PUBLIC RELATIONS: Can PR build brands

A host of high-profile clients are choosing to launch new products or initiate promotions solely using PR. What has driven clients to abandon advertising? Belinda Archer reports on the apparent rise and rise of PR as the key branding tool

A host of high-profile clients are choosing to launch new products or

initiate promotions solely using PR. What has driven clients to abandon

advertising? Belinda Archer reports on the apparent rise and rise of PR

as the key branding tool

‘Advertising is where a man goes up to a woman in a bar and says: ‘I’m

good in bed.’ PR is where two women are talking about a man in a bar,

and one says: ‘I hear he’s good in bed.’’

The above adage, cited by a leading PR practitioner, may well

oversimplify the fundamental difference between the two communications

disciplines of advertising and public relations. However, it serves as a

useful tool to illustrate the direct, in-yer-face approach of above-the-

line marketing and the more subtle, softly softly method associated with

its below-the-line sister.

And it seems to be largely this very quality that is leading marketers

more and more to public relations for their brand-building objectives.

The power of a word-of-mouth recommendation rather than the ‘rude shout’

of advertising is gaining currency in the marketplace, with ever

increasing examples of PR being used solely rather than as a bolt-on to

an advertising offensive.

A few years ago, TSB opted for an exclusive PR drive to increase the

number of young people opening cheque accounts. It hired the PR company,

the Quentin Bell Organisation, to mastermind the programme, and now the

bank is claiming consistent leadership over its competitors in signing

up young customers - all achieved through PR and without a sniff of


Bass Brewers has demonstrated a similar commitment to the powers of PR.

On 19 June 1995 it launched Hooch, the UK’s first alcoholic lemonade, by

means of a concerted and exclusive PR campaign. The only advertising

that did appear was in the run-up to Christmas, and involved an

internally-executed poster campaign on the London Underground, mounted

specifically once the brand had become known through PR.

And before Hooch, Bass also deployed PR to launch Caffrey’s Irish Ale.

The product was introduced on St Patrick’s Day in 1994, but no

advertising appeared for the brand until one year later, through WCRS.

The use of PR to build, reposition or indeed launch brands has even been

rubberstamped by the might of Procter and Gamble. The US cosmetics-to-

household goods combine charged PR with the repositioning of its Vidal

Sassoon range of hair products. The PR group, Lynne Franks, handled the

task, and recommended that the fulcrum of the PR-led campaign should be

that Vidal Sassoon sponsor the twice-yearly London Fashion Week. The

sponsorship began in February 1994 and has continued so far for five


In addition to all of these, Adidas has also frequently found PR to be

just as effective a discipline as advertising. Mary-Lee Sachs, managing

director of the marketing communications division of Hill and Knowlton,

says that the company has frequently and gladly used PR to launch

products, such as the Predator football boot, in the absence of the

fancy ad budgets boasted by its rivals, Nike and Reebok.

Jane Sabini, brands PR manager for Hooch at Bass, explains some of the

reasons for opting for a PR rather than above-the-line advertising

drive. ‘With Hooch, we chose PR because we were launching into an

untested marketplace. We needed to get under the skin of our target

consumers - communications-literate 18- to 30-year-olds - before

mounting a mass-market hard sell.’

Similarly, with the Caffrey’s case study, Sabini claims that PR was used

most effectively to launch a brand and let it establish its market

positioning with its target audience before any decision about

advertising was made.

Tanya Hughes, a director at Lynne Franks and a force behind the Vidal

Sassoon relaunch, says that the company was given a ‘very specific

brand-building brief’ and that it dramatically built coverage and

awareness of a brand that was seen as ‘old and unfashionable’ through

sponsorship and PR linking with that sponsorship.

The relaunch of Vidal Sassoon also demonstrates the way PR can work well

in tandem with advertising, by actually spearheading a marketing drive

and paving the way for advertising to follow. Leo Burnett, which was the

incumbent on the advertising business before Lynne Franks was brought in

to handle the PR, took the sponsorship message and incorporated it into

its existing ‘catwalk’ campaign.

Quentin Bell, the chairman of the Public Relations Consultants

Association as well as chairman of his own PR agency, has various

theories about why PR is gaining key ground over advertising in

launching and building brands.

‘The proliferation and fragmentation of media is helping PR become more

popular - there are so many new media that it is proving too expensive

to use advertising all the time to get a message across,’ he says.

‘Also, companies now realise, having seen the Brent Spar disaster, that

they have to talk to a much wider audience than just their consumers -

and that’s a job for PR.’

Hughes adds: ‘Advertising is terribly important for brands. TV

advertising gets a very singular, strong message across, but PR gives

the story behind it. It is like testimonial advertising. PR relies on a

third party, such as a journalist, to communicate the message, thereby

providing more information.’

However, she cautions that only certain brands lend themselves more to a

PR launch than an advertising launch. As an example, she says PR works

well in the beauty sector, which makes great and effective use of

endorsement by women’s magazines - citing the 1994 launch of Chanel’s

rouge noir nail varnish as a PR run success.

Others claim that PR is also good for targeting specific audiences,

saying that advertising is usually most effective in reaching mass

audiences. Some cite the obvious cost advantage of opting for the PR

solution. But practitioners from both camps insist that the two

disciplines work harmoniously together, and need not necessarily be

mutually exclusive.

Trevor Beattie, creative director of TBWA and the brains behind the

soaraway PR and advertising success of Wonderbra, is a confirmed

advocate of letting PR and advertising feed off each other. Beattie

claims that the agency managed to secure pounds 50 million worth of

media coverage out of the first two posters of the Wonderbra ad

campaign. Being an adman, however, he urges the advantages of using

advertising first, with PR ‘riding on its back’, but he warns: ‘If the

advertising is a turkey, all the PR in the world won’t help. But if the

advertising is good, then you can really fly.’

Echoing the original adage about the pub, Sachs sums up: ‘Advertising is

what you say about yourself, while PR is what others say about you.’ In

an increasingly pricey, fragmented, media-sophisticated and indeed

cynical market, perhaps it is no wonder that consumers are favouring

dialogue to monologue and that PR is knocking advertising off its perch

as the true brand-building discipline.

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