Revolutionary Measures

5 things that Public Relations can – and can’t – do

In the 25+ years I’ve been working in public relations I’ve seen the entire industry shift, as digitisation has transformed media relations, content and the channels that businesses use to communicate with their audiences. We’ve moved from a situation where media relations was king to a more nuanced, wider ranging and more interesting world, where PR is more strategic and (hopefully) more valued.

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However, one thing that never changes is that a lot of people I talk to are still not 100% sure what PR can, and cannot do. And while, like many things, what it is achievable can change, here are 5 areas that commonly cause confusion:

1.Immediate PR results take time
To communicate your messages to your chosen audiences, you obviously need to know what you want to say and who you want to reach. And this has to be realistic – you can’t expect a start-up with nothing more than an idea to immediately appeal to a mass consumer audience. It takes time to build a brand, and that requires patience and an ongoing supply of stories that show momentum and are of interest to the people you want to communicate with, whether they are potential or actual customers, partners, investors and/or relevant media. So my recommendation for any company is be patient – we may live in an accelerated news cycle, but it still takes time and sustained effort to get your messages across.

2.Honesty is central to successful PR
Despite the talk about spin and companies using PR to pull the wool over people’s eyes, the profession can only do so much. The public is rightly cynical about companies that have a bad reputation and fail to own up to past mistakes. The first step to turning round perceptions is to be honest and make a real attempt at changing. It has to be genuine, rather than a smokescreen, and that often means cultural change is required. Look at the likes of Uber, which transformed its approach with a new CEO – it may not have rebuilt trust completely, but it is clearly committed to working on it.

3.PR is not just media relations
For many, media relations – talking to journalists and writing/sending press releases is what PR is all about. However, while media relations can be a key part of a campaign, it is not the only tool in the PR box. Reaching the right people, with the right messages, covers a wide range of tactics outside just talking to the press. I’ve seen PR campaigns that involve no media content, or that are focused on getting to customers, employees or influencers directly through other channels outside the press. This does make the boundaries of PR fluid, and the profession should embrace this rather than funnelling resources just down the media relations route.

4.PR can’t guarantee coverage
Time and time again, I’ve had potential clients come to me asking to get into the Financial Times or an equivalent title. That’s despite having no news or messaging that will appeal to that particular audience – or even any reason for actually reaching a certain group. I once had a PR manager ask me to get their company into the print edition of the Daily Mail, as “that’s what the CEO’s wife’s friends read,” and they wanted to something to boast about at the bridge club. Equally, there’s no such thing as guaranteed coverage – a journalist can write a story and then it doesn’t make it into the paper/onto the website due to any number of external factors. So look very closely at any promises from PR agencies that they will get you into certain titles – are they actually able to deliver?

5.PR can’t hide bad news forever
We live in a world where everyone has a smartphone, an opinion and the opportunity to share their thoughts and experiences. That means it is extremely difficult to keep bad news out of the public eye over the long-term. As the likes of Sir Philip Green have discovered, even expensive lawyers can’t achieve that. What PR can do is help you communicate your story, but your story has to be believable to start with. Creating a strong, genuine brand reputation, built up over years, is the best defence against any negative news that does arrive. It won’t prevent damage completely, but it will provide a context and the chance to explain and apologise.

The power of public relations is growing as more and more brands make it a core part of their marketing, rather than a tactical add-on. However, it is vital to be clear where its limitations lie – don’t fall for the spin.

March 20, 2019 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Public relations – bring on the clowns

I recently read a fascinating piece of research around the human element of manned Mars missions. Given the length of the trip (9 months each way plus a wait before returning) and the fact that everyone is cooped up together in a small space, the risk of the crew disintegrating into warring factions is clearly high. How can it be stopped or at least minimised? NASA is obviously giving this a lot of thought, studying similar situations, such as groups posted to the Antarctic, to get some tips. What these studies have shown is that you need a mix of personality types to ensure team harmony. But most of all what you need is a clown – someone who can bridge between different people, defuse tension and create empathy with everyone, whatever their role or personality type.

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It made me think that quite often this is the role that PR has (or should have) within an organisation. Starting with your business goals, you need to gain information from everyone in the company, across every department to set your communications strategy. Implementation requires buy-in from everyone – you need to keep everyone happy that their needs are being met, while getting them to realise that there is a bigger picture which means that PR can’t solely be about their department. You need to show empathy, understanding and be able to master all the different areas of your organisation, all while seeing it through a PR lens.

