Alyssa Garnick, discusses how consumer brands are increasingly propelling positivity and optimism, even during Coronavirus.

PR’s Top Pros Talk...COVID - Alyssa Garnick, Founder of Agean Public Relations
PR’s Top Pros Talk...COVID - Alyssa Garnick, Founder of Agean Public Relations

Alyssa Garnick, Founder of Agean Public Relations, discusses how consumer brands are increasingly propelling positivity and optimism, even during Coronavirus.

Click here

Alyssa is interviewed by PRovoke about running an independent agency

Alyssa is interviewed by PRovoke
Alyssa is interviewed by PRovoke

Alyssa is interviewed by PRovoke about running an independent agency and collaborating with other agencies to offer best in class ideas, campaigns and execution for high-stakes, high-profile PR assignments

Click here to learn more

Leap into Marketing Gold, Once Every Four Years

Consumer Brands Have Turned Leap Day into the Ultimate PR Occasion. 

This is no “common” year (the official name for a non-Leap Year year), it’s a Leap Year, and that means our Gregorian Calendar is playing catch-up with the astronomical calendar by adding one day, every four years. Feb. 29 has recently become a marketing gold mine with some brands capitalizing on this special calendar event.

Leap Day is unique because the very name of the holiday is a verb. It’s also closely connected with notions such as “take action” or “extra” or “solar calendar” and “numbers” – so brands that endeavor to activate need to find an authentic way to tie with Leap Day (and what consumers feel it stands for), to truly and more effectively promote a message or market a promotion.

In a review of brand activations from 2016, and in surveying a few from this week in 2020, here are three ways brands have activated on Leap Day:

LEAP INTO ACTION, or ACTIVISM

Brands are primarily using Feb. 29 to incentivize consumers to do something new, like try a new vegetarian burger or get a free item if that day is your birthday. Leveraging the active-verb aspect of the holiday is the most common way brands are advertising or using the power of PR to drive sales around Feb. 29. In 2016, one QSR brand ran a promotion to celebrate local heroes doing good and then used the 24 hours on Feb. 29 to celebrate those heroes and share their stories on the brand’s Twitter channel.

Another trend is using the day to support a cause. In 2016, waves of new stories emerged about Leap Day unfairly being a free workday for employees. This workplace issue has become a hard news item that reporters can report on around Leap Day. Some companies have advocated making it a national holiday, so salaried employees don’t have to work the day for free. This year, Leap Day is on a Saturday, but there are plenty of businesses that operate with millions of workers, even on the weekend. The national holiday petition is not really catching on (yet), but perhaps, companies can take the extra 24 hours on February 29 and offer it up for employees to use differently. If a retailer can reframe Black Friday from the traditional mega-shopping holiday to one that encourages going outside, then another company could own Leap Day and encourage and legitimately support its employees, and society, to leap into self-care, or leap into learning something new.

DOUBLE DOWN ON 29

Another popular trend we see is brands using the math and numbers themes — changing product prices to 29 cents. Some brands are offering pizza, sliders, pasta, fries, desserts and coffee for 29 cents on Feb. 29. To celebrate #LeapDay2020, a restaurant chain is offering four desserts to make up for lost birthdays if you dine there on Feb. 29 and a beer brand is going to offer a QR code via social for a free case of beer. Adjusting prices and sales to match the date is the most straightforward way we have seen brands activate.

ANNOUNCE SOMETHING SPECIAL

Some of the best PR and marketing campaigns are born when company news and a calendar date collide. Especially, when a brand announcement can be intrinsically tied to a popular, calendar moment-in-time. Krispy Kreme, announced they will start offering delivery of their doughnuts. The initiative is launching on Leap Day, so to kick it off they will be delivering free doughnuts to families with babies delivered on Leap Day 2020.

If you’re a brand that hasn’t worked on a Leap Year activation yet, well, get started now… you have four years to plan the next big idea.

What Today’s Conversations with Global Consumer Brands Reveal About Trends Tomorrow

For the past month, we have been Zooming, brainstorming and strategizing with clients to reinvent our plans. While it’s difficult for many to look beyond the crisis, particularly when colleagues, friends and families have been personally touched, brands increasingly recognize that forge ahead they must.

