Revolutionary Measures

Asbury’s or Sainsda? Will the Sainsburys/Asda merger work?

The proposed merger between Sainsbury’s and Asda promises to shake up the grocery market in multiple ways. It will create a new leader in terms of market share and, the companies hope, give them the scale to tackle the rise of discounters such as Aldi and Lidl.

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Looking at it through a marketing lens, there are three things that stand out:

1          Slick PR (to start with)
This is a deal that has been discussed for several years apparently, and it shows in the careful messaging behind the announcement. Sainsbury’s CEO Mike Coupe has pledged that there will be no job cuts or store closures and that the combined entity will lower prices by 10%. Clearly this is disingenuous on a number of levels – the Competitions and Markets Authority is likely to force some stores to be sold, naturally reducing staff numbers, while any savings for consumers are likely to come from squeezing the combined supply chain of the new company. This will impact the profitability and potentially staff numbers at suppliers, who employ more people than Sainsbury’s/Asda itself. So there are likely to be job losses – just not at the company itself.

The main fly in the PR ointment has been a classic bit of spokesperson inattention. While waiting for a broadcast interview Mike Coupe was captured on camera singing “We’re in the Money”, from the musical 42nd Street. The overall impression (apart from that he should stick to the day job), was that the whole deal was about enriching management and shareholders, at the expense of customers and suppliers. Cue a hasty apology, but it has highlighted how there’s no such thing as off the record (or camera).

2          A complex brand balancing act
One of the attractions of the deal is that there isn’t that much crossover between the demographics of Sainsbury’s and Asda shoppers. That should mean that you won’t lose any customers, and if you can trim supplier costs you can generate large efficiencies. This is something highlighted by Sainsbury’s, which commissioned research that showed Asda customers value “fair prices” most and Sainsbury’s are attracted by “great fresh food.”

That’s all very well in theory, but achieving sufficient synergies while keeping things separate enough in practice could be more difficult. While other organisations (banking groups, airlines and consumer goods holding companies) manage multiple brands, somehow a supermarket feels different. People have a strong relationship with their supermarket of choice, probably because of the basic importance of food to their lives, so anything that is seen as weakening brand values is likely to upset consumers.

3          The competition won’t stand still
While Sainsbury’s wants the merger to happen quickly, something this large will need regulatory approval and will take time. And while both Sainsbury’s and Asda will no doubt stress that it is business as usual in the meantime, it will take up a lot of management time. Rival grocers will no doubt aim to take advantage of this, particularly as they know about the two marketing pillars (fair prices and fresh food) that the two brands will embrace going forward. Companies such as Lidl, Aldi and Tesco are already aiming to push both messages, now they’ve seen the potential Sainsbury’s strategy they’ll be redoubling their efforts to attract customers away from the merged organisation.

Due to its sheer scale in years to come the Sainsbury’s/Asda merger is likely to make it into marketing and business textbooks. The big question is whether it will be lauded as a well-executed and well-branded master stroke or listed with flops such as Bunnings takeover of Homebase? Initial marketing has been positive and pretty assured, but there’s a long way to go yet.

 

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May 2, 2018 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brand safety on the wild internet

The internet has always had contradictory roots. The infrastructure may have begun as a DARPA-funded project to create a network with no single point of failure, but its first major users were counter-culture Californians who launched bulletin boards on the back of it. And the World Wide Web itself was created by Tim Berners-Lee when working at CERN, essentially to allow different researchers, with different IT systems to share information seamlessly.

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This contradiction is still present in the titans that currently dominate the online world. The likes of Facebook and Google may try to publicly position themselves as entrepreneurial start-ups with more in common with the California hippies when talking to users, but in fact they are now enormous corporations with correspondingly huge power.

As we’ve seen with the scandals surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, internal systems and data protection haven’t grown as fast as the need for control of user data. And this follows concerns about adverts being run next to unsuitable content on the likes of YouTube, leading to brands such as Under Armour pulling their ads.

