From Russia, with Love

Last week I noticed an outstanding example of PR done right. It wasn’t from a Fortune 500 company who employs a big-time PR agency. It wasn’t even from America. This example came from the Kremlin. That’s right, this week’s post focuses on smart PR strategy based in Russia. Vladimir Putin’s Op-Ed in the New York Times shows how impactful it can be to take the narrative on your own story. I am not sure how he managed to write the article with that iron fist of his, but he put together a wildly popular and controversial piece.

Writing an Op-Ed can be extremely effective in managing a person’s brand. This is not a political blog, and I won’t share my opinion of Putin’s views. However, I’d like to point out why this can be such a successful PR tactic.

There is no chance of spin
The lesson to learn here is that often times the best way to get your story across is to tell it yourself. When getting the media involved, it is impossible to know exactly how you will be portrayed. Also, there can be no misinterpretation of the message. The public is well aware that the media is in the entertainment business, and will present the story in a way that will garner the most interest, even if it is not 100% accurate.
Jason Collins told a controversial story in his own words. He was applauded by the gay community as well as his fellow athletes.

It has more impact
Your message gains credibility when readers realize that it has not been processed by the media machine. Many people distrust information that comes from the media. The public is very wary of bias, especially in political news.
David Cole wrote an interesting Op-Ed explaining his views on gun control. Because he is a professor at Georgetown University, his opinion has more authenticity and credibility because it wasn’t filtered by the media.

It allows you  to be proactive
An editorial like Putin’s allows the author to get ahead of the story. The author has the ability to change topics or steer the conversation in a new direction.
Angelina Jolie headed off a possible media frenzy by writing an Op-Ed in the New York Times.

You can stand up for yourself
There is no better way to defend yourself than to do so directly. Specifically, in an Op-Ed there is enough space to thoroughly explain whatever it is you’d like to get across.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta changed his view on Marijuana, and was able to give his reasons.

We’re not sure what his intent was, but the amount of attention that Putin’s Op-Ed piece received shows that it certainly made an impact. Being able to tell your own story in your own words is invaluable. Not all of us can get published in the New York Times, but we should all be looking for an opportunity to lead the stories about ourselves or our companies.


If you don’t like Axe Body Spray, you’re probably not supposed to.

Is this offensive enough for you?


Are you offended by Axe Body Spray’s advertising? If your answer is yes, then I’d be willing to bet that you are not a heterosexual male between 16 and 35 years old.  Axe, as well as many other successful companies, creates interest in its products by excluding certain demographics through its marketing strategy. What makes Axe special, is that they’ve managed to do so in an incredibly offensive manner.

Axe Body Spray has managed to raise (or lower, depending on your opinion) the bar when it comes to controversial advertising. They have truly put the old saying “Sex sells” to the test. It appears that when you have science on your side anything is possible. The truth is in the balance sheet. Axe practically owns the body spray category with annual sales approaching $3 billion.

These advertisements make some people laugh while others get upset, and some people become aroused while others are disgusted. The controversy and offensiveness of this marketing strategy are almost unthinkable. They make you wonder how they make it on television or into magazines. It wasn’t that long ago when aired its first Super Bowl commercial and conservative Americans claimed that the sky was falling. Today it wouldn’t even make my grandmother blush.

New Religion: Brand Worship

It is no secret that the most successful brands have followers whose devotion borders on worship. Some brands have been so successful in cultivating relationships with its customers that they have created a following that is not unlike that of a religion. Raving fans of these companies show some of the same characteristics as religious zealots.

  • Evangelism   People spread the word about the company in order to help people find the same happiness that they’re enjoying.
  • Loyalty    These customers will not use a substitute brand, regardless of price or availability.
  • Belief    Followers have faith that the company does the right thing for its customers and creates a quality product.

The best brands are those whose logos or products can be smashed into a thousand pieces, but someone who finds just one shard can identify the company from which it cameA great example of a smashable brand with loyal evangelists is Harley-Davidson. If you know someone with a Harley, ask them about it. He or she will be happy to tell you all that you’d like to know.


You’ll probably notice  a religious-like devotion to the brand. Most die-hard Harley lovers will tell you that you have to get one (evangelism). Harley-Davidson advocates will not consider buying another brand of motorcycle (loyalty). They’ll probably also explain why no other motorcycle company is as responsive or quality-driven as Harley-Davidson (belief).

Here is what Harley does to cultivate its huge, rabid fanbase:

  1. Harley-Davidson has created a community for its most loyal fans. The company calls the Harley Owners Group the “original social network”. Harley has created a sense of inclusion in its brand. Harley knows its customers. It recognizes that there is no stereotypical Harley rider, and encourages the ideas of personal freedom, rebellion, and self-discovery. The company is a strong believer in social media, sourcing all of its advertising material from its Facebook page and Twitter conversations. In addition, multiple customer-created Harley fan web pages exist on the internet.
  2. Harley relies on and cultivates word of mouth advertising. A large majority of its marketing budget is spent on nontraditional media. “We think the best form of advertising is great experiences spread by word-of-mouth,” said Marc-Hans Richer, who’s served as senior VP-CMO since 2007. A lot of time and money is spent riding with customers and creating epic experiences.
  3. Harley-Davidson values consistency. Harley-Davidson has had the same basic values throughout its 110 year history. When a Harley drives past you, the sound is unmistakable. Dealers have standards and requirements (they are gorgeous), and Harley gear is recognizable and very popular. All communications, products, and services are on brand.

