10th anniversary: consumer analysis

Cooperative online initiatives and word-of-mouth tactics have transformed how PR pros engage target audiences

Over the past decade, consumer PR pros have become more adept at directly engaging consumers in an ongoing dialogue. In no place has this increased expertise become more apparent than in the changing meaning of the phrase “word of mouth.”

While consumer PR campaigns have always been creative affairs, the rise of blogging, digital communications, and new types of outlets have created great opportunities for different types of outreach.

Linda Rutherford, VP of communications and strategic outreach for Southwest Airlines, notes that integrated campaigns and the use of digital communications has enabled companies to present value messages more clearly and move away from “one-size-fits-all” messaging.

“You have to be more tailored,” she adds. “Consumers sense when messaging isn't genuine. They live part of their lives online.”

Rutherford lauds the launch of the iPhone, citing the range of tactics behind story topics, from entertainment to b-to-b angles.

Consumer PR tactics are constantly sharpening, as seen through the now common pop-up store which first arose in 2002 with Target's Holiday Boat, notes Liz Kaplow, president and CEO of Kaplow, which works with Target.

Experiential mobile tours, like BP using mountain climbing simulators for its 2008 “Younger for Longer” campaign, also show increased creativity.

However, events with limited windows of time are not the sole means for engaging consumers one-on-one.

Social media has taken that personal touch to the Web. Ten years ago, few could have guessed that everyday Joes and Jills would become influencers through the creation of their own publications. But inexpensive, or free, blogging software allowed for the creation of additional niche media, such as mommy blog network Momlogic.com, auto blog Jalopnik.com, or consumer electronics blog engadget.com.

Now, contemporary consumers track and respond to news about a certain product or company online, whether “friending” a branded Facebook page or group or leaving comments on company forums.

Companies have even created their own branded social networks, like Starbucks' mystarbucksidea.com, General Mills' pssst.generalmills.com, or Kraft's KraftFirstTaste.com. Direct interaction with consumers is not without pitfalls, however, as Johnson & Johnson found out when it invited mommy bloggers to attend its Camp Baby event. Kids were initially not allowed, which incensed a number of those invited, who then went on to write about their frustration on their blogs. Showing just how communications has changed, J&J then explained the policy on its own blog, JNJBTW.com.

Even though the emergence of on-line communities has led companies to pursue a transparent, open relationship with consumers, that doesn't preclude the opportunity for a truly secretive product launch. When Fisher-Price Friends launched TMX Elmo in 2006, neither reporters nor consumers were given a sneak preview before it hit stores. Only a few industry analysts, who signed confidentiality agreements, were allowed to see the toy before the rest of the world. The secrecy only led to more buzz.

In this way, PR pros are no longer just tasked with generating an expansive number of clips, but increasing the quality of conversation.

“Word of mouth can be tracked now, and is no longer a derogatory term,” says Jody Cook, director of product publicity for the Hershey Company. “It can be measured as a part of these online [initiatives].

“The role of influencers on the Internet continues to grow,” she explains, “but that doesn't mean consumers don't get information from traditional sources, like print and broadcast.”

Tony Cervone, VP of communications at GM, agrees.

“Consumers are expecting a different kind of communication because the tools are changing,” he says. “Consumer-based communications are just as strategic as they've been in the past. The worst thing for people to turn around and say is that they're more strategic now. It's too easy.”

Still, Richard Lukis, EVP at Coyne PR, says strategy and continual improvements in tools that track ROI have given PR pros the opportunity to become better integrated into the marketing mix.

“We're seeing big corporate clients put us all at the table now,” he notes. “Generally speaking, you're seeing more brands consistently using PR, not just for product launches or events, but for consistent messaging.”

Kelley Skoloda, partner and director of Ketchum's global brand marketing practice, says companies are involving consumers in the brand's story line.

She cites, as an example, Doritos' “Crash the Super Bowl” campaign, which enabled consumers to create and vote on ads that would be shown during the Super Bowl.

Lisa Rosenberg, partner, MD, and director of consumer marketing at Porter Novelli, notes that companies can use PR tactics to change the perception of products. With its Wii parties, Nintendo showed the console as “an enabler of social interaction and changed dynamics of [the] video game category,” she says.

Brand messaging authenticity will continue to be of increased importance with Millennials becoming a strong consumer force, says Caroline Dettman, director of the US consumer brands practice at Edelman.

“Consumers don't necessarily identify with their local com-munities anymore. It's about shared interests,” she adds. “Millennials don't enjoy being marketed to. You must know how to speak to them.”

Looking back
1999 - Low-cost airline officially launches under the name JetBlue
For the next decade, it would become a model of success in a struggling industry

2004 - Ken and Barbie break up
Mattel announced Ken and Barbie's breakup at the beginning of the 2004 Toy Fair, maximizing coverage

2004 - Dove Campaign for Real Beauty
Unilever rolled out this marketing campaign to stand out from its competitors' idealized models, employing “real women” as models

2006 - (Product) Red
U2 frontman Bono helped launch the multi-company, cause-related marketing initiative with the goal of ending AIDS in Africa

2006 - Wii launch
Nintendo shrewdly created a console – and marketing campaign – that targeted an underserved market – consumers who did not consider themselves “gamers”

Five consumer companies excelling at PR
McDonald's
This global fast-food empire has evolved its PR strategy to hit at the heart of its different consumer targets, from establishing a network of moms to serve as quality correspondents to creating a minimally branded advergame, the Lost Ring, for hard to reach millennial

Nintendo
With the launch of Wii Fit in 2007, Nintendo broke every gamer cliché and created a new market for the video game console, by promoting the product as a home fitness tool for women and a group activity

Starbucks
The coffee retailer instilled in consumers the value of the now ubiquitous coffee house culture. Though presently pairing down locations in the US, the chain continues to expand globally

Southwest Airlines (SWA)
While its competitor airlines sought to address the add-ons and in-cabin fees worrying consumers, SWA launched its “Fees Don't Fly” campaign to describe its lack of add-ons and corporate culture

Coca-Cola
From its interest in the health and wellness space to its savvy Olympic campaigns, this bottler has been able to promote a wide variety of acquired drinks, while its core brand remains top of the soft drink mountain

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