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May 24, 2006
Is PR becoming the new Advertising?

That suggestion was best posed by Al and Laura Ries in The Fall of Advertising & The Rise of PR. But really, it’s not that black and white. Nor is the value of advertising that dire. Each discipline has its strengths and limitations. And they both have clearly defined roles.

PR is great for building a reputation. People don’t believe advertising. But they do believe unbiased reviews and support (PR). Just look at the growth of blogs. If your product or service is clearly differentiated and offers a unique value to the consumer – you should get some hits. Starbucks grew for many years on PR and buzz alone.

But brands mature and reputations root. And at that point growth relies more on repeat business than it does on trial. (You’ll note, Starbucks now advertises. And so does Napster.) The PR honeymoon can be short. “Repeat” is not news to reporters. And where you can’t buy PR, you can buy advertising. This is where advertising steps up. It encourages repeat business through steady awareness and continual reinforcement of the reputation you uphold.

One lesson worth noting… Advertising is not a substitute for PR. If you can’t get PR hits and you’ve tried, don’t expect to advertise your way out. It probably means your product or service doesn’t offer significant value to the consumer. In that case, hire a branding agency to help you position, strengthen, and even alter your offering; don’t hire them to begin running ads. You’ll be throwing your money away.

Lastly, both PR and advertising can help define your personality – in different ways. PR is the troops; brand advertising is the air cover. PR does so through repeated reports on your company character and your actions. It might also link the personality of your CEO or senior leaders to that of your company (think IBM vs. Apple). Advertising is seen as a freely crafted and wholly intended announcement by the sponsoring company. So, consumers link those expressions to your personality (again think IBM vs. Apple). What brand advertising offers that PR doesn’t offer as effectively in this role is a little more “theater” – a theater that often draws an affinity. It’s also much more controllable.

In summary: PR is not the new advertising. And advertising is not dead. There will always be a role for paid and unpaid messaging. Paid messaging will always garner greater skepticism among consumers. But it will also always be easier to place. Both can serve a strong role in defining your personality. PR is most useful in convincingly building your reputation. Advertising is great at reinforcing that reputation with wide reach and also at coloring your brand personality. But neither will save a dull proposition.

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Britton Upham broke into advertising in 1995, at perennial big leaguer The Richards Group. There, he spent four years servicing