The rise and rise of eBay is described by one marketer as an 'incredible phenomenon'. Without a well-defined brand or mass-produced goods, it personifies its category as much as Hoover, Sellotape or Jeep. The global site has its metaphorical heels firmly dug into the internet auction marketplace, and it has so far achieved this success with minimal in-house UK PR activity.
However, with its first-ever head of UK PR, Victoria Sayers, freshly hired, and a review of its UK PR agency support under way (PRWeek, 30 April), the company is beefing up its PR operation. But how can public relations build on the company's popularity?
Alex Czajkowski, a former director of marketing for internet auction company, QXL, is full of praise for what is, for him, a former rival brand: 'eBay is integral to the fabric of America, like Coke, IBM and Pepsi.
It is an incredible phenomenon. It is huge.'
Despite such a glowing tribute to the strength of the brand, the company is strangely reluctant to talk about its commercial or communication strategies, and it is left to outsiders to speculate as to what the future holds.
Likewise, Joe Public Relations, eBay's current UK PR agency, declined to comment.
According to Czajkowski, it is the company's success in the US that is driving its investment in UK PR. He says its growth this side of the Atlantic, however impressive, still lags behind its progress in the US, where many make a living out of buying and selling on eBay and guides to eBay line bookshop shelves.
Taking a lead from the US
The British attitude towards money and trade stifles the internet auction market in the UK, Czajkowski says: 'eBay wants to have the same success in the UK as it has in the US, but Brits are much more reluctant when it comes to flogging their things.'
Czajkowski also argues that, in his experience, the US media has more of a penchant for pushing consumer stories than the British media.
In addition, he says that the US media more frequently cites the names of companies, a style that British journalists shy away from for fear of granting free advertising - particularly in interesting eBay stories, such as when an unusual or expensive item has been sold.
Czajkowski explains: 'The British press is less responsive to taking up the success stories on auction events, and they will not tell you the domain - it is a radically different market for consumer stories in the US.'
If this is indeed the case, what can eBay's new head of UK PR achieve?
Lewis PR partner Clive Booth points to the expansion of the European Union as one reason for appointing a UK head of PR. He says that while eBay was obliged to expand its PR to ensure that it maintains its position, the company can benefit from further expansion onto the continent.
'Companies such as eBay would benefit from the European market. (This appointment) is a question of timing - there are 25 countries in the EU with a population of 430 million, so if the head of PR in the UK is successful, consider what potential they have in the EU,' he says.
Some, however, believe that emerging markets could bring a true rival to the site. Czajkowski argues: 'Because they are so US-centric and the guys are not thinking about it, they could be challenged by a new platform such as 3G, a non-PC platform in Europe or Asia but not a PC platform. You cannot beat them because they have a critical mass.'
Regardless of the plethora of internet auction sites, eBay's popularity means that it continues to outshine its rivals. PROs cite the originality of the product - and thus its marketability - as the basis of its success.
Nadia Kelly, head of PR at Wanadoo (formerly Freeserve), whose own auctions channel is provided by eBay, says: 'The product lends itself inherently to a story - it was in Glamour magazine a few weeks ago regarding its sale of vintage clothes - it lends itself to PR.'
Czajkowski adds: 'eBay was in the right place at the right time with the right model. It took advantage of technology, which allowed person-to-person commerce before anyone else. Many people thought it would not take off, but they were wrong.'
The future of eBay in the UK
Czajkowski is optimistic about eBay's future: 'If it gets the right person to manage the British media it will work - it is about time it brought in this (Sawyer's) role. People who use eBay every day know it is only a case of getting the public educated.'
But there are some consumers who remain sceptical about online sales, and the site has suffered negative coverage after fraudsters targeted the site. There has been a spate of articles about the site being the subject of fraudulent deals, including bids being made by the sellers plotting to push up prices.
Despite these reports, PROs do not believe that eBay's reputation has been tarnished. Kelly, for example, says: 'It would not be there today if people did not have confidence in it.'
So what next for the brand?
Kelly says: 'Its future is pretty safe - you never hear of QXL any more.
If eBay keeps investing in its product, and as long as it continues to partner with (respected) brands, it ought to be okay.'
The consensus among PROs is that eBay arrived - and it conquered. Sayers hopes that PR can play a part in maintaining eBay's growth and dominance in the UK market.
EBAY: THE FACTS
- Founded in September 1995
- 104.8 million registered users worldwide
- Presence in 28 international markets, including the US. Forty-four per cent of eBay's transaction revenues, excluding payments, now come from outside the US
- At any given time, there are more than 25 million items available for auction on eBay worldwide, and more than 3.5 million items are added each day
- $1,000 (£563) worth of goods is traded on the site every second
- The company generates revenue through listing and selling fees, and through advertising
- Sales for 2003 were $2.165bn (£1.218bn).