It's Time for Advertising to Take a Lesson (Gasp!) from Public Relations

Instead of Focusing on a Strategic Statement, Try Writing a Narrative for Your Brand

By Published on .

Advertising learn something from public relations? Are you kidding?

Why, that 's like Don Draper, the suave CD of "Mad Men," taking sartorial tips from Sydney Falco, the oleaginous press agent of "The Sweet Smell of Success."

After all, the whole idea of branding was dreamed up by you ad guys. You speak the language. You created the metrics. You control the lion's share of the marketing budget.

At least, you used to . . .

Nike 's marketing communications budget is at an all-time high, but its advertising spend is at an all-time low (less than 13% of the total). Eschewing the big television efforts it was once famous for, the brand is focusing on relationships with online communities.

Pepsi, now in the second year of its Refresh Project, promotes and provides grants for hundreds of grassroots community projects. It's classic PR. And it's funded by millions of redirected advertising dollars.

In the same way that the mass-market culture of the 1950s created the need for brands, today's social-technical culture is forcing brands to employ a new model for interacting with the public. A model based not in the slow-drip Chinese water torture of traditional advertising, but in the kind of focused dialogue that public relations specializes in.

It's clear that the future of advertising is public relations. And it's time for agencies to get past their preconceptions, and learn how the disciplines of PR can improve their creative thinking.

It's not your strategy; it's your story. The dirty little secret of advertising is that agencies burn most of their creative time developing the creative strategy, trying to get buy-in on a single, seven-word silver bullet. But as Peter Guber, former CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, wrote in a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, "Critical details, data, and analytics are more effectively emotionalized and metabolized by the listener when they're embedded in a story."

Instead of trying to encapsulate your brand in a strategic statement, try writing a narrative for your brand. That's what public relations does. Gatorade did this in the award-winning Gatorade Replay. The program brought together former high school athletes to replay a critical game from their past. Filled with stories of dashed hopes and dreams delayed, Replay is a primer in modern digital public relations: viral videos, public appearances, press conferences, media tours, online communities -- and yes, even a few ads to promote the web series that grew out of it.

It's not a campaign; it's a conversation. The World War II veterans who invented modern advertising can be excused for their preference for military metaphors. But in this world of never-ending engagement, the idea of a single-minded thrust into the market's mindset is not only quaint, it's counterproductive.

Consider Old Spice's The Man Your Man Could Smell Like and Allstate's Mayhem. Both had a big initial broadcast presence, but their true strength lies in the enduring online communities and the endless stream of content that they've provoked. A prediction: The conversation about The Man and Mayhem will continue long after Old Spice and Allstate stop funding this advertising.

Most ad agencies don't have the resources to develop and manage the content flow these online properties require. But your public relations partner does.

They're not your customers; they're your constituents. It's been said often, but it bears repeating: People don't buy brands. They join them. So modern brands must function like political parties, identifying issues, expressing a coherent world view, staging debates and structuring dialogues.

Example: A recent Cannes winner from Romania, the ROM American Takeover. ROM is the candy bar that all Romanians grew up with, an aging, nostalgic brand that was losing ground to cooler, more modern American brands. In a single day, every ROM was removed and replaced with an American stars-and-stripes version. The resulting public outrage was carefully fanned, then countered with televised apologies, mock demonstrations, and a return to the original packaging. Of course, the public caught on to the joke. But ROM sales still skyrocketed.

It's not advertising; it's public relations. What do you see when you pass an Apple store on the day a new version of the iPhone or iPad goes on sale? A line of people, stretching down the block and around the corner. People wait all night for the doors to open. They can't wait another day to get their hands on the newest Apple product.

Why? Because these products are the first of their kind? Not usually. Because they're the most advanced? Maybe. Sometimes. The main reason they're standing there is because they're staunch members of Apple's brand, joining in the 30-year conversation between Steve Jobs, his designers and us.

Apple's climb to its position as the world's most valuable brand began when its last brand-advertising campaign ended. For the last 10 years, the Apple brand has been primarily expressed through product unveilings, public appearances, media coverage, online communities and evangelist marketing.

So the next time you see that line snaking out the door of your local Apple store, remember: That ain't advertising. That's PR.

Timothy Kane is EVP-branding & digital marketing at Makovsky & Company.
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