Well-heeled heed the need for PR

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t was just a diamond bracelet. But in luxury marketing public relations, it was more like the rock that cast the ripples, when actress Julia Roberts wore a snowflake-designed Van Cleef & Arpels bracelet (and earrings) to the Academy Awards.

After she won best actress for "Erin Brockovich" and stood in front of the camera with the statue firmly clutched in her arms, all the world suddenly wanted to know about the bracelet decorating her right wrist. Well, maybe not all the world, but certainly the exclusive celebrity and fashion set. The bracelet garnered dozens of press mentions from the New York Post's "Page Six" gossip column to CNN.

Van Cleef & Arpels even ended up selling the $91,000 bracelet to singer Luis Miguel, who bought it for his girlfriend, pop diva Mariah Carey.

Double whammy exposure for Van Cleef & Arpels, how lucky are they? Arguably the hottest actress of the year donned its jewelry for the biggest Hollywood event of the year-which then transcended Hollywood for a whole other entertainment industry to end up on the arm of one of the most popular female singers in the world.

Turns out, not lucky at all.

CAREFULLY HATCHED

Instead, it was carefully hatched, planned and executed by Van Cleef's PR agency, Ted Inc., New York. Ted Kruckel, founder and president, set up a suite at the exclusive Oscar-central hotel, L'Ermitage, with a dozen of his clients including Van Cleef, Diane Von Furstenberg fashions, Helena Rubenstein beauty products and Adrienne Landau cashmere shawls.

Ms. Roberts, after some convincing with a gift trinket and kind notes, chose the bracelet and earrings to complement her vintage black and white Valentino dress, and the rest, as they say, is Oscar history.

Mr. Kruckel says it's just all part of doing business in the luxury goods arena. Events are a key place to be seen, and big events like the Oscars, Golden Globes and giant charity galas are important occasions for luxury goods.

"I really believe in putting a lot of eggs in one basket, or as I say, `Firing a lot of cannons at once,' " Mr. Kruckel says. "If I know for a fact that at a given event, I'm going to see two or three Conde Nast [Publications] editors, three or four TV camera crews, 10 fashion editors, five or six good celebrities, then that's where to be. That's a sure thing."

PR, which plays an important role in most marketing plans, is even more meaningful when it comes to luxury marketing. Part of the reason is that luxury consumer goods not only have a limited market that they sell to, but usually a limited marketing budget. The least expensive route to cachet is the important stamp of approval from the high-end, unpaid editorial decisionmakers. PR agencies have the access, information and creativity to get to those decisionmakers-and that's what feeds the luxury PR machine.

In addition, public relations can help manage press and walk the fine line between underexposure and overexposure, the latter something luxury brands are quite sensitive about.

value in word-of-mouth

"With luxury goods, there is a high value on print advertising, but I think there's an even higher value on the intangible or word-of-mouth," says Angela Mariani, president of Crespi Mariani in New York. Her agency handles clients including Frette high-end Italian linens and Fendi handbags. Word-of-mouth in luxury marketing relies heavily on events where products can be exposed to influence makers. While the Oscars may not be right for everyone, there probably is a suitable event for most luxury goods.

"You've got to figure out who are your core category decisionmakers and consumers, and then find those events and build good will," Ms. Mariani says. For instance, she helped Frette get involved with the annual, high-profile designer Kips Bay Decorator Show House in New York, which the fine linen company underwrote.

Another high-end marketer, the Diamond Information Center, formerly known as De Beers Consolidated Mines, often chooses AIDS events and charity benefits because of the disease's devastating effects in Africa, where many diamonds are mined.

At the Cannes Film Festival, the group sponsored "A Diamond Is Forever: Cinema Against AIDS" to benefit the American Founda-tion for AIDS Research. The center donated more than $25 million worth of diamonds to be crafted into 12 one-of-a-kind necklaces by famous designers. The necklaces are being displayed at Sotheby's this month and then will be sold privately, with 10% of the proceeds donated to the foundation.

"Charity tie-ins get great exposure for your product. It's highly visible and the right image for diamonds. This is a cause we really care about," says Joan Parker, director of the Diamond Information Center.

The recent economic downturn has resulted in scaled-back marketing budgets, many substantially. However, luxury public relations practitioners say they have yet to feel the pinch.

"In general I find that advertising is getting scaled back, although not to a huge degree, and it's not getting scaled back yet at all on PR. If anything, people tend to put a higher value on PR when times are difficult," Ms. Mariani says. Still she says she advises clients not to try to substitute PR for advertising, as each one conveys a different message.

mixing pr, paid ads

Harriet Weintraub, principal of PR company Harriet Weintraub & Partners in New York, advises her clients on a mix of both paid advertising and PR.

"The editorial coverage is much more credible when it is combined with traditional marketing like advertising," she says. "People do seem to tend to forsake advertising for PR. I guess that's because editorial seems to be more believable. You can build a brand with just editorial support, especially if it's a great luxury brand with a wonderful product that's just been quiet."

Her clients, which include Burberry fashions and Guerlain beauty products, also use events and celebs wearing their wares to advance their brands. A recent gala at the Frick Museum in New York was sponsored by Burberry, and the brand got double-duty coverage by outfitting all four of the young socialite co-chairs in Burberry tartan outfits. Photos and mentions of the event were published in a variety of fashion outlets, from local newspapers to Fairchild Publica-tions' Women's Wear Daily. And while Ms. Weintraub likes events as PR tools, she stresses relevance.

"You need to choose where and when is appropriate for the brand. Events can be meaningless unless they're appropriate. I mean you probably wouldn't choose a hip-hop event when you're trying to introduce million-dollar jewelry," she says. "A good PR company will know how to match the brand to the event."

A good match between product and outlet also is the case for editorial stories and mentions. Additionally, magazines can be better for one category of luxury goods than another. For instance, for high-end home furnishings, the title of choice is Hearst Magazines' Town & Country, say the PR mavens. Town & Country also is a good place for jewelry, they add, but Hearst's Harper's Bazaar is better for high fashion.

DIAMONDS SPARKLE ON TV

Some TV is great exposure for diamonds, Ms. Parker says, especially shows like "Entertainment Tonight." And Mr. Kruckel had a clear case of TV working in one of his companies' favor. When fashion editor Hal Rubenstein of Time Inc.'s In Style appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," he brought along home fashions, including a cashmere pillow by Agnona. While Oprah would not usually be Mr. Kruckel's first choice for editorial placement for such a high-end product, the pillow was noticed and specifically talked about by the host, resulting in a small run on the $800 item.

PR agencies use a variety of techniques to reach editors at magazines and TV shows, though most eschew the old-time "relationship" theory. While they do have ongoing relationships with editors, it still takes a good product to get mentioned.

"I'm a big believer in working with fewer outlets at an exclusive level-the `big bucks, no whammy' approach," says Mr. Kruckel. "We should be in business with the magazines, helping them find or create stories. It takes that pushy element out of it and makes it more about being brainy and thoughtful, and about the product."

In the end, it really is just the product that matters, the PR executives agree. Good products transcend hype and continue to thrive even when certain lines or styles are no longer hot. Burberry, for instance, is branching out beyond its traditional-and recently hot-tartan duds. It introduced a new line of non-plaid, high-fashion items this year and stores "still can't keep them on the shelves," Ms. Weintraub says.

So while that probably means magazine readers won't have to see one more celeb in a plaid bikini splashed across the fashion pages, it also means the next waiting-list-only product is already a project on some PR person's desk.

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