Like many others, we have found friendship and humanity in our clients and media relationships. Some of us recall feeling similarly after 9-11 and the financial crisis of 2008: moments where we were dealing with the worst but behaving at our best.

But in this crisis, something stands out as very different as we talk to CCOs and CMOs in charge of growing consumer brands: there seems to be a call for ingenuity and confidence as we do comms planning for the near future. Although there is no firm date attached to every idea right now, and even as we may be hitting pause, we are dreaming big.

WHAT WE ARE SEEING AND HEARING RIGHT NOW

FORCED OPTIMISM – In our daily work with consumer brands, we are not seeing an undertone of doom and gloom. We are getting pushed to think differently, quickly and to match clients’ desires to market themselves and come out of the gate appropriately and significantly when we enter the “reopen” and “recovery” stages. What really stands out is companies’ desires to do their part – and that means both giving back and not giving up.

(RE)PURPOSE AS THE NEW PURPOSE – Donating to causes or creating integrated programming is not new for global brands, however, re-interpreting the role and soul of your company in a matter of days is new. We have seen companies convert their factories, dedicate marketing efforts to support consumers, or donate to healthcare workers, and small businesses. Consumer brands are stepping up and playing a leading role in making valuable commitments to society.

AUTHENTICITY MUST INCLUDE EMPATHY – One encouraging shift is the receptivity of media to cover one-time moves or donations. Today’s approach to corporate giving is showing us that it doesn’t have to be a sustained program to be impactful so long as it’s authentic… and empathetic. Look for brands to continue to make generous offers, to cleverly demonstrate empathy, and to continue to get credit and coverage from media, even for one-offs.

FIVE TRENDS TO WATCH FOR

1) ‘TECH FOR GOOD’ GOES TO ‘TECH FOR SURVIVAL’ – Tech has just landed its permanent spot on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as seniors log on to Zoom to attend religious services, five-year-olds host virtual play dates on Messenger Kids, consumers turn to apps to find supplies and stay in shape, and tenured teachers take to IGTV to share lessons. Our colleagues from China are reporting how live tech platforms are being used to keep luxury retailers selling right now as commerce re-opens, and how consumers from all age ranges are driving tech to be even more ubiquitous. Look to the near-term where stereotypes don’t stand in our way and tech tactics canvas broader audiences.

2) THE DEMOCRATIZATION OF ENTERTAINMENT, EDUCATION AND EXPERTISE – Just as singers, artists, performing arts centers, comedians, and experts are putting their talent on display for free and in new formats, they are also celebrating grassroots talent and performances as well. Watch for ongoing “gifts” to society from this creative class even long after our quarantine is over, and an ongoing reinvention of “live performances” where they still exist, but get experienced by the masses one screen at a time.

3) MARKETING BY CIRCUMSTANCE, NOT DEMOGRAPHIC – There is a very dark flip-side to our light chatter about the upcoming generation of ‘Coronials,’ to colleagues having ‘Quarantini’ Happy Hours, and to parents living with their quaran“teens” home from college. Younger generations will have a loss of innocence as loved ones fall victim to COVID-19 and jobs are lost, retirees will have bucket lists on hold or gone forever, and most Americans will find themselves as either patients or caregivers. Brands can think about micro-targeting and customizing programs for specific and unique audiences. Marketing by circumstance, not demographic, and doing hyper-targeted campaigns in 2020 and 2021 may be a good way to help your brand re-emerge and build relevance with consumers.

4) ‘EMPLOYER OF CHOICE’ AS THE NEW RATINGS & REVIEWS – Never before has the connection between the company and the brand been more important to, or more visible to consumers. In a recent study, 52% of consumers described employers taking better care of their employees as “very important” right now and 32% intend to buy from companies that took care of their employees during the crisis. The workplace just got remodeled in an instant and the distance between “good employer” and “preferred brand” just got a lot shorter, so brands must articulate not just what they make but who they are – and start by evangelizing employees. When done properly, this will not only lead to better retention when the economy rebounds, but it will strengthen your public reputation and sales.