If you look at PR in this light, it reinforces its strategic importance – done right it is the glue between the departments in the company, and the multiple roles that people do. There’s no-one else, except perhaps for the CEO, who has this company-wide oversight. And, let’s face it, often people lower down an organisation may feel too overawed by the big boss to tell her or him the whole truth.

So next time someone describes public relations as a profession full of clowns, take it as a compliment, not a slight. We may not be putting humans on Mars (yet), but we’re essential to bridging gaps within every organisation and contributing to the smooth running of a business – all without having to resort to scary wigs or flowers that squirt water.

March 6, 2019 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

James Dyson and three lessons for Brexit communications

Sir James Dyson is clearly a very clever bloke. He’s an innovator who has successfully disrupted multiple industries, from vacuum cleaners to hand driers, and is now staking a claim to leadership in the emerging electric vehicle market.

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He’s also an ardent Brexiteer, campaigning for the UK to leave the European Union. Much of his ire is down to his belief that EU regulations are rigged by his rivals, which has clearly impacted his thinking. I’m not going to reopen the Brexit debate, but in the circumstances of a potential looming No Deal, the fact that he’s moving his global HQ from Wiltshire to Singapore has drawn widespread condemnation from both sides of the debate. While no jobs are being lost, and the company is investing nearly £300m in the UK, it is seen as a betrayal, rather than a business decision.

What the press and social media coverage shows is just how poisonous the debate around Brexit has become. At any other time a successful company investing more in the country, while pledging to keep jobs in the UK would be applauded. But whatever the story, business decisions are currently all viewed through a Brexit lens – from Wetherspoon’s boss Tim Martin admitting that labour costs would be going up in the first half of the year, to the likes of Panasonic moving the registration of its European HQ to the Netherlands.

The lessons for all businesses are therefore clear:

1.Run your announcements through a Brexit filter

Particularly for those companies that have taken a strong stand on Brexit, every communication and action will be scrutinised by both sides. Therefore, take special care to analyse what you are saying from either viewpoint. What story will the press lead on? How will it be seen on social media? It is up to PR and communication teams to give strong, upfront advice on the potential consequences of any story, and how it can potentially be mitigated. For example, this weekend’s Sunday Times had a follow-up story claiming the real reason that Dyson is leaving the UK is fear of a Jeremy Corbyn Labour government – an angle that should have been highlighted much earlier if it was to avoid controversy.

2. Don’t use Brexit to bury bad news

Brexit does have a major impact on many industries and businesses. The drop in the pound following the referendum result pushed up the cost of imports, while current uncertainty means many consumers are not confident in making big ticket purchases. However, despite the temptation, businesses shouldn’t just blame Brexit for all of their woes. Doing so highlights their inability to react to changing market conditions and risks them being seen as moaners by the general population.

3. Either choose a position or stay quiet

Business owners such as Dyson and Martin have been vocal in stating their position. Equally executives from many more organisations, from Airbus to Jaguar Land Rover have warned against the negative consequences on jobs, investment and the economy. To successfully carry this off without impacting public reputation you need to be sure that your position is based on facts, and will resonate with your target audiences. And you need to remain fixed in your views – hence the condemnation that Dyson has received for appearing to not back Britain.

As the Brexit saga/shambles rumbles on, dominating the media landscape, all businesses need to understand how it impacts their public relations and communications strategies. Factoring it into planning is vital if you want to avoid damaging your reputation, sales and future revenues.

January 30, 2019 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Royal PR car crash?

There’s nothing like a royal story to get the press excited, and the Duke of Edinburgh’s recent car crash is no exception. It even kept Brexit off the front pages for a few days, providing a welcome bit of relief for everyone, particularly Theresa May.

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While the actual circumstances of the accident, which saw the 97 year old’s Land Rover flip over, are the subject of a police investigation, that hasn’t stopped the media analysing the situation in meticulous detail. It is a perfect opportunity – the crash site outside Sandringham is easily accessible to journalists, there are plenty of local witnesses to the aftermath and the injured occupants of the other car involved are clearly upset about their treatment and want to state their case. To top it all, the Royal Family hasn’t helped its cause – Philip was back driving a (new) Land Rover on the Sandringham estate just a couple of days after the crash, without wearing a seatbelt. And the Queen was then spotted in the back of another car without a seatbelt on her way to church.

