Postal-meter maker Pitney Bowes revs up its efforts to demonstrate to C-suite executives that it is a communications firm in order to bring about major growth for the brand. Thom Weidlich reports.
Only a few years ago, Pitney Bowes was a $4 billion company with one full-time PR person.
The postal-meter maker had a tradition of keeping a low profile. But two things made it decide it needed to be more forthcoming. One was the digital-age belief that paper would go the way of the spittoon. Another was the awareness that, with mail-processing gear getting more and more sophisticated and expensive (some starting at $1 million), buying decisions were being made at higher levels. And Pitney Bowes had to reach those senior officers.
The Stamford, CT-based company has just released research showing it has been highly successful in reaching the so-called C-suite. It had previously conducted major research on how people actually behave in an office - and that work became a mainstay of its earlier PR efforts.
Now Pitney Bowes is a $4.6 billion company, with six full-time PR people.
One of the company's image problems is that people think of it as only a postage-meter maker - although it does have 80% of that market domestically - when its equipment is much more complex. "We have a very strong brand, but it's frozen in time," admits chairman and CEO Michael J. Critelli, who is aiming to change that.
Pitney Bowes has only 3% of the $250 billion mail and document management industry, according to Chief Executive, and that's where its growth will come from - providing solutions for large-volume mailers, such as high-end equipment for credit card firms to print, insert, sort, and mail their statements.
Pitney Bowes wants to be known as a communications firm. Mail and other documents are, as Sheryl Battles, VP of corporate communications, puts it, part of a company's communications tool kit. The firm's tagline is now "Engineering the flow of communications."
In the late 1990s, Pitney Bowes hired Menlo Park, CA-based think tank the Institute for the Future to conduct research for several years on how people behave in offices - how they use e-mail, faxes, voice mail, and phones - and even had anthropologists go into offices to do this.
Battles says the study was used not only in product development "but it was a tremendous - and it was our primary - PR tool." So, for example, Pitney Bowes would get coverage for its statistics showing that laptop use had increased by 8%, pager use by 6%, and cell-phone use by 25%.
It was the success of that research as a PR tool that made the company decide to hire more PR practitioners.
Until 2000, Battles, who has been with the company 15 years, was its only full-time PR pro. The company's philosophy had been to use outside agencies to execute the work, including Lobsenz-Stevens (now part of Publicis Dialog) and Cunningham Communication (now Citigate Cunningham) as AORs.
That year it brought on three new people to work with Battles.
At first, that group was involved in much more traditional corporate communications, for example, writing up press releases about the company's mergers, of which it had many in 2001. And then came the 2001 anthrax scare, which gave the company an opportunity to hold itself out as an expert in mail security. But it was obviously also a crisis-communications situation.
By that year, the group's focus was beginning to morph more toward corporate marketing and communications. That was because the company decided to engage in, as Battles puts it, "aggressively developing an integrated marketing campaign from a corporate perspective for the first time in the company's history."
But the $100 million campaign, long in the planning, only really got under way a year ago. It includes advertising, some direct mail, PR, and events, such as a series of business seminars called "Beyond the Envelope" that attracts high-level executives.
Pitney Bowes decided to target the C-suite in its media outreach and so drew up a list that included such publications as CFO, CIO, Chief Executive, The Wall Street Journal, Investor's Business Daily, and general business magazines. The message of the campaign was about the firm's transformation, that "we are the best company you never heard of," Battles says. "A lot of what we saw in terms of features was, this is who Pitney Bowes is."
The company hired New Britain, CT-based Gaffney Bennett PR to help out, which has five PR professionals working the account. Pitney Bowes uses New York-based Alan Taylor Communications for events. "A lot of times a company's image far outpaces its actual abilities," says Gaffney Bennett PR principal Patrick Kinney. "In Pitney Bowes' case, it's just the reverse. There's a lot of hidden genius there."
Pitney Bowes invited reporters to its Connecticut headquarters for briefings in addition to visiting them on their own turf. "The goal was to go out and aggressively raise our level of engagement with these targeted journalists," says Battles.
At the same time, the company was restructuring itself. Last year it began centralizing many services, such as IT, marketing, and human resources, taking them out of business units and putting them into what it calls "centers of excellence."
Most of the centralized marketing services are tactical in nature, with the strategy developed at the business unit. PR is the exception. In the past, the business units had marketing people who would spend maybe 20% of their time on PR. But now that work, including the strategy for the business units, is pulled completely into the corporate PR group, which is called the external affairs team. In addition to PR, the team includes community investments.
A fifth member of the team was hired in 2003 and a sixth just last month.
"This is the largest the public relations group has ever been in the company's history," Battles says.
A boost in media coverage
The increase in coverage has been impressive - 250% over 2003. "We had a pretty clean slate to start from" in terms of company awareness, Battles admits.
Last fall Pitney Bowes had several big media hits. Chief Executive did a four-page spread. DiversityInc had a feature about Critelli's workplace-diversity initiatives. The (London) Times did a piece. The Connecticut edition of The New York Times ran a story about the fact that the company plans to stop assembling postage meters and so will close a plant in downtown Stamford. In January, The Deal had a three-page piece on the firm's acquisitions featuring CFO Bruce Nolop.
"The combination of articles in Chief Executive, DiversityInc, and The (London) Times to me were the best combination of articles I've ever seen written about me," says Critelli. "In combination, they captured what I was all about and what I'm trying to get done better than any other articles. What I like was they were not positioning me as some sort of celebrity above the company but as someone very representative of what the company's trying to accomplish."
On February 10, Pitney Bowes held a Valentine's Day event at Grand Central Terminal in New York. It set up a booth to demonstrate its equipment by letting commuters create and send customized greetings, with the aid of romance writers it hired. Pitney Bowes equipment was used to make sure the address was correct, to bar code the card, and to drop it in presorted mail.
Battles says the event, which got more than 30 broadcast hits, was unusual for the firm. "It's indicative of the new thought process about really helping people understand who we are and what we do," she says, adding that the firm is considering similar future events.
Last month Pitney Bowes released results from research conducted by Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates showing that the yearlong rebranding effort is working. For example, the company now enjoys a 130% increase in perception among C-suite executives that it is an integrated mail and document-management company rather than a postage-meter company.
VP, corporate comms: Sheryl Battles
VP, external comms: Matthew Broder
Executive director of external affairs: Marianne Fulgenzi
PR managers: Dan Burris, Chris Tessier, and Scott Gerschwer
PR agency: Gaffney Bennett PR.