Building a Brand, Without the Big Marketing Budget

Look Book Cover

Tints of Nature Lookbook

I have blogged about the importance of creating a lookbook for clients that have an assortment of products or collections (see “bambeco summer lookbook” June 2010). The books can even be re-purposed for customers as a selling tool. In my Williams Sonoma days, we actually re-purposed the customer catalog images and copy to create our more selective and stylistically edited press preview books that we showed editors prior to each seasonal collection being introduced to customers. These look books were the key tool to garner editorial coverage and to tell the seasonal product story.

But what about the company that doesn’t have a collection of noteworthy and photo-ready seasonal products and stylish designer packaging? In the case of our organic and natural beauty client, Tints of Nature, that is exactly the situation we faced. The company is a UK-based beauty brand. Although well established in the UK, the retail brand was still new to the US market. In fact, from a consumer and media recognition perspective, we were starting with very little. We brought them on as a client in late 2011, just as they were about to roll out new packaging and more importantly, an improved organic formula with an even more impressive natural ingredient profile. However, the packaging roll out and new formula was not accompanied with additional marketing resources beyond our PR scope. So how to launch a “new” consumer beauty brand with no accompanying marketing dollars? Our trusty lookbook of course.

While we did not have loads of gorgeous product images to fill our book with, we did have a distinctive and super authentic organic product story to tell. In fact, in the category for “natural” hair color and care brands at retail, Tints of Nature stood apart as a market innovator and, at the time, the only brand with certified organic ingredients (over 60%). Wow. A great product story, but little visual appeal from the products themselves. How many boxes of hair colorants can we show? And to be frank, the model images used by the London-based company did not translate to a US audience.

Our approach was to use the brand’s strongest asset – the product story.  From premium certified organic ingredients to the new formula that eliminated known toxic ingredients such as propylene glycol (the first natural brand at retail to do this in 2012), we were able to weave in the product story using images that communicated the natural elements of the brand, i.e., aloe vera leaf, comfrey root, orange and grapefruit, roman chamomile flower, and natural wheat protein.

We have used the Tints of Nature look book to introduce the brand and to tell the product story to beauty editors at the top women’s fashion, beauty and healthy living magazines, as well as the top family and parenting magazines. Additionally, we use it for all pro-active campaigns. To date, we have garnered placements with Allure and Prevention (November 2012) and pending placements with InStyle (April 2013), Parenting (March 2013) and more. Without this premium, branded piece, we would have been hard-pressed to tell their story and to garner such positive response. The package alone is simply not enough.

Companies with the Best Reputation Have the Best Public Relations (Hint: It’s not just about press coverage)

What am I paying for if I am not seeing media coverage of my company, product or service? This question comes up often, in even the best client relationships. Good – no, great  – public relations practitioners know that what we do is not just about chasing media impressions. Do not get me wrong; this is important and is often one of the most tangible parts of a good PR practice. However, many people fall into the easy trap of measuring results, simply by the numbers.

PR is about more than tactical execution and earned media coverage. Strategists understand the P&L, see the business holistically, and create a path to success that aligns with the goals of the business. These folks have earned their seat at the table where decision making and planning begin.

Public relations as a profession has changed dramatically since I started almost 15 (!) years ago.  I say this with bias and with the perspective of my own career, but I believe PR is a hugely valuable and critical arm of any successful company. I believe the best companies, with the best reputation, have the best public relations.

So then, why does it always come down to clip counts and impression numbers? PR has always been more art than science. The magic happens when collaboration, creativity + execution, meets distinctive, unique + compelling.  Plug and play simply does not win. I wish I had a dollar for every time a CEO asked me what I would do for them, after just one conversation. If what you do is so simple that I can plug you into a template PR playbook, then you need more than a good PR program!

What makes your company unique and stand apart from the rest? And who will care about what you have to offer?  What are your business goals? What does it look like in 6 months, 1 year, and 5 years? How strong are your brand assets and which ones do we have to create in order for us to develop and to then to tell your story? How much time and budget do you have in order for us to execute on your goals?

