29 Jan 2021 – Purpose Series (Genevieve Hilton, Lenovo)

We were pleased to have Ms Genevieve Hilton, Head of Communications for Asia Pacific in Lenovo in our January instalment of Purpose Series. Lenovo is a multinational technology company and also the largest manufacturer of PCs globally, churning out four PCs every second of every day.

Over the 1/2-hour conversation, Genevieve and IPRS Vice-President Nisar delved into Lenovo’s corporate purpose, “Smarter Technology for All,” its sustainability efforts, and brand stewardship. Here are some highlights of the conversation:

Nisar (N) : Could you tell us a little about yourself, how you first came to Asia to work and are now based in Lenovo in Hong Kong ?

Genevieve (G): I am an American but have worked in Asia almost all of my adult life.

In 1994, when the American embargo on Vietnam was lifted, a lot of young people like me were excited to visit Vietnam. It sounded like an exotic country then – it previously was forbidden, and then, in 1994, we were allowed to go.

I first landed in Hanoi, and joined an agency there. A business partner and I took the agency independent, and I was there until the early 2000s when I decided to move to Hong Kong.

N : Could you share with us your brand purpose of your organization ? How do you see it fitting in the world today ?

G: First of all, just to let everyone know a little bit about Lenovo: Lenovo was created in 2005 when a Chinese company, Legend, merged with IBM’s PC business from the United States. That was when the modern Lenovo was born. Today, it is listed in the stock exchange in Hong Kong and it is a very global business. By last count, we are still the largest maker of PCs in the world, producing about 4 PCs every second. A lot of you who are online now may be using a Lenovo device to access this webinar!

In the middle of 2019, for the first time Lenovo articulated its corporate purpose, “Smarter Technology for All”. Yes, it is also an advertising slogan, but there is meaning behind it.

The articulation of our corporate purpose is about, “Why did you want to do this? Why does it matter whether someone has technology?” And we have seen the answer to this very clearly during the past 10 months or so. The fact that during the pandemic we are still able to connect like this, the access that it gives to people around the world – this is making a big difference to people in all sorts of fields, whether it is education, retail, manufacturing, or healthcare.

Do you want to connect people as they are going through their day, even if they are not able to work from home? Then you need technology. You need devices, and IT services. You may need the internet of things, for example internet enabled devices on your production site. And Lenovo provides these solutions: this is our corporate purpose.

A corporate purpose is not just, “Okay, we do our business and then on the other side we do some charity things.” No, the corporate purpose is central to the business. It is the “why” of what we are attempting to do. That, of course makes corporate purpose central to communications.

N: Could you tell us a little about the disruptions we are facing in the technological sphere ? How has the disruptions in communications and media impacted you, your work, and your role in Lenovo ? Has that in any way impacted your brand stewardship ?

G: If we talk about the disruptions of the past year, then it is obvious that these have affected everybody, whether it is the media, communications professionals, or everyone else.

In the larger sense, the technological change that has happened over the past 20 or 30 years has, of course, made a big difference to every professional communicator in the world. Having said that, some fundamentals remain. Are human beings interested in visuals and are they interested in connecting with stories ? Do they want to know why they should be interested in a particular topic? These are fundamentals that do not change over the years, even from the time that people wrote on stone tablets.

The disruptions of the past year during the pandemic were a big challenge for all of us communicators in terms of format. Just to give you an example, let’s talk about internal communications. You cannot put up a banner in the office if nobody is in the office. And when all you have is just the one screen in front of you, that’s all you have.

But to me, it makes it even more important to have a purpose behind your communications. What are you talking about when you communicate – is it something vague and corporate? Or are you talking about a specific instance of a service or product that is going to make a meaningful difference in somebody’s life? Can you illustrate it correctly with an image?

Let me give you an example. If you consider: why should a customer buy our brand rather than somebody else’s? Even in the middle of the pandemic, climate protection is still a vitally important concern for the long-term future of our planet, and our customers care about how their PCs have come to be, and they want to know about the carbon footprint of our PCs in production. That’s why we launched, just a couple of weeks ago, a “Carbon Offset” service. When we think about the “why,” in cases like this, we can bring the communication back to this larger purpose.

So, these are the types of disruptions we’re talking about, both the long term and shorter term.

