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
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.