The R in PR

Creating an image and strengthening it – is something that takes a lot of effort, time, and experts. And it goes way beyond marketing

A brand is not just what a company thinks or says it is. It is what a customer perceives. This perception can definitely be shaped by paid marketing efforts, clever campaigns, creative messaging, and regular buzz around a brand. We have seen how some salient mattress brands have become synonymous with the attributes they stand for. Some instantly remind of luxury, some are connected deeply with variety, and some stand for health-oriented sleep solutions. A lot of this story is woven by marketing teams and brand narratives. But a lot of this also comes from an activity that is different from paid, highscale and regular marketing activities. This is where Public Relations or PR steps in.

If you see around the mattress industry, you will notice that some brands have started creating conversations, awareness, and expertise on issues like sleep health, sleep hygiene, work-life balance, postureawareness, smartphone-use balance, and giving respect to one’s sleep cycle. This is being done majorly through PR tools. Articles that come in credible newspapers, magazines, and blogs are being leveraged in frequent ways to create a specific brand voice. Podcasts, tutorials, debates and walk-throughs on various digital platforms are adding to this niche portrait of a brand that PR teams cultivate.

One may wonder here – why PR? Specially when a brand is already spending time, money and energy in marketing? It is a good question to consider whether a mattress brand can go beyond a certain level by adding PR to its marketing foam. It is a bigger question when we ask – can PR be just an accessory, a pillow to the bed – or is it the frame of the bed instead?

Interestingly, the significance of this weight rises during two scenarios – when a product is entering the market, and when it is facing a tough spot in the market.

PR – Building roots before branches

The answers vary- depending on the age, relevance, strengths and demographicdetails of a brand. It would also change drastically if the brand is going through a negative phase or a numb mindspace in the customer’s radar. No amount of marketing budgets, no number of ads on TV can replace the gravity and credibility of a word spoken in a media platform that customers look up to. Specially when they doubt everything else.

As Dr. Renuka Kamath, Professor of Marketing, S.P. Jain Institute of Management & Research (SPJIMR), outlines, successful product launches begin with awareness. “It is very evident that the higher the awareness with the target consumer segment, the higher is the likelihood of conversion to sale. For awareness or rather positive awareness, PR and media coverage are the best methods. They matter a lot since credibility and reach are both high. Much more than product advertising.”

For categories like a mattress, the same strengths and opportunities of PR apply as they would for a lifestyle brand or a technology brand. “PR helps as well. While advertising is largely perceived to be marketing-led, PR softens the marketing blow. PR makes communication ‘peer to peer’ as opposed to marketer on top and consumer at a different level altogether.” Contends Harish Bijoor, Brand-Guru & Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc.

Shweta Sayankar, a PR veteran who has worked on various verticals from lifestyle, technology to automotives in India and the Middle East shares: that PR has an important role in the image building/maintenance of a product – whether new and existing. This is specially high for a high-involvement category like a mattress. “PR in itself has come a long way from being a probable service lateral to explore while establishing a brand to being a musthave in the launch or brand sustainability program. By virtue of being an inclusive model that entertains everything that comes under communications – its benefits transcend fine boundaries of sales, reputation and brand recall.”

Neha Chandra, a PR Professional with ten years of work experience across varied sectors like Technology (both consumer and enterprise), Corporate, Start-ups, Marketing, Telecom, New Age Businesses, Entertainment explains that PR is important irrespective of the category – a mattress or a car. “Public relations is about sending the right messages to the right place and the right people, which is key for any brand.”

According to ResearchandMarkets, Public Relations has the power to unite all functions with a single vision as per the mission of the organization. ‘A well-made, integrated PR plan can connect customers and clients with the organization. It creates competitive advantage for organizations. It helps to attract attention and raise the visibility for the product/service.’ The firm points out PR’s value in a recent report.

PR- The auto-pilot buttonplus- The trust switch

And sometimes PR’s value can be as strong as or even more impactful than a marketing campaign. Shweta Sayankar explains that while marketing has its own credibility, PR is expansive and allows the brand to delve into every aspect of communication for brand reach. “Once a brand is launched in the market and all the advertising is done, only PR has the power for sustainable communications roadmap to keep the momentum going. From PR tools like authored articles, press notes, experiential PR to non-media initiatives like industry research, thought leadership and B-B communications roadmap; there is immense scope to explore opportunities to keep the momentum going.”

The formula that PR cracks is that of trust. It is here where a customer’s mind switches in a different way than it would after watching a TV ad. As Shweta Sayankar nails very well, “There is a lot of credibility factor at stake when it comes to PR. It earns the media space and doesn’t pay for it. The relationship has a lot to do with the PR agency itself as well as the brand and its offering. With marketing, it is fairly easy because you simply buy ad space.”