N: Clearly, Lenovo is walking the talk and has been rather innovative in communicating its brand story in Asia Pacific. What are the new types of stories that tech companies need to tell to inspire employees and partners to embrace sustainability in the way Lenovo has ?

G: Yes, let’s talk about the sustainability aspect, specifically the environmental aspect of the business. For Lenovo, this comes back to what the company is doing and why. Is it just selling boxes? Or offering something more?

One way to approach this is to look at where the product goes after it leaves the factory, after it comes to its end of life at the business or at the consumer level. Should you throw it in the junk pile, or is there a way to recover that asset? No, ideally our customers want to get rid of the data and then recycle all the parts. Therefore, Lenovo not only offers the device, but also a service, called Asset Recovery Service, to handle this. Explaining services like this are another way to illustrate our corporate purpose in action.

The types of stories which are needed to explain or illustrate a corporate purpose are a lot harder to tell than a simple product story. You need more effort and more time, and you need more thought behind it.

This is where the professional skills of a communicator are really needed, so this means that people like us still have jobs!

N: How do you decide that “Yes, this is what I want my brand purpose to be ?” Wouldn’t it be hard for larger companies ?

G: If any of you have been through this process where you define the mission, vision, and values of a company, it does take a long time. And generally, the bigger you are, the more complex your business! I think it’s really tough to define a single corporate purpose.

Lenovo, to a certain extent, has it kind of easy because although we’re diverse, fundamentally we’re a technology company. Compare this to conglomerates who are in shipping, and also property, and also retail, and also farming!

Either way, it is a worthwhile exercise to decide on a corporate purpose. First, it gets the people at the top thinking about it, and considering why they are doing what they are doing. Second, you can use the process of coming up with the corporate purpose as an internal communication tool in itself. For example, you can ask employees what do they think your corporate purpose is. And third, a bit from a selfish point of view, it gets the communications people into the door to talk to the senior management of the company – which, I think, is never a bad thing.

It takes time, and there are companies who can help with this, and they charge you an arm and a leg to go through the process. But the result is valuable!

N: What advice would you have for our students who are disillusioned with the current job climate, quite impacted by the global pandemic ?

G: I think it is not easy to be a student nowadays, especially when you are not able to have face-to-face contact with other students and with faculty. But please do not despair! There are a lot of opportunities out there still. Students have perspective that people of my age lack. Diversity in the communications department is really important, and it’s not only gender and race; it’s also about age. Students just entering the job market can and should bring that perspective and expertise to the table.

For communications professionals in general, I am also optimistic: it is during difficult times that the boss really starts to appreciate the communications person. There’s nothing like a crisis to make the boss realize that’s why she or he is paying your salary!

Overall, career opportunities in communications are going to get wider and broader by the time we come out of the pandemic, and things pick up again.

N: In your view, what are some of the new skills and expertise that a PR practitioner needs to acquire to stay relevant ?

G: The fundamentals are always important. Before you do any kind of communications, you must always think about the audience, the message and the channel. If you consider these 3 carefully, a lot of the job is done. Simple to explain, very difficult to put into practice.

Analysis of the audience is very much of interest to leaders right now. Communications is getting more mathematical than it ever has before. You need to be able to say, “Yes, my audience is interested 14% in this topic and their sentiment is at 75% favorable and they are 13% located in this location,” and also you need to be able to say what that means. The analysis and interpretation of the audience is absolutely important. So, working with groups like market intelligence is important.

Knowing your message, and being able to articulate it, is also very, very important. I find that a lot of communications people still don’t know how to write, and it amazes me. We all spend time on social media, so shouldn’t we know what kind of headlines catch our own attention?

And then we get into the channels: you need to understand all the different channels available, and all the uses of each.

The basic level of professional audience analysis, writing and articulating messages, and understanding channels will get you through a lot. Then, you can get to the next level and do even more creative stuff!

N: What do you think is the relevance of a convening body like IPRS in the industry today?

G: I am a big fan of organizations like IPRS. I got to know IPRS when I was in Vietnam. Establishing the skills, the basics, and establishing the professionalism to be taken seriously by management is undeniably the most important.

Organizations like IPRS help to create standards, and create a better understanding of the communications profession, as a profession. This is different from the all-too common understanding of, “I know how to talk, so therefore I am a communications person.” IPRS exists to help bring our profession to that next level.