Caroline Kinsey, Cirkle: It's the age of conversation

Why the recession should be the dawn of a halcyon age for PR

Caroline Kinsey, Cirkle Communications
Caroline Kinsey, Cirkle Communications

In 2002, a little-known band called JXL released a remix of a 34-year-old Elvis Presley track. A Little Less Conversation fronted a worldwide marketing campaign for Nike, shot to number one in the charts in more than 20 countries and seemed to sum up the mood of the global consumer: more action, less chat - we have money to spend and we don't need to waste time talking about it.

Fast forward seven years and there could hardly be a less apt theme for a marketing campaign. Now it is all about developing meaningful relationships with consumers - it's about
engaging them, inspiring trust, making them feel special.

The consumer of 2009 is more than a little cynical. The collapse of the banks we entrusted with our hard-earned savings, coupled with media coverage of the massive bonuses paid to corporate bigwigs, has left consumers with a bad taste in their mouths. So now they are becoming increasingly demanding when it comes to their relationships with brands. They need to trust the brands they purchase and know that, behind the logo and the pretty packaging,
there's a human being who stands for something and cares about them.

With such a sceptical consumer environment in mind, the recession could - and should - be the dawn of a halcyon age for PR. While advertising and above-the-line marketing techniques are expensive and can provoke consumer disbelief, PR is more subtle and inherently deals with reputation management. With the power to influence consumer opinion directly, it naturally has a personal appeal, which is becoming ever-more valuable. As such, PR's role in contributing to the development of trust and in communicating this is arguably greater now than ever.

Since the beginning of the year, some of our best-known brands have responded to the new consumer environment by using nostalgia to elicit an emotional response. Brands such as Monster Munch, Hovis and Angel Delight have reintroduced ad campaigns from years gone by to generate a feelgood factor with their customers, reminding them of when everything was great. What they're saying is: ‘We've been around for years. You can trust us. We're your friend.' It's also no coincidence that social media have come to the fore in recent months.

The ability of Twitter to enable brands to converse with consumers, engage them on a one-to-one basis and create personal relationships is an unheralded step forward. Planned and implemented correctly, a social media campaign can give a brand real, human personality - something for which consumers are longing.

Some brands that really should have known better, however, haven't looked before they leapt, and have done more harm than good to their reputations on Twitter. Habitat is a prime example, arrogantly spamming its way to nothing but derision among the tweeting community.

But it's not just brands that have to adapt to the new consumer; PR agencies must also evolve. This new, highly personalised approach comes as second nature to the latest generation of PR professionals, who have grown up with email, text and Facebook. They are arguably closer to the latest trends in consumer communication than those in the boardroom, and there's a strong argument to empower them.

More and more companies are starting to understand the importance of investing in reputation and methods to converse with consumers. In line with this, PR has a distinct advantage over other forms of marketing, whether through social media or conventional channels, and PR agencies can capitalise on this by managing these conversations on behalf of clients.

Views in brief

Has your attitude to the use of celebrities in campaigns changed over
the past year?
The benefits of using a celebrity to front a campaign
haven't changed; in fact, with consumers increasingly looking for trust
and recognition in brands, celebrities can add more, if they are chosen
correctly. What's evolved is celebrity itself. The proliferation of reality TV
shows - with the availability of, for example, Big Brother participants and
candidates from The Apprentice - has widened the pool of ‘talent' from which
to choose, meaning that there's no longer any need to spend £50k on a
personality to front a campaign.

Caroline Kinsey is managing director of Cirkle Communications

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