Neha Chandra echoes that thought. “Paid marketing supports the sales team while PR supports the larger brand image in the market.”

And that assumes a considerable value in an era where brands struggle with erosion of trust, every day, in old and new ways.

If we look through the Deloitte 2020 Marketing trends Report, we observe that digital transformation has changed how organisations should account for the issue of trust. The report clearly defines that ‘Organisational trust is a bilateral relationship between businesses and their customers, workforce, partners and governments. This means companies should build an infrastructure that protects what stakeholders value most, while proactively detecting threats in the domains of cybersecurity, data protection, regulatory compliance and reputation. Companies that don’t systematically safeguard these domains likely face existential threats.

Whether brands like it or not, the implications of trust can affect everything – the market value of the brand, potential decline in customer loyalty and the ability to meet customer needs.

Now that the digital era has turned trust a complex issue. Just imagine a simple case of how profiting from the direct sale of data impacts customer trust. As per Deloitte 2019 Consumer Pulsing Survey in the United States, United Kingdom, China, and Brazil – almost 53 percent said they will never use a company’s products that sells their data. About 40 percent stressed that a company should make 0 percent of profit from selling their data.

In fact, the value of reputation has only gone up among corporate chief executives. Companies are stressing more on corporate purpose, as unravelled by the ICCO World PR Report 2020. It found out that corporate reputation remains the most important objective for most clients (this was seen among 41 percent, and only 35 percent pointed at clients were looking for product or sales objectives).

Other important issues that came up were – Sustainability and climate change (60 percent of respondents), diversity and inclusion (55 percent), education (31 percent) and data privacy (29 percent). That leaves a lot of room for PR to help brands and CXOs reach the right spot when they are parking themselves in a customer’s mind. Incidentally, or not, all these issues – specially sustainability, reputation and education have become accentuated for mattress brands in the recent past.

The next page – New playgrounds for PR

The advent of digital forces have started changing what PR talks about and how it talks too. Programmatic PR in the digital medium is exploiting automation of advertising and artificial intelligence in a big way. It helps to raise transparency and control. It delivers greater efficiency with better targeting capabilities for audiences.

Interestingly, PR is also moving into the realms of curation, online advocacy and digital influence as consumers shift their eyeballs from TV and billboards and even newspapers to their mobile devices. PR is harnessing the power of curation and advocacy in a big way – as seen in the recent months.

Industry experts have noted that the vast number of consumer purchase options across channels and platforms are expanding a brand’s “real-time” competitive set. Now that customers can instantly react, the line between the market and mind has dissolved and that is why it helps to have the right curators by your side.

According to a reckoning by DGLaw report, Davis and Gilbert survey, PR firms are expanding their service offerings in areas like Digital, Social/PR/ Content Creation and Creative Services. These became areas where revenue came in a major way from – during the first eight months of 2020.

Advocates, communities and influencers are becoming strong pockets of creating awareness and excitement around a brand. Specially when marketing can hit a wall in a situation where everyone is packed inside their homes. The pandemic year has deepened the importance of such community voices. They help to take a brand beyond an ad and right into a customer’s conversation. But they have their flip side too.

A recent report from the Kearner Consumer Institute, highlighted that speaking through, and in, communities can play out in positive as well as negative ways. It explains the challenges of navigating tight-knit groups, the mistakes in aligning with consumer values, and the pressure to live up to the trust that a community puts in them. Now that people spend more time online and have limited outlets to vent their problems, brands would have to confront the challenge of managing individual frustrations that can leak into larger groups and gain a louder megaphone – as the report pointed out.

All these questions are very pertinent and directly related to mattress brands in the current context. From rumors of counterfeit materials, sloppy inventory management, bad reviews to criticisms coming from new-age disruptors and bed-in-a-box start-ups – a mattress brand has to fight the challenge of building and maintaining trust every day. Plus, bigger issues like sleep health, investing in a good mattress, buying a branded mattress for better health instead of stretching an old one or discouraging customers from going to unorganised sellers – all these factors necessitate that brands have a constant and careful dialogue and PR voice extended to their prospects and customers.

A well-crafted, and executed, PR plan can not only add to the gains derived from marketing machinery, but it can also be the sole saviour when a company faces situations where an ad just won’t work. If a mattress catches fire, if a brand is rumoured to go bankrupt, if customers are sceptical of toxic-materials or inferior materials inside a mattress-then a PR exercise would salvage the situation far better than an ad it would do so with clear and timely communication. That is always better than hollow promises and glossy ads. PR may not work in isolation. But sometimes when PR works, nothing else can.