Corporate Advertising: The Big Bertha in PR's Golf Bag
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Corporate Advertising: The Big Bertha in PR's Golf Bag

Today smart clients increasingly see paying for media coverage as part of an integrated PR plan. Just like a golfer would never play a round of 18 holes using just one club, communications professionals need to master all 14 clubs in their bags.

Paul Holmes

By Michael McKenna
After Butch Cassidy and Sundance robbed one too many trains, the railroad finally hired a posse to hunt them down. In one of the great sequences of movie history, as the two bandits were being trailed relentlessly across the prairie, Newman and Redford kept asking each other one question: “Who are those guys?”
Fast forward to today. Butch and Sundance are now business prospects. Or employees in a recently merged company. Or investment bankers. Or government regulators. Or NGOs. And to them, your client is the posse. But their question remains essentially the same.
“Who are those guys?”
But now they want more details. What do they sell? What is their vision? What are their values? What’s their worth? What’s their future look like? What exactly makes them different? Smarter? Better?
And with more posses than ever before in the hunt, from all over the world, trying to answer those questions takes more than a press release, annual report, or even a customized EMAIL.
Sometimes the best way to get your message out is corporate advertising. It can and should be a tool for anyone today who considers themselves a public relations professional.
As I sit today occupying, if not exactly filling, Bill Marsteller’s old chair I often think how smart he and Harold Burson were for getting together. They really did have an idea ahead of its time. Today integrated communications is a marketing buzzword, but those two really got it way before everyone else. Later Ed Ney built on it with his “Whole Egg” vision, pairing Young & Rubicam Advertising with Burson-Marsteller public relations.
But there were always some barriers between the disciplines. And they weren’t just battling profit centers. Or the result of fiefdoms on the client side with no real interest in joining forces. Having been a newspaper reporter, and later a corporate PR man at Gillette, before horrifying everyone and “crossing the line” into advertising, I think I understand the root of the distrust.
PR folks have always been content driven. To them the story is everything, and the amount of persuasive coverage, measured in column inches and airtime, the ultimate prize. Once the story is pitched and bought, any night copy editor can slap on a headline, and maybe someone will even add a photo for illustration. And if they have to perform under deadline, even better! That’s the ultimate adrenaline rush.
To ad guys, on the other hand, the name of the game is the selling idea. One and one equaling three, where a clever headline carefully matched with an original graphic combine and become “breakthrough Creative” ( capital C.) Later perhaps a junior copywriter can add some words, usually the fewer the better. Who reads copy anyway. And by the way, we’ll get back to you in two weeks with it. Greatness can’t be rushed.
But now all that is changing, and the high, thick walls between disciplines have disappeared.
One of the good things that came out of the years was that the clients were too new to have multiple communications departments. They just wanted good ideas. And they didn’t care where they came from. And they’d like it fast.
Today smart clients increasingly see paying for media coverage as part of a fully integrated public relations plan. Just like a golfer would never play a round of 18 holes using just one club, communications professionals realize that they need to master all 14 clubs in their bags. Advertising may be just one club in the bag, but it can be your driver.
When you need to get out there long and far, perhaps no other discipline works as fast, as powerfully, and gives you more total control of the message than corporate advertising.
Think of it as being Channel Neutral. Whatever communications tool works best, gets the desired result, use it. Don’t think you always have to use the same techniques just because it says PR Firm on your door.
Not surprisingly traditional marketing companies first understood how to use the tool first. Campaigns like GE’s “We Bring Good Things To Life” are a great way to tell employees what they stand for, investors where their money is going, and governmental officials what useful corporate citizens they can expect whenever they see the famous logo. They even created their own General Electric Theater on network television every week to further brand themselves. Liked that idea so much, they bought their own network. And I bet almost anyone can hum the little 8 note musical signature that has tied the campaign together during the last two decades.
But it wasn’t so long ago that other companies began singing the same song. First the technology companies decided in the early ’80s that although all their mainframes may seem alike, there really was a difference in corporate cultures, potential for innovation, and commitment to customers.
During their heyday, Wang, Digital, Honeywell, Unisys and others all stepped up and took a swipe at IBM. It may seem that they all invented the word ‘solution’ at once to describe what they sell, but each used corporate messaging to define their place in the spectrum next to Big Blue. None of them wanted to be seen as just another computer company.
Next the financial services community took notice. I don’t think anybody ever really believed that one morning a Fortune 500 CFO taking the train from Darien would rip an investment bank’s full page corporate ad from the Wall Street Journal and scream, “Hey, let’s let these guys take us public!!!!”
But they did begin to realize that the old boy network of relationships as a means to get business were over. As entire departments fled from one firm to another, and heretofore well known cultures disappeared as an entire industry commoditized itself, corporate ads became the fastest way for banks to demonstrate that their MBAs and their piles of capital really were superior, more flexible, more innovative, more, there’s that word again, “solutions” oriented.
The fact that many of these firms have now merged in the last few years does not mean that their efforts failed. But it does suggest that institutions that manage their reputations as well as their bottom lines might live longer.
Next came the pharmaceutical industry. At first their entrance in the arena resulted in a lot of “my new product pipeline is bigger than yours” messages. Then they evolved into letting target audiences know that they foster climates of discovery, and crave to cure humanity of all aches and pains.
You may think it’s all mumbo jumbo. But consider this. Who do you think the FDC will favor when matters come before it; a company they feel they know, understand and trust? Or someone they have never heard of?