Amidst all the furore and discussions about whether the Palace has apologised to those in the other car, the whole case is in stark contrast to the generally successful public image projected by the younger royals. Indeed, Prince William is busy interviewing Sir David Attenborough at Davos on saving the planet, while Prince Harry has launched the Invictus Games, openly discussed mental health and married a smart Hollywood actress. PR guru Mark Borkowski described the Royal Household’s response to the Duke’s accident as “DIY PR”.

But is it actually that bad? Clearly there isn’t much of a media relations strategy going on at all, but that’s unsurprising for three reasons:

1.The Duke of Edinburgh doesn’t give a damn about his public perception

In fact, he’s always delighted in being rude and not caring what people say. So any crisis PR team would have their work cut out getting their client to recognise there is an issue, let alone deal with it.

2. There’s a police investigation going on

As with any traffic accident, the police are looking into the circumstances and deciding next steps. So any admission of guilt to the injured parties would be prejudicial to the Duke’s case in any investigation. Not to mention that insurers always counsel never to admit to anything to avoid it being taken as declaring guilt.

3. No-one was expecting the Spanish Inquisition

It feels like the Royal Household thought this was a minor story that would blow over quickly. Hence not seeing driving a new car two days later as being a trifle soon. I think they also counted on public sympathy for Philip – he’s had health problems over the last year, and being independent enough to drive himself around at 97 is quite a feat.

What they didn’t understand is that the news agenda was waiting for this type of storm in a teacup story. As I said it is a change from Brexit and allows monarchists, anti-royalists and those in between to all give their opinions. A quick scan of the headlines backs this up – The Guardian has “Prince Philip’s crash should mark a turning point in our royal sycophancy”, The Independent has “Prince Philip has every right to drive at 97” and the Daily Express has “Diana caused Prince Philip crash.” While I may have made the last one up, it gives a flavour of the coverage to date – which shows no real signs of stopping.

Does this mean the Duke needs to take PR lessons from his grandchildren? Not in the least. Whatever your views on the Royal Family, and the Duke of Edinburgh himself, he’s being himself – and in many ways any negative coverage he gets acts as a lightning rod for the monarchy as a whole, making the rest of them look better. So less a PR car crash, and more an example of why you need a range of personalities within your organisation in order to appeal to everyone.

January 23, 2019 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why PR is like an iceberg

It’s a well-known fact that 90% of an iceberg is below the water. PR is actually pretty similar. What is visible (often the results of tactics such as media relations) is simply the tip of a strategically planned and delivered campaign. However, what the wider world sees is the end result (or in the case of journalists the pitch or press release). I think this is one of the major reasons PR and media relations are continually confused, pigeonholing the profession.


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The latest example of this is on the BBC’s Media Show. A recent episode, entitled “The Art of Public Relations”, has drawn widespread condemnation from the PR industry for its focus on media relations and publicity, and describing PR people as bullies and liars. Clearly this is both an outdated view of the PR world, and – let’s face it – if all 70,000 of us were liars I think we’d have been closed down by now.

Media relations is a key skill for PRs, but it is one of many. And arguably it is becoming less important as PR becomes more strategic and involved in delivering corporate goals, and other communication channels such as social media give a direct route to target audiences, bypassing journalists. But it is human nature to focus on the shiny things rather than the hard work and brainpower behind them. The trouble is, this is less easy to explain in a soundbite. Perfectly valid complaints about how PR is perceived are seen as whingeing – as a profession we suffer from Cobbler’s Children syndrome, too busy working for others to do our own PR.

How can this be overcome? Here are some recommendations from my experience:

  • Keep demonstrating the value we create for companies, organisations, communities and individuals. They are the people that pay the bills, and simply wouldn’t be investing in PR if it was not important.
  • Don’t just show value to immediate contacts, but talk to senior management and build up their understanding of PR. Given most CEOs tend to come from a finance, sales or operations background they are unlikely to have learnt about PR properly on their way to the top.
  • Measure effectively what we do, and show that we are supporting corporate strategy inside and outside organisations.
  • Spend more time proactively on doing our own PR, whether that is educating people we meet (without boring them senseless!) or speaking to schools and business groups.
  • Show clients the strategy behind what we do for them, and lean more heavily on academic and business research to justify why a particular campaign is worthwhile.
  • Always be professional, and avoid the temptation to focus solely on the tactical or the Ab Fab stereotype. It won’t deliver a lasting career or client relationships.