The answers to these questions will drive the creation of the best plan that will win results. If you do not offer something special, then you need a really good advertising budget and you need to be willing to spend money to convince people that you really have something they need to know about. With enough money, you can make yourself look special. PR is not for you. PR alone cannot make you attractive. Companies are increasingly held to rigorous standards of price, quality and desirability. You will not win the day on PR alone if you cannot deliver.

About those media impressions. The filter of third party media and expert analysts opinion are still fundamentally important, vis a vis credibility and targeted reach. When I started, PR was primarily about winning the eyeballs of media and analysts. Company’s PR departments often consisted of a single, junior level tactician with little or no understanding of the overall business. Today, while media relations are still a core part of a solid PR strategy, it cannot live solo, on an island, and help you build a company or create meaningful mindshare.

The fundamentals of smart planning and execution are key. You need collaboration with your leadership team and/or your client contact. Many people use media relations interchangeably with public relations. Media relations are an arm in the PR arsenal, but having a media relations program in place is not the same as a PR program.  PR provides the overarching strategic plan for defining the objectives, goals and measurement for a successful program. Often a media relations program is an important part of meeting those objectives.

If I do not get a press mention, than what am I paying for? When a company chooses an agency, they are not paying for editorial or product placement.  That is an ad strategy not a PR strategy. There are no guaranteed placements with PR. Each and every media placement is earned. That is why the weight of a third party endorsement carries the mantle of credibility. If the goal is to garner covetable third party media endorsements in the form of product or editorial features, there is no (credible) PR agency that will guarantee results.

What should I expect from PR? What you are guaranteed and what you should look at when evaluating the right agency partner is: Do they understand my business, who I am and what I do? Do they have the industry expertise and contacts to put our story in front of the most important influencers for my industry?  Do they have the ability to shape and tell our story across multiple platforms and diverse audience and influencer groups? Are they trusted advisers and not just arms and legs executioners? Are they passionate and excited to work with us? Will they be good spokespeople for our brand, our company? Do they make us look good? Do they speak our language? These are the things that you are paying for.

And when those coveted, hard-earned wins happen, than you know that the strategy and the direction you have taken, is the right one. These wins are the validations of all the work that your PR strategy has won. Enjoy.

In a nutshell, a lot goes into a successful PR program, and reducing it down to a clip count or eyeball number is doing yourself and your PR partner a disservice. If it were easy, than anybody with a media list and a phone would be a PR superstar or just dumb lucky.

About the author: Kimberly Strenk built her namesake firms’ reputation for launching and growing truly unique, authentic consumer brands such as bambeco, an eco home and decor company, Bella Pictures, national wedding and video photography, Beanitos, the first all natural bean based chip, and Key Ingredient, the first digital cookbook for every day chefs.  Kimberly Strenk founded the  company in 2008 after tenure with some of the most iconic and successful consumer companies including, Williams Sonoma and Nordstrom, Inc.

We Like To Build Things

lego-shoes

We are all good at different things.  But what makes some people thrive while others flat line or simply falter?  The key is to understand what kind of employee you are. Regardless of title, we all answer to someone.  As a business founder and manager, my goal is to hire for the best skill set needed + personality fit.  As adept as I think I am at “peeling the onion,” you simply never know what you get until they walk in the door and start running.  And if they don’t run, well that presents a different set of problems!

But I digress.  The purpose of this post is to say that at the midway point of my PR career I have found my “good.”  I am a builder.  I like to create things.  Once I started my namesake agency and tried on several different types of clients, at various life stages, I soon found my good spot.  Servicing young companies at the just-launched, but no one knows who we are or what we do phase has become a perfect fit.  I meet a new client with a great product or service, I see endless possibilities to create and build something special.

To that end, here’s a sneak peak at a new ad (yes, an ad, not editorial placement), we created for our client, UK based Tints of Nature.  They are a global beauty brand, available in 38 countries.  We are in charge of helping them to build their nascent but growing US business.  But why would a boutique PR agency be creating advertising?  Back to my original point – I am a builder.  Running my namesake firm has removed the impediments of layers and decision by committee, as well as silo verticals that many large companies suffer from.  We don’t work with big companies with big budgets.  We service the great ideas. Sometimes we do things that are not traditional.  If it helps our clients define their brand and grow their business, we build it.

