Whirlpool takes on feel-good status with consumers

Three years ago, Whirlpool's PR efforts were nowhere near as innovative as its products.

Three years ago, Whirlpool's PR efforts were nowhere near as innovative as its products.

Now the firm puts emphasis on communications to better connect with its consumers.

Jeff Davidoff describes the type of PR being done when he joined Whirlpool as MD of its eponymous flagship brand three years ago as the "junk mail approach."

Press releases were sent out like junk mail, streaming across reporters' desks and, more often than not, being ignored.

That approach to PR is about as pass? for the Whirlpool brand today as is washing clothes on a rock.

While its parent company recently decided to pursue a takeover of rival Maytag, the PR function for the Whirlpool brand has been undergoing a transformation that predates that bid.

Davidoff hired Audrey Reed-Granger as PR director in October, elevating the head of brand PR to the director's level for the first time.

Since her arrival at Whirlpool's Benton Harbor, MI, headquarters, she has transformed brand PR there. The press releases are largely gone - replaced by a quarterly newsletter sent to a select group of 500 reporters. Rather than simply detailing the latest Whirlpool product offerings, articles in the newsletter talk about trends - such as the increasing use of room air conditioners, even in homes with central air - that might interest journalists.

The changes haven't stopped there. PR has become a major player in the integrated marketing approach Davidoff has brought to the brand.

"I've never been anywhere where integrated marketing communications is taken so seriously," says Reed-Granger.

Davidoff says he believes in PR because he comes from an integrated marketing background and thinks of all marketing disciplines as equals.

Each Thursday, the brand marketing team - which includes PR, advertising, new business development, marketing, and a group called the innovation consulting team - meet to brainstorm ideas. Any suggestion from one discipline has to be extendable to the others for consideration. "This is a truly cross-disciplinary marketing team," Reed- Granger says.

When she arrived, she recalls, Davidoff told her: "I want you to do things for the brand that have never been done before. This is a world-class brand. It's time we have world-class PR."

Davidoff didn't just talk about wanting more; he put Whirlpool's money behind those words. He's doubled PR spending, raising its share of his overall brand marketing budget from a range of 5% to 7%, to 15% to 20%, he says, although he declines to provide specific budget numbers. He expects to keep increasing PR spending, saying he's within about 25% of the level he considers optimum.

The mission of comms

PR's function in Davidoff's integrated approach is to garner third-party endorsements and make consumers feel good about the brand, he explains. He wants PR to convey the message to consumers that "Whirlpool is a corporation and a brand that cares," he says.

Reed-Granger, working with the brand's longtime agency, Zeno Group, has been finding a variety of ways to tell that story.

Zeno had started working on the brand in 1999, but "they were starving for someone to provide them with strategic direction," Reed-Granger says. She has done that. Zeno's team is on site every Wednesday, meeting with a variety of Whirlpool people to keep current on the brand and to work on ongoing projects.

"Our charge this year and our charge moving forward is really about creating an emotional connection between the consumer and the brand," says Cathy Yingling, a VP with Zeno who oversees the firm's six-person Whirlpool team.

That's means starting programs like Whirlpool's Mother of Invention contest, offering a grand prize winner $15,000 to get an invention off the ground. That contest started on Mother's Day and ended this month.

A second undertaking this year is Whirlpool's Spirit of Cooking contest, which grew out of a suggestion from an internal network of black employees.

It involves Whirlpool reaching out to African-American churches in New York, Chicago, LA, Atlanta, Washington, Philadelphia, Detroit, Houston, Miami, Dallas, its headquarters city of Benton Harbor, and 11 smaller cities, asking for favorite recipes of church members. Each church that enters can submit one recipe. The winning church will receive a $5,000 donation from Whirlpool and a kitchen makeover.

"We're talking to the consumer at their level, where they live," Reed-Granger says of such programs. "Our consumer doesn't just live in the kitchen and laundry room. We want them to know we are passionate about them and who they are."

She's been talking to Whirlpool's Hispanic network about how to effectively connect with Hispanic consumers, a market that Whirlpool PR hadn't reached out to in the past. The brand plans to take part in a Hispanic-oriented home show in Los Angeles this November as a first step.

Many companies use race-specific networks as human resources adjuncts, addressing concerns of various ethnic groups. Reed-Granger sees Whirlpool's employee networks as excellent sources of ideas for ways the brand can connect with different audiences. Its latest effort to connect emotionally with all consumers is a series of podcasts talking about family issues. The 30-minute podcasts will feature average people discussing such issues as dealing with an empty nest when children move out, handling parenthood for the first time, and caring for aging parents.

"Audrey has driven a lot more creativity in the PR program there," Yingling says.

She'll need to keep it up for Whirlpool to maintain its strong brand image, say those who follow the company.

Maintaining a healthy image

Reporters who cover the appliance space give the company good marks when it comes to media relations. "They've been very helpful," says Katherine Salant, a syndicated columnist who writes about housing matters in The Washington Post and elsewhere.

"They're dealing from a position of strength; their image is solid," says David Koehler, a management studies lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago campus.

One of the ways Whirlpool has been trying to enhance that image is with innovative products, such as its Duet front-loading washer-dryer combo, which received a design award in 2002 from Popular Mechanics.

Innovation alone won't be enough to distinguish the brand, however. "Whirlpool does have innovative products, but that's status quo for that industry," Koehler notes. The brand must connect emotionally to stand out, he says.

Reed-Granger knows her work is far from done. She expects it to be two-to-three years before she has PR running at the cadence of activities and programs she thinks would be ideal.

In addition to extending Whirlpool's external reach, Reed-Granger has been working inside the company to explain the new direction PR is taking and the benefits it can produce.

"So many companies see PR as media relations and that's it. I educated the brand on what PR really is," she says of her first months at Whirlpool. "I started every meeting saying, 'PR is not advertising." In her first quarter there, "people would laugh; then it started to sink in," she says.

She's also been educating people about when PR needs to step back. Whirlpool has a long involvement with Habitat for Humanity, for example, supplying appliances for homes Habitat builds for needy families.

She was asked to consider if Whirlpool should be getting more PR mileage out of the relationship, but advised against trying to play it up simply to earn kudos for the brand.

"Our Habitat relationship is at the core of the brand," she says. "It is not PR-able. If you find out about our Habitat relationship, it's typically from a Habitat affiliate, not us. We just let it speak for itself."

Reed-Granger talks about her plans for 2006 with the enthusiasm one might expect from a communications pro. "We'll be doing something in PR that the brand, and the company, hasn't done before. I think it will catch people off guard because it will be buzz-worthy and unique," she says.

If Whirlpool hadn't accomplished so much already, one might be tempted to dismiss that as hype. But given her track record, Whirlpool and Reed-Granger bear watching to see if they can achieve the kind of buzz she's aiming for.

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PR contacts

PR director Audrey Reed-Granger

PR agency Zeno Group

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