In March 2000, The Weber Group (TWG) was enlisted by a former client-contact to provide PR services on a special project. The project – to be kept secret even within the walls of the agency – involved publicizing a partnership between The Body Shop and SOFTBANK Venture Capital to form a new eCompany, The Body Shop Digital. The catch? – the company didn’t exist. Legally, a new company was created, but there were no employees, no office space and most important, no product. The company was, in essence, one person: the chief operating officer (COO). The company’s office was her cell phone. Working with only the COO (and eventually the CEO), TWG helped launch this “invisible” company and successfully generated and maintained media interest over the months to follow – despite the fact that its Web site would not launch until Summer 2001.
So how do you build positive awareness for a non-existent dotcom in the struggling online beauty space during the dotcom shakeout? Read on…
From the start, TWG was in a state of constant flux as the deal was finalized, key dates changed and the new company’s business plan was adjusted. All the while, TWG’s core objectives remained the same:
Build awareness of The Body Shop Digital with the business and computer-trade media
Position the company as not just another dotcom destined to fail in the online health & beauty space
Maintain momentum with the media after the company launch (until the site launch in 2001)
IN THE DARK
TWG faced many challenges as it prepared to launch the new “invisible” company. TWG overcame this challenge and those that would follow:
For Your Eyes Only – Because The Body Shop and SOFTBANK Venture Capital are publicly traded companies and due to UK regulations, the news of the pending announcement had to be kept secret. In fact, the client requested that the Weber team working on the project not even share the news with colleagues, forcing the team to be very careful when talking about news within the office.
Right Before Your Very Eyes – The launch date kept changing and, as a result, the PR strategy kept changing. On almost a day-to-day basis, The Body Shop and SOFTBANK Venture Capital changed the amount of information that could be released and the dates that the information could be released.
Disappearing Act – The client (one person) was constantly stretched in many directions. Frequently, she was unavailable or unable to provide information to help in developing PR strategy and materials. TWG was in the dark a lot and forced to piece together bits of information to develop necessary press and analyst materials. Also, following the launch the COO was rarely available for media interviews.
Look the Other Way – The recent eTailing shakeout predicted by analysts and written about by the media made the announcement of BSD a tough sell. Media did not want to talk to or talk about another dotcom – especially in the online health & beauty space.
Fading – The Body Shop brand, while strong in Europe, was not as strong as it once was in the U.S. With hot, new retail brands like Bath & Body Works, Origins and Aveda, selling The Body Shop’s eCommerce story to the U.S. media would be difficult.
Eyes Without a Face – When the CEO joined just prior to the company launch, he stated that he would handle all media interviews. TWG quickly learned that the CEO was not prepared to handle these media interviews and found itself in the middle of a battle between him and the COO.
Farsighted – Prior to the company launch in April 2000, TWG was told that the Body Shop Digital Web site would launch in Fall 2000. In May, TWG learned the Site would not launch until early 2001 and then learned the site would not launch until May 2001 – over a year after the company was created. TWG needed to find a way to maintain momentum with the media.
TWG developed a PR strategy that addressed the many challenges that The Body Shop Digital presented. At the core, TWG needed to display flexibility and creativity, as well as rely on traditional PR tools – namely strategic thinking, researching, pitching and writing.
Private Eyes – To keep the project a secret within the walls of The Weber Group, the account team developed codes (both verbal and written). In some cases, team members moved their desks to more private areas. The result: nobody in the agency had a clue until the announcement was made.
Do You See What I See? – TWG remained very flexible as the company launch date and information supporting the launch was constantly changing. TWG spent many late nights and early mornings adjusting press materials and tracking down contacts at both The Body Shop in the UK and SOFTBANK Venture Capital to ensure the information in the press release, Q&A, media advisory and analyst presentation was always accurate.
Peripheral Vision – Because our client was difficult to locate and provided us with minimal direction to work with, TWG did a lot of research on The Body Shop, its competitors and the online health & beauty market to prepare for the launch. TWG relied on research to develop all press materials and to provide strategic recommendations – which the client used as the foundation for the new company. Following the launch, TWG was tenacious in locating the client for press interviews and, as new employees joined the company, started using them for media interviews when the primary spokesperson(s) were unavailable.
See Me – TWG took advantage of the dotcom backlash being written about by the media. TWG worked with the client to develop three key messages explaining why The Body Shop Digital would succeed in the online beauty market while others were failing:
Its own proprietary product (lower margins than those sites that sell multiple brands)
The bricks to support its clicks (instant brand recognition and easy return policy)
Existing infrastructure to create an online channel (The Body Shop’s catalog sales channel)
TWG delivered these key messages to the media and hooked them on exploring why some dotcom companies would succeed while others would fail.
Invisible Touch – With The Body Shop’s brand recognition/loyalty diminishing in the United States and the eTailing shakeout on the rise, TWG recommended The Body Shop seek analyst endorsements of its business model. TWG coordinated analyst briefings with Forrester Research, Gartner Group, IDC and Jupiter Communications and was met with positive feedback. TWG was able to use the analysts as validation of The Body Shop Digital’s business model with the media.
All Eyes on You – TWG looked to the COO as the primary spokesperson because she knew all the messaging inside out. As a battle brewed between the lesser-prepared CEO and COO on who would handle media interviews, TWG stepped in and found a solution. TWG proposed that media inquiries involving discussions about technology and the dotcom landscape be handled by the CEO (his strength) and the discussions about the business model, The Body Shop vision and the online beauty industry be handled by the COO (her strength). In addition, TWG carefully briefed the CEO prior to (and following) all interviews, monitored interviews and frequently helped guide conversations.
Smoke and Mirrors – As the site launch was pushed back from Fall 2000 into mid-2001, TWG was faced with the task of maintaining momentum for a company that had no hard news, no eCommerce site and no product. In essence, it was still an invisible company. Therefore, TWG got creative by:
Turning the site launch delay into a pitch story “Getting it Right the First Time – Learning from Last Year’s Mistakes and Avoiding Holiday 2000 Disasters”
Developing a press release strategy that would announce the company’s new office, appointments of senior management and selection of its Web design firm
Planning a fall analyst tour to update analysts on the business model and developments
Continuing editorial outreach (proactive and editorial calendar)
VISABLE RESULTS…SEEING IS BELIEVING
From The Launch efforts…
National broadcast TV & radio coverage, including: CNNfn (2), CBS Market Watch, Fox News, CBS Radio
International print media coverage, including: Bloomberg, CNet, The Daily Telegraph, The Financial Times, The Independent, The Red Herring, Reuters, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (*BSD is Seattle-based) and The New York Post
From Post Launch efforts…
Feature Story in Investor’s Business Daily
Profile Story appearing in eWeek (including photo)
Profile Story in Computerworld (the post-holiday launch pitch)
Additional coverage appearing in Brand Marketing (including photos), Computerworld and The Financial Times (online).