The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR
In the past 12 months we've seen two shifts in the continental shelf of communications industry certainty.
The first was Regis McKenna, an icon of the silicon-based PR industry, saying that branding, public relations and communications efforts were fruitless because of the speed of change and IT management provided the key to a firm's long term success. The second is Al Ries (and his daughter Laura) publishing a book stating that branding and advertising were second-class citizens and public relations should rule the corporate and marketing roost.
Both shifts are pretty tough to fully digest. Especially since Al Ries and his former partner Jack Trout, literally developed the concept of branding and positioning more than 15 years ago. They have made millions, defining, explaining and championing the cause.
We know the economy and market has been tough in recent years but is that any reason to disavow your past?
At the outset you can say the flyleaf of the book captures the essence of the title. The pets.com puppet lying as roadkill emphasizes more than anything how the wide-eyed and innocent dotcom founders squandered hundreds of millions of dollars to capture, shape and hold eyes and their attached customers. The customers didn't come, the money dried up and the paper millionaires became paupers.
Why? Well if you believe Ries and Ries, advertising failed to do its job!
While we believe in the power and strength of public relations 150 percent, the authors take you from point A to point B using their own roadmap so you reach the right conclusion. "Yep advertising is a waste of time, money and effort in brand building and the Ries & Ries PR approach works."
You just paid for and read their agency proposal.
Sarcastic? Sure! Jealous? Darn right!
The authors have valid points to make in that public relations can help a company and its products get into the prospect's mind and become major brands better than any other form of communications. Brands like Starbucks, The Body Shop, Palm, eBay, PlayStation and BlackBerry made their marks not with big ad budgets but with clear and focused PR messages that were aggressively promote from the grassroots out.
This is nothing new to PR people because they have repeatedly said their messages have greater impact and greater retention at a much lower cost. Despite supporting research facts and figures, the advertising people continue to walk away from the table with the major budgets while public relations is left with the crumbs.
Consider your own organization's new product launches. Marketing builds their scenario and budget for the brand launch around advertising expenditures. The monies invested in PR and publicity activities - if they are considered a part of the total marketing effort - are accounting rounding errors.
But recent studies by Boston University's Communications Research Center and Harvard Business School have shown that public relations - even though it is underutilized - is extremely effective when it is properly leveraged.
The shortcoming of the authors' work is that to reinforce their premise that advertising doesn't work anymore and that PR is more effective is that they stack the deck so there is only one outcome. The Rieses' cite ad campaigns for new products that were wrong from the outset. Then they show that all of the effort and money produced no positive results.
Most executive management who sign-off on the big ad budgets don't really feel that the investment provides a meaningful marketing return, but they approve it because they feel it is a necessary evil.
In many ways, advertising has lost its power of positioning a new brand in the consumer's mind (business or home). But this doesn't mean that advertising is dead it merely means that it must play a different but very important role - sustaining the name and image with the consumer.
The ability to maintain and expand brand image and sales is important to the long-term success of a company. A solid and well-executed PR program can ignite the flames of interest and advertising can fan and sustain the flames. Public relations creates the brand while advertising defends the brand. It takes the combination to produce results and profits.
In addition, advertising can play a major role of building sales in a down period and keeping those sales flowing profitably throughout the product's lifecycle. Well-directed and executed advertising can also help revitalize an aging product.
But this supportive versus lead role is difficult for traditional marketing minds to honestly believe and promote to upper management. Instead, they take the easy route and budget more and more money for each new product launch just to "prove" how expensive (and therefore valuable) good marketing is to the company.
In addition to the brands mentioned earlier, it is surprising how many well-known brands were built with virtually no advertising. This has been proven time and again because publicity provides the credentials that are needed for a brand or product so that you will pay attention to its advertising. Advertising doesn't provide the credibility but properly executed it can extend and enhance that credibility.
This is why public relations people continuously come to the table saying don't run the ads until every major publicity possibility and opportunity has been exploited. Then fire the advertising blasts. Or more simply - maximize your budget by doing publicity first and advertising second.
The biggest challenge and the highest obstacle is that marketing will have to reshape their strategic thinking using creativity rather than dollars to achieve the company's goals. That's going to be difficult to do since ad budgets and "creative" ads are easier to understand and manage than public relations and the publicity process.
But if we have learned anything from what someone named the dot-bombs it is that large advertising budgets without substance behind them will not create brand image, awareness and commitment. Creative public relations techniques and activities produce these results, not advertising messages.
Senior management have to understand that public relations should be fully leveraged to launch their brands and advertising should be used to maintain the brands.
To achieve that though it may take a new breed of marketing management. But that's probably the start of yet another Ries book.