How Primark put brand in fashion

Primark has defied high-street gloom with strong sales and media acclaim. Hannah Marriott finds a low-cost PR operation driving the budget retailer

As a high-street retailer that buys in bulk and sells jeans for £4, Primark does not have traditional fashion credentials. Nor does the fact that it is owned by conglomerate Associated British Foods (ABF) – home to Twinings and Ryvita – do its image any favours.

Moreover, Primark chief executive Arthur Ryan – who set up the company as part of ABF in Ireland in 1969 with Paddy Prior, now finance director – is known to be publicity shy.

So what kind of PR miracle did it take to get Primark into the hallowed pages of Vogue this summer? Creativity? Tenacity? Long lunches and expensively produced 'look books'?

Apparently not. According to ABF head of external affairs Geoff Lancaster, Primark has 'the smallest PR team in the FTSE 100. I don't think we've ever sent out a press release'.

Small is beautiful
There is a small pool of contacts in Dublin and London who field media calls and arrange for samples to be sent out, but they are employed across other parts of the business. Lancaster is Primark's only in-house PR practitioner. His remit includes corporate press, some investor relations, and writing the annual report for ABF.

Primark's entire PR budget is believed to be under £10,000, and it does no advertising, apart from flagging up store openings in regional press.

Lancaster has, however, retained Citigate Dewe Rogerson for City and financial PR for the past seven years. It managed the press after last week's fire at a Leicestershire warehouse, which wiped out half of its stock. Yet ABF's share price rose, thanks mainly to press briefings explaining that insurance would cover stock and any loss of profits.

Its unique approach to retailing has created its own momentum. The experience of Emma Elwick, the Vogue fashion features assistant responsible for putting Primark's £12 military-style jacket in May, is typical: 'I was aware of it as a source of good-quality basics, at exceptional prices. When we decided to do a Cheap and Chic supplement, it was one of the first places I thought of.'

And Elwick was not the only journalist who found Primark before Primark found her. The Times stylist Eve Thomas says: 'I wasn't even aware it had someone doing PR until I approached it this summer.'

Indeed, on the consumer side, PR is astonishingly low-key. In Ireland, Fleishman-Hillard is retained, but in the UK sole responsibility belongs to semi-retired freelance Helen Penney, who works from home in the Cotswolds.

Penney first worked for the company as its PRO in 1974 in Dublin, where the retailer originated and still trades – by coincidence – as Penneys (see box). Her past clients on the agency side include designers Jasper Conran and John Rochas. She rejoined Primark in London in 1996, describing her task as 'hitting my head against a brick wall'.

But after three years of ignored phone calls, Primark broke through to the middle market, winning coverage in the Daily Express. 'My aim was always to get them to see the clothes for what they really were, but it's the price that wins hands down and grabs attention,' Penney says.

Lancaster estimates that this June alone, Primark's favourable mentions had an equivalent advertising value of £1.9m, spanning weekly magazines such as Heat and Grazia, teen mags, women's monthlies and the fashion pages of the nationals.

Traditionally a haven for bargain-hunting women in their mid-30s, Primark's emergence as the fashionista's choice has broadened its appeal, reflected in recent store openings in affluent areas such as Kingston-upon- Thames in Surrey.

Laid-back style
Yet it was not until Vogue featured Primark that coverage really took off.  Now, Penney speaks to journalists seven days a week. One concession to schmoozing is sending journalists a 'small gift' – usually a piece of Primark clothing – at Christmas.

She insists Primark has never used celebrity endorsement, despite the fact Sienna Miller is regularly spotted sporting its wares: 'I don't even know which celebrities shop in Primark.'

Lancaster agrees Primark has made a 'conscious decision' to keep PR back-stage: 'We don't indulge in a lot of hype or self-congratulation. We turn most interview requests down. Overconfidence would be asking for trouble.'

Instead Primark will concentrate on store openings – there are now 124 in the chain, with 47 more planned, including two in Madrid – its first foray outside the UK and Ireland. This is vital to its success, Lancaster says: 'We've always been popular on a regional level. As we've expanded, more people have noticed us and profits have grown.'

Drapers features editor Lorna Hall explains: 'Unlike fashion brands, the high street can spot a look and have it on the shelves within four to eight weeks.'

So it is the efficiency of the logistics and the savvy of the buyers that make Primark what it is. Primark's message – that the clothes, and their prices, sell themselves – seems to be true, for now at least. But Halpern fashion director Helena Choudhury warns: 'Fashion brands fall in and out of media focus as quickly as their products fall in and out of fashion.' And next season, Primark's formula may not work.

Hall says: 'Next spring/summer the look will be luxurious and simple. It may be difficult for the low-cost stores to copy.'

Whatever happens in this fickle industry, Primark's column inches are unlikely to be sustained without some effort. To compete with more proactive PR teams and continue to fill its stores in middle-class areas, Primark may have to do just what it has proudly avoided for so long.

Primark: becoming a fixture on the high street
1969 First store opens in Mary Street, Dublin, named Penneys – the name it still trades under in Ireland.

1974 Opens first UK store in Derby, named Primark to avoid legal issues with US store JC Penney.

2000 Acquires six C&A stores.

2001 Opens 100,000 sq ft store, the biggest so far.

Feb 2005 Acquires six Allders stores.

March 2005 H&M alleges Primark copied designs. Settled out of court.

April 2005 Monsoon sues, alleging it copied designs. Settled out of court.

July 2005 Primark acquires 120 Littlewoods stores.

Nov 2005 Warehouse fire in Lutterworth destroys half of UK stock.

Nov 2005 Primark reports 30% rise in pre-tax profits to £140m.

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