ANALYSIS: Consumer PR: bright spot in changing environment

The past year has seen corporate, institutional, and economic crises. Strangely, spending is on the rise, but so are expectations in terms of consumer trust.

The past year has seen corporate, institutional, and economic crises. Strangely, spending is on the rise, but so are expectations in terms of consumer trust.

In the year since September 11, 2001, the country has weathered a series of shocks and disappointments that seem to have touched every aspect of life. Not only did a recession kick in, but faith in business was shaken by scandal after scandal as even such once-trusted names as Arthur Andersen were dragged through the mud. Billions of dollars in paper profits disappeared as the once-high-flying stock market came down to Earth. Those who once might have turned to their faith to sustain them saw scandal on that front as well, as the American Catholic Church dealt with its own sexual revelations. Yet despite it all, from terrorism to job losses to loss of faith in once-solid institutions, Americans kept spending. Indeed, consumer spending has kept the economy from sinking into an even deeper economic morass. What that's meant for PR is that consumer-goods work has been a bright spot for the business this year. Clients that might have been seen as slow-growth or stodgy during the dot-com boom - consumer-goods makers, food companies and the like - are suddenly being fought over by firms that haven't ventured into consumer PR in the past. New messages for new times Veterans of the consumer arena have a variety of takes on why consumer sentiment has held up relatively well this past year. But whatever they say about the reasons for the phenomenon, they all agree that the events of the past year have changed how PR is being done when it comes to consumer goods. New messages are needed, and new approaches must be taken to reach consumers who have been touched in myriad ways by the tragedies and setbacks. "If you look at the facts rationally, it doesn't make sense," says Glenn Karwoski, SVP and MD with Karwoski & Courage, a Minneapolis shop that does a great deal of consumer work. "Rational consumers would say, 'Things are not exactly stable; maybe we should hold off making purchases right now.'" But perhaps the past year has been so traumatic as to prompt a new take on what's rational, Karwoski posits. "There may be an attitude out there of 'who knows what's going to happen, so we might as well enjoy ourselves.'" Rich Jernstedt, CEO of Golin/Harris International, sees a more practical explanation: "People always need to eat, dress, take care of their homes, and have fun," he says. Ellyn Ryan Mardiks, worldwide director of brand strategies at Golin, adds, "Everyone realized and knew our world is different now with people returning to focus on real value in their lives. People are investing in values that matter most." That can mean buying a new home or buying clothes, food, or other goods for family members. For PR, it means emphasizing basic values for clients. Golin has seen it in work for fast-food giant McDonald's, which has been emphasizing a return to families eating together, says Jernstedt. Another Golin client, home center Lowe's, is seeing brisk business as it emphasizes what it can offer consumers to improve their homes. Cookie maker Keebler, now owned by Kellogg's, has talked about home and family for years. "It's just trying to be even more of itself in these times," says Mardiks. She sees a large number of consumer-goods companies returning to traditional value messages. "The messages that have always rung true ring even truer today," she says. Robbie Vorhaus, president and CEO with Vorhaus & Company, says truth is what consumers are most concerned with today. "What's changing is that consumers no longer want to be spun, misled, or deceived. What they want is the truth," he says. "What 9/11 did subconsciously is that it jerked everyone up to the level of truth. People are asking, 'What is happening that we don't know about?'" A level of naivete that came with good economic times and the absence of major international conflicts is gone, Vorhaus explains. "September 11 convinced us that things that could never happen could happen," he says. "We've grown up." Consumer curiosity on the rise Consumers are seeking answers to questions they never asked before. "In the past, Americans weren't aware of where their clothes were made; now they are. Consumers are saying, 'We want the good guys. We have the dollars, and we want to make the rules," Vorhaus says. Steve Bryant, chief creative officer for Publicis Dialog and president of the Seattle office, saw September 11 heighten some consumer concerns that were already present before the attacks. Consumers had already been worried about food safety and purity, he explains, but the anthrax scare "probably heightened the need for a sense of purity. There's increased apprehension about food safety at the same time we're reaching for food for comfort." Some food clients have responded by stressing the health benefits of their products, he says. Not only are consumers demanding to know the truth about companies and products, clients too are asking PR firms to assure them that the messages they're crafting are true and accurate, Vorhaus contends. "We've been given a wake-up call" by clients, he says. Agrees Bob McEwen, president and CEO of Burson-Marsteller's Midwest region: "The smart consumer-products companies are embracing the concept of corporate social responsibility as never before." He points to an announcement last week by McDonald's that it plans to phase out trans-fatty acids in its cooking oil as an example of companies trying to respond to new consumer attitudes. "That action sends a strong message to the market that McDonald's not only cares about nutrition, but is demonstrating leadership as the first company in its category to take such action," McEwen says. Like consumers, clients are saying that old approaches to PR likely aren't enough anymore. "What we're hearing from our clients in consumer goods is to really stretch creatively," says Karwoski. "It isn't the tried and true that people want anymore." Clients are willing to try new approaches that go beyond media relations. Karwoski says his client, Caribou Coffee, asked for a PR program that would increase store traffic. Karwoski suggested a cause-marketing campaign that would see Caribou donate money to local charities based on how many people came to its stores. Golin's Jernstedt echoes Karwoski, saying, "Our clients are very open at looking at new techniques to communicate. They want to explore new tactics, and are hunting for alternatives to traditional ways of marketing." Agrees Bryant: "I definitely see a drive among consumer-product companies to get closer to consumers." A good deal of that new client attitude also comes from the tough economy, Karwoski and others agree. Says Publicis' Bryant, "I can't recall, in my 17 years at the firm, ever taking so long to work out contracts." Clients want to know more specifics about what they'll be getting for their money. Agencies, burned by forays into technology, want to know more about clients' financial health. Vorhaus' quest for truth is extending to the client-agency relationship as well. In the final analysis, September 11 may not signal a new era in America, but rather a return to attitudes seen at the start of the Cold War. Americans then lived day-to-day with the threat of danger from without, Bryant recalls. Yet the economy thrived and consumers spent. "September 11 signaled that the world isn't entirely safe," he says. "We're back to an era that we're very accustomed to, one with a threat from beyond." Figuring that into PR plans could help companies continue to connect with consumers. Vorhaus says that will mean more listening and more talking with consumers about what they want and expect. "The PR companies that will thrive are those who have entered this new age of dialogue-based communications," he says. "You'd better have a true story that is credible."

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