A shout out to our fantastic graphic design partner, Omnibus Designs. We’ve worked with them for many years and we always look forward to the magic.

Happy building,

Kimberly

Preview of Ad for Feb issue Austin Monthly

The Economy Isn’t Pretty But I Still Look Fabulous

Tints of Nature US

Has the economic downturn affected consumer’s beauty routines?  Intuitively we think the answer must be yes.  When budget tightening hits, don’t we all re-examine what we need and what we want?   But somehow the line between needs and wants has blurred considerably. It’s much more difficult in our hyper aware, consumer driven times to consider giving up our “wants” that we have come to think of as essential, “needs.”  What can we do?

The onslaught of DIY home décor and renovation shows tells us that we are taking on more DIY projects in our homes, but does this DIY mentality translate to our beauty routines?  Are we visiting the salon less and perhaps adopting a DIY mentality to our most cherished beauty routines?

We tapped into traditional research reports and online media coverage to find a few faq’s and news articles to support our hypothesis @ growth of DIY beauty.  We also looked at the proliferation of YouTube every day beauty stars such as Kandee Johnson, Michelle Phan, and Bubz Beauty. Some of our favorite, popular beauty blogs include MakeUpAlley, BeautySnob and Stylelist.  These all feature every day people as beauty experts, sharing and comparing all manner of beauty related topics.

Armed with this, our team of working moms (me) and college/post- college not-quite fashion slaves but enthusiastic, maybe-not-quite-addicted fashion trenders set out to test our beauty assumptions among our friends and friends of friends.  Our reach went West from Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, LA, to Southern cities Houston, Austin, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and East to New York.

We created an informal beauty survey, “The Economy Isn’t Pretty But I Still Look Fabulous.”  Our goal was to get enough anecdotal data to support our intuitions about DIY beauty in order to provide additional heft for our client’s upcoming launch of a new organic based, premium at home coloring and care brand.

Some interesting findings:

  • Over 60% of respondents stated that a good hair day meant a more confident attitude
  • However, almost 40% acknowledged that visits to the salon had decreased in the past year due to economic strain
  • An even 50% color their hair
  • Of all respondents, 40% color their hair at home (this surprised all of us but given the high concentration among college age folks, might make more sense)
  • Given the choice of an organic based hair color product, over 60% of these same respondents would be interested in an organic product!

All in all, a fun way to tap into our circles and affirm our thinking.  Isn’t that what friends are for?

Adventures in Book Publishing

We have a wonderful client and friend who is a savvy magazine publisher, editor, marketing wiz, television writer and overall brilliant person. To call him a prolific content producer is an understatement.  Recently he came to us with a completed manuscript for a fast paced, women’s fiction novel.  Think murder mystery set among the social elite.  A fun, guilt-free pleasure.  Could we help him get it published?

The requirements for our clients are simple:  1.  We have to love it 2. Be real with us (hyperbole or superlatives, no thanks), and 3. We are experts in the space.

This book publishing project presented us with an interesting challenge.  We are not book publicists and we have no expertise in the space.  Could we really help?  Always love a good challenge and we were motivated to make it happen for a friend we believe in.

We approached this project as we would a traditional PR campaign: extensive research to understand the market + process; identify key influencers (in this case literary agents are the major gatekeepers and influencers with publishers); create and qualify the database; develop pitch materials; customize each pitch to each target influencer; and hit go.  This of course is only the beginning of the execution phase, but I’m a huge believer in doing targeted research and qualifying BEFORE anything goes out the door.  Otherwise you are just doing PR for PR sake, hoping something will stick.

We are still deep into the process, but we have already begun to see some success.  Just yesterday, a top literary agent responded to our initial “query” and asked for the first 50 pages. A big win.  This is akin to a WSJ reporter or Architectural Digest editor (depending on your market) responding to your pitch (in a positive manner) and asking for additional information.

