NEWS ANALYSIS: Learning the PR lessons from Boo.com’s demise - Boo.com has become the first high-profile casualty of the e-conomy with commentators pointing to a lack of PR planning as a contributing factor

Depending on which media you consume, the recent demise of on-line fashion and streetwear retailer Boo.com, is either the death knell of the internet as we know it, or little more than a dent in the dot.com bubble.

Depending on which media you consume, the recent demise of on-line

fashion and streetwear retailer Boo.com, is either the death knell of

the internet as we know it, or little more than a dent in the dot.com

bubble.



The truth of the matter probably lies somewhere in-between. Certainly,

some sectors of the media have got what they wanted, namely a

high-profile dot.com going bust. But those with a weather eye on the

market were not surprised by Boo’s downfall, and other potential

e-tailers and their investors have been shaken, but not deterred.



The many reasons behind Boo’s failure have been well documented, with

co-founder Kajsa Leander admitting that lack of senior business advice

was a major handicap. But should any blame be laid on the e-tailer’s

marketing and communications strategy?



’While there are many factors involved in the Boo.com crisis, one of

them is surely poor PR, particularly crisis management,’ says Kieran

Moore, director of Firefly Communications. Although Boo received strong

interest as a start-up, its site was dogged with technical problems, not

least the five-month delay to launch. These, coupled with customer

service difficulties eroded consumer and investor confidence and earned

the e-tailer serious criticism from the media.



Although the marketing team almost certainly did not create Boo’s

infrastructure problems, it appears it failed to keep the critics quiet.

’Boo.com’s approach to crisis management was too ponderous to match that

of its detractors,’ adds Moore. ’It did not seem to understand the

nature of its own industry.’



This is not only an issue of communications speed and reach, but also a

matter of survival. With no tangible assets other than its intellectual

property, a web site, and an infant brand, Boo’s apparent failure to

react in difficult circumstances laid it open to a fairly swift

burn-out.



In addition, it still remains a mystery to many why Boo set up a service

that boasted hi-tech wizardry at the expense of a bulletproof shopping

experience. ’It is important not to over hype. The site has to do what

you say it can, otherwise you lay your site open to a lot of negative

publicity,’ says John Rivett, managing director of Hill and Knowlton’s

youth and consumer division.



However, with all Boo’s financial and business model problems, it would

be naive to suggest that PR and marketing was its fundamental flaw.

’Some of the marketing and PR was pretty good at the outset,’ says Nick

Leonard, head of creative services at Lewis PR. ’But planning-wise, they

hyped it up too much before they had a proposition they could

fulfil.’



In fact, in the early days, Boo’s PR was textbook stuff, painting

founding duo - Leander and Ernst Malmsten - as bright young things and

creating brand recognition almost overnight. With dot.com fever at its

height in mid-1999, it is hard to argue that this strategy was wrong.

’In terms of first mover advantage, you have to push the button at some

point to create awareness,’ says Rivett, who brought Boo to H&K at the

end of 1998.



In April last year, the dot.com switched its UK trade and consumer PR to

fashion specialist Modus Publicity with a remit to launch the site to

the UK media, to coincide with the scheduled launch period of June 1999.

This included placing features with the consumer monthlies, the trade

and specialist titles, plus selected broadcast media, prior to Boo’s

above-the-line print campaign and its TV campaign which kicked off in

August.



These activities worked well, countering much of the bad feeling around

the delayed launch. But this is where many think Boo’s marketing

strategy got stuck, focusing on short term impact rather than delivering

the substance of a long-term vision.



’It’s all about the management of expectations,’ says Martin Forrest

director of Cubitt Consulting. ’Boo’s PR was good, but it failed to

evolve with the market understanding of the internet.’



’They should have been telling people about new brand partnerships and

giving a sophisticated picture of potential revenue streams and how the

business would grow,’ he adds.



In many ways, Boo’s initial communications worked too well for its own

good. With a massive profile, it was bound to come under the microscope

once people suspected that it could not deliver on its promise. Boo’s

fall from grace has completely overshadowed other fallers in the market,

including on-line tech news provider Netimperative, which a consortium -

including the Internet Business Group - is currently trying to

salvage.



So, what can other dot.coms and their PROs learn from the Boo

experience?



Obviously, off-line brand awareness is no guarantee of on-line success

and it is dangerous to separate PR from the delivery of what is actually

being offered.



But it seems that caution will be the watch-word for the immediate

future, in more ways than one. Investors may not be quite so hasty, but

similarly dot.coms may not be quite so hell-bent on moving to IPO. They

will have to look at their profile more carefully and perhaps move to a

more traditional corporate programme.



The lessons may have come too late for Boo, but learning from its

pitfalls could be beneficial to the longevity of a great many other

dot.coms.



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