The issue is one of brand safety – companies want to protect their reputation as well as reach the right audiences. In an always-on world with ever more complex (and opaque) ad-buying systems and increasing personalisation being sure your messages are reaching the right audiences through the right channels is vital. This isn’t just applicable to the internet – I’ve recently seen lots of adverts for household cleaning products on kids TV channels, although you can argue they are more targeted at parents watching alongside their offspring.

The latest challenge to the big internet companies goes beyond poor ad positioning though – focusing instead on unauthorised use of a brand to essentially front a scam. Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com and consumer finance guru, is suing Facebook for running adverts that use his image to market high risk or fraudulent services, implying that he has endorsed them. Facebook counters that as soon as such adverts are reported, they remove them, only for them to pop up again with slight changes.

Given Lewis’ whole reputation is built on delivering honest consumer advice to save people money, it is no surprise either that he’s been targeted by scammers or that he is going to court to protect his brand image. As he says, he doesn’t do adverts, and that with their image recognition technology Facebook should be able to block anyone trying to use his photo, before it goes live. Lewis isn’t alone in having his details hijacked – we’ve all had emails and calls allegedly from Microsoft, BT or our bank trying to get us to handover control of our PC or account details. But the difference is that no third party is making money out of these activities – unlike in the case of Facebook.

By coming out against Facebook so publicly, and by promising to donate any damages to charity, Lewis is adding to the concerns around Facebook and its business model of publish first, remove later if necessary. It’s a great PR strategy on his part – a classic David vs Goliath move. I’m sure it is also being closely watched by other celebrities and organisations worried about their brand safety online.

All of the current concerns around big tech are part of a wider worry – from consumers to governments and advertisers themselves, people are waking up to the fact that their data is out of their control, and that companies are making large amounts of money from it. I think that 2018 is going to be a watershed year for the online giants – it is time for them to change how they market themselves and become more humble if they want to rebuild and retain our trust. The question is, can they win us back?

April 25, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Why leaving social media is bad for JD Wetherspoon

Received marketing, and indeed business, wisdom is that the future is digital. And that has lead to brands stampeding onto social media and devoting increasing amounts of time and money to engaging with their audiences there.

So the news that pub chain JD Wetherspoon is quitting Twitter, Facebook and Instagram seems to fly in the face of good marketing practice. Chairman Tim Martin has been vague on the reasons why it is leaving, citing the amount of time it is taking (as well as head office, its 900 pubs all have their own accounts), the addictive nature of social media, misuse of personal data and the trolling of MPs and public figures on social media.

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But reading between the lines it is more about a lack of engagement and impact from its strategy. It has 44,000 followers on Twitter, over 100,000 on Facebook and more than 6,000 on Instagram – a relatively low number for such an enormous, UK-wide organisation. It hadn’t been that active – the announcement that it was leaving Twitter was its first message in April for example, and most Facebook content was just reposted from Twitter.

However, not doing something well and not doing it at all are two separate things and I believe that the main reason that Wetherspoon’s is stopping social media is that isn’t really embracing the power of the platforms. It is true that most consumers are unlikely to be avid followers of their local branch of a chain pub – after all you’d not interact that much with your local supermarket, but they’ve not used it to create a buzz about local events or what they are doing. Therefore, it is logical to stop, rather than just going through the motions – and reap the news headlines and profile that the decision creates.

However, done well social media can deliver big results – even for 100% offline businesses like Wetherspoons. Here are three of the biggest:

1. Create a community
Why do people go to pubs? It is all about socialising, meeting people and enjoying yourself. After all, if you just want to drink it is cheaper to do it at home. Successful local pubs are all about creating a community – it doesn’t have to be on the level of Cheers, where ‘everybody knows your name’, but it is about interacting. Social media does the same thing in the online world – so not being present means you are not nurturing your punters when they aren’t in the pub.

2. Keep the influencers informed
Wetherspoon says that news will still be available via its website, but in today’s environment most journalists and influencers get their news through social media. They raise questions and start debates, and Wetherspoon won’t be there to take part in them. No doubt its PR people will be there lurking, but that is not the same – and failing to have an active account doesn’t look good to those journos who live their lives on social media.

