Consumer PR: Battle of the High Street

As high street stores compete for consumer spend, Robert Gray investigates whether creative PR can help.

For most of us the high street is a benign place, home to some of our favourite stores. But behind the scenes for the retailers whose stores populate it, it can be a cut-throat world. Failure to perform can result in unpleasant corporate consequences.

Furthermore, retailers, because of their familiarity and high profile, sometimes seem to be singled out for rougher treatment by journalists than companies in other sectors. Marks & Spencer, for example, has hardly been out of the press in recent weeks, as the familiar face on the high street fights competition from fashion rivals such as Next and supermarkets such as Tesco and Asda.

Corporate PR specialists deal continuously with issues such as weaker than predicted sales or margins, executive pay, boardroom blood-letting and tricky questions on strategy U-turns.

But life is no easier for their counterparts on the consumer PR beat.

Getting the consumers into the shops, via securing regular coverage for a retailer's products is anything but an easy feat, particularly as competition for media space is so intense.

'Given the fact that it is such a hugely competitive sector, no serious retailer can ignore any one component in the marketing mix,' says Suzanna Hammond, CEO of Hammond PR, whose clients include Top Shop and The Pier.

'Clearly for the larger retailers, PR becomes highly cost-effective within the mix as it can, when successful, deliver results in inverse proportion to the spend.'

She cites Tesco as a good example of a retailer that has consistently invested in PR and regularly appears across a range of editorial media.

What is important, however, is that in such a competitive market-place, initiatives need to be constantly revitalised to maintain momentum. Can the consumer campaigns be key to driving business?

Retail consumer PR is, traditionally, heavily skewed towards product stories. New products remain at the heart of what drives retail consumer PR. What's new on the shelves is what consumers want to know about - and retailers want to tell them. As all retailers know, if you stand still you die. But there are pitfalls to avoid. Just sending in a photograph and press release about a new product can have the reverse desired effect.

Will yours stand out from the many such releases journalists are sent?

Encouragingly, as well as product stories, there are now opportunities for profile-raising. Discount retailer Matalan makes use of the news agenda and employs celebrities for tactical promotions. For example, it has used Big Brother contestants and pop singer Peter Andre shortly after his stint in I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here to garner retail coverage.

Matalan also sponsors the Rear of the Year contest, won this year by Alex Best, the rationale being that it is among the largest retailers of jeans in the UK. All of Matalan's consumer PR is handled by ZPR, the three-year-old agency run by Zaria Pinchbeck, who previously worked in-house at Asda for eight years. Pinchbeck says that 'get the look' style features are a strong platform for exposure, citing a recent Daily Mail Weekend piece in which a pair of £20 Matalan shoes were compared to a £250 pair of Jimmy Choos.

'A few years ago it was the pricing stories and "rip-off Britain" stories that were grabbing the headlines,' says Pinchbeck. 'But pricing doesn't make the headlines as much anymore.'

Shrewd retailers have moved away from seasonal PR bursts tied in with the launch in store of new product in favour of a more sustained communications approach. In this way they can build better long-term relationships with journalists.

Ikea UK PR manager Yvonne Booth says that from a home furnishing point of view, journalists are looking for a mix of inspirational, surprising and new. She says Ikea has stepped up its focus on consumer PR globally but across the UK retail PR sector she detects a move away from publicity stunts towards 'basic' PR techniques such as relationship building and steady dissemination of product news.

For every different type of retail consumer product, there are the same number of consumer journalists, ranging from the hard news hack to the specialist food, fashion or interiors writers. Flexibility from consumer PROs is, therefore, essential - as long as this can be accomplished without damage to the retailer's brand message or product story.

BBC News consumer affairs correspondent Nicola Carslaw looks for information from consumer PROs that can be broadened out into an issue. Anything that could be construed as a plug for a company should be avoided. 'If a retailer that normally sells clothes suddenly decides to launch a product in the health market, that is interesting - particularly if they have a scientific study or research from a well-respected pollster such as MORI or NOP to back it up,' she says.

Consumer PROs should remember that media outlets such as BBC News are diverse and that if a story doesn't make it on to the flagship BBC1 TV news bulletins there may still be opportunities for coverage on local and national radio stations. Carslaw however admits to frustration with those retailers whose PROs are 'your best friend' when receiving positive coverage but don't respond as quickly when more negative stories hold sway.

'We have to explain to them that we can't just accept unquestioningly what their latest press release says. It has to stand up to rigorous analysis.'

Elsewhere, The Sun fashion editor Erica Davies has five pages of fashion to fill every week and the short lead-times with which she is burdened call for a rapid response from the PR teams she works with.

Davies cites PROs from Marks & Spencer, Next, New Look and Principles as being among the best high street fashion retailers for speed and helpfulness. 'The good PROs will drop everything, phone up the manager of a local store and let us go there to pick what we need for the shoot,' she explains.

Retail groups that are perceived to have lost their way are vulnerable and consumer PR has an important role to play in positioning retail brands as fresh and attractive in the eyes of the consumer.

Competing for consumer spend continues and, as it does, so does the battle for media space.

SAINSBURY'S - GILLIAN MOORE, CONSUMER MEDIA MANAGER

Describe your latest consumer PR programmes: 'We recently relaunched the "Taste the Difference" range, our largest sub-brand, increasing the number of products from 600 to 900. We had events for long and short-lead time publications. Before that, in October last year, we launched a homewares range.

'We've also launched an Italian range, which is the focus of our TV advertising. We try to get positive consumer PR around what Jamie Oliver does - it is a new type of ad for us, where he is a quality detective. To prove that we are an innovative and quality retailer we have done things like focus on black tomatoes that were available in about 100 of our stores while in season.' What, if anything, have you changed from before? 'We are much more media relations-focused. We've moved away from general brand building into more specific campaigns to drive footfall and support business objectives.' Which agencies do you work with? 'Grocery consumer PR is done in-house.'

Have you seen a turnaround in sales/store footfall? 'All of our largest campaigns are independently measured by Echo. When there is no advertising, and we can isolate PR, we try to measure its impact on consumer sales. We did this with a body scrub product that was featured on GMTV recently and saw a significant rise in sales within 48 hours.'

What really works for attracting consumers? 'We are vying for publicity every day. Most of our items are everyday items so we have to be creative to make the new products newsworthy.'

WH SMITH - Sarah Hodson, UK retail PR manager

Describe your latest consumer PR programmes: 'The launch of our spring/summer stationery collection, featuring an exclusive range from Clarissa Hulse.

There are four collections, which were showcased in a press book targeted at the consumer monthlies, weeklies, nationals and regional media. To highlight the design/fashion aspect of the ranges without losing the essence of their versatility, we invested in the photography within the booklet, placing the products in a lifestyle setting reflecting how the stylists would see them and providing inspiration to our customers. It was important to make people think differently about the type of stationery they expect from WH Smith - something that seems to have worked.' What, if anything, have you changed from before? 'We deliberately kept the photography simple so the product stood out by itself, as we wanted to make sure we could change perceptions of what you can find in WH Smith.'

Which agencies do you work with? 'None' (in the consumer sector).

Have you seen a turnaround in sales/store footfall? 'Sales of the stationery ranges are doing well and have been well received by customers and the media. People are paying much more attention to the accessories they purchase, not just the essential items, so it is important for us to drive traffic using the media.'

What really works for attracting consumers? 'A combination of in-store offer and recommendation. Seeing a product featured in their favourite magazine can really influence a customer's opinion as we find they are very loyal to the titles they read and see a lot of value in their opinions. They also provide inspiration on how they can use the products available.'

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