Giving free rein and a sizable budget to PR has helped Harry & David evolve its iconic brand
Harry & David (H&D) is a brand that is probably familiar to anyone who has ever given or received gift baskets filled with fruits, sweets, or flowers.
The company, which has roots stretching back nearly 100 years, got its big boost from a PR move during the Great Depression: The eponymous brothers made a last-ditch visit to New York to persuade business heavyweights to buy their pears as professional gifts. That gambit paid off and helped salvage H&D.
Now, more than 70 years later, it is once again pursuing an uncommonly PR-centric communications strategy that is largely responsible for keeping the iconic brand in the public eye.
In 1997, the company hired Bill Ihle, a veteran of TV journalism and political and private sector communications, to be its SVP of corporate relations and build its PR program from the ground up - as well as a program for H&D's sister company, rose seller Jackson & Perkins (J&P).
"Even though we're located in Medford, OR, we operate [like] a major-city PR office," Ihle says.
In fact, he used his virtually carte-blanche privileges to construct a bicoastal department; he devoted a large portion of his budget to hiring the Global Consulting Group (GCG) as what he jokingly refers to as the company's "New York office."
Although he could have hired a larger in-house staff with that money, he says the necessity of maintaining visibility in the media capital of the world made the agency a wiser investment. Ihle reports directly to H&D's president and CEO, Bill Williams, but is given wide discretion over how to run the company's PR, making him the equivalent of a powerful CMO. "I'm sort of a minister without portfolio," Ihle says.
More than 70% of the company's revenue comes in the last three months of the year, when holiday purchasing is heaviest. Despite that fact, one of Ihle's prominent goals is to keep the company visible year-round, instead of having it relegated to the predictable holiday "gift guide" stories.
Some of that yearly work is geared toward media placements surrounding other holidays like Mother's Day, Valentine's Day, or Easter. But Ihle and GCG have also been successful in helping a wide range of outlets find story angles that include H&D. A company with unique agricultural practices? A company with a good relationship with a domestic union? A company that has eschewed outsourcing, even for things like call centers? Check, check, and check.
J&P faced its own challenge - keeping roses prominent in the mind of a new generation that has not grown up gardening. Ihle scored a coup after Princess Diana's death by getting approval to release a "Diana, Princess of Wales Rose," which donated 10% of its proceeds to Diana's memorial fund. He followed that with an even bigger score by signing an agreement with the Vatican for the Pope John Paul II rose. Now, such branded roses are a regular part of J&P's offerings. Ihle himself is given free rein to pick the causes tied to them.
"This is strategic PR that advances the business," he says.
H&D's PR department supports not only the core mail-order business, but also handles local events to promote the scores of stand-alone stores nationwide.
"We're not just a national company... it's a personal relationship in that store," says Ihle. "We don't advertise. We drive what we do because of our PR."
Media attention has also jumped since Ihle joined H&D. "I arrived in '97, and we were last on Today in 1957," he notes. "Now, we're on two or three times a year."
Williams says that before Ihle arrived, "we would respond to inquiries from the press more or less on a decentralized basis."
Convinced that the company was not touting its brand well enough, H&D built its PR operation - centralizing media relations, producing VNRs, and eventually reaching the point where it stands today. "The PR budget is a sizeable percentage - some years it's even a majority of our spending - outside of those typical catalog and newspaper ads," Williams says.
H&D's attentive and flexible media relations have won it a great variety of coverage, as well as some fans in the press - perhaps partly because GCG director Chris Allieri, who leads the account in New York, keeps a refrigerator in his office stocked with H&D food that can be delivered to any editor's desk in Manhattan within two hours.
"[They're] incredibly responsive," says Ellen McGirt, a senior writer for Fortune and an editor at large for Money who has been covering the company for four years. "The products are good, and they evolved. They really managed to modernize their image. I never feel like I'm sending somebody to my grandmother's pear company. That's an important development."
Harry & David
Net sales of $420 million in the second half of 2005
Luxury food and gift retailers, including Neiman Marcus, Dean & DeLuca, and Williams-Sonoma
Key trade Titles:
Multichannel Merchant, Direct Marketing News
Bill Ihle, SVP of corporate relations
Leigh Johnson, director of govt. relations
Chris Robinson, director of corporate TV
Global Consulting Group