Everyone, it seems dreams of being published, becoming an author.  You would never know the publishing industry is undergoing a tremendous shift.  Corrective changes are clearly in the works.  Only the best, most nimble and digital savvy will survive.  This all contributes to make the space for published books more competitive.  It’s a tough space, exactly the type of challenge that is tailored made for us PR folks.  Bring it.

Rock Star Media Tour + LOHAS Events

Just returned from a great week in NYC to help our client bambeco celebrate their 2-year anniversary by participating in a series of media and networking events.  After major events, as much as we want to move on or at least rest on our laurels (hah) for a bit, we absolutely do not.  As quickly as possible after these major initiatives, we provide clients with an executive summary.  This helps us to capture the important detail, but more importantly this provides a strategic document that can be used to evaluate success of future initiatives.  We work with so many start-up, fledgling and small companies; dollars and bandwidth are always in short supply.  We know that we have to advise our clients with ROI always at the forefront of our decision making process.  As long as goals and expectations are clear, we know our execution will be flawless or as near flawless as you can get time and again.

Our primary goal with the LOHAS NY events and media desk sides was to create a strong bambeco presence during Earth Day in NYC, the epicenter of national media.  Our goal was to further bambeco’s relationship with LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability); to reach new audiences with the bambeco story; and to grow the product placement outreach with key influential media outlets, primarily in the premium lifestyle and eco space.  While the editor desk sides were the clear win for this trip, all events contributed to a strong bambeco presence and new opportunities to tell the brand story in a meaningful and engaged manner.

Here are some pics from the LOHAS evening networking event at the Best Buy event space in SOHO.  bambeco staged a lovely vignette featuring summer collection along with iconic best sellers.  It provided a great opportunity for influencers to experience the brand in a meaningful way. Online shopping experience at bambeco is visually enticing and easy to navigate but nothing replaces a tactile experience, especially with a fashion-focused brand.  The first three images are from Liz Linder photography.  She was so fun to work with and clearly “got” bambeco’s look and feel.  Thanks Liz!

 

We also participated in an Earth Day media lunch at the amazing Rouge Tomate, the “greenest restaurant in NYC.”  Great media presence and amazing conversations around the latest in the eco space for industries from home décor to flooring and product innovations in packaged consumer goods.

Loved the place cards.  Will be stealing this idea for my next dinner party!

Beyond the media and influencers we met at the LOHAS events, we also had an amazing series of media desk sides for bambeco.  Several of our great media partners that we have romanced with the bambeco story over the last 2 years, such as Real Simple, Good Housekeeping, Country Living, Martha Stewart Living, The Daily Green all sat down with us to preview bambeco’s summer collection + core green essentials.  But we were even more thrilled to put bambeco in front of folks that have not been swayed (yet) by our storytelling!  Our meetings with All You, Bon Appetit, Health, House Beautiful, InStyle, and People were quite simply, some of the best desk sides I have attended.  bambeco did a great job sharing their eco vision, company and product story.

Hard to top such a rock star week, but you know we’ll try.  Now back to those follow-ups…

-Kimberly

Virgin Tour, SXSW

Although I have lived in Austin for the past 4 years, this year marked my first SXSW.  I consider myself a regular to other destination events here in town, but SXSW is clearly the BIG one putting Austin on the radar beyond Tex Mex, live music and a laid back lifestyle.

Luckily I had some help navigating this new world.  Vaidehi is a senior member of our account management team.   Vaidehi (“Vai”) also happens to be a SXSW veteran from her days as a NYC based music publicist representing some very indie bands (read:  Bands too cool for me to have ever heard about!).

My primary observation:  the music world has its own language, hierarchy and style, that to an outsider requires some pre-briefing.  Following are Vai’s glossary of very important terms:

  • Filter and Paste = established music magazines that throw core SX parties
  • Fader = a fashion + music magazine that has the biggest SX parties
  • Shoegazing = when a band endlessly distorts vocals/tunes in rock (Vai tells me there’s a lot of this with indie rock bands)
  • Band members = easily recognizable, tight skinny jeans (they probably sleep in, because they look impossible to remove), biker boots, fitted graphic tees, disheveled hair.
  • Music editors (hopelessly devoted groupies) = Similar to the band members they stalk, with a slight difference:  skinny jeans but with flannel shirts, sneakers, and often times fake glasses.
  • Music publicists (glorified groupies) = Similar to editors – often vintage clothing, baggy skirts or shirts, fedoras.
  • Band member’s girlfriends = retro chic.  The most pristinely dressed out of music-related industry.
  • Mangers/Lawyers = always a blazer worn over a typical hipster outfit.

Some highlights from our tour:

Filter party, Paste party, CNN crew, Austin Convention Center (the SX mecca), and dropped by the BMF Media (famous for their client, Perez Hilton) private VIP retreat, which KSPR helped sponsor.  See images below:

All in all, a very good first tour.  I’ll be ready next year with my proper groupie attire.

Hook ’em,

Kimberly

One Year One Video

We put this video recap together for our awesome client, bambeco. Last year (2010) was our first full year working with this emerging, powerhouse eco-retailer.  It is always a challenge summarizing your work in any format, but I think we did a good job capturing bambeco’s story in this short video.  Let us know what you think!

Call out to Vance Spicer, a NY based music and video producer for creating this with us.  Surrounding ourselves with smart + creative people always makes us look good.

Best,

Kimberly

RISE Austin, PR for Small Business

Very often I am asked to share PR insights and best practices.  PR is such a misunderstood profession that I relish these opportunities to share, educate and inspire.  My goal is to break down PR myths, one presentation at a time.   Just this past week for example I had the chance to host a RISE (Relationship and Information Series for Entrepreneurs) session, “PR for Small Business.”

Although, PR should be such an integral part of any business, most business owners don’t approach PR with an understanding of how it fits into their overall business strategy.   My focus for the session was to provide a solid framework for thinking about a business-aligned communication strategy.  That is to say, to create guidelines for all external communications. Businesses need to have a proactive approach to PR as opposed to a reactive approach, i.e. they should actively seek PR opportunities that will move the needle on their business, not just respond to whatever might come their way. In order to create a true business communications strategy, PR should have a seat at the table when business goals are being mapped out.  If not, a true business aligned communications strategy is not a realistic goal.

When I launched my namesake firm almost 3 years ago, I began with a simple premise that has guided my business; I stick to what I know and love and the business will grow.  I was fortunate to have learned the craft and honed my skills while working with some of the most respected and beloved consumer brands, from Williams Sonoma to Nordstrom and many companies in between. An insider perspective is what is needed to create and sustain a brand that evokes a positive, loyal consumer response.  There is no magic bullet.  Understanding smart PR and being able to execute consistently in partnership with marketing is a powerful business driver.

Kimberly Strenk PR is a boutique lifestyle PR agency.  We focus on promising young companies in the premium brand space.  Premium is not about a price point.  In our lexicon, it means that a company delivers on their consumer promise.   Sound simple?  Companies have to do what they say they will do and offer up products and services that delights the consumer.   That is why we are successful delivering consistent and sometimes spectacular results; the story is real. That is when PR can be realized as a truly powerful and strategic asset.

With that, let’s jump right in:  Common (PR) Myths

Common Myths

  • You need a big budget. Social media and proliferation of specialized boutique agencies makes it easier to do PR on a smaller budget.
  • Editorial = Advertising. Editorial is not the same as advertising. Editorial is earned. Advertising is paid.  Talk about ROI!.
  • If I could just get on Oprah. A press hit like this is a gift, say thank you and move onto a sustainable + strategic plan.
  • It’s all about spin. Authenticity is the benchmark. Consumers have a voice because of social media.  Be real, be consistent and deliver on the consumer promise.  A company that relies on their PR agency to “spin” the story will not be sustainable in today’s environment of instant publication and connectivity.
  • Just do it. There is no short cut.Competitive analysis and smart planning BEFORE execution will always pay dividends.

Simple Truths

  • Be real. Avoid hyperbole.  Are you really the only, the fastest, the first and the best?
  • Keep it simple. No jargon or trendy catchphrases, please.
  • Focus is your friend. Prioritize.  None of us can do it all, all of the time.
  • Let the story unfold. As your business grows and captures important milestones, always communicate the vision and let the facts speak for themselves.
  • Share. So busy moving forward and executing day to day, don’t forget to communicate your successes.

Now that we have some basic ground rules, how do we get started?

Getting Started: Internal

  • Who are you. What’s your story.  How did you get here?
  • What makes you special. Understand what makes you stand out from the crowd.  Be able to articulate this.
  • Identify key influencers.  Who are the people in your industry, in your marketplace and in your social circle who can impact your business?  Identify these influencers and prepare to reach out to these folks.
  • Build your network.  You can’t do this alone.  From employees, to vendors and contractors, surround yourself with talented and smart people that can become trusted advisers beyond their individual contributor role.

You’ve done your homework, let’s start communicating.

Getting Started: External

  • Feedback. AKA “friendly bullet proofing” is the first stop.  Ask people in your network to listen to your story and have them tell you what they think.  Do people outside your industry understand your story?  Are you compelling?  If not, why not?
  • Prioritize your battles. Again, remember to focus and prioritize.  Don’t get discouraged and feel overwhelmed.  There’s a lot you could do.   What can you do today? And what can be pushed out?
  • Be consistent across all touch points. Your brand should look and feel the same everywhere. Think about how adults process and learn, as espoused by “Consciousness of Competence” theory.  Basically, an adult has to see a message/new idea four different times to really process and learn it.   This theory of adult learning can be applied to branding as well. Logos, business cards, web sites, FB, twitter and messages all need the same look and feel.  Create an identity kit and share it with all your contractors and business partners who work on your behalf.  Everyone should speak with the same voice.
  • Low hanging fruit. Long-term goals are essential to your business, but short-term goals will serve to give you momentum and open up immediate opportunities. Local based business?  Reach out to your local editor who covers your industry and book a meeting.  These folks are tasked to cover their beat in their local market.  They are always looking for great new products and services to share with their readers. Don’t make all your wins long term: you need some achievable wins in the short term, too.

The participants generated some great dialogue and discussion points.  I encourage them and you to post questions on our FB wall facebook.com/kimberlystrenkpr.

Here’s link to the PPT preso I used:  Austin RISE 2011, PR for Small Business.  Was this helpful?  Do you have other tips or best practices that worked for your business?

Best,

Kimberly

A Look Back

Kimberly Strenk PR 2010 Sizzle

I’m excited to see what this year will bring.   The holidays were filled with so much joy and energy.  Each moment with our 3 little girls was truly so precious and f-u-n.   It’s impossible to talk about my family without sounding saccharine, even to my own ears (!), but it is a very, very, sweet moment in our lives.  I am grateful.

I was also feeling the itch to get back on schedule.  It began slowly, intermittently, but increasing in velocity very quickly: thoughts, tangents, ideas, plans swirling in my head each night and again in the mornings.  So, before I dive headlong into this New Year, I want to pause for a brief moment and reflect on another growing year running my namesake firm.  Funny, when I incorporated the business, I really did not give it much thought beyond, well it’s a name I’ll remember.  I do recall I wanted to keep it simple. Clever or obtuse has never been my mantle.

There were so many ups, downs, hits, misses and amazing moments.  Too many to remember in one post.  It was a year of very focused media relations for all of our clients.  We kept a relentless focus.  In the premium lifestyle space, consumer magazines still rule.

We made great relationships and garnered wins in the new media/social media space.  However, the right placements in top-tier consumer magazines moved the needle, with measurable result to the bottom line for our clients.  Anyone in PR (read public relations, not just “publicity”) understands that so much more is involved than media relations, but it (publicity) is one of the most measurable and tangible returns clients, investors, other stakeholders, employees and especially customers, want to see.  Editorial wins still matter.  They are hard earned and still elicit that oh-so-fleeting, but triumphant moment of happy.  This year had many moments of happy.

I enter this year excited and prepared to move the needle a little more.  Thanks for reading.

Best,  Kimberly