. Yep, it works too…

These messages sound cool. However, they do not work. These are called branding messages, and branding needs a continuous 5-year investment to make an impact. It is extremely costly, and most organisations give up before it pays off.

Branding feels great but it is the worst investment you can make if you do not have an extremely sharp focus, know exactly what you sell, and keep investing over years.

My clients often make this mistake. I know, I work with most of the European institutions and agencies that talk to citizens.

They call me up when they need to spend 5 million euros in 10 different countries and my job is to propose their entire strategy.

My first reaction to their proposal is often to raise an eyebrow.

I then ask everyone to return to the beginning of their thought process before we decide to create a slogan full of empty words.

Most often we discover the slogan won’t help a bit and will swallow a million euros without any impact. When I can show with the numbers that we’re about to waste money, most of my clients agree that we would be better off investing the same amount into something else.

When I say that everything was already written by the founding father of Europe – Robert Schuman – in 1950, I mean it!

With 100 000 to 1 million projects funded every year, most public administrations already do the work. The European Union is effectively creating “concrete achievements”.

So why not communicate that to the public? Why do we keep proposing big intangible “Your choice. Your future” kinds of messages?

At the scale of the EU, we are allocating 90% of our budget to big branding campaigns that no one understands, instead of putting the same money into promoting the projects we are already working on.

You might not have the same budget (the EU is spending around 350 million euros every year in the communication) but the ratio is the same.

Most of your budget is spent on big messages. And the remaining bit is spent on promoting what you actually do.

You might write feasibility reports which are studies to know if a project is viable, but you feel it’s not sexy, so instead of talking about what you do, you shout that you “contribute to a better world where circular economy is a reality”.

You might organise training courses to help firefighters react faster when there is an accident happening on the border. However, you feel that it’s not enough, so you say you organise “capacity building exercises for cross-border joint operations”.

We pretend, we lie, we distort, we invent and stretch the truth because we feel that’s good communication. However, the result is that people don’t understand what we do, we keep repeating the same abstract slogans, and we lose the public’s trust.

Does your budget go to creating big meaningless messages and visuals – or does it go mostly into creating concrete messages, stories and visuals about the things you already do?

Does it say “I write reports because that’s the best format to dig into recommendations” or does it pretend your report is solving climate change?

I often ask the participants in my workshops what they think about the World Economic Forum. You probably have seen some of their work online, they publish daily videos on innovation and the great projects of the world.

10 years ago, the World Economic Forum was an institution that people saw on TV because rioters were burning the streets of Davos. They were considered to be part of the “evil globalised finance” movement that tried to enslave workers around the world.

Today, the World Economic Forum is known as the most innovative organisation in the world, supporting the circular economy, the environment and developing countries.

In order to change the perception of what they do, the World Economic Forum had to radically change its communication strategy.

During the past 6 years, they stopped producing big empty messages.

Instead, they take real projects and tell a story.

They don’t show fake people, fake places and empty slogans. They explain exactly what happened, the problem people faced in making the project possible, how they overcame the challenge, and what exactly is bringing the solution.

And the WEF is an event organiser.

Most of their videos do not show something they’ve done. They come and tap into the public database of other governments and institutions, recap the project from a 20-page report to a 1-minute video script and make a video out of it.

Sometimes they even make videos about one of the millions of existing EU projects because we, the EU, don’t do it ourselves.

They take our “concrete achievements” and turn them into their own communication strategy.

If we systematically told the story of just 1% of what we already do, cumulatively that would amount to 10 000 tools of communication. Every single year.

In other words, it would show the: “concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity” that Robert Schuman proposed 70 years ago.

Communication is not fancy, creative and fun. You don’t do it because you feel inspired and want to inspire others.

These are words used by novices who lack technical skills.

Communication is a disciplined technique, applied consistently to achieve a change in perception. If people read your fancy message and forget it immediately, you did not change anything.

If they read your message and feel that you’re pretentious, you’ve just created the perception that you are a brat.

Professionals who don’t understand that communication, marketing, and advertising are a 1.2 trillion dollars industry that literally controls the world of commerce, are probably better off doing something else… or they could start by reading a book on the topic.

We recommend the Attention Merchants by Tim Wu if you are new to the topic and want to understand how advertising and propaganda have shaped the last 2000 years of human history;

or The Advertising Effect: How to Change Behaviour by Adam Ferrier if you want to brush up on your knowledge and take a deep dive into how persuasion works.

It is time to stop with fancy slogans that don’t mean anything but sound good.

We are not becoming important because our message sounds like all of the other messages on TV.

We become important because we attract attention and shape the right perception.

Hence, my recommendation is to follow what Robert Schuman told us 70 years ago.

We need to make sure everyone understands what our organisation is doing, by using disciplined, step-by-step, concrete actions that “first create a de facto solidarity” and tell stories.