Priced to sell

Presenting a brand as cheap without ruining its value is one of the trickier marketing strategies to master. Alex Blyth finds out how three in-house PROs cracked it.

Priced to sell
Priced to sell

MAXIMISE YOUR ASSETS - CHEAPFLIGHTS.COM

In 1996, a travel journalist noticed that many people were getting excited by the worldwide web and it occurred to him that it might be a good way for holiday companies to promote their cheap deals. So he launched Cheapflights.com and an industry was born. It is an industry that has seen many companies come and go, and many investors lose a lot of money.

Meanwhile, Cheapflights.com has made a profit every year since 1996, has never touched money from investors and now has 88 million unique visitors a year. It is also growing rapidly in the US. This is all the more remarkable given that it only began to advertise in 2008. Much of its success has been achieved through search, but this can only go so far without brand awareness and that has been generated almost exclusively through editorial coverage.

When head of corporate communications John Barrington-Carver joined the company in 2003, he knew he would never achieve the necessary media coverage by talking solely about price. He says: 'We didn't have huge budgets and, on the face of it, we didn't have much to talk about other than the fact that people can come to our site and find a bargain holiday. So we've had to work hard to use what we do have.'

He continues: 'Firstly, we've used the mass of data we have coming through our system to provide stories about which locations are proving popular. For instance, we were the first to notice that people were going to Sharm El Sheikh when the euro became expensive. Secondly, we have two high-profile and media-friendly senior executives, and I've used them as media commentators.'

He adds: 'Finally, we've made the most of our position on industry issues. For example, we were one of the first to campaign against the Air Passenger Duty. Everybody wants a cheap deal so that's not a news story, but by maximising these three assets we've been able to generate significant media coverage and ensure that as our market has become more competitive, we've maintained our market share.'

CREATE A STORY FROM DATA - MYSUPERMARKET.CO.UK

MySupermarket.co.uk is a price comparison site that allows visitors to compare the price of products in Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Ocado. Customers can shop directly through the website, ensuring they get the best price for each item they buy. The site is keen to achieve media coverage, but knows journalists are unlikely to run stories detailing the relative prices of apples.

So, in May 2010, the PR team came up with the idea of a press campaign based around people's changing shopping habits. The site gathers a vast quantity of data on what people are buying and how this changes over time. The team noticed that between 2008 and 2010, there had been a marked increase in demand for products associated with the Second World War and rationing.

Sales of corned beef were up 16 per cent, fish paste 18 per cent, powdered milk 36 per cent, Shippams spread 77 per cent and powdered custard 117 per cent. Whether this was pure coincidence or simply a result of shopping habits reflecting our straitened economic circumstances, it certainly made for an eye-catching press release.

Last month, the PR team put out a release under the heading 'That's Offal! UK Shoppers Develop a Taste for Paste' which detailed this shift in shopping habits and suggested that consumers were relying on these products as cheap and cheerful alternatives to more expensive sandwich fillings - harking back to the wartime ethos of make do and mend. Jonny Steel, marketing insights manager at my Supermarket.co.uk, says: 'The Wartime Foods story was perfect for us. We used mySupermarket Insights data to establish a trend related to the economic downturn, creating a fun story that tapped into the current news agenda. It communicated both of our key messages that consumers should visit mySupermarket.co.uk to compare prices and that businesses can track prices and sales trends through our B2B Insights service. Wartime Foods captured the zeitgeist with a nostalgic return to simpler, but similarly tough, times. As a PR story it worked well and by basing it on real sales data rather than consumer research, it was even more relevant.'

LOOK BEYOND THE OBVIOUS - TRAVELODGE

With hotel rooms on offer for as little as £29 a night, Travelodge is without doubt using price as a key marketing differentiator. 'We're a low-cost operator,' says Shakila Ahmed, head of PR. 'People stay with us when they're en route to an airport, a business meeting or an event like a concert. They don't want to pay the earth, but they do want a clean, comfortable room and a decent night's sleep.'

The PR team of three knows that, while marketing campaigns can convey the company's strong price point, if they are to achieve media coverage they need to be more creative. Ahmed explains: 'No publication is going to run a story saying that Travelodge offers bargain prices on its rooms. So, in 2006 we came up with the idea of positioning ourselves as experts on sleep.'

This has been more than a PR exercise. The company appointed a director of sleep and introduced innovations such as the UK's first 'cuddling pillow', a temperaturemoderated sleepsuit and relaxing tropical fish tanks into rooms. In May, the company went a step further, putting all 5,500 staff through a 'sleep tight' training programme, and running a £10m advertising campaign on its 'Sleep Manifesto'.

Ahmed works with the Edinburgh Sleep Centre, but the majority of her ideas come from talking to customers. 'I visit our hotels and just chat to customers. I ask them about how well they slept and find out how we could have improved that. It's incredible what a rich mine of ideas they are.'

She has two pieces of advice for other PR professionals who are promoting a price-based product. The first is to get ideas from customers. The second is to think laterally about your target media. She says: 'I never assume it's just the travel pages that will write about us. We regularly get our price points mentioned in the consumer finance pages. We've had coverage in the property pages as people stay with us while they're moving house. We even had coverage in the pets pages as we allow dogs.'

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