The Body Shop is a huge best-selling brand, while Pets.com has vanished into thin air. Both of these brands were first in their category and had a good chance to succeed in sales, but still developed differently. What is the reason for the outcome of those brands? To cut a long story short: The Body Shop relied on public relations to attract publicity, while Pets.com launched an expensive advertising campaign.
When it comes to branding (the building of a brand), many companies rely first and sometimes only on advertising. However, as of today, advertising has lost its former credibility and has turned into an art form. This has two reasons: Consumers feel bombed with empty promises during commercials, and advertising agencies fight for awards for the creativity of their developed ads.
The solution to this is clever PR. Public relations influences third parties (newspapers, TV shows, etc.) to publish favorable articles about the brand. Because PR itself is invisible and many people do not recognize it is there, public relations still has what advertising lacks: tons of credibility. However, most companies still rely on advertising to make their brand sell. This happens because public relations is difficult to control, while advertising can be developed exactly how planned. Nevertheless, companies need to understand that nowadays, advertising’s role has switched and should only be used for brand maintenance—years after the brand has been built through slow publicity by PR. Before that, advertising is mostly just money poured down the drain.
A Branded World: The Importance of Public Relations
Over Advertising in Brand Building
Beginning in the 20th century, the United States of America and other western countries developed into a consumer culture. People had money to spend, and the typical house woman loved to go out and buy. As of 2011, after several recessions, consumption is still ruling today’s economy. Every day, people are surrounded by advertisements: billboards along highways, newspaper spreads, television commercials, and so forth. The amount businesses yearly spend on getting their brand out through advertising is enormous. However, the effects commercials have on the consumer are questionable. Barely do consumers see a commercial and then run to the next store to buy the product. Of course, good advertisements make people laugh, think, and talk, but do they actually sell? Most of the time, it is not the advertisements which make a brand successful, but the publicity the brand gets through effective PR. As examples prove, companies will have to understand that public relations is more important than advertising when building a brand.
According to Clifton, the definition of “brand” has changed over the last decades. Used to be the expression for “a piece of burning or charred wood”, a brand is associated today with a commercial use. However, this heritage also explains today’s most important function of a brand: to “burn” itself into the brains of the consumers (13). Therefore, branding, the building of a brand, is one of the most difficult tasks for every company. A good brand, which can be a person, company, organization, etc., equals constant revenues. The difficulty is to find out what it needs to establish a brand and make that brand sell. Most people still think that this is where advertising with “big-bang” campaigns comes into play.
The first association of advertising is commercials. In people’s minds, advertising has been the one important way to sell a product. However, according to Al and Laura Ries, advertising has nowadays turned into an art form. Advertising agencies frame their most successful ads and put them on the wall, and the most reminiscent feature of a good commercial is more often not the brand, but the entertainment value (“Fall” 17-18). What advertising agencies most focus on today is the creativity of the ad: Is it new? Interesting? Does it move people? Sometimes this takes overhead. Commercials lose their use of selling products. Apparently, they have turned into an art form. A good example for this is Pets.com. In the mid-1990s, during the so-called “.com boom,” entrepreneur Greg McLemore launched the website as the first page to sell pet products online. In the beginning, Pets.com had a good start, caught people’s attention and created some favorable publicity by being the first online store specialized on pets. As similar websites were launched (among them PetsMart.com and Petstore.com), McLemore financed a nationwide advertising campaign featuring a sock puppet. The ad ran during high-audience slots such as the Super Bowl and made the puppet famous. However, Pets.com’s sales decreased, forcing the web page to close business in 2000 (Haig 188-192). Pets.com shows that it takes more than great advertising to make a brand successful. As creative as the ads were, people could not distinguish to which brand the puppet belonged. If Pets.com’s campaign created a brand, then it was the brand of the sock puppet. Although sales of the puppet over the web page went up, the company still spent more money on advertising than it actually made through sales. The company would probably have had a better chance of staying in business if it would have focused more on PR and waited to add advertising until it was known as a brand.
60 or 70 years ago, when advertising was emerging, commercials were actually drawing attention to a brand. People were buying the products that were advertised. At this time, advertising was new and people believed what was said on TV. As of today, advertising has lost its credibility. Too many times, sales reps are trying to sell products to consumers, and people feel the same about commercials. They are sick of being exposed to advertising, because it only tells them how great the product is, and they feel fooled if it ends up being the other way around. There is nothing more damaging to a brand’s image and its sales than empty promises. This is where public relations comes into play. According to Levine, its job is to “encourage the public to have positive thoughts about a particular company, product, service, or individual” (16). The two major jobs of PR executives are to schedule events that create favorable publicity and to write articles for publication in newspapers, TV shows, etc. When people read those articles, they are influenced by them and believe them. Most people do not know that many articles were written by public relations executives, as they are not labeled with “advertising.” This explains the efficiency of such articles and public relations’ influence. A great example for a brand built through PR is The Body Shop. Created in 1976 by Anita Roddick, this brand developed into a huge success without any advertising. The Body Shop’s concept was to sell natural cosmetics, which were environmental-friendly and not tested on animals. Instead of spending millions of dollars on advertising, Roddick travelled around the world to promote her products and received tons of favorable publicity (Ries “Law” 13). The Body Shop became famous for one simple reason: third parties were talking about it and were creating a positive image. This brand shows that although advertising has lost most of its credibility, PR is still trusted by consumers, mostly due to the unknown influence of it.