Ace names WS AOR in aim for fresh approach

OAK BROOK, IL: Ace Hardware has selected Weber Shandwick as its new AOR after reviewing its account for the first time in nearly a decade.

OAK BROOK, IL: Ace Hardware has selected Weber Shandwick as its new AOR after reviewing its account for the first time in nearly a decade.

WS, which worked with Ace on a project last year, will handle corporate and product PR, media outreach, special promotions, and charitable events as part of the one-year contract.

After naming Ray Griffith president and CEO in 2005 and merging the PR and advertising departments in September 2006 to create consistency in its messaging across all mediums, the company felt it was time to take a "fresh look at what we're doing in terms of PR initiatives for 2007" and beyond, noted Christopher Boniface, assistant PR manager at Ace Hardware.

"Part of the reason we wanted to proceed with an agency review was to bring some new and fresh ideas to our PR approach," Boniface said. The company worked with L.C. Williams & Associates for the past 10 years.

While the agency is new, Ace's dedication to increasing market share and brand awareness in a segment ruled by The Home Depot and Lowe's remains the same. Ace has 4,600 stores across the country and is planning for 180 more openings this year.

Analysts and people covering this market segment said Ace has some advantages in the battle, but some steep challenges, as well.

Ken Clark, executive editor at Home Channel News magazine, said Ace is doing well and that with Home Depot struggling with negative issues, now is the time where good PR could really pay off. A recent AP article reported that in 2006 Ace had its best sales year since 1998.

"Their new PR agency might be salivating right now. It would be like representing David against Goliath, wouldn't it?" Clark asked. "Right now is a great PR opportunity for them because of [the new CEO and Bob Nardelli salary issues at] Home Depot. The story of the small guy trying to compete against the big guy always has legs. I'm sure the agency will trumpet pretty loudly the story of service over size."

One project currently under way is the Dream Ace contest, which launched on January 1. Boniface said the contest gives "aspiring entrepreneurs a chance to win their own Ace Hardware store" valued at $1 million. The company tapped Bill Rancic, the winner of the first season of The Apprentice, as spokesman for the program.

"It's a chance for us to go out on a national level and promote the brand, but it's something we're partnering with our stores on, too," Boniface said. "I do think there's a perception out there of people having a connection with their own Ace store, but I do think the brand awareness with Ace is pretty strong on a national level, as well."

"We've worked with them to create a number of media moments [for Dream Ace] that put a face on the Ace brand in a lot of unique ways," said Alan Kercinik, SVP/ creative director of WS' Chicago office, who will lead the account. He said those efforts have already launched and will run until June.

Ron Margulis, president of RAM Communications, a PR and retail research firm not affiliated with any companies in the building space, said the benefit for Ace is that it is seen as more of neighborhood or niche market that exists in places Home Depot and Lowe's aren't.

"It can more easily customize the service offering and product offering than the bigger guys and should play on that," Margulis said. "There is an opportunity for Ace to position itself to do well in the industry."

But Home Depot and Lowe's aren't the only competitors, he pointed out. Because of channel blurring and stores like Target and Wal-Mart offering a lot of the products Home Depot, Lowe's, and Ace offer, Margulis said those stores should also be a concern of Ace.

"Ace doesn't have to just worry about the big two, it has to worry about being located near a Sears or Wal-Mart, as well," added Margulis. "It doesn't just have to differentiate itself from people in the sector, but in adjacent channels, as well."

Four additional large to midsize agencies took part in the final round of presentations. L.C. Williams & Associates participated in the process.

Ace will also tap WS' multicultural practice for ethnic-based marketing initiatives the company is moving forward on.

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