PR does seem to be constantly striving to justify itself to the public and journalists – but over the last 20 years I have seen things change for the better. We just need to keep pushing. We’re all in it together, so do share your recommendations for how we can better get across what we do in the comments section below.

January 16, 2019 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Why sales is the new opportunity for PR and communications

For many B2B industries the sales process used to be relatively straightforward. You made products customers wanted, and provided the price and quality were right, they bought them. Salespeople were involved across the process, giving ample opportunity for them to build relationships, explain benefits and overcome any doubts.

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This has now radically changed, with a much larger proportion of the process carried out by prospects themselves – without speaking to a salesperson. The combination of the internet and social media gives them access to a huge amount of information that they can use to refine their needs, and create a shortlist of potential products and vendors without the companies being involved at all.

Content, content, content
While this means that sales need to learn new skills, it also dramatically boosts the importance of content. If you don’t have the right content available, based on the keywords and topics that your potential customers are searching for, they won’t even find you. With the amount of competition out there, customers simply don’t have the time to check every potential supplier’s website to find out if they offer what they are looking for.

This applies to all sectors. For example, I’ve talked to lawyers who say clients have found them by searching for particular legal specialisms (e.g. “European rail infrastructure law”). So to get onto the shortlist, you need to be visible. And visibility isn’t just through company websites, it is in the media, on Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs, emails and marketing collateral.

What does this mean? Essentially you have to build a brand for yourself and/or your product. This has to be built on the right content, in the right places, giving a consistent message to your target markets.

For me, this is a tremendous opportunity for communications/public relations professionals. We have the skills to understand an audience, create a strategy and messages to reach them, and then execute it through relevant, well-written content. We just need to think beyond the old confines of media relations and we can position ourselves at the heart of the sales process that drives modern businesses. This means breaking down the old barriers between earned and paid media by using whichever is best for the job in hand.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece on whether we should switch from calling ourselves public relations professionals and rebrand ourselves as communications professionals. It became part of a wider debate, with some people agreeing and others feeling it lost the strategic element of what we do, pigeonholing us as messengers. Given the business opening that content provides now is the time to seize the opportunity and expand what you do – whatever you call yourself.

 

October 19, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Brewdog, PR and smelling a rat

As the Oscar Wilde quote goes, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

Plenty of brands and celebrities have adopted this mantra when it comes to communications, reasoning that people will remember their name, even when the story is forgotten. Bookmaker Paddy Power is one that comes to mind, with stunts ranging from sending a Mexican Mariachi band to welcome Donald Trump to Scotland to setting up an amnesty box for medals outside the Russian Embassy in London at the time of the state-sponsored doping revelations.

Brewdog is another brand that aims to cultivate an edgy image to great success. It has positioned the brewer at the front of the craft beer movement and attracted legions of fans. So last week’s PR debacle around its partnership with US brewer Scofflaw should be viewed through the lens of Oscar Wilde’s words.

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The basic facts are that Brewdog has a partnership with Scofflaw, contract brewing its beers in the UK. To promote this it was running a series of events in its pubs. So far, so straightforward. Journalists then received an emailed press release from Scofflaw’s PR agency Frank, announcing the events and offering free beer to those that went along. But, it added: “But there is a hook…you have to be a Trump supporter.”

Cue Twitter meltdown and fast action from Brewdog, cancelling the events, promising to send the beer back and launching an alternative free beer promotion. Given its noted anti-Trump stance that wasn’t surprising, but gained it plenty of coverage (more than a free beer event would have done). The plot then thickens – Scofflaw denied signing off the press release, blaming Frank, who in turn apologised and blamed a ‘rogue element’ in its team. A staff member has been suspended, allegedly for sending out an unapproved release.