5) THE #GRATITUDE ECONOMY – Once recovery is in full effect, consumers who can spend will enthusiastically patronize small businesses and restaurants, but they will also shop brands that made a difference. Every brand will be asked by the media and consumers, “What did you do during the pandemic?” and every brand needs an answer. There is even a wiki-style website dedicated to tracking the corporate “heroes” and “zeroes” during this time. So whether your company protected jobs, delivered food to healthcare workers or made a $50 million donation, comms leads can gather the list and craft it into a statement that can live on your website (or just keep it to use reactively for when your CEO is asked the question) to document what you did to help society in its time of need. Putting your corporate empathy and generous actions on display (with modesty) will create added meaning for your products when consumers are ready or able to start their “revenge-spending.”

Bottom line: There will be widespread health and economic devastation due to the pandemic. Whether or not one fell ill to the virus in no way signals immunity from its impact. Marketing needs to reflect an understanding of consumers’ altered lifestyles and livelihoods. At the same time, rules are bending, there’s a push for optimism and an appetite for inspiration. Companies and brands that act with purpose – more proactively or positively now – will have expanded permission and credibility to reach and resonate with consumers during the long-term recovery.

Curing Motion Sickness

How Brands Can Stay Sane and Successful with a World in Constant Motion.

This past week, WE Communications hosted a panel event bringing together founding CEOs to talk about the beauty and battles of building a brand and how to manage a business when the world is in constant motion.

It was a compelling topic and broad enough to take us in several directions. Trish McEvoy, CEO and founder of Trish McEvoy Cosmetics and Susan Feldman, Co-Founder and Chief Merchandising Officer at One King’s Lane (OKL) and I tried to answer the pointed questions that Jenna Blaha, Marie Claire’s Fashion and Tech editor, put together.

“Aren’t we all suffering from MOTION SICKNESS?” – Jenna Blaha 

There is no doubt that as the world dramatically changes around us, businesses must adjust while staying true to their brand. This is perhaps one of the most fundamental challenges of advising companies on their marketing and PR.

Trish and Susan offered practical advice like staying authentic to the brand and more often than not, having the strength to make controversial calls. They both talked about creating business ideas based on “finding the friction” in the marketplace: OKL started out of a perceived need for homeowners to have better access to furniture and decorating items that were previously only accessible “to the trade” and Trish McEvoy has built her brand with great products, coupled with teaching women how to use them. You may know her eponymous brand is famous for the half-face makeover, where they do one side and then the customer completes the other side.  Even as they have started very different companies, they both credit word of mouth being instrumental to launching their commercial success. This is consistent with what was seen in the Stories in Motion survey – that 54% of people would try, buy or recommend a product if it strikes them as a compelling new idea and over half of consumers surveyed also said they would recommend a product if the content related to it is helpful to their lives. Of course, these fearless, female founders have had to focus on one brand thriving for the past few decades. Throughout my career, I’ve seen so many businesses and have noticed some trends around what can be done to help them weather all the change affecting their share of dollar and their share of voice. 

Here are some ingredients we think are critical in order to really fight against change, or to use it to a business advantage –

  • Be brutally honest with your place in the marketplace. As new competitors are using technology to displace the old ways of doing things, traditional brands need to take a hard look at what they offer, how consumers experience them, and what are some fundamental things that you need to do to “keep up” and also that deliver what no other brand does – and then double down on those unique offerings and ground them in fresh insights to ensure relevance.

  • Understand any and all disruption. Examine what is disrupting your business or industry because that will likely hold the key to what may be driving media interest and intrigue. If you are a disruptor, the way you can activate marketing is different than if you are a legacy brand. For example, if you look at the hospitality industry, AirBnB is the most popular disruptor. So this year, we thought Hyatt Hotels had a great idea on focusing on wellness and health, with a BeWell partnership. This was effective in creating news because it was 1.) different from the industry disruptor and done with a credible partner and 2.) a unique point of strength for them – they can claim wellness because they have gyms and the opportunity to create wellness experiences and distribute amenities.  One position is not more advantageous than the next, but it does need to inform how you select ideas and insights to leverage in your marketing and PR.

  • Write the epic, not the episode.  We work with clients to make sure their storytelling is right for today (and PR is literally a daily business dealing with the news media and social media) but also relevant and helpful to their ambition over time. It’s important to include executives for thought leadership, partners for credibility (these can change annually to help drive new goals), and technology in everything you do – either in the products you provide, or if you don’t have that… in how consumers experience your brand (think an interesting and interactive experience or flagship store exhibit, or a pop-up), or in how you convey your story (think mobile and experimenting with new platforms).

