Great moments in consumer PR

PRWeek tapped the finest minds in the consumer PR world to identify campaigns from the past 30 years that truly moved the needle. Eleanor Trickett profiles a select few

PRWeek tapped the finest minds in the consumer PR world to identify campaigns from the past 30 years that truly moved the needle. Eleanor Trickett profiles a select few

The brand reinvention
Aspirin: the new "wonder drug"

It was 1985, and aspirin had a headache. Not only was it more than 100 years old, with little brand excitement to keep it ticking, it was also under attack from the likes of Tylenol, for whom the fact that aspirin could cause stomach problems was a key marketing message.

Lorraine Thelian, Ketchum's senior partner, North America, worked on the Aspirin Foundation of America project to reposition aspirin. Ketchum recognized the potency of the extensive research that showed the drug's potential to reduce incidence of heart attacks and strokes, among various other off-label benefits.

"We won the account by talking about how we'd reposition this tired, 100-plus-year-old drug as the 'miracle in the medicine chest,'" Thelian recalls. "It is the most studied and used drug ever." Through setting up an advisory board, coordinating and keeping on top of research, and getting buy-in from the scientific organizations performing it (after all, it was PR for them, too), the message gained tremendous traction.

"These days, you'd be calling it 'buzz,'" Thelian says. "We kept that going in the medical and scientific community, so they'd keep doing the research."

Now, some 20 years later, countless consumers are still popping the newest, oldest, one-a-day wonder drug around.

The health message
McDonald's gets moving

Like it or not, McDonald's had become a poster child in the urgent, global debate about obesity and health, and it wanted to show the public that it wasn't all about Big Macs anymore. Rather, it was about choice, and new menu items, such as premium salads, were emblematic of this shift.

Bob Greene, Oprah's fitness guru, was brought in to spearhead the healthy-living push, touring the country on a bicycle to talk fitness and mobilize the franchise community, as well as consumers. Other partners, such as the American College of Sports Medicine, also came on board. Al Golin, chairman of longtime McDonald's agency GolinHarris, says, "That was one of those magical PR programs that did everything."

Not only did the effort generate huge media impact and 5.7 million hits to the special Web site, it also increased traffic to the tune of 2.3 million more US customers a day.

"It set the cornerstone for a whole new attitude at McDonald's," says Golin. "With the balanced menu and [emphasis on] lifestyle choices, people have choices at McDonald's."

And thanks to McDonald's leadership position, other fast-food chains followed (to varying degrees of success), proving that companies that take the responsibility of leadership seriously can have a positive effect on the whole market.

The interactive pioneer
The Blair Witch Project is "found"

It wasn't the first film release to use the Internet as a core part of its campaign, but it was certainly the most memorable. What the work for The Blair Witch Project illustrated was not so much how a brand can interact with consumers via the Web; it was more how a brand can motivate consumers to interact with one another through the medium.

Julie Winskie, partner and MD at Porter Novelli's New York office, was one of many people to nominate this campaign. "It's almost like history will view this as the demarcation line for legitimacy around the new generation of word-of-mouth marketing," she says.

Paul Pflug, now founder of Principal Communications Group, was at Artisan Entertainment when the film launched, and created the groundbreaking campaign. "A lot of things were working in The Blair Witch Project's favor," he says. "First, the timing of the movie was right on the bubble when the Internet was about to boil over and become a household tool. Second, the film offered a unique way to roll out a movie, something that had never been seen before. We were allowed to play up the mystery, and people's belief in myth and legend, and use the Internet as a way to investigate that legend. The program's legacy was showing the Internet as a viable tool to quickly influence perception around the world."

The PR-led campaign
VW launches the new Beetle

Few cars have ever matched the almost fanatical adulation of the original VW Beetle. So when VW made its watershed decision to reintroduce the bug, there was no question that a company already known for its creative and engaging advertising would create an ad campaign of the highest quality.

Except VW shunned advertising and went straight to PR with a soft launch engineered by PR agency Ruder Finn. A combination of auto trade show unveilings and high-impact media appearances, the campaign managed to simultaneously reintroduce an old friend, yet prove that the car was so much more than nostalgia: It truly captured VW's "Drivers wanted" brand essence.

By the time Arnold Communications' ad campaign launched a full three months after the car was unveiled, the new Beetle was already firmly planted in consumers' minds.

Richard Funess, president of RF Americas who worked on the launch, says: "In a sense, it was the forerunner of today's most successful viral campaigns without the benefit of the Internet. The word of mouth... was astounding because it had as much to do about the company as it did about the car, and as much about the brand as it did about lifestyle."

According to VW, the launch's halo effect helped sales efforts for all other VW models before the ads launched, and before the bug actually became available.

The NGO engagement
StarKist: friend to the dolphins

Back in 1989, NGOs were largely feared by corporations. Edelman not only realized the potential benefits of partnership, it also saw a branding opportunity, as well as a chance to claim leadership for its client in the market and in the realm of corporate responsibility.

The issue? Dolphins were being trapped in tuna-fishing nets, and the public was vociferous in its protests, amplified by several NGOs. Pam Talbot, the US CEO of Edelman who led the effort, says StarKist negotiated with the NGOs and decided to take the risk of changing its fishing methods to ones that would not harm dolphins, even as it was unsure that the financial outcome would be favorable. In turn, the NGOs endorsed StarKist's stance.

"This was one of the biggest steps forward in doing something because it was right for the environment - and also right for the consumer," says Talbot. "[Consumers] responded to the issue, they knew [StarKist's] action was real, and StarKist knew this could help it step forward from the other tuna companies. This was one of the earliest, significant business decisions that was based on environmental concerns."

Within 24 hours, says Talbot, all of the other tuna-fishing companies had announced their intentions to follow StarKist's lead, and dolphin-safe tuna was born.

More shining moments

Johnson & Johnson's Tylenol recall

The launch of the Wonderbra

Microsoft Windows 2000 launch

Oprah's Book Club

Prunes become "dried plums"

Barbie & Ken break up

Toyota Prius' green credentials

IBM's Deep Blue vs. Kasparov

The launch of the iPod

Taco Bell's "Liberty Bell" spoof

Dove Campaign for Real Beauty

Oprah's Pontiac giveaway

Cabbage Patch Kid dolls
Diet Coke/Mentos experiments

"I'm Going to Disney World!"

Eveready's Change Your Clock/Change Your Battery

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