Clearly, Harley-Davidson strongly values social media. Since ROI on social media efforts is so difficult to measure, debates have arisen about its effectiveness. When looking for research on this topic, we are overwhelmed by marketing companies who claim that social media ROI is hugely positive. This is like a car salesman at Volkswagen telling you how awesome the new Jetta is.

My thought on Social Media ROI is that it depends on the level of commitment by the company and the quality of the content that is produced. If both are positive, I believe that ROI can be incredible. Harley-Davidson does not seem like a brand that would succeed in the social space. However, the company has totally embraced social media. It creates valuable content that its users love, and has millions of followers. What is the ROI on making millions of people happy? I don’t know exactly, but the power and value of evangelical, loyal, and faithful customers is priceless.

Men’s Wearhouse: Where is your PR Department?


George Zimmer was ousted from the company that he founded in 1973.
Photo from

“You’re going to like the way you look. I guarantee it.”

The famous slogan of Men’s Wearhouse is one of those magical phrases that most of the country can identify. The person providing the guarantee is almost as well-known as the slogan. This nearly universal recognition of slogan and representative (founder, in this case) is the envy of nearly every brand in the world. That is, it was envied. The phrase and owner now bring to mind the unpleasant and abrupt dismissal of George Zimmer by Men’s Wearhouse. The Board of Directors has put the company in hot water, partly because they failed to consult their PR department. Here is what the Board needed to know:

Before the crisis:

  • Every leader has to leave eventually. Whether voluntary or otherwise, the leader of a company has to leave his or her role. No company should rely 100% on a single person to be its identifying feature. Plans must be made so that the company can move in a new direction at any time.
  • Create a new, parallel association for the brand. In preparing to broaden the brand’s message, the existing leader and message should be considered. Because Zimmer, his slogan, and the company’s philosophy are so tightly woven, a new voice should be introduced. This new voice should be on brand, and can eventually expand on the message while Zimmer’s voice is gradually pulled back. Jack in the Box, Inc. has laid out a great example of how to introduce a new voice.
  • Smooth transition is important. Ideally, the current leader should endorse the new direction that the company chooses to take. Microsoft is preparing the public for the succession of Steve Ballmer next year. Ballmer is on board and is an integral part of the process. The recognition and influence that an influential leader carries can be leveraged to convince the public of the viability of the succession plan.

After the crisis:

  • Admit that a mistake was made. Clearly this situation was not handled well. The conflict between the Board of Directors and Zimmer was allowed to affect the business. Customers were offended and the reputation of the company suffered.
  • Be transparent and get ahead of the story. Although the dispute was ugly, only the truth will suffice. People can understand a disagreement among company leaders, but they have a hard time seeing past a Board of Directors firing the company’s beloved founder. The truth will surface eventually, and George Zimmer’s version of it will gain more traction than the company’s.
  • Bury the hatchet. The best outcome from this situation would be a resolution between Men’s Wearhouse and Zimmer. Zimmer’s return to the company would be fantastic (it worked for Starbucks), but an amicable relationship would still be a big step in the right direction.
  • Promise to do better. Take this opportunity to reaffirm the company’s direction and philosophy. Shareholders need to know that the brand that they’ve invested in will continue to be strong financially. Customers must understand that the principles of the company will not change.

4 Reasons Why Exploiting Homeless People Isn’t Smart

In these modern times companies often go to great lengths to get noticed. It is so easy to get lost in the crowd, companies try to come up with the most memorable way to get attention. Because the pressure to stand out is so great, even a good company can make a horrible, horrible mistake.

For example, a company may go to its most important trade show of the year and pay bums to do their advertising. Yes, this actually happened. There is a lesson to be learned here. In fact, there are four lessons. Bartle, Bogle, and Hegarty (BBH), this list is for you.

1. Homeless people are people too, and many of them have serious issues. Homelessness is a real problem in the United States today, one which does not get much attention. A cause campaign that sought to help homeless people by addressing their real needs may have had success. Instead, a different direction was taken. Here was the plan: slip a bum a twenty, line his pockets with singles, give him a t-shirt and a hotspot, and use him as cheap advertisement. BBH found 13 participants to do their bidding, but the plan did not go over well. Not only did this stunt do nothing to address the cause of these individual’s homelessness, but it preyed on their desperation. A big-time advertising agency was trying to make money by exploiting the homeless. People were not happy, and the media coverage for this tactic was less than favorable.

2. The public does not care why you do something stupid, it only cares about that stupid act. BBH will be forever known as the advertising agency that exploited homeless people. Even though BBH may have had good intentions, the perception is that they sought to benefit from using the underprivileged people of Austin as indentured servants in their SXSW fiefdom. An explanation trying to justify this terrible plan comes off sounding like spin. You would be better off apologizing, accepting responsibility, and promising to do better.

3. People already believe that marketers and advertisers are slimy. You should be going to great lengths to debunk this perception, not reinforcing it. BBH is an advertising agency that created its own PR nightmare. Shouldn’t an advertising agency be very good at squashing inflammatory ideas, or at least be able to present controversial ideas in a way that is acceptable to its audience? If BBH cannot promote itself at a trade show without outraging attendees, what kind of work can its clients expect?

4. All press is good press, unless media coverage contains the phrase “exploiting homeless people”. This press is going to be damaging to Bartle, Bogle, and Hegarty. There are cases in which negative press can be very beneficial, just ask Kanye West. He has had a PR nightmare every other month for the past five years, yet he remains one of America’s most popular and successful musicians. There are also cases, though, in which the sheer offensiveness of an action, statement, or strategy can do irreparable damage. If you get media attention and your actions offend a large portion of your target audience, that is bad press, no matter how you spin it.