MARKET FOCUS: Consumed by conflict

Pushing products to a preoccupied public is challenging.

Pushing products to a preoccupied public is challenging.

Unless you're selling bottled water or duct tape, convincing a jittery public they need to buy your consumer product might be a tough sell these days. In February, consumer confidence plummeted to its lowest level in 10 years. And much of that has been driven by the daily barrage of news stories about the economy, the looming war with Iraq, and the potential for more terrorist attacks. Consumer PR is facing daunting challenges the likes of which haven't been seen in years. "I've been in the business for 20 years, and this is the most nervous period I've seen for both clients, in terms of navigating the currents out there, and also for consumers," says Tom Joyce, partner and chairman of Carmichael Lynch Spong's corporate practice. "Clients are concerned that they not be discordant with any message or campaign. They're asking PR counsel to have a tuning fork in the ear for them, so that whatever they are delivering rings true." The current state of trepidation is a "perfect storm of bad and uncertain news," explains Dorothy Crenshaw, president of Stanton Crenshaw. Her agency is working with clients to plan for any contingency, be it the economy getting even worse or a protracted war in the Middle East. "We're assessing our clients plans, and their brand value - or lack of value - in a wartime backdrop," she says. "But this can also be an opportunity to communicate your brand messages. It's an opportunity to be more engaged." Tying into issues of the times Companies can't and shouldn't ignore what's going on in the world. But instead of coming across as crass or jingoistic with transparent attempts at patriotism, it's time to tie messages to values such as family and security. "This is an ideal time for PR," asserts Kim Olson, director of brand PR at General Mills. "You have to be more compelling in what you say. But the messaging itself has changed. The messages have to be more targeted - more customized to specific audiences." But whatever those messages might be, they come back to the brands that people know and trust from General Mills, such as Cheerios and Betty Crocker. For a company like General Mills, it's not a question of whether people will buy its products. Consumers have known and trusted its brands for years. And at a time of such uncertainty, that is what the public is gravitating toward - products whose brands are not just familiar, but also bestow a sense of security and trust. Now is the time to reinforce the strength of a brand, not reinvent it. "People are looking for staying power," argues Jill Farwell, managing director MS&L's global consumer marketing practice. "They want brands they can trust, and that bring value." She points to a recent campaign by Dawn dishwashing liquid. While not an MS&L client, Farwell thinks it's an excellent example of a company creating a lasting impression. The campaign focused on how Dawn was used in cleanup efforts to help save waterfowl from an oil spill. "The message was that if this product is so good and so safe that it's being used by environmentalists, surely it's safe enough to wash your dishes," says Farwell. "It really helps differentiate the brand, it creates a lasting impression, and it's a message about more than just selling dishwashing soap." New and different is a tough sell People will continue to buy staples for their everyday lives, be it soap or coffee. While PR is geared toward raising awareness, it also tries to motivate people to switch from the brand they know and trust to a competitor's product. But that's easier said than done at a time when people will most likely use the brands they are most familiar with, and not as likely to switch. New and different are not the best qualities for a product right now. "If the Segway scooter came out today, they would have a much tougher time," says Joyce. "It would not be easy." "Stick with your brand," he adds. "It's not a great time to reinvent yourself. For Coke, they're going to focus on their key brand asset, which is 'enjoy.' People are distracted these days. They don't want more distractions from the things they know and trust." "People are looking for an escape from the tension, and they're looking for products that meet their lifestyle needs," suggests Fleishman-Hillard SVP Jeff Davis. "If you're a front-runner, a leader, and a well-known brand, my observation is that now is not the time to go into a shell. There is an opportunity to make it known, to make it more accessible than ever." Promoting consumer products is no longer business as usual, admits Dave Fogelson, director of corporate communications at Sharp Electronics. "PR acts as the conscience of the company," he says. "And we need to be sensitive and cognizant of the larger issues of the day. Whatever your messaging is, it has to be appropriate and developed with what is going on in the world in mind." Sharp is in an enviable spot, says Fogelson, as more and more consumers are cocooning, and spending money not on lavish luxury items or expensive trips, but on things that will make the time they spend at home and with their family more enjoyable. And whether that's a microwave oven or a flat-screen TV, Sharp is another company leveraging the trust people have in its brand. But there are still ways for companies to be heard, despite that ever-shrinking news hole. Julie Winskie, senior partner and director of Porter Novelli's global consumer marketing practice, urges companies to look at niche audiences, and tailor messages to outlets that might be more receptive. "The business media might not be as receptive to what you have to say right now, but women- or family-oriented media can provide another venue for your message," says Winskie, adding that messages that evoke communal and family feelings are likely to be well received during uncertain times. "There's this notion that people want to feel connected to something." Consumers looking for comfort Despite the uncertainty that is stifling the economy, now is not the time to retrench - especially when consumers are looking for comfort in things they know and trust. "People are looking for things that speak to tradition, comfort, and routine," says Joyce. "They want something that rings true. This is the first time in a generation when people have been so worried and distracted." "It's about going back to basics," adds Crenshaw. "It's about consistency, continuity, and flawless execution." And some companies more than others understand the importance of a strong brand, and the power that it can have beyond the company itself. "We are affected by the uncertainty more than most industries," says Tom Kowaleski, VP of communications for General Motors North America. "The auto industry is often seen as a barometer for how the economy is doing. But we have a pretty healthy attitude. We can't change the economy or the coverage of the economy. But we can accentuate the positives. We will continue to launch new products. The economy hasn't deterred us from our plans. "Our business is dependent on customer sentiment," Kowaleski continues. "And because of the size of our industry, we have an opportunity to have influence over people's perspective of the economy. A large part of our communication is talking about sales and how business is growing. We're not talking about falling off a cliff, or doom and gloom. We do take seriously this responsibility. We recognize the comfort factor people find in our brands." ----- Lacroix: now is always a good time Maurice Lacroix, a 27-year-old, upscale Swiss watch company that has been in the US market for eight years, has struggled to find its place - even during the high-flying excess of the late 1990s. So the current climate poses a major challenge for its senior director of US marketing and PR, Carol Levey. "Amongst what is going on in the world today, who really cares about watches?" says Levy, a one-person PR team. "But there are people who do really care. Time is so precious and crucial, that a watch becomes a symbol. It's something you can pass down to someone. People also buy three or four watches as part of their wardrobe." So to help focus on those customers, Maurice Lacroix is reaching out to them one at a time. "PR is always community-based," asserts Levey. "You wouldn't buy a car without a test-drive. So we're going to jewelers, and allowing them to let customers take the watch out for a week." Through those jewelers, Maurice Lacroix is sending out invitations to customers to come in and try out its watches. "In these uncertain times, people are still celebrating holidays and lauding achievements. "We have to educate people," she adds. "And we can do some of that through advertisements. But much of it is reaching out to customers, and bringing them in and having jewelers talk to them one-on-one. It's about building customers, one at a time."

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