ANALYSIS <b>Corporate Case Study</b>: Unilever embraces PR's major role in marketing mix

PR's role in Unilever's home and personal-care group had long been confined to just publicity. In 2001, a new era commenced in which PR became a key strategic voice in marketing efforts.

PR's role in Unilever's home and personal-care group had long been confined to just publicity. In 2001, a new era commenced in which PR became a key strategic voice in marketing efforts.

PR for Unilever's home and personal-care products group in Chicago was once something layered on after other marketing plans had been finalized. But in the past three years, PR has moved squarely into the center of the marketing mix, with impressive results. "They really look at their marketing from a 360-degree perspective," says Kevin Olchawa, a VP in the consumer division of Edelman, who focuses most of his Unilever efforts on the Axe brand. Planning is already underway for next year's marketing efforts and PR people are included, something Olchawa finds refreshing and different from the approach he's seen at other companies where PR isn't brought in until after marketing plans are finalized. "Unilever believes the disciplines work together and each component has its role and benefit," he notes. Learning about the possibilities Getting to that point began with internal education about PR's possibilities. It has continued with top-notch PR initiatives that not only try to create more media opportunities for Unilever products, but also go beyond the media to connect directly with consumers. Allison Harmon joined the Chicago office of Unilever's North American home and personal-care division in 2001 - roughly the same time Stacie Bright joined the Greenwich, CT, office as communications marketing manager for skin-care and laundry products. At the time, both reported to director of PR Michelle Holland, who has since joined Edelman as an EVP. Holland was not replaced, leaving Harmon and Bright to craft PR efforts for their respective groups individually. Today, Harmon is senior PR manager in Chicago for hair and deodorant brands including Axe, Suave, ThermaSilk, Degree, Salon Selectives, and Finesse, brands for which PR has become an integral part of the marketing mix. Harmon recalls spending a good part of her first year holding seminars for Unilever marketing and brand development staffers to talk about PR. While giant Anglo-Dutch-owned Unilever has been wrestling with creating a new corporate logo and brand, Harmon's group doesn't get involved with larger corporate PR issues - it focuses on product. "The company had been saying, 'Explore other [marketing] channels.' People were hungry for the information about PR," Harmon says. By September 2001, Harmon had created what she calls her PR 101 course for new hires. "We were defining our roles, we were doing the work, we were raising the bar," says Harmon, who reports to Dan Hilbert, director of integrated marketing for home and personal care. "I think PR's role has changed here," adds Bright. "It was predominately publicity before. Now it's a strategic player." Harmon created a yearlong educational calendar that included luncheons and roundtables where reporters were invited to discuss how the world saw Unilever and its brands. "It was the year of outside-in," she says of such talks. PR seminars are now held twice a year and attract roughly 40 Unilever employees each. When planning begins for product marketing, PR talks to its peers on a brand team about what should be the minimum investment in PR and the minimum time committed to a PR program. Harmon advocates at least three months for a PR effort to have any impact. All that groundwork came in handy in 2002 when Unilever debuted its Axe brand of men's body spray/deodorant in the US. Edelman was tapped to work on the launch. The brand was well known in Europe, but meant nothing to the young male American audience that is its prime target. "Axe needed to establish itself as a brand, [build] some loyalty, and get people to try the product," Harmon recalls. By the time of the launch, PR had established itself as a tool for getting what Harmon terms "impactful" attention for a brand. PR wanted to be the risk-taker in the marketing mix, coming up with innovative ideas to either capture press attention or magnify coverage of other elements of a marketing program. For Axe, that meant flying American radio DJs to Spain for a party to generate buzz for the brand. It also meant holding a celebrity-laden house party in Miami with the likes of rapper Nelly. And, thanks to a suggestion from the Edelman team, it meant taking a mannequin that was in Axe ads and turning him into a celebrity in his own right. Dubbed Quinn (short for mannequin) and wearing an Axe hat, the mannequin began showing up at events where he could be photographed with stars like Jessica Simpson. Axe also formed a partnership with the Liquid Generation website - at the time an edgy newcomer, but the perfect place to connect with its young male target audience, Harmon says. Today, "Axe is driving deodorant category sales; no other brand is doing that," says Harmon. This year's effort will include PR for Axe's new Touch fragrance which was to be unveiled at a July 22 party in New York. Working with agencies Harmon is effusive in her praise of the major firms she works with. But she also credits a major change Unilever has made for allowing the company to get the most from outside PR help. About a year and a half ago, the company decided to consolidate PR and put agencies on retainer rather than hiring on a project basis. "Developing a retainer relationship really allows an agency to get invested in you," Harmon maintains. "You get commitment and you allow them access they don't get otherwise." Harmon's group works with Edelman and Weber Shandwick. Bright's Connecticut operations use those agencies plus M Booth & Associates. "[Harmon] pushes the agencies, she knows what you can expect from agencies," says WS VP Wendy Lussier. "She's a very strategic thinker; everything has to be linked to the core strategy." PR efforts are geared to a brand's target audience. What works for Axe's young male demographic is totally wrong for ThermaSilk, a heat-activated hair-care line that appeals to teen girls and women in their 20s, for example. With ThermaSilk, Unilever is using celebrity stylist Luke O'Connor as a spokesperson and, working with WS, has set up a news bureau to answer questions about hair styling. Suave's image is that of an economic alternative to more expensive competitors, so PR revolves around getting more for your money. A tie-in was established for Suave with the Style Network's The Look for Less, which also stresses finding bargains. Show host Elisabeth Hasselbeck is a spokesperson for Suave and a Suave Smart Shopper Contest is tied into the show. The Suave website offers smart shopping tips, carrying through on the theme. Degree deodorant is sold to both men and women and, as such, needed a cross-gender PR approach. It launched a Degree Everyman Ironman contest and this year also included an iron- woman winner. Degree paid the winners' costs to compete in an Ironman triathlon event. For Finesse, Unilever worked with Edelman in summer 2002 to put together the Finesse Hair Evolution Exhibition, looking at changing hair styles from 1950 to the present and including stylists' predictions on what women's hairstyles would be popular in 2050. As the exhibit toured the country, local stylists were invited to take part and give their visions of future styling trends. Unilever believes in localizing PR events as much as possible, realizing that local media is more likely to be attracted by a local angle, Harmon explains. That is why Axe published a study as Valentine's Day approached earlier this year on the best dating cities in the US. The study provided the opportunity for localized PR in cities mentioned. Harmon's goals for this year include spreading the PR message to the areas of customer marketing and sales. She wants to use PR to help Unilever's retail customers better market its products. "How do we help Wal-Mart sell more Axe?" she asks. She's already tested the addition of PR to an in-store promotion and found that sales rise as a result. "My role is about facilitating the best ideas for each brand," she says. "My objective is to build the best marketing communications plan for each of our brands." Harmon's slice of Unilever seems well on its way to doing just that. PR contacts PR manager Allison Harmon Agencies Edelman, Weber Shandwick

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