PR has long touted its role in boosting sales. But a major research project by P&G has given the claim unprecedented clout.
In 2004, when Hans Bender, manager of external relations for global household care at Procter & Gamble, came to work in its corporate offices in Cincinnati, he had a suggestion for global external relations officer Charlotte Otto. The time had come, he said, to quantify the effectiveness of P&G's brand PR efforts. Otto's response: "This has been a challenge in our organization for decades. If you can figure out a solution, go for it."
So Bender set out to determine the contribution that PR - in particular, influencer marketing - had within the marketing mix.
The results of the research and testing proved that not only could PR - or, as P&G calls it, external relations - be as effective as ads, but it could also be measured versus other elements in the marketing mix while delivering a very high ROI. So there it finally was: a tangible connection between PR and sales - made by one of the largest companies on the planet.
The results validated PR pros' longstanding contention that their efforts can lead to meaningful business outcomes.
"We're proud. We cracked the code in PR measurement," Bender says. "We were able to link [external relations] directly to the business. Marketing-mix modeling had been used for years, but PR was missing in the mix."
Mark Weiner, president of Delahaye, who worked with P&G on the initiative, says it confirms for all PR people, "most of whom don't have [P&G's] resources, what they always believed. That P&G did it makes it something more because it's the watershed."
But the process and results didn't come easily, Otto notes.
The biggest challenge was getting high-quality data. "[The industry] needs more cost-effective capability to get high-quality impressions data," she explains.
Beau Rootring, senior manager of consumer market knowledge, says the biggest hurdle specifically was to collect impressions data in a consistent format.
"We need impressions data in a format that's consistent, accurate, and at the granularity you need for market-mix modeling," Rootring says. "If the industry could focus on a way to make the collection of impressions in a consistent format more affordable and reliable, it would go far for everyone."
Otto says certain criteria had to be met before launching the pilot study. "Brand PR could not invent a measurement technique; it had to use the existing marketing-mix modeling structure and figure out how to make PR a part of it," she notes. "The initiative had to be led by the research organization, and the study had to take a retrospective approach."
P&G is using the tool in the beauty, healthcare, and family categories, and originally tested six brands. For three of those test brands, PR had the highest ROI. For the remaining three, it was second. P&G is now expanding the number of brands tested to 10.
"The measurement tool is being used across a cross section of business this year," Otto says. "I don't think there is any category where you couldn't inherently make the case." But she adds that family-care areas - paper towels, for example - were less instructive from a newsworthiness point of view.
The results give ER people business data to justify their budgets.
"We always felt accountable, but we didn't have the tools to back it up," Otto says. "And we have yet to do a test where we haven't met expectations. It's no longer a matter of [saying], 'Just trust us.'"
Rootring says for some time now P&G execs viewed PR-based influencer marketing as an untapped area worthy of exploring whether its impact could be measured.
"The outcome proves that PR is an efficient, effective investment for P&G, and it's a marketing tool we should consider and leverage," Rootring says. "For the brands that currently leverage it, many are considering increasing their investment. For brands who have never considered PR, it's now on the radar screen."
One effect of the research inside the company, Bender says, is it reinforced that P&G needed to start reaching consumers through a number of different touch points. "[Also], we more regularly have a seat at the table," he says. "And in three years, I'd like to take a look back and see the shift in the curve. I think there will be a change."
Optimizing ER efforts
Rootring says this measurement process has forced the people within ER at P&G and their firms to revisit the programs they've run and clearly identify what the goals of each one are.
"We've proven that ER works," she says. "Now it's all about optimization and making those dollars work even harder. And the way to do that is to get closer to the consumer and pick the correct third-party influencers."
Anthony Rose, associate director of global beauty ER, has seen his category's ER budget increase significantly over the past two years. He says long-term success will depend on various factors.
"First, we have to become systemically integrated with marketing," Rose says. "We have to build a structure, systems, and capabilities that unlock the true business-building potential of ER, and last, we must measurably build the business through sustained, strategic ER and influencer marketing campaigns on our core brands."
P&G views the influencers it works with not as the target audience, but as a filter to that target.
Rose believes that focusing on building a brand by leveraging its product initiatives and holistic marketing is key to long-term success. "In ER, we continue to focus on delivering year-round influencer marketing and ER campaigns that bring a brand closer to its long-term vision and goals," he says. "The work we've done on Head & Shoulders is a great example of leveraging PR to shape a more cosmetic image for the brand. [And] the efforts we're making to establish Pantene as a truly iconic brand are delivering strong business results."