Founders Fail and Change

They both shared stories of how they have evolved their businesses and their judgement over the years. One Kings Lane had to change from its start as a flash sale business, to a carefully curated home furnishings store that now lives both online and offline, with their OKL Studio in Soho. Trish talked about trust and surrounding herself with talented people, which she has done, but also ones who may need to pass a background check these days (this simple lesson was learned after an employee was caught stealing truckloads of product out of her warehouse).  These very character traits of understanding honestly what’s going on, of looking ahead and at trends, data, how consumers are behaving and what the media is saying, to suggesting new ideas and change is exactly what we try to provide to our clients. 

Something I learned being on the panel with two amazing business founders is that there is an undeniable super power among those brave souls who actually start their own companies. Trish McEvoy and Susan Feldman showed us that starting and fueling a company is as much about the culture as it is about the commerce. They do not rest on their success, they are constantly fighting for it, and even after decades of building a business, they continue to give culture, legacy and brand DNA a lot of thought.

Are We Sufficiently Licensed To Drive….Reputation?

Anyone practicing the art and science of communications today is well aware that key themes such as trust, transparency, creativity and authenticity are more important than ever in storytelling.  So, it was no surprise that this year’s PRWeek Conference centered on “The Value Proposition,” delivering engaging, entertaining, valuable and fresh perspective, even if some of the topics were familiar. I felt I was almost taking a day to renew my license to practice PR, and it made me wonder: Should we be licensed to drive media, stakeholder value, behaviors and reputations?

The Media in Disbelief When People and Brands Still Get It Wrong in a Crisis

A panel with four established members of the media discussed how companies and celebrities respond in desperate times. Andrew Edgecliff-Johnson from Financial Times, Shelly Banjo from Bloomberg’s “Gadfly,” Scott Burton from ESPN, and Nathan Bomey from USA Today all shared shock and awe at various crises that brands still didn’t respond to quickly, with transparency and careful disclosure of key steps in the process to restore confidence. Celebrities are the easiest and most mass-market way to understand best practices to follow in a crisis. The ideas of “insta-transparency” and “insta-apology” were shared. 

And what’s the basic advice of these professionals to PR pros, celebs and companies?

  • Don’t assume the media has hostile motives.
  • Don’t underestimate being human in a crisis.
  • Transparency doesn’t mean you reveal everything you know, or everything at once.
  • Statements don’t need to be perfectly crafted; they do need to come fast and include an apology.

Are you listening, Mr. Lochte? The most damage done to yourself and your “brand” was by your inadequate and inaccurate responses after the initial crisis event.

CEOs Putting the Personal in Personality 

One of my favorite speakers of the day was Dr. Toby Cosgrove, the CEO of the Cleveland Clinic. He shared a great blend of personal and professional stories about growth and change. Some of his themes also paralleled that of interim CEO of Girl Scouts USA, Sylvia Acevedo.

If we have recently experienced the fall of the rock-star CEO, then Toby Cosgrove represented the rise of the human CEO. 

Dr. Cosgrove shared how he transitioned from heart surgeon to chief executive — by trading his medical journals for the Harvard Business Review and listening more. He talked about business expansion to the Middle East and how the Cleveland Clinic’s brand strength is enabling growth, and he shared a very real story about overcommunicating with employees but still failing to reach everyone or get critical news across. Sylvia Acevedo equally inspired us by talking about how a girl who grew up on a dirt road in New Mexico gazing at the stars became a rocket scientist and joined a mission to ensure girls have the courage, confidence and character to succeed. Just as she runs an $800 million cookie business, she never forgets the people and their dreams, which live at the center of the Girl Scouts’ organization and purpose.  

Both were at once a leader of many, deeply knowledgeable about topics and trends beyond their company, and completely human in their approach to telling stories about their respective paths, passions and pitfalls. Maybe talking about failure is the new measure of success.

