B-to-B breaks comms barrier

While b-to-b companies have traditionally not reached out to consumers directly, some are now finding value in doing so.

While b-to-b companies have traditionally not reached out to consumers directly, some are now finding value in doing so.

In 2005, Scientific Atlanta (SA) should have enjoyed a surge in sales of its digital set-top boxes to the country's digital cable TV operators. After all, Forrester Research had predicted high-definition TV (HDTV) sets would be in roughly 16 million homes at year's end. Yet the same research concluded that just 7 million households would actually watch HD programs - an alarming gap for SA that meant most consumers were not likely to order a digital set-top box from their cable operators.

"People did not realize a set-top box is required to receive HD programs," says John Walker, SVP and group head of the technology practice at Edelman. "As a b-to-b company that has never thought about talking to consumers, we were very bold to suggest it is time for SA to start that conversation."

The conversation would be the first to consumers in the company's 50-year history.

SA, with StrategyOne, Edelman's research division, commissioned a national phone survey of HDTV owners. It found that 49% weren't taking advantage of their HDTVs for several reasons: 28% thought the picture quality had improved enough with the new TV, 23% thought they already were watching HD because some channel displays said the programs were being broadcast in HD, and 18% believed the HDTV would automatically give them HD service.

Conversation starter

"We gained a lot of credibility by starting out our campaign with this research," says Sara Stutzenstein, SA's PR director, who points out that The New York Times and USA Today reported on the survey. "We started with something that could be our own: Here's what our company did and what we discovered."

But for the consumer conversation to have legs, SA used a multimedia news release about the research, featuring a VNR and ANR, to introduce a consumer education program. Called True Def of Hi-Def, it included an online tutorial and branded retail kiosks. To outline the three steps consumers need to take, SA added the tagline "Turn on, Hook up, Tune in."

The VNR, which garnered 204 broadcast airings, depicted friends gathered in a living room setting enjoying HD programs while the voice-over explains that to experience HD you need to "turn on, hook up, and tune in."

"It made sense to actually show crystal-clear HD programming in a setting that consumers could relate to," says Rae Howard, Edelman account supervisor. "The True Def of Hi-Def campaign is best illustrated visually, which is why the VNR was so successful."

Moving forward, Stutzenstein says SA has invited multi-system operators and HDTV retailers to customize the education program. "That way we can reach a wider consumer audience," she explains. SA may also commission another study this fall to track progress and adjust its efforts accordingly.

"The [outreach] is working: 67% of the set-top boxes we shipped last quarter were HD-capable," says Michelle Baran, senior manager of industry marketing for SA. "By educating consumers and helping drive demand, we have shipped more HD boxes."

And SA is not alone. While traditionally b-to-b companies have overlooked the consumer when it comes to PR efforts, in an increasingly competitive environment, such companies are for the first time speaking to the end consumer - and reaping the benefits.

Corning is another company that has expanded its consumer outreach, and executives credit that change for helping it rise from the dead. The telecom bust of 2001-2002 left Corning's stock at $1.10, down from more than $100 in 2000 when it could barely keep up with demand for optical fiber from the telecom industry. It turns out that its telecom customers had bought too much.

"Our direct customers had been telling us one thing, but the market was saying something else," says Dan Collins, Corning VP of corporate communications. "It became apparent to us that we had to better understand our customers' customer and not just fill orders."

That's why today Corning positions its executives as thought leaders in terms of new technology, that way they keep abreast of emerging consumer solutions. That's also why mainstream media often turn to Corning to speak about liquid crystal display (LCD) TVs or the advantages of fiberoptic networks in terms of increased bandwidth - product areas where Corning is a primary supplier.

Corning, for example, manufactures the glass substrate that goes into flat-panel LCD TVs. Yet until recently, plasma was preferred. "So we set about educating the consumer about the advantages of LCD over competing technologies, such as plasma," says Collins.

Steve Marchant, EVP of Brodeur's b-to-b practice, which has worked with Corning for seven years, says the company realizes that by looking to the end consumer, "it gives them a different opportunity to be part of the [buying] conversation."

"Is it realistic to think a consumer will call Time Warner and say, 'Is your cable Corning optical fiber?'" asks Collins. "No, but we can [educate] the consumer to demand the performance of optical fiber over copper wire."

Differentiating position

For other companies, business-to-consumer PR isn't about survival; it's a point of differentiation.

Anvil Knitwear, which sells T-shirts, hats, towels, and bags to major screen printers and private-label brand owners, has begun to position its brand around its organic cotton line. By attaching its brand to green events and providing free organic tees, like it did for the debut of Gaia Napa Valley Hotel & Spa, California's first environmentally sustainable hotel, Anvil aims to generate mainstream press.

"If I receive press about organic," explains Anthony Corsano, Anvil CEO, "then the people who run major corporations and have an environmental policy will think of Anvil the next time they need to print company T-shirts."

Wendi Tush, president of Anvil's agency The Lexicomm Group, says the green positioning is a good one among consumers, given the bad publicity around apparel sweat shops. "It establishes [Corsano's] thought leadership faster and better," she says, "than having him comment on outsourcing or sewing shops."

And no doubt if consumers have a positive view of the Anvil brand, vendors will, too.

Benefits of ramping up b-to-c comms

The Intel factor

Companies like Corning are modeling their approach after Intel: Sell your part within a consumer product, and benefit from the increase in sales.

Education

Scientific Atlanta could have pushed digital cable companies and HDTV retailers to educate consumers about how to receive HD programs. But if consumer confusion exists, there's an opportunity to play educator and directly increase your brand and
product awareness.

Identity

You may be a b-to-b company, but that doesn't mean your CEO can't be a thought leader on consumer issues, such as the environment. If consumers like what they're hearing, chances are your business customers will, too.

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