When the Great Depression threatened to wipe out Bear Creek Orchards in the 1930s, the company’s two owners turned to public relations for help. They hired a PR firm to get them a New York hotel room and to arrange meetings with business leaders in the hopes of repositioning their pears as a perfect mail-order business gift. That campaign helped save the company.
When the Great Depression threatened to wipe out Bear Creek
Orchards in the 1930s, the company’s two owners turned to public
relations for help. They hired a PR firm to get them a New York hotel
room and to arrange meetings with business leaders in the hopes of
repositioning their pears as a perfect mail-order business gift. That
campaign helped save the company.
Today, Medford, OR-based Bear Creek is again using the power of PR to
reinvigorate a business that now includes mail-order fruit, flowers and
other gift items under the Harry and David, Jackson & Perkins and
Northwest Express brands.
The catalog concern does no mass-market advertising, as the roughly 80
million catalogs it sends out every year keep its brand names in the
public eye. For the past three years, the company has been relying on an
aggressive, strategic PR program to increase media exposure and, in
turn, generate more sales.
And its efforts are paying off, says Bill Ihle, SVP of corporate
Since his arrival roughly three years ago, annual sales have risen from
dollars 300 million to over dollars 375 million. While some of those
gains have no doubt come from opening new retail stores and launching
the Northwest Express brand, company president and CEO Bill Williams
knows the impact of good PR on the bottom line: ’Any money we spend in
PR certainly is getting a return.’
When Williams joined the company from Neiman Marcus roughly 10 years
ago, PR was little more than an afterthought. Bear Creek was being left
behind in the mail- order shopping boom of the time. Williams set about
to reinvigorate and expand the company. In 1997, he brought in Ihle and
gave him the latitude to develop an aggressive PR program. ’From our
standpoint, we knew we weren’t doing enough PR,’ Williams recalls.
Ihle, who had a background in retail as well as in TV and radio news,
took to the challenge. ’I’ve never seen anybody with the innate ability
and energy that Bill has,’ Williams says of his PR chief.
Ihle crafted a PR plan that included:
- Signing strategic alliances for Jackson & Perkins roses that were sure
to generate media attention. He flew to England to obtain permission to
issue a Princess Diana rose, for example, and cut a deal with Mattel for
a Barbie rose.
- Increasing community involvement and outreach. The company began
appearing in Portland’s rose parade, the second largest in the country,
something the Oregon company had strangely never done before. He also
makes sure a portion of proceeds from special roses is donated to
charities and other good causes.
- Stepping up basic media contact work. Ihle estimates he’s now turning
out about 4,000 press kits each year as well as doing five to six
On the employee communications front, another of his charges, he has a
newsletter and magazine and is starting a TV network that will include a
Spanish channel for the large number of Hispanics workers the company
employs in its growing operations.
Taking on outside PR counsel, Golin/Harris’ New York office, to handle
day-to-day implementation of his vision. Golin does a lot of the
nitty-gritty East Coast media contact work necessary for story placement
in key trade magazines and in the general media as well - roughly 70% of
company sales come from east of the Mississippi River. Ihle maintains a
lean internal staff that includes only two executive assistants and two
people who handle an employee TV operation he’s launched.
Bear Creek is spending more than dollars 1 million a year on its PR
efforts today, but the results have been worth the cost. Its Princess
Diana rose, unveiled in July 1998, has sold out every year it’s been
offered, a rare occurrence in this business. People magazine even ran a
half-page story on it. He also got Harry & David pears on the Today show
last December, after not appearing on the show in 45 years.
’He’s a world-class practitioner,’ says Richard Jernstedt, CEO of
Ihle’s news experience gives him insight into what editors want and into
what will produce coverage, Jernstedt adds. Editors who’ve dealt with
Bear Creek agree. ’He’s brought Jackson & Perkins into the consciousness
of the gardening world,’ says James Baggett, executive editor of Country
Living Gardener and Rebecca’s Garden.
When Charlotte Butzin, an assistant editor at Bon Appetit, needed
information on the history of catalogs, Ihle overnighted her materials
dating back to the 1950s. ’The timeliness factor always helps,’ she says
of his quick response.
Ihle can react quickly to media requests and launch new PR initiatives
thanks to the independence given him by Williams. Ihle is one of only
five company executives who report directly to the CEO. ’(Williams)
understands and is appreciative of the role that PR could play in a
company,’ Ihle says. ’At Bear Creek, PR is not a second-class
Some early good luck helped PR achieve that status. Shortly after Ihle
joined the company, Consumer Reports rated its fruitcake as the best
available for that Christmas season. Ihle put out a release touting that
selection and sales soared. ’That was a very clear indication to the
company of what PR can do,’ Ihle recalls.
Interestingly, when Ihle went looking for a PR agency, many couldn’t
deal with the idea that there would be no advertising to go along with
planned PR efforts. ’There are very few pure PR efforts,’ to look to,
Ihle admits, but Bear Creek seems to be one of them.
Media coverage on products like the new Veterans’ Honor Rose - Ihle
found the only living Congressional Medal of Honor winner in Oregon and
asked him and his wife to ride on the company’s float in last June’s
Portland Rose Parade - means about one-third of the US population read
or heard about company products last year compared with only about 20%
in 1997, Ihle says. ’We can put dollars and cents (results) to what
we’ve done in PR.’ So far, those dollars and cents have been well spent,
and solid PR has Bear Creek smelling like a rose.
PR head: William Ihle, SVP corporate communications
Internal PR staff: Ihle, two executive assistants, two video people for
corporate TV network
Agencies: Golin/Harris NY office (brought in roughly three years ago);
independent practitioners used for corporate newsletter, magazine
Key techniques: Increased media contact through press kits, outside
agency; tied new products into current events such as death of Princess
Diana, Veterans’ Day. Starts PR efforts for key Christmas selling season
Key Brands: Harry & David, Jackson & Perkins, Northwest Express
Ownership: Owned by Yamanouchi Pharmaceutical (Japan); does not publicly
report annual financial results.