3. People don’t want to change channel for customer service
Consumers want to interact with a brand on the channel that is most convenient to them at that time. And that is quite often social media – they don’t want to switch to calling or emailing customer services, as Wetherspoon now recommends they do. So therefore complaints will go unanswered, visible only to other consumers, without Wetherspoon getting involved. This impacts brand reputation, particularly of individual pubs, and further damages engagement.

I don’t know how much time and money Wetherspoon was spending on social media, and it could well be that it isn’t getting the return it is looking for. But shooting the messenger, rather than changing the message isn’t a long term strategy to compete – as Wetherspoon may well find to its cost.

April 18, 2018 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The end of the Mad Men?

Advertising agencies have always exuded glamour and excitement. From Don Draper in Mad Men to more modern agencies they’ve combined mystery and the power to change how people think, act and buy. Take Ridley Scott’s 1984-themed Apple Mac launch ad, Saatchi’s 1979 “Labour isn’t working” campaign, widely seen as helping the Conservative party to win the election, or going further back, the WW1 “Your Country Needs You” recruitment poster.

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All of these iconic campaigns demonstrate what advertising can do, particularly when it is turbocharged by the reach of linear television. This has led to ad agencies rising in importance to essentially command the biggest budgets and greatest influence on how brands market themselves.

However, things are changing – fast. Three interconnected factors are upsetting the status quo and causing industry titans such as WPP to issue profit warnings in the face of slowing revenues.

1          We live in a digital world
We used to spend the majority of our leisure time watching a limited number of terrestrial TV channels and reading newspapers and magazines. All of that has changed with the rise of the internet, which now takes a much higher share of our time, and has introduced new gatekeepers such as Google and Facebook into the mix. The adverts that people run online are different – they can’t be as disruptive as during a scheduled TV ad break, or as big budget. While major ad campaigns still run, they are more seasonal, such as around Christmas – and are seen as marketing events, rather than run of the mill campaigns.

2          Consumers want a personalised approach
The internet has also encouraged and enabled us to demand a more personalised experience. We don’t want to be subjected to irrelevant adverts for things we aren’t interested in – and analysing our browsing habits and demographics should give advertisers the ability to segment their audiences and target them in a more individual way. The cost to our privacy is an ongoing debate – as is how capable platforms are of really delivering a personalised approach. All of these adverts tend to be smaller, more focused and therefore lower budget – in some cases even using AI to analyse response rates and automatically tweak copy so that it best reaches target audiences. So less Mad Men, more Metal Mickey.

3          Content is king
Consumers are more suspicious of advertising, and want greater transparency from the brands that they deal with. This is driving a much greater reliance on content across the buying cycle, helping build relationships, and overcome objections on the way. This requires a different set of skills to big budget TV advertising – in fact it is more akin to the copywriting side of public relations, with more information and less overt selling.

All of these factors are shaking up the marketing hierarchy and putting the role of the traditional ad agency under threat. At the top end, consultants such as Accenture are entering the sector, buying up agencies and focusing on providing strategic business advice as well as execution. Digital-first agencies are jockeying for position, and a greater share of budget, backed up by their ability to offer transparency, value and accountability. Brands are even taking key activities in-house, with many companies now employing digital marketing specialists, or even, as in the case of Pepsi, in-house advertising studios.

So does this mean the end of the ad agency, and in particular large international networks? Not necessarily – in a fragmented world clients value talking to one trusted advisor, rather than having to juggle a series of relationships with overlapping agencies. However, to prevent that trusted advisor being a strategy consultancy or digital upstart, agencies need to reinvent themselves quickly, learn new skills and become more of a high-level partner. One way is to move up the value chain. Back in the advertising heyday of the 1980s, Saatchi and Saatchi bought analyst house Gartner. The plan backfired, with the company sold less than two years later at a loss. But the idea clearly had strategic promise. Perhaps now is the time for ad agencies to think big again if they want to retain their power for the long term?

