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grow: mia wedgbury

A unidentified woman applies makeup in Toronto, Nov. 19, 2006.AARON HARRIS

Despite the proven power of popular tools such as Facebook and Twitter, many business owners are still hesitant to integrate social networking into their public relations strategy.

The idea of putting yourself and your products on display for uncensored, uncontrolled commentary may seem scary – but if it's done right, the benefits are staggering.

Hana Zalzal, president and founder of Toronto-based Cargo Cosmetics, says her company welcomes public input and invites fans and followers to become co-developers of the Cargo image. "I think you and your fans become co-owners; you co-parent the brand," Ms. Zalzal says. "Your fans basically now own the brand by what they post and what they say. The brand has become a shared entity – which is so exciting."

Cargo started selling in Canada in 1996, and Ms. Zalzal has never looked back. Years ago, the company's primary way of reaching the public was through traditional print publications, particularly glossy magazines. Over time, Ms. Zalzal noticed that magazine placements were losing their impact, and she wanted to find an authentic way to continue to reach her customers.

Today, Cargo is sold around the world, and the company has a multiplatform communications strategy that has made Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and blogger outreach a major priority.

"From a resource and management perspective social networking is a lot more work," Ms. Zalzal says. "But the ability to communicate directly with the consumers in their living rooms is almost the best thing that a company could ask for."

Cargo posts news, contest details, events, videos of makeovers and makeup tips, and shopping resources on its various social networks. The company frequently seeks feedback directly from customers – creating an online buzz around product favourites. It partners with new and established bloggers to provide products for audience giveaways and help the bloggers grow their audience.

Ms. Zalzal says the company's social networking efforts have had a tremendous impact on customer loyalty. At the time of this column, Cargo had about 7,000 Facebook fans. "They are loyal because they are now talking to us directly," says Ms. Zalzal. "We suddenly have become real and human to them."

What's unique about the Cargo strategy is that Ms. Zalzal personally checks each and every post made to the company Facebook page. "To be able to directly communicate is such a huge thrill – you learn so many things. I remember once I posted that my biggest makeup pet peeve was sneezing before your mascara is dry, and everyone had a comment about it. Everyone was laughing, and it was a shared experience."

Cargo has experienced tremendous success. The company has garnered design awards from around the world, its products are used on the sets of many popular television shows such as The Office, Weeds and Dancing with the Stars, and they have been provided in gift bags for the Emmy Awards and the Oscars. A handful of celebrities have even signed on to design lipsticks, donating a portion of the proceeds to charity.

Ms. Zalzal says social networking has helped Cargo adapt and stay fresh as the company continues to grow.

"It is about creating a sense of community," Ms. Zalzal says. "We're not about dictating to women, we are about providing a service ... and you can't meet their needs unless you know what their needs are."

As business leaders, our companies and our brands are so important to us. We engage advisory boards, conduct surveys and hold focus groups to ensure we're on the right track. Social media has taken public engagement to the next level: with a bit of investment and a solid strategy, much stronger relationships with our customers are right at our fingertips.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Mia Wedgbury is president of the Canadian region for Fleishman-Hillard Canada and its sister company, High Road Communications. She has more than two decades of experience in creating and growing award-winning communications agencies. Her experience spans many sectors, including financial, technology, consumer and lifestyle. She works in partnership with her clients to build brands, mitigate risk and shape communications strategies.

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