When I first read the story I’d assumed that the offending communication had gone out on social media, and was just a throw away line by someone that wasn’t thinking, and automatically conflated Scofflaw’s redneck roots with Trump support. But to find out that it was a press release, from a big agency such as Frank which must have clear processes in place to manage approvals makes me suspicious. In my mind that leaves three potential causes of the shenanigans:

  1. Frank doesn’t have any control over what its staff is doing. This seems unlikely given it has been operating since 2000, and has large corporate clients from Investec to Ribena (and, interestingly, Paddy Power).
  2. Scofflaw signed the release off and then retracted when it realised the issue it had created. Again, this seems unlikely as it has a close partnership with Brewdog and must have known the company’s views on Trump. It would also be an issue logistically – given it is in Atlanta the storm broke in the middle of the night US time, ensuring it was out of the loop to immediately respond.
  3. It was a stunt that benefits both Brewdog and Scofflaw. They get to show their liberal credentials and receive significantly more interest and publicity than they would otherwise do. The only company that seems to lose out is Frank (and the unfortunate staff member), as it gets a reputation as unprofessional. Though if that was the case I’m sure it will have had a quiet word with clients to calm any concerns and can chalk up the whole project as a success.

Time will tell whether this was a cock-up or a concocted PR stunt. What it does show for all agencies is the basic importance of having an audit trail around sign-off of materials. We’ve all been in the position where a client tells us over the phone “I’m sure that release/case study/campaign creative is fine, just send it out.” As the Scofflaw case shows, you need to get approval in writing – even if it scrawled on the back of a beer mat.

October 3, 2018 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Time for PR to change its name?

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain exactly what public relations is (and what it isn’t) to generally well-informed and otherwise clued-up friends, relatives and people at events. No, it isn’t just Absolutely Fabulous, Max Clifford-style celebrity scoops in the tabloids or undercover lobbying on behalf of big business. Instead it should be a core business function – a way of getting your messages out to the right audiences, through the right channels and at the right time, with the aim of engaging people, managing reputation and achieving business goals.

That’s why the CIPR’s new #PRPays campaign is a welcome step in the right direction. It aims to demonstrate the strategic value of PR to organisations through interviews with senior managers at some of the UK’s biggest companies. The first video, with John Holland-Kaye, the CEO of Heathrow Airport is great. It shows that he sees and understands what PR brings to his business in multiple areas, from communicating change to supporting expansion.

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However, there is a big ‘but’ coming. Holland-Kaye keeps talking about communications in its widest form, from talking to passengers and other stakeholders to getting key messages across to employees and politicians. This got me thinking – why are we even talking about PR at all? At best it is a loaded term (see examples in the first paragraph), and at worst it puts a barrier up between the industry and the people we are trying to talk to. Why don’t we simply replace Public Relations with Communications? I can see four good reasons why we should:

1          It is simpler
Everyone communicates – it is one of the key human characteristics. So, people understand what the term means and the skills that it involves. Yes, that could be said to remove mystique (and as the saying goes, where there is mystery, there is margin), but to be honest the barriers to entry in PR are low to non-existent anyway. All you need is a phone, a laptop and an internet connection, and despite the admirable efforts of the CIPR to professionalise PR, that is unlikely to change soon.

2          It is comprehensive
“No, I don’t do that – that’s internal communications/public affairs/social media (delete as applicable).” That’s been the response of many PRs when clients ask for something that it outside their skillset. But rebranding PR as communications gives us the legitimate right to extend what we do into these neighbouring fields, at both a strategic and tactical level. The basic idea of understanding a company’s aims, and then creating and communicating messages that will successfully deliver these objectives is common to many areas of business – as communicators we should be applying our skills to help organisations in all of them.

 3          It is clearer to business
John Holland-Kaye’s interchangeable use of PR and communications shows exactly the issue that the profession has. Even those that champion what we do are a bit vague about exactly what the borders of our work are. Therefore, if we want to be seen as a strategic imperative for businesses, it makes sense to be clear in our own messaging and language. Talk about communications, and business leaders will see the value, helping the profession to be seen as a key part of successful organisations and ultimately boosting status and budgets.

4          It gives us room to grow
The rise of the internet has clearly transformed communications and given rise to wholly new disciplines such as Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and social media. Agencies mushroomed to take advantage of the budgets that clients were looking to spend in these areas. Lots of PR companies missed out, either because they didn’t see the opportunity or didn’t understand the technology. Communicating is now more important than ever – and at the same time no-one knows what the future will bring. Will brands need to convince the likes of Amazon or Google to feature their stories on voice assistants? How will AI transform how organisations communicate with their publics? No-one really knows, but if PR acts now and widens its scope, it will at least have a fighting chance of being at the forefront of future changes, rather than looking back in 20 years time to find it has been marginalised.