April 11, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Going direct – and the impact on marketing

The rise of the internet was meant to usher in a new, more direct way of communicating, including the removal of middlemen. We’d buy goods and services directly from their producers, rather than having to go through shops or brokers, cutting costs for consumers and opening up new opportunities for companies. It would be the end of the package holiday, the supermarket and the insurance broker, amongst other business types.

It is fair to say that things haven’t worked like that. While small companies can sell direct on the internet, the majority of goods and services are still bought from middlemen who bring products together, allowing consumers to compare them in a single place and then make their choice. Think of Amazon, ebay or insurance comparison sites, which are essentially old-style brokers with an updated business model.

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Why has this happened? Partly because people find it difficult to cope with too much choice – there is always the worry that you’ve made the wrong decision and also because these companies have ensured it is as easy as possible to buy from them. Amazon has one-click ordering, buttons to press that automatically send new stocks of household essentials, and voice ordering via Alexa.

However, this model is changing, at least in part, due to the rise of Direct to Consumer (D2C) brands. Companies like Dollar Shave Club, Harry’s and a plethora of mattress start-ups are all selling via the internet without any middlemen involved. They often use a subscription model – i.e. you get a delivery of shaving products, beer or food kits on a regular basis, backed up by generous introductory discounts and strong guarantees of quality (if you don’t like the mattress we’ll come and collect it and give you a full refund). They may be relatively small in the UK at present, but they tend to target younger, more affluent consumers and are therefore likely to continue to grow and spread.

These brands are also having an impact on marketing, particularly as many are start-ups that need to establish themselves before similar rivals appear.

1.Name recognition is all
It could just be that I’m their target demographic, but I see adverts for D2C shaving brands such as Harry’s everywhere I go online, in the podcasts I listen to and offline in the press. You need to create and sustain strong name recognition if you are to succeed – given the number of challengers in particular markets it is a question of first mover advantage. This impacts traditional brands, whether that is the likes of Gillette, Tesco or Amazon – they need to respond if they are to keep customers loyal.

2. Marketing is constant
Subscriptions do give some security when it consumer retention, particularly as there is an inertia effect when people don’t get round to cancelling them – look at the number of people who failed to cancel their free Amazon Prime trial before it started charging them. However, consumers, particularly of D2C brands, are savvy and are likely to be constantly checking that they are getting a good deal. So customer marketing has to be tailored, personalised and constant if you are to stay front of mind and engage with your existing consumers.

3. You need a story
You can’t create a D2C brand by just moving your product online or to a subscription model. Not only would that be likely to cannibalise existing revenues, but it wouldn’t generate the appeal of an exciting, new, internet-first brand. People want to get more than a product – they want the story behind it. That means highlighting your credentials, why you are different and what sets you apart. This could be that you buy the finest Japanese steel for your razor blades or donate mattresses to charity – whatever it is, it needs to be clear, differentiated and appealing to your target audience.

4. You need to build a tribe
Business guru Seth Godin pointed out the opportunities that the internet provides to build your own tribe – a group of people that follow your brand, understand what makes you different, act as ambassadors and ultimately buy from you. The most successful Kickstarter campaigns are those where someone with an existing following launches a product. Podcasts that spawn books or tours are another example. Essentially your tribe feels a personal connection to you, believes in your ethos and will both sign up for your new offering and spread the word to others. Building a tribe takes time, but creates a lasting customer base for your brand and all of its products.

None of these marketing tactics are new – and importantly none of them are out of the reach of traditional brands. If you want to protect your products against the rise of the D2C brand you need to look at how they are operating, what you can learn from them and how you can improve your marketing and engagement with customers and prospects.

March 7, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Making an impression in the snow – 4 PR lessons from the Winter Olympics

It is easy to be cynical about the Olympics, particularly given their cost, widespread doping scandals and the attitude of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) itself, which remains dogged by allegations of corruption and vote-buying when it comes to selecting host cities.PyeongChang_2018_Winter_Olympics.svg

For those of us in the UK, the Winter Olympics also adds in the unfamiliarity of sports we’ve either never come across before, or dimly remember from four years ago – and are generally unlikely to medal in. It should all add up to a switch-off from viewers, meaning that the marketing benefits, in the UK at least, of being associated with the Winter Olympics are negligible.

