The Power Of Creativity In PR

Some people don’t think of PR professionals as particularly creative – except when it comes to hatching wild PR stunts or gimmicks, like KFC’s fried-chicken-flavored nail polish. Yet creativity plays a part in much of a PR person’s daily work. They must constantly generate fresh concepts for bylines and story angles for pitching, as well as dreaming up campaign ideas for clients.

According to The Holmes Report’s Creativity in PR study, which surveys PR executives all over the world, 68% of PR agency respondents say their clients are more likely to approach the PR team for “big creative ideas” than in the past. There was also a significant increase in agencies who employ a formally named creative director, from 37% to 56%. Still, a prime impediment to PR teams’ showing out-of-the-box creative chops is clients’ aversion to risk– something not so prevalent in the advertising field.

In today’s atmosphere of continuous communications from a multitude of channels, PR people (and their marketing peers) must come up with original approaches to storytelling and content to break through the noise.

4 ways creative PR takes it up a notch

Creativity in PSAs helps make a tired message fresh

We’ve all seen 30-second PSAs on late-night TV that feature a talking head looking into the camera and telling you to adopt a dog, or talk to your children about drugs. The Canadian Ontario Association of Optometrists unveiled an eye-opening approach to getting a simple public service message to the public. To urge people to give their eyes periodic breaks from screens, it filmed a series of snappy, fun viral videos called 20 Second Daydreams.

This fresh packaging of a mundane personal health topic makes all the difference. The video series makes a point through entertaining content, as opposed to a routine “eat-your-veggies” message. Showing beats telling, but it takes more work.

Creativity helps express company values in a distinct brand voice

Advertisements for travel metasearch sites usually involve a cutesy gnome (Travelocity) or a charismatic spokesperson (Trivago). Instead of traditional ads, Danish travel site Momondo produced a short documentary about 67 people doing DNA tests to find out more about their ancestral origins. Does this have anything do with shopping for airfares? Only tangentially, but it’s effective.

Momondo links the documentary to a brand statement that differentiates it from competitors like Expedia. “Our vision is of a world where our differences are a source of inspiration and development, not intolerance and prejudice.” (Expedia’s vision statement is milquetoast in comparison.) Momondo’s creative endeavor was no small project; it involved a heavy lift of DNA tests, interviews, and filmmaking. Yet it started an important conversation by espousing its values through storytelling. Seventeen million views later, Momondo has taken a strong stand and conveyed it an entertaining way through creative content and PR.

A great idea aligns a company’s mission with its market

Intuit reinvented itself six years ago as a provider of services to small businesses. Its Small Business Big Game campaign was not only a contest for small business owners to win a Super Bowl ad, but a way for it to interact with and celebrate SMBs. The 17,000 participating owners had the opportunity to tell their stories and receive additional benefits through the program. The initiative was an inspired method of spreading awareness of the Intuit Quickbooks brand, and more importantly, to position the company as an advocate for small business owners. PR teams need to conceive inspiring ideas to communicate alignment with its audience.

Creative PR helps B2B brands be accessible

B2Bs must scramble to find creative ways to gain competitive advantage in crowded markets. One way is to offer the company’s more human face to the public. Capitalizing on the trend of B2B PR/marketing borrowing B2C tactics, a UK data security company opened up a pop-up retail store in 2017 in London where customers were required to pay for products with personal data from their mobile phones. The Data Dollar Store was a fun, experiential event that raised awareness about data privacy, thereby communicating the company’s purpose to the general public. The event, boasting a playful, performance art ambience, accurately reflected the company’s values (“supporting art, science, and sport”) and the overall brand vibe. A firm’s PR team must bring their best creative chops when envisioning a tactic that generates so much earned and shared media on such a modest budget.

Audacity can add authenticity

All four above examples have the elements of authenticity and audacity in common. Creativity is in itself PR currency, since it’s the x-factor that can boost the inherent value of any campaign tactic. Some say it cannot be taught, but we disagree. The more you exercise those creative muscles, the stronger they become. Creative concepts are by definition outliers, so they may take a leap of faith. Small steps lead to larger strides and big ideas.

What Makes A Brand Story Authentic?

Any PR or marketing expert will tell you that for a brand to connect with customers, it should convey authenticity. But what about brands that don’t have a compelling story, or who have strayed from their roots due to their very success? Can authenticity be designed after the fact?

It seems right up there with “planned spontaneity” – an oxymoron. But a recent New York Times feature points up the dilemma of established brands who struggle to appear “genuine” as younger, upstart companies move into their space. It’s about the Greek yogurt marketing wars and brand Yoplait’s efforts to craft an authentic story for its own Greek yogurt entry.

As a division of General Mills and a category leader, Yoplait naturally wanted to take advantage of market changes to grab a healthy dollop of the category, but its Yoplait Greek product was a flop. No surprise there. Why would fans of the thicker, tart yogurt – with its better-for-you health halo –  turn to a brand with no heritage in Greek yogurt if they can choose Chobani or Fage?

The Yoplait brand team tried hard for an “authentic” Greek yogurt identity, but each time, the customer reaction was sour. It ultimately decided to abandon the Greek wars and out-authentic the upstarts by tapping its own French provenance. And, voila! Its newest product was created in the tradition of the farm-fresh yogurt produced in the countryside of Brittany or Normandy, complete with the traditional glass-jar package and fruit on the bottom.