The fact is by making sure they protected their reputations as well as their patents some clients really prospered. We helped our client Serono change its positioning from a century old, medium-sized Swiss pharma into Europe’s first Biotech. This little turn of phrase helped lay the groundwork so that their first public offering was immediately oversubscribed. On both sides of the Atlantic.
Unfortunately the results of corporate advertising are often difficult to measure, much to the bane of clients who are, by nature, compulsively quantitative. But it’s a qualitative world. If you had a chance to significantly increase your firm’s equity valuation for an outlay of just a few million dollars in corporate advertising, wouldn’t that seem like a pretty good business bet? Don’t you think your corporate board of directors would approve?
At Marsteller we have evidence that the companies with the highest valued equity are those with the best reputations. And those are the same companies that spend the most on corporate advertising. Linked inextricably to their corporate public and investor relations initiatives. Chicken or egg? I don’t know. Or care. I think the result speaks for itself.
When you make the jump to include advertising into your PR plan, forget about trying to figure out how many earned inches of editorial coverage equals how much paid media. It just doesn’t work that way. It’s not even apples and oranges. It’s apples and artichokes. You may be able to eat both, but they are not both fruit.
Also plan to throw away all traditional media measuring tools when you get into corporate advertising. Reach and frequency numbers go out the window. If you want to reach 10,000 people who can be very important to your enterprise, and you know they all read Business Week, then buy it. If you get to exactly the people you want to influence, is it really a waste if all the other readers don’t pay attention? Same goes for cable. In corporate advertising, cable television can be a rifle shot.
Speaking of measuring, that’s another problem traditional, linear, logical clients sometimes have with corporate advertising. What we have here is a nontraditional, nonlinear, and at its best, magical tool that’s really hard to measure. What you get for the money, how it impacts the bottom line, is very tough to calculate. Measurability is the Holy Grail. If we could prove it works, believe me, we would. We do have lots of evidence to support us. But it’s just one of those things you need to have faith in.
The simple fact is this. People watch and read and listen to what interests them. Sometimes that’s editorial coverage. But sometimes it’s an ad, or a television commercial, or a radio spot. So why ignore using these tools.
And now all manner and type of nontraditional clients are jumping into the mix. Some you might never imagine would advertise. One of our clients is a new consortium of global mills that manufacture steel tubing. It’s called Tenaris. Oil companies use their tubes to drill wells. Gas companies use them for pipelines. Automotive companies build airbags with their tubes. Our colleagues at design firm Landor came up with the name and logo. Then they passed it to us.
Tenaris is never going to buy 30 seconds on the Super Bowl. But they are buying ads in trade and leading financial publications to tell their story. Fully integrated with investor and public relations messages developed internally. In fact our clients are in corporate communications, not marketing.
Why are they doing this? They use the ads to help create a corporate culture across companies around the world. To let customers know what their vision is. To build their trust and confidence. To let environmentalists know that they take their work seriously, and that their commitment to quality benefits not just corporations, but the planet.
Sound like the strategy behind a solid public relations campaign? It is. But it uses advertising to add power behind the message. And based on the awareness studies that were done, it seems to be working.
Finally, here are seven things Tenaris is doing that I think are fundamental to solid corporate advertising.
The ads tell stories. They are interesting. There is a Gee Whiz factor in them, as in ‘Gee whiz I didn’t know you could do that.’ These are the types of stories that people tend to repeat to friends.
They are not boring. Just because it is a business-to-business or corporate ad, it does not have to be dull. Lawyers may need to review the copy, but it doesn’t have to sound like a lawyer wrote it. That said…
They are simple. The readers of corporate advertising are busy. They like to get information quickly and efficiently. They tend not to appreciate brilliant bits of wordplay or quirky visuals. They like to get to the point.
They sell something useful. Sometimes advertising what a company makes is the best way to tell what a company stands for. We call them catalytic products that embody all the best attributes of the company. You never have to claim you’re creative if your products are. It’s better to draw readers to that conclusion rather than saying it about yourself.
They articulate a clear vision for the future. Sharing your vision is more important than promising to be customer focused. It’s more important than telling people you can be confident because you are rich and powerful. They assume that if you are big enough to advertise you must have plenty of money. But you can surprise them by telling them your dreams and aspirations. We have a new body of research that tells us the most admired companies are those with the ability to define their vision. These are the companies that become more relevant. These are the companies that thereby differentiate themselves and are trusted. These are the companies that will win.
They remember that even though it looks like business-to-business advertising it is really person-to-person communication. They are human. Sometimes they are even entertaining. They are becomingly modest in their claims. One hears a lot these days about Corporate Social Responsibility. All that really means is that companies have souls and often make decisions based on values, not profits. This must come through in your advertising.
They are international. Even though the language of the global marketplace increasingly is English, the ads don’t assume fluency. And care is taken to avoid vernacular expressions that would be difficult to translate. As I write this, billions of people are getting ready to spend the next month watching soccer games in the World Cup. These days it’s good to remember you are communicating in that context.
That’s it. Nothing fancy. Common sense really. There is nothing that should be off-putting, or threatening to an informed public relations team eager to add capacity to their skill sets. Burson-Marsteller clients all have the ability to access us to help achieve real world results. Happily, many are doing so more often and more comfortably.
It’s tee time and you’re up – may we suggest a driver?
Michael McKenna is president of the Marsteller Advertising unit of Burson-Marsteller.
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