And yet, Pyeongchang 2018 did provide some striking stories, in terms of competitors overcoming adversity, true underdogs (such as Ghanaian Akwasi Frimpong in the skeleton bob) and the rise of a new generation of young, cool athletes, exemplified by 17 year old men’s snowboard slopestyle champion Red Gerard. It is a long way from Ski Sunday.

So, what are the PR lessons that brands can learn?

1. It’s all about the host
Given that the background to most events is white and indistinguishable, it is difficult to link it to your particular country. You don’t have the opportunities to use the landmarks of your city, as the likes of London and Barcelona did to brand it as ‘your’ games. That makes what you do behind the scenes, and the bookending opening and closing ceremonies, vital if you want to get your message across. The South Koreans focused on innovation and technology – from the drones that formed the Olympic rings in the opening ceremony to cardless technology that let people pay for things through devices such as gloves, stickers and pins. And this message came across loud and clear, helping differentiate brand Korea from competitors such as Japan and China.

2. Quirky is good
There’s a whole range of Winter Olympic sports, from the conventional (throwing yourself down an icy track on a souped-up tea tray or downhill skiing) to the frankly, mad – anything with the word ‘cross’ in the title, which seemed to involve a lot of falling over at high speed. And they all appealed to different demographics – the younger events looked cool and genuinely exciting to the casual viewer, with their stars building cult followings on social media and YouTube. So, unlike the Summer Olympics brands have more of a choice in terms of who they support and link themselves with. This is something to take forward into every marketing campaign – if you want to reach a demographic understand who influences them and ally yourself with them.

3. Success isn’t the only measure
People relate to athletes with strong stories – even if they aren’t going to win. They want to support those that are clearly trying, even if things end up going wrong, as shown by the ‘success’ of Eddie the Eagle Edwards. The lesson is clear – while winning medals is the aim, audiences respond to those that go above and beyond, and are human in failure. Take skater Elise Christie, seen as a medal favourite, but who left empty-handed and injured, for the second games in a row. The lesson for brands is that winning is great, but it isn’t everything – support people that your customers respond to at a human level and it will make your brand more approachable and easier to relate to.

4. You can gatecrash Olympic marketing
During every big sporting event, brands try and piggyback on the marketing opportunities that appear, normally without paying to become an official marketing/advertising partner. In the case of Pyeongchang, the most successful case of this was not a company, but a country – North Korea. In a master propaganda stroke it appeared to step back from conflict and push forward an agenda of peace at the games, headlined by Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and a combined Korean team entering the opening ceremony together. While none of this changed its position at all, from a PR point of view, many will see it as less of a threat – a complete fallacy – but exactly what its PR machine was aiming for.

So, overall the lessons from the Winter Olympics are to be more human, target the right demographics and tell a story – all key lessons for any marketer, whatever industry or size of company they work for.

February 28, 2018 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Facebook, News and the impact on communications

The last year or so has seen a rude awakening for tech giants, particularly social media platforms. As they’ve risen in importance, politicians, regulators and the public have moved from seeing their benefits to seeing their downsides – from the spreading of fake news to harbouring racist/terrorist content. Ironically, for the predominantly open and left-leaning leaders of Silicon Valley firms, social media has been at the heart of the Brexit vote and the Trump election, the two biggest political upsets of recent times.

And, all the while the profits of Facebook and Google have grown sharply – it is estimated that in 2017 these two tech giants alone claimed around 80% of every new online-ad dollar in America. Calls are being made for such companies to be more tightly regulated, and to take legal responsibility for the content that they host.

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Faced with this mounting opposition and a potential drop in usage, Facebook has been making changes to its algorithms, with the aim of focusing time spent on the platform on ‘meaningful social interactions’, according to founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. That means reducing the amount of content that people see in their News Feed from media and businesses, with the balance shifting more towards content from family and friends.