License to Drive

So while we may not need a formal license to hold our communications roles (today …), we do need to be continuously thoughtful and educated about the counsel we give our clients. Some of us may like the idea of getting a “speeding” ticket for working too fast and helping clients rocket to higher and better reputations. Some of us may like driving and charting into new areas. We all may appreciate and want to test-drive the latest innovations and technologies that can help us do our jobs more creatively and better. But there are some basic rules of the road that we all can’t afford to forget.

PR as High Tech Industry

In this year’s PR Council Critical Issues Forum, there were, as always, a series of interesting panels about a wide variety of hot topics. Perhaps not too surprising, the upcoming election (don’t worry, this isn’t an election blog), which has transformed and disrupted communications as we know it, was top of mind for most.  From the mountains of research being done, to message development, to the grueling schedules that can alter a candidate’s ability to stay on message, we went beyond the election to an even more controversial topic: vibrating underwear (we’ll leave that up to your imagination). And once again, we mused over the essentially rhetorical question, “Is PR dead?” However, this year, a unifying theme that stood out is the clear intersection and impact of high-tech tools and gadgetry on our liberal arts-laden communications profession.  Changes in technology are constant and the disruption in our industry is massive. From how we use data to craft high impact campaigns that drive measurable business impact, to the mediums we must use to reach consumers where they are – mobile, online and everywhere in-between. If we have gone from the visual years of Instagram and Snapchat, we are now entering the Virtual Reality years of storytelling.  However, some things simmer and stay as status quo in PR: the universal need to influence customers with relevant and riveting content.  We Can Leverage Tech to Earn Trust We are trading the old days of having one press release designed to work for the masses in favor of multiple pieces of content customized for individuals, or like-minded, psychographically aligned groups.  We will use tech to keep doing better, faster, custom research per project. This concept of making content much more 1:1 to the consumer, makes sense and feels the same as accepting the idea of having different ads for different media publications and/or writing different pitch letters per different influencer contacts.   Alexander Nix in the session, “The Numbers Game: How Big Data is Winning Consumers Through Personalized Campaigns” talked about the idea of mastering a very specific message and customizing it per attitude – so that brands and even our political candidates in this election year – should not only be earning media, but earning additional behavioral buy-in based on what we are saying to who, and when.  [Important Footnote, 2020: It is now known that Alexander Nix and Cambridge Analytica harvested private information from millions of consumers without their permissions. I think the idea of gaining acceptance of an idea or a message based on psychological or behavioral factors is powerful, however it must be done legally.] Sure, we’ve all been on the line for producing a volume of coverage, and we’ve all reported back on % positive coverage too. But what about changing the measuring stick to include whether or not our content was more deeply believed and psychologically accepted, and therefore motivated a desired behavior?  It’s worth noting that technology is not necessarily making the cost of PR go down, it’s helping the effectiveness go up.  Even Good Old-Fashioned Storytelling is Going High-Tech The futuristic session, “Into the Holodeck: What the Future of Comms Will Look Like” showed us first-hand how VR products are currently, and will be, used for storytelling.  So instead of a rendering, or getting just one prototype to launch a product that is not fully released yet, we can essentially build it in VR and share the news and the experience in a way that’s worthy of an Elon Musk production.  So, let’s trade press trips and press conferences for #HoloLens days.  Let’s open our minds to a new form of 360-degree storytelling and transform the traditional.  One example discussed was the reopening of the Cartier Mansion in NY.  There was an event, a four-page, pull-out spread in the New York Times and there could be, complementing all of this… a Virtual Reality immersive experience where consumers and media can see what 5th Avenue looked like in 1905 when it was built, contrasted with a view and experience of the new store and street in 2016.  So maybe now, or soon, we will have Augmented Reality, Mixed Reality and Virtual Reality specialists at agencies in our “media” departments.    What’s the end game? How do we explain our changing industry and inspire the next generation of PR pros?  Of course, PR is not dead, it’s going through a renaissance influenced by tech.  I’m going to start by telling my teen daughters to think about how engineering and design can help them, even if they want to follow in mommy’s foot-steps, and I look forward to interviewing and mentoring graduates who do not have English or Communications degrees.  For right now, I am very grateful to work at a place like WE Communications that already knows that being high-tech and investing in tech directly leads to being high-touch and highly-effective with clients and our communications results. I may not be signing up to colonize Mars, but I am ready to embrace PR as a high-tech industry.