Richard Laermer is the CEO of RLM PR and the author of six books including Full Frontal PR and trendSpotting. His most recent book is Punk Marketing: Get Off Your Ass and Join the Revolution co-authored with Mark Simmons, who used to run the West Coast office of Crispin Porter & Bogusky. This book has been on the bookshelves since March, available at all major booksellers.
Here's an abridged transcript of his conversation with PRWeek web reporter Tonya Garcia.
PRWeek: What is punk marketing?
Richard Laermer: Punk marketing is more of an attitude than anything else. Mark and I decided that everybody we knew in marketing had reached the crescendo in doing what they could do. And people were all looking around going "Now what?"
And since consumers are in control of everything now, we decided that the power shift needed a radical approach, especially when it came to marketing. And marketers that didn't recognize that consumers were in control were going to get trampled.
So we wrote the book like a manifesto. We had a lot of fun with it. We decided that we would show people, based on all of our research (and we talked to a lot of people) that rather than this being a trend, this would be a way for people to go "uh-oh" and meet the challenge of dealing with consumers that know everything ... And if people walk around using the same thing from the last 10 or 20 years, telling people how great they are, how cool they are, and how cheap they are, everybody rolls their eyes and says, "Well that's not good enough. I want to know ‘What you're doing for ME?'" And that's what punk marketing is.
PRWeek: We've reported a lot about the power of a brand shifting to the consumer. What makes punk marketing and its manifesto different from this generally accepted idea?
Laermer: We decided to have no holds barred here. Like punk rock ripped apart the music industry in the 70s. We think the punk marketing brand revolution... is not ours to name, it's ours to brand. [What] we're saying in the 14 articles in the punk marketing manifesto [is] it's about beating people over the head in a way that they didn't expect because consumers are open with everything that they're doing. So if you are able to take a risk and make an impact, you're going to win. But if you don't and do the same thing that you've been doing, consumers are going to say "Oh that's so uninteresting!"
Our revolution, the idea... is don't pander to consumers, go after them, give up the control, take a stand, make enemies, expose yourselves in a way where you're so honest that they're scared of you. And out-think everybody [with] whatever's the craziest idea you can come up with.
We're saying to everybody, "This is what we see is working and this is what you can do."
...[We] don't want anybody to read the book reverently. We want them to go back and forth and spend some time at punkmarketing.com where you'll notice that we left off a 15th article and people are putting up their own ideas of what the final article of the manifesto should be. Everybody's got a different idea of what the developments going to be to knock the consumer around to have them go, "Oh my god. You're right. You're the place I'm heading next."
PRWeek: Punk Marketing discusses pandering.] How do you keep from pandering without going to far and alienating people?
Laermer: I don't think there's anything wrong with alienating because I think that people expect it now. It's that famous Henry Ford line, "If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they'd have said a faster horse." The truth is they want to know you're not just [saying], "Yeah, I'll do this because you'll like it." ...All these promotions and incentives and cash back offers that the American automakers are doing is stress marketing and it's making people think you don't know what you're doing.
I feel like people will go, "Hey, wait a minute. You know what you think is what right for me. You're taking charge, pushing me into a corner." You're standing proud. The brand is going, "This is me. This is what I've got to offer." And I believe there is respect in that.
Yes, there's a tiny bit of alienation in that where people are going, "So there aren't going to be 300 choices from that brand anymore? But you're right. I don't need that kind of choice paralysis. I need you to tell me what's up."
PRWeek: So it's more of a give and take? Rather than just the consumer is in charge?
Laermer: Based on everything we've learned putting together the brand of the revolution... The more the machinery ticks, the more people turn away. When you actually have something to say and you stand behind it passionately, they say, "Wow... you really believe it, so I should believe it too."
PRWeek: You also talk a lot about appealing to niche markets - "acting small by thinking big." Can you give us [an idea] of why this would be so effective? Thinking economically, it seems like you would want to appeal to as many people as possible.
Laermer: That used to be the way to do it. But now, appealing to too many people gets you lost. Everybody is now personalizing everything they do... The idea that you're going out and saying, "I'm for everybody, and that's my brand," makes people feel "You're for them, you're not for me."
I like the idea of really big companies thinking really tiny and really tiny companies thinking like they're the biggest thing on earth.
...It's like the soft drink companies have been doing in Latin America. They've been going up against Coke by showing people that they are just as good, only local. And they've been beating the heck out of the soft drink companies by doing this.
I've been looking at examples like that everyday. I go "Whoa! The little guy got big and the big guys are going ‘uh-oh'."
PRWeek: You have a chapter talking about to the "sell phone". Won't people get grumpy if you try to market to them on their cell phone?
Laermer: Oh yeah... There are ways to get people to participate. That's what this is about... We have this section called "Message Across Without Being Cross." It's this idea of using SMS and [text] messaging. There's a great company called Ipsh! out in San Francisco and only 1% of its subscribers are demanding to be removed. That's unbelievable. And that's because it's really cool stuff about movies and things that people really care about.
Maybe the GPS-located messages are going to make people feel good but I doubt it. I think it'll make people feel more hounded.... In the book, we use this whole idea of selling the phone rather than cell phone.
PRWeek: What should PR pros ultimately take away from this book?
Laermer: The big message...is that every type of media can be used in creative and unexpected ways (and there really is no such thing as an obsolete medium), but to do a bad ad or a boring ad or, as a PR professional, to use the same message and to not stand on your toes with the one differentiator, is just going to ruin things for the company you're representing, or for you.
Right now, more than ever, this idea that "Everybody knows us..." - that thinking has got to go away. Consumers roll their eyes; they know exactly what PR people are doing. Every one of my clients is always saying, "Be careful. Don't do this because you think it might be the right thing. Let me be as close to the message as possible."
... As I said before, people are walking down the street and they see something and they know when it's not quite right. They're going to SMS or they're going to call people or they're going to blog. Suddenly all the good work that somebody in PR did is going to be ruined.
...You just have to be careful and not go far away from what you're promoting or representing.