Publishers have grown to increasingly rely on Facebook for traffic to their sites, and many have already seen a drop in referrals from the social network. This has led to job cuts at many newer media outlets that have relied on social traffic (such as Buzzfeed and Mashable), as well as consternation from others worried about the impact of the changes on their revenues. Rupert Murdoch has called for Facebook to pay ‘carriage fees’ for using news from media outlets on the site, while others have demanded subscription models to support their journalism.

The key problem for publishers is that Facebook has increasingly become the place many people get their news, meaning you need to continually interest them with individual stories, rather than expecting them to buy a newspaper or browse from a news website’s home page. Many Facebook users probably couldn’t tell you who published the story they clicked on – and the same is true for other newsfeed services such as that offered on iPhones.

So publishers risk having the rug pulled out from under a major source of traffic – at the same time that Google and Facebook have hoovered up the ad revenues that previously supported their activities. While most people won’t shed that many tears at Rupert Murdoch’s power and profits reducing, there are bigger issues here around media plurality and holding people to account at all levels.

The dramatic drop in local newspapers has meant that councils are under less scrutiny from journalists than ever before, and while concerned citizens have taken over in some cases, they are less likely to be impartial or have the training to analyse and comment on complicated stories. I believe that the rise of the internet in general, and of social media in particular, has also contributed to a polarisation of views – people simply don’t see content that constructively challenges their point of view and makes them think about their beliefs. Being in a bubble makes it easy to reinforce existing beliefs and demonise the opposition, ultimately hurting democratic dialogue.

It is too easy to blame Facebook for all of these issues, but it does need to step up and take more responsibility for the consequences of its actions. That means looking at how it works with publishers, and the type of content it does carry, if it is to avoid heavier regulation and potential fines down the line. The ball is definitely in Zuckerberg’s court.

Image (CC) Brian Solis, http://www.briansolis.com / bub.blicio.us, via Wikimedia Commons

January 24, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Three ways PR can take a big step forward in 2018

For those of us working in marketing, and in particular PR, the advent of digital and social media should be creating a golden age for us. Why? Because of the ability (finally) to measure our work in a more forensic way and to link it more directly to business outcomes, thus showing the value we deliver. Whereas in the print-based past you had no direct way of measuring whether your piece of coverage led to sales, now you should be able to measure click throughs to your website or other actions taken after someone read an article generated by your efforts.Measurement_unit

What is more, the very skills that PRs possess, such as the ability to write persuasive copy targeted at specific audiences, are exactly what businesses are looking for in an era of content marketing.

However, I think three factors are holding back PR as a profession from taking a bigger slice of the marketing pie:

1.Faking it is easy
As the saying goes, “In God we trust, all others bring data.” And digital gives you the ability to measure data like never before. You can see views of an article, visits to a website, clicks on an advert, RTs or a rise in social media followers. However, as high profile cases in the advertising world have shown, it is relatively easy to game the system. In a recent blog, Stephen Waddington showed how simple it was to set up a Twitter account and buy 10,000 followers, for just $25. At a first look, his account (and its success) was plausible – and would have been even more so if he’d aimed to make his fake more believable. As CIPR CEO Alastair McCapra, points out, “It is precisely the things which are most fakeable that are most measurable. The cult of measurement is powering the tidal wave of fake.”

Clearly, this is not a problem that solely affects PRs, and I’m not suggesting that practitioners are deliberately engaging in full scale fraud. But simply measuring metrics such as the number of followers opens us up to accusations that we’re simply transferring the same mindset that measured the size of a cuttings book, to the online world.

2. Measurement needs to be more detailed
This brings me onto the second challenge. PR people need to go beyond measuring outputs to measuring real outcomes. And that means getting really involved in a business and investing time in measuring what matters. What is the overall objective and how can you create a PR metric to support it? It does mean more work, and potentially learning new skills, but at its heart it is about asking questions of your client/organisation – something that PR people should be good at.