Rose says the data now support the fact that ER is one of the most impactful and efficient elements of P&G's marketing mix. "The translation of this data into every single business, however, takes time and is dependent on the quality of PR people serving as counsel to marketing on our big brands," he says. "I expect to see a steady increase in investment in ER/PR from our big brands. Simultaneously, marketing will hold PR more accountable for results from these investments."
Bender believes P&G, as well as PR agencies, need to use measurement to bring more of a consumer focus to their work.
"For PR people working in multi-disciplined areas, it gives them the numerical and objective argument for increases in brand PR budget," he says. "The results reinforce the need to bring PR in early. In the past, the PR function might have come in relatively late in the game and added topspin."
The positive results will not immediately lead to an increase in ER spending across the board within P&G, Bender says. "We have to look at individual campaigns and brands," he says. "We wouldn't go blindly toward investing more."
But now that the capability exists, P&G must draw the right conclusion from the data and act on it.
The results lead to a question the company is still trying to figure out: whether it can scale to make PR a larger part of the mix and still retain the ROI. "How do we optimize that?" Bender asks.
P&G will gradually expand the measurement methodology into Europe and Asia. Bender says to establish the methodology in any brand, marketing-mix modeling must already exist in the market; there must be meaningful investments in brand PR already; and there must be a capability to collect impressions in a reliable way.
If the industry is going to make significant gains, Bender says, PR people need to take a different approach to their work.
"There isn't a close enough relationship between PR agencies and consumers," Bender says. "The message by itself is not good enough. The PR industry is very right-brained and focused on creative. It's built around the excitement of the moment. It's not so left-sided. There aren't many mathematically educated or very metric-oriented people."
External relations' role: "Our Swiffer ER [external relations] approach is framed within our influencer marketing approach," explains Marie-Laure Salvado, associate director, external relations North America, fabric and home care. "We keep looking at influencers who are relevant for the brand and that bond with consumers."
Swiffer has even become part of pop culture. A 2003 Rolling Stone cover featured Jessica Simpson in a tank top and underwear using a Swiffer WetJet. "That's part of the Swiffer heritage," says Salvado. "We definitely want to continue it - while we highlight our strong product benefits and functionality."
R&D also plays a big role. "Swiffer was a concept invented in Japan that we saw and reapplied," Salvado says. "We invented the category in the US and Europe."
She adds that P&G's scientists spend a lot of time with consumers. "We're very consumer-centric. We go shopping with them and do in-home visits. We always look at consumer needs, especially their unmet needs."
Campaigns: Swiffer is currently teaming with Cindy Crawford on the "Swiffer Amazing Women of the Year" campaign. The effort will recognize women who are "changing the world around them" while maintaining balance in their lives. Consumers can log on to amazingwomenoftheyear.com and nominate themselves or another woman deserving of the honor.
External relations' role: Anthony Rose, associate director, global beauty ER, says his function has become integral to brand-building efforts.
"From crafting a strategic vision of what Pantene wanted to transcend to [an iconic beauty brand], to working with credible influencers - the media, stylists, beauty editors, and stars - to connecting the brand to consumers, ER has played a vital role in making Pantene a lovemark with consumers."
Campaigns: Pantene's ER team has executed several campaigns, including "Pantene Pro Voice," a nationwide music contest; educational hair-care events in support of the overall marketing concept for the Pantene "10 day challenge;" and most recently, the "Pantene Beautiful Lengths" campaign, which encourages consumers to grow, cut, and donate their hair to help make wigs for women who've lost theirs to cancer.
"ER efforts have helped establish the leading editorial share of voice in the category," Rose explains, "and helped move Pantene to its highest-ever business share in the US."
External relations' role: Tonia Elrod, associate director, ER, oral care, says ER partners with marketing teams and multifunctional agencies on Crest to create "commercial innovation ideas," and they work together to bring those ideas to fruition. "So ER doesn't work in isolation," she says. "It works in tandem with everything else."
Depending upon the campaign, ER may play a bigger role than advertising. Elrod cites a toothpaste launching later this spring as an example.
"The effort is targeting a younger demographic," she says. "So PR and online are playing a [bigger] role because that target audience uses that type of media."
Campaign: The Crest "Healthy Smiles" initiative featured Mary J. Blige as a spokeswoman. When consumers bought Crest products, a deserving child got a toothbrush, toothpaste, and information on dental care. Consumers also got a free exclusive song by Blige to download.
The R&B star announced the promotion at the American Dental Association convention, discussed it at Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and did TV spots with a dentist. Also, half a million of her CDs had an informational insert. In-store displays had a tear pad with information about the program and coupons picturing Blige.
"All of a sudden, PR wasn't about impressions," notes Elrod, "but about influencer marketing and bringing this influencer we've leveraged across the entire marketing mix."