It’s too early to tell if the new Yoplait variety will succeed, but I give the brand high marks for abandoning its Greek ambitions and changing course. It will never be an authentic Greek yogurt, so why not pivot to more credible attributes? And in a PR coup, why not use the struggle to serve up some raw, but real, coverage for the new product entry?

The Yoplait story is typical of larger brands who sometimes try too hard to be what they’re not. This can be from hubris, corporate pressure, or a misunderstanding of true authenticity. It’s like the joke among PR and ad agencies that every client wants a “viral” video. Big brands have the resources, the marketing talent and the distribution clout to leverage a market trend, but they often fail, in part because they’re not nimble. But it’s also because they’re naturally risk-averse. Innovation may come from challenger brands because they have less to lose.

There’s no magic formula to creating an authentic brand narrative, but there are steps that can guide the process.

Revisit the brand’s roots

Kudos to Yoplait for digging more deeply into its history rather than simply flailing at the Greek yogurt opportunity. After all, no two brands have the same origin story. That may not be the ultimate narrative, but it can offer inspiration. Lego does this very well, tapping into the premise that there’s a “builder” in all of us and evoking the power of childlike imagination in its brand storytelling. Even Coke going back to original bottle was a simple but powerful return to its iconic beginning.

Stake your claim carefully

I’ve never been convinced that all brand attributes must be ownable, because that’s not practical. But the key brand characteristics and its promise to customers must be credible. What can your brand legitimately claim? Innovation? GE has done a remarkable job of communicating its corporate innovation ethos, in part by glorifying the R&D workers who help make it possible, but it’s hardly the only brand to make that claim. Starbucks built its brand in part by providing a “third place” where customers can go to linger over their coffee. Then it backed up the promise by offering WiFi, streaming music, and other innovations to its brand experience. Red Bull is about masculine energy, pushing limits, and living boldly. It’s not alone, but it executes the promise flawlessly and credibly through its marketing and PR programs.

Use the power of myth

This is almost a default for entrepreneurial brands, who like to craft a David and Goliath myth starring the company founder. Yet myths and archetypes work for established brands, too. One way is to make an employee or division the hero of a variation on the holy grail search. Some brands let customers tell their own stories. Outdoor wear brand Patagonia uses the power of myth and the persuasion of visual media in its “Stories We Wear” series about experiences from its own customers. Another example is Airbnb, whose proactive PR and marketing focuses almost completely on its hosts. They are the brand, literally.

Claiming to be authentic isn’t enough, and a narrative that’s not credible won’t work in the long run. But nearly any brand can dig deep and craft a story that fits its origins and promise, and that grabs customer attention because it’s not only relevant, but real.

Public Relations Is A Powerful Storytelling Tool

Brand storytelling and PR – what’s really new here? The truth is, marketers have been telling brand stories through paid media, branded events, and, lately, brand journalism, also known as owned media. Make no mistake, a well-crafted 30-second television spot can tell a resonant story. But the heart of brand storytelling lies with public relations.

I first heard the term from my friend Robbie Vorhaus, at least a decade ago. Robbie was ahead of his time. It took a few more years for storytelling to become a buzzword, and for public relations to realize that it’s what we do.  To paraphrase Seth Godin, “Marketing PR isn’t about the stuff you sell; it’s about the stories you tell.” Here’s why.

PR breaks news. A new product or, even better, a new category, means a fresh story. Traditional public relations tactics are therefore inherently valuable in helping to break and shape those stories. While true category creators are rare, any business or brand that disrupts the status quo has a huge opportunity to define its category and own the narrative over the long term.  Think about Amazon, Starbucks, Red Bull, and Facebook. Different categories, but each was a creator, and each was able to craft a unique brand narrative through traditional and social media. In most cases, it happened without benefit of advertising or direct marketing.

PR digs deep.  A well-crafted public relations campaign can typically go much deeper than paid media. Advertising space and time comes at a cost, so explanations about brand origins, background, or how things work take a back seat to a sales message. The backstory is particularly valuable in healthcare and technology PR sectors, where products often require a degree of education. Storytelling naturally lends itself to earned media, including long-form journalism and blogging. As a bonus, it’s often more credible.

Brand trust is at a premium. Corporate scandals, executive misbehavior, privacy breaches – these and more have been amplified by the relentless news cycle, and they’ve threatened public trust in major brands. Moreover, millennials, the largest demographic in the U.S., are known to be skeptical of traditional marketing and advertising. It adds up to a picture where brand stories told by others – customers, stakeholders, partners, and journalists, – have greater resonance than those told by the companies themselves.

PR blends creative packaging with a journalistic sensibility.  We specialize in grabbing the attention of journalists and influencers with a story pitch that plays up what is relevant and compelling about the narrative;  in other words, we package the story. Yet, to rise to the top, it needs to conform to a journalist’s needs; the classic “who, what, when, where, and why” that seizes an editor’s attention and makes it legitimate.

PR connects the dots. A skilled practitioner knows how to make connections between brand messages and attributes and other, larger stories. And its outcome is ultimately about building a bridge between a brand and its audience.

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