3. PR isn’t a silo
In the past ongoing PR was often run separately from the rest of marketing. Obviously, there would be involvement in big events, such as a product launch, but the focus was on communicating with the press. But public relations can (and should) be a lot more – meaning that PR teams need to think in a more integrated way. How are you going to your message out in multiple ways to reach the right audiences? That means going beyond the press release to embrace social media, emails and slides for sales and other marketing tactics. It is up to PR people to proactively drive this and provide a complete portfolio of content if they are to be seen as central to the business, rather than peripheral figures. And if PR doesn’t act, other marketing disciplines such as advertising and SEO will move in and take responsibility and budget.

We’re already half way through January, so it’s a bit late for New Year’s resolutions. However, PR practitioners should take stock and rethink how they operate, making 2018 the year they step up and earn the respect and budgets that their role and successes deserve.

January 17, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The lessons from the top 5 PR disasters of 2017

As we come to the end of the year, we’ve seen some stunningly good PR campaigns that have shifted people’s perceptions or reinforced brand leadership. But 2017 has also seen more than its fair share of PR cock-ups, where businesses have completely ignored communication good practice and not only damaged their reputations, but also their standing and share price.Press_secretary_Sean_Spicer

Here are my top 5 PR disasters of 2017:

1. United Airlines
Dragging a screaming passenger off an overbooked plane while onlookers recorded the event on their smartphones was bad enough. But United Airlines then blamed the passenger, Dr David Dao, who suffered concussion in the incident, for being ‘belligerent’, with CEO Oscar Munoz only fully apologising after the share price fell dramatically. Ironically, Munoz had been named PR Week US Communicator of the Year just a month before. The lesson from this story is that when events turn emotive, despite the fact that you are only following procedures, and that the staff involved in pulling Dao from the plane were law enforcement officers not United employees, you need to show empathy and understanding rather than blaming your customers.

2. Uber
Where to start? Through most of 2017 Uber appeared to be the epitome of a ‘jerk tech’ company, caring nothing for law, its employees or its customers. Stories included allegations of sexism and sexual harassment, surge pricing that capitalised on misfortune, a secret app designed to deflect regulators, losing its licence in London, payments to hackers after its systems were broken into, and a continuing court case that it allegedly stole trade secrets from Google. Oh, and then-CEO Travis Kalanick arguing with/abusing one of his own drivers. All of this led to its urban clientele moving to rivals, removing first mover advantage and downgrading its capitalisation in its forthcoming funding round.

To be fair to Uber, its new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, who took over at the end of August, is working hard to change the brand’s reputation. He has issued heartfelt apologies for past misconduct, and explained to all staff of the importance of reputation to the business’ success. While it is early days, he seems to be balancing the difficult job of changing culture, while keeping the right staff with the company as it moves forward.

3. Sean Spicer
It is tempting to include Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted 10 days as Donald Trump’s communications chief before publicly abusing his colleagues, in this list. However, for the range and bare-faced toeing of the party line, I have to go with Sean Spicer. From initially disputing photographic evidence of the number of people at the presidential inauguration to claiming that, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is worse than Hitler because at least the Nazi leader never gassed his own people, ignoring the deaths of six million Jews, he seemed to be alternately making his own cock-ups and retelling a line that no-one believed. Good communications has to be based in fact – and it is the job of a spokesperson to ensure that the message being delivered is clear, cogent and believable. Spicer, no doubt under great pressure from above, failed on all counts.

4. Bell Pottinger
A key rule of PR is that if you are the spokesperson or PR agency, never become the story yourself. Another high profile casualty of this was PR agency Bell Pottinger. Involvement in a racially divisive campaign for the shadowy Gupta family in South Africa earned it censure, removal from industry body the PRCA, and the agency go into administration. In today’s world ethically questionable campaigns do get discovered, and the consequences are potentially disastrous.

5. Kevin Spacey
One of the biggest stories of the year was the bravery of victims of workplace sexual harassment and sexual violence, who stood up, accused their attackers and told their stories. From Harvey Weinstein to the House of Commons, they shone a spotlight on a culture and behaviour that was unacceptable. Kevin Spacey, one of those accused, deserves especial opprobrium for using his ‘apology’ to come out as gay, in an apparent attempt to deflect anger from his behaviour. Given one of the accusations made about him was of sexual advances towards under-age boys, his statement linked paedophilia with homosexuality in a way that reinforced previous prejudices.

I’m sure there are other, potentially less high profile but equally damaging, PR disasters that haven’t made it onto my list. Feel free to add your own in the comments section below.

December 13, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Paperchase and the Daily Mail – the Open and the Closed

Shortly after the Brexit vote I wrote a blog post looking at what the deep division between Leave and Remain meant for marketers. Brands in many markets would need to decide where they targeted their products – at an Open, outward looking audience clustered in cities or a Closed group in the rural shires and much of the Midlands and North. In many cases brands couldn’t appeal to both equally without losing their differentiating factors.

Paperchase

Image Kake via Flickr http://bit.ly/2kaMZY1

The current case of Paperchase and the Daily Mail is the perfect example of this. After deciding to run a promotion with the right wing, pro-Brexit newspaper, a Twitter backlash caused the stationery chain to apologise and commit to not advertising/working with the paper again. Is this a victory for people power, a brand that has succumbed to mob rule, or simply bad marketing? I can see four key factors in the case:

1. Know your customers
Generally, Paperchase targets a young, funky demographic – not that many of whom will be reading the Daily Mail, I suspect. Running a promotion with a publication that doesn’t serve your target audience is initially a bit baffling. However, I can only assume that Paperchase was trying to extend its reach ahead of Christmas, encouraging a non-traditional audience into its stores, with a free roll of wrapping paper. As one of the largest circulation papers in the country, with 4 million readers on a Saturday, the Daily Mail gives a huge potential reach. Once there the hope was obviously that they’d buy more – unlocking new revenues for the chain.

2. Do your crisis management early
If that was the plan then Paperchase failed to understand the depth of feeling amongst its existing customers, at least some of whom are both vehemently anti-Daily Mail and extremely vocal on social media. Led by the pressure group Stop Funding Hate, they vented their disappointment through Twitter and Facebook. This backlash led to the subsequent climbdown from the retailer.

All of this appeared to take Paperchase by surprise, which suggests they hadn’t got a crisis management plan in place, or thought through the potential negative connotations of linking to the Mail. In the end it meant that they pleased nobody – existing customers felt let down and Mail readers felt unwanted, given the decision not to target them again.

3. Be sure of your strategy
Another factor that has been mentioned is the size of the social media backlash. According to reports, around 480 people responded on Twitter, and while they may well be the tip of the iceberg, it is not a significant number, given that in today’s society consumers are much more likely to complain about brands, immediately and in detail, through social media. This means that every decision is going to receive some complaints, particularly if you are trying to extend into new audiences. The question is what additional damage has been done to the Paperchase brand by appearing to cave into pressure so quickly?

4. This isn’t about freedom of speech

Predictably many people, including the Daily Mail, have claimed the Paperchase decision, and Stop Funding Hate’s campaigns, are an attack on free speech. After all, as they point out, we live in a free society and they have every right to adopt the editorial tone that they do. Harassing advertisers into withdrawing funding therefore undermines this freedom and democracy itself. This is a disingenuous argument – I don’t agree with the Daily Mail line on pretty much everything, but agree that provided it does not break the law (including the libel laws) it should be free to publish. As long as it provides a product that people want to read, in numbers, it will be attractive to many advertisers, who believe that it provides them with the opportunity to reach a mass audience that fits their demographic. The efforts of Stop Funding Hate are not going to close down the Daily Mail overnight, so reaching for freedom of speech arguments is neither relevant or helpful.

What the whole affair shows is that unfortunately we are living in an increasingly polarised country and brands need to think hard about the audiences they want to target, and build advertising and PR campaigns that will appeal to them, if they want to drive loyalty and safeguard their reputation. For many this means making a choice between the Open and the Closed – or risking appealing to neither and essentially becoming irrelevant to all.

November 29, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment