Corporate Case Study: Duck tape reaps rewards of sticking to innovative PR plan

You can make a US flag out of duct tape, and base a whole PR campaign around it. Sound crazy? Well, such creative publicity has turned Henkel's Duck tape into a big consumer and media hit.

You can make a US flag out of duct tape, and base a whole PR campaign around it. Sound crazy? Well, such creative publicity has turned Henkel's Duck tape into a big consumer and media hit.

Can PR turn a commodity product into a brand-name success in a market filled with larger rivals? Ask the communications team at Henkel Consumer Adhesives. Henkel makes the Duck brand of duct tape, a ubiquitous piece of gear for home handymen, along with the LePage adhesives in Canada, and Loctite adhesive products. When German consumer-goods giant Henkel bought Manco - which was subsequently renamed Henkel Consumer Adhesives - four years ago, it faced the issue of how to expand its share in a market where most people didn't distinguish one brand of duct tape from another. Product profit margins didn't justify a massive advertising program, so Henkel turned to PR, says Melanie Amato, director of advertising and market research. The Ohio company teamed with Cleveland-based PR firm Liggett-Stashower in 1999, and since then has used a combination of wacky PR events, offbeat spokespeople, and a strong media relations program to increase its market share from the high 50% area to more than 68% in the mass merchandise and hardware store channel. Total US duct tape sales in all channels is about $100 million a year, and Henkel says it has the number-one brand in the country. Henkel reported total sales for all its brands of $304 million last year, compared to about $160 million when, as Manco, it was purchased by the Henkel Group in 1998. PR makes tape exciting "Duct tape might be gray, but we're not gray in our approach to PR," says Chris Baldwin, lead program manager at Liggett. Along the way, the company has garnered the respect of the media with which it deals, and has helped turn duct tape from a simple tool into a cult item. "If you think about trying to market tape, you can't think about a duller product," notes Bill Ludinger, a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter. "Yet everybody understands it, and Henkel ties that into unusual events." Adds Tim Nyberg, coauthor of a series of duct tape books and a Henkel-sponsored spokesperson: "They're creating a good feeling for the duck." Nyberg, a native of St. Paul, MN, first approached neighboring 3M to back him as he and a partner turned out such books as 365 Days of Duct Tape. But what he found was "too much red tape," he says only half-jokingly. The corporate bureaucracy at 3M couldn't make a decision. Manco jumped at the chance to work with him. All Duck brand PR efforts have to involve four elements the company wants the brand to convey. They have to be fun, they have to project friendliness, they must display resourcefulness, and they have to be imaginative. "We made sure we create all of our PR around those," Amato says. That's led to such efforts as inviting students to design prom wear made of duct tape. The company has staged duct tape fashion shows in New York, and exhibited a giant flag made entirely of multicolored duct tape in New York on Flag Day. "We're helping the consumer visualize the brand," says Baldwin. Ideas for Henkel events often come directly from consumers. The company maintains an 800-number for consumer comments. Weekly reports on what consumers are saying go to company PR people and to Liggett. A consumer suggestion two years ago led to a contest the company has underway this year called Stuck in Traffic, which invites people to decorate their cars with duct tape to win prizes from the company. "We do things in response to what consumers ask for," says Theresa Brixius, Henkel's communications manager. "What we're doing has strategic purpose, but it all seems so random." Targeting specific audiences In other words, Henkel won't stage an event just to get press. Each activity is aimed at a specific audience - one that wouldn't normally be seen as duct tape buyers. Through PR events which introduce new, offbeat ways to use the tape, the company has managed to expand market share, and get retailers to carry its various tapes in departments other than the traditional hardware aisle. Last year's duct tape prom contest, which is now a web event at www.ducktapeclub.com, targeted high schoolers, hardly the core audience for duct tape. Holding the fashion shows gave the company the opportunity to pitch fashion and women's magazines, publications that would have never written about Henkel's tape if it was seen only as something dads use to patch their fishing gear. A duct tape wedding was held in LA so the company could pitch the entertainment press. "That extends our message to a different niche," says Baldwin. Demographics also come into play with the spokespeople the company promotes. Nyberg and his partner Jim Berg, known as The Duct Tape Guys, reach potential customers in the 30- to 50-year-old range, Baldwin estimates. Todd Scott, who bills himself as the world's only professional duct tape artist, appeals to 20- and 30-somethings. Scott created the Flag Day duct tape flag this year, using more than 13 miles of red, white, and blue duct tape. He got more than 60 million TV impressions for Henkel's tape in the process. Recently the company found a third spokesperson, a 16-year-old girl who has written about craft projects made out of duct tape. Sponsoring her will help reach teens and preteens, meaning the company can gain their loyalty and ensure future market growth. "We're really looking at creating a hype around them that didn't exist before," says Brixius of the spokesperson strategy. While they go after new markets, Henkel and Liggett aren't forgetting Duck's core market. The Outdoor Writers Association of America holds an annual June conference, and Henkel is always there, passing out samples and schmoozing with the writers who reach a core audience of outdoor enthusiasts. When the company introduced removable duct tape in 1999, PR efforts targeted weather reporters around the country since the product was suitable for using to prepare for hurricanes or other natural disasters. By 2000, weather reporters were receiving hurricane preparedness kits containing Duck removable tape. Educating the staff While Henkel has stepped up PR in recent years, it's also been educating its sales and marketing people on PR's value, and how to use media attention to garner more sales. "Our sales force and our marketing force didn't understand the power of PR," says Brixius. Company managers routinely hear about PR successes at monthly and weekly meetings. Clips of articles are used in sales calls and at various events where Henkel has a presence. "It's been a few years of constant reinforcement," Brixius says. Brixius, Amato, and the internal team use more than just words to prove the value of PR. Amato won't say exactly how much she spends annually on PR, noting only that it's under 2% of sales. Henkel contests and duct-tape events have been covered in such unlikely venues as Entertainment Weekly, YMprom, and ElleGirl, as well as such mainstream publications as The Detroit News and The Arizona Republic. Henkel will continue to look for PR events that both consumers and media members like. Not every effort works, Amato and her colleagues are quick to note. A wrapathon was tried out in Florida, but deemed too difficult to handle on a national scale. The event involved partnering with a local retailer and the US Marines to get free gift wrapping using Henkel invisible tape. New events will be tested on a small basis before rolling them nationally. There's little doubt Henkel has a product that people like. "One of the small joys of duct tape is finding a new use for it," says artist Scott Magoon, who pens a superhero named after the brand. "We can immediately appreciate Duck Tape Man because we appreciate duct tape and its millions of uses." Henkel Consumer Adhesives Director of advertising & market research: Melanie Amato Communications manager: Theresa Brixius Manager of community relations: Cathy Wright Internet product manager: Michelle Heffner

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