BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- One reason Alberto-Culver Co. keeps beating much bigger personal-care rivals and eating away at their share in hotly contested hair-care categories may come down to what Brandy Ruff, director of integrated marketing communication, calls "smart risks" and a hearty appetite for branded content.
None of that might have been possible had it not been for a little serendipity. "It was an amazing fluke, to be honest," Ms. Ruff said.
Alberto's Tresemmé wasn't a partner in season one of "Project Runway." L'Oréal Paris was the sole beauty-care sponsor, but the deal didn't cover hair care. Spotting an opportunity, Ms. Ruff and Alberto-Culver signed on in year two as the content partner for hair care. Unlike most such deals, Ms. Ruff said, not only was Tresemmé not required to buy ads, it was prevented from doing so.
That didn't stop the partnership from generating considerable buzz as the "Project Runway" audience grew in season two, all of which came with Alberto paying only production costs, not advertising. The "Runway" deal, which performed beyond the company's wildest dreams, "was what opened up the door for everything we're doing now," Ms. Ruff said.
That includes several branded-content tie-ins with Condé Nast -- most recently a series of "Dirty Little Secret" animated graphic-novel webisodes with Elle and growing participation in New York Fashion Week. When "Project Runway" left Bravo for the older demographics of Lifetime, Tresemmé stayed behind as a charter branded-content partner with "The Fashion Show." For an old-line packaged-goods marketer -- literally the inventor of the 30-second TV spot -- to put so many of its chips on branded content is unusual, but then so is the evolution of Ms. Ruff's role.
The career public-relations woman initially handled PR for Alberto after more than a decade on packaged-goods accounts at Weber Shandwick and Edelman, working for the latter on the "Campaign for Real Beauty" for Unilever's Dove.
But her role has evolved fairly quickly at Alberto from corporate communications to the North American marketing group, where she now leads a marketing-communications team dominated by PR staff like herself.
"The integration philosophy is that the brand must become part of the story line and not just placed in the backdrop," Ms. Ruff said. "So who better than people who have been writing and are informed from a PR standpoint?"
"Brandy has been central to elevating Alberto-Culver's capabilities in creating new media integrations and platforms," said Casey Keller, the company's U.S. president. "She is the driving force behind our partnerships and media efforts."
It doesn't hurt for a company like Alberto that PR by its nature is used to living on a smaller budget than advertising.
"Being the size we are, we can't out-shout the competition," she said. "So we have to out-innovate."