Changing the script

Along with revamping its business model in the past year, Blockbuster has also altered its PR strategy.

Along with revamping its business model in the past year, Blockbuster has also altered its PR strategy.

When Blockbuster enlisted AOR PainePR to help launch its Total Access program in November 2006, the movie-rental chain was arguably in need of a remake.

Once synonymous with home entertainment, the 22-year-old brand was struggling to stay relevant in an era of discount DVD sales, digital downloads, video-on-demand, and - most threatening - movies-by-mail service Netflix.

"There certainly was negative baggage around Blockbuster," acknowledges Karen Raskopf, SVP of corporate communications for the Dallas-based chain.

Though Blockbuster had offered its own DVD delivery service since 2004, two years later it was still a far second to market leader Netflix. Growth in this segment was essential for the chain's survival, but potentially cannibalistic for a company built on the traditional brick-and-mortar video-store model.

Enter Total Access. From the beginning, the program "was a game-changing offering," says Brad Buyce, New York-based managing partner at PainePR. It not only gives Blockbuster Online customers the choice of renting and returning their DVDs by mail (like Netflix), but also the option to exchange them at stores for free movie or video game rentals.

The program's advantages are intended for audiences far broader than those whose movie preferences may change from one day to the next. So, in addition to mass consumer media, PainePR targeted the financial, business, and entertainment press, garnering coverage from The Dallas Morning News to CNN and Reuters to Video Business and People.

With the introduction of Total Access, Raskopf says Blockbuster also "saw the opportunity to reach a wider and oftentimes younger crowd" - consumers who don't necessarily get information from traditional news sources.

"We really had not made a concerted effort to reach the online audience before," she explains. But with Total Access' emphasis on flexibility, it made sense to merge conventional and new-media PR components, Raskopf adds, allowing potential customers to access information about the initiative the same way they would utilize the program itself: "In all the ways convenient for them."

For the first time in the company's history, Blockbuster hired a multimedia marketing firm - LA-based Rocket XL - to focus on Internet outreach and to "encourage a lot of online evangelism," says agency president Craig Howe.

The online offer

"Blockbuster didn't have much of a brand perception online because it hadn't done a lot to embrace the community; it didn't have much to offer the online community," Howe notes. "With Total Access, it could offer something."

Rocket XL began its outreach by conducting research to determine how webmasters and bloggers fit into Blockbuster's online and in-store customer segments. The firm then targeted sites dedicated to movies and moms, technology, and video games, offering some of the Web's key influencers with up to a year of free Total Access membership. Some of the sites that ran stories included Gizmodo, Reviews in a Shoe, and TechCrunch.

The results paid off, Howe says. Not only did bloggers write reviews about their initial experience with Total Access, but many also would continue to comment on it and grow to care about the service. "That led to continued evangelism," he explains.

"The great thing is, initially not a lot of them had really picked up the Total Access story [via other media]," Howe notes. "We were able to show immediate value by hitting sites that hadn't really picked up on the news."

That applied to non-Total Access messages, as well, Raskopf says. For example, although the 5,000-outlet chain had eliminated its late-fee policy more than two years ago, word had not spread widely throughout the blogosphere.

"It's all about tailoring the message," Raskopf explains. "This really brought that home to us: We hadn't reached out to this community in the right way... We became so much more relevant to them."

PainePR, too, has continued its outreach efforts, focusing on integrating Blockbuster's online and in-store businesses.

One of the ways the firm has done so is by engaging Netflix customers. In December and again in late February, PainePR launched a promotion to attract those users to Blockbuster's DVD-by-mail service by accepting the competitor's mailer flaps in exchange for a free in-store rental - immediate movie gratification, Buyce says. The tactic appears to be working: Total Access gained 800,000 subscribers in the first quarter of 2007, bringing its total to about 3 million. (That's almost twice the number of subscribers Blockbuster Online had before November 2006.)

In terms of work, Total Access has been unlike most agency-client experiences, Buyce says. PainePR and Howe collaborate holistically with Raskopf and her team, he adds, approaching the campaign's Web and physical components as one single, seamless program rather than two separate silos.

Blockbuster has seen its corporate challenges take a positive turn, as well. Last month, a Netflix patent-infringement suit against the chain was settled out of court, and former 7-Eleven CEO James Keyes joined the company as chairman and CEO, following the salary-dispute-inspired resignation of predecessor John Antioco.

The brand still has work to do in terms of resurrecting its image, and reclaiming the lead in home entertainment, but its cross-platform efforts to communicate changes - and address criticisms - have been noticed by the media and consumers alike.

"The big thing of this post-launch has been sustaining momentum, using opportunities in the news to keep the Total Access message out there," Buyce says. "Now, how do we set Blockbuster apart? The overall headline is, 'We're not done: Stay tuned.'"

Casting a wide net

A key part of Blockbuster's Total Access PR strategy is connecting with movie enthusiasts across demographics and media platforms. Here are a few examples:

November 2006: Among Total Access launch activities, Blockbuster hosted a red-carpet kickoff at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre and presented its first celebrity VIP membership to Jessica Simpson.

Media hits: Access Hollywood, Pink is the New Blog, Lifehacker.com

March 2007: To engage video game devotees, Blockbuster provided targeted webmasters and blogmasters with "Ultimate Entertainment Experience" giveaway packages, including Nintendo Wii game systems and 12-month subscriptions to the chain's Total Access and GamePass programs.

Media hits: GamersHell.com, Bullz-eye.com, Maxim Online

May 2007: Just in time for Mother's Day, Blockbuster unveiled the results of its 14,000-mom survey of family-favorite movies, a busy parents' "go-to" list to keep kids entertained year-round.

Media hits: Screenhead.com, WhiteFence.com, MainstreetMom.com

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