His advertising column in Slate is focused on the glitzy creatives, but Rob Walker's marketing interests are varied. He recently looked at the reinvention of a has-been beer and the flash mob movement for The New York Times Magazine.
PRWeek: What is it about a brand that catches your eye and makes you want to investigate it further?
Rob Walker: On a really basic level, I'm often interested in brands or marketing messages that I think people are talking about. I get a lot of feedback from readers, and they're often the source of the most interesting ideas. On a more pretentious and silly-sounding level, there's the idea of meaning - sometimes companies try to create a "meaning" for their product or service, sometimes consumers create a meaning. I've lately been asking people who, like me, are longtime fans of Converse sneakers, what they think about that brand having been purchased by Nike. And you know, people care - even people who think that "branding" is a ridiculous or even offensive concept. And the final, but maybe most important thing, is I'm often looking for campaigns that allow me to talk about some other cultural or social issue - from race and sex down to specific stuff like street art or blogs.
PRWeek: Do you ever encounter resistance to the kind of in-depth exploration you did recently on Pabst Blue Ribbon's laissez-faire marketing approach?
Walker: The PBR people were extremely open with me. I had direct access to the people I wanted to talk to - I don't even know if the company has a PR department. This is actually rare. I've certainly encountered resistance in writing other stories, with companies that make a huge show of "opening the kimono" and then double-team me with publicists during every interview. I think PBR's people just believed in their own story and they felt that they had nothing to hide from the general public who may or may not be among their consumers. They really saw themselves as trying to do right by their consumer base.
PRWeek: Are you ever surprised by how much interest there is in reading about marketing and advertising?
Walker: I guess I've stopped being surprised by this. The Slate column was Michael Kinsley's idea. I honestly wasn't sure how it would go over. I mean we're assaulted by this stuff all day, why would anyone want to read about it? I now think it's obvious that people want to read it because they're assaulted by it all day. Yet outside of the trade press, it really gets surprisingly little attention compared to certain other subjects.
PRWeek: What's more important in bringing a product to market: good PR or a splashy advertising campaign?
Walker: A quality product or service is probably more important than either, and luck is probably more important than that. No one really wants to hear that answer, of course.
Name: Rob Walker
Publications: Slate, The New York Times Magazine, others
Title: Freelance journalist
Preferred contact method: firstname.lastname@example.org