As I said, I applaud the CIPR’s efforts to demonstrate the strategic value that public relations brings. But I think the whole profession needs to go further – we’re communicators, so let’s be upfront and adopt a name that reflects what we do and gives us room to expand in the future. From now on, I’m not a public relations consultant, I’m a communications consultant.

September 26, 2018 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Taking a stand – and the risks to brand reputation

Brands today face significant challenges when it comes to marketing themselves. Competition is growing, particularly from smaller, nimbler and often cooler players. We also live in an increasingly polarised world, where consumers demand that the brands they engage with stand for something. That’s relatively easy for quirky startups – the trouble for established multinationals is that ‘something’ varies radically between different groups and cuts across their existing customer demographics.

The current debate over Nike’s latest marketing campaign demonstrates this perfectly. It has recruited American footballer Colin Kaepernick to narrate its new ad, which features athletes from a range of backgrounds who have overcome adversity to achieve success. The slogan, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”, sums up Kaepernick’s role as leader of the movement to kneel during the US national anthem to protest against police violence.

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Burning rubber
Predictably, the campaign has drawn ire from both sides. Photos and videos of people burning their Nike shoes and clothes went viral on social media, and the Nike stock price initially dropped. Donald Trump complained on Twitter. The body responsible for buying uniforms for the Mississippi police force announced that it would now longer purchase Nike products. At the same time, commentators have complained that Nike is simply hijacking a key issue to essentially sell more trainers. And given their previous poor record on issues such as ethical sourcing, child labour and more recently complaints of a culture of sexual harassment, people may well have a point.

Nevertheless, Nike clearly feels that its core buyers are going to respond positively to its position. In a similar vein, the CEO of Levi’s announced a partnership with gun violence prevention groups, causing the National Rifle Association to complain about “corporate virtue-signalling.” On this side of the Atlantic, Lush had to drop a campaign focused on undercover police who infiltrated activist groups to spy on their members.

So how can brands make sure that taking a stand doesn’t alienate the people they want to appeal to? Essentially it comes down to answering four key questions:

1.Does it fit with your brand values?
One of the reasons Lush received so many complaints was that its campaign didn’t fit with its brand values. Yes, it was seen as alternative and studenty, but being seen to attack the police was a step too far. Companies need to live their brand values – but not over-extend them in pursuit of cheap headlines, as it will damage their reputation.

2. Does it fit with your target audience?
For Nike, its core audience is overwhelming young, urban and involved. Therefore, while it might lose some sales (will Donald Trump switch to Yeezys?), they are clearly confident that the positive impact outweighs the negative. In the same way, UK stationery chain Paperchase pulled promotions from the Daily Mail after its customers complained about the difference between the paper’s editorial stance and their own views. So start with demographics and listening to your customers – after all, there’s a world of social media to help you hear their voice.

3. Are you seen as genuine?
For me, this is where Nike falls down, though it isn’t as bad as Pepsi’s infamous Kendall Jenner advert. I simply can’t see them as genuinely believing in the issues raised – and their own record on worker’s rights undermines their case for promoting fairness. Obviously this is an issue for any major corporation as most have skeletons in their closet of some sort. However, in contrast, Levi’s campaign on gun control looks much more genuine as their CEO is an ex-US army captain who has spoken out on the issue before.

4. Is it cohesive?
If you take a stand, it has to run across your business. You can’t complain about police brutality and then treat your own employees poorly, for example. That’s one of the reasons that tech giants such as Facebook and Amazon are currently in trouble. They talk about an innovative future based on technology and openness, and then create labyrinthine corporate structures to minimise the tax they pay and (in the case of Amazon) face accusations of sweatshop conditions for their warehouse staff. In today’s world failing to live your brand will be quickly discovered and publicised.

We’re in a position where more and more brands are being forced to make a choice – Trump or Democrat, Leave or Remain

? To do this successfully is a balancing act – but starting from genuine brand values built on trust with your audience is a key starting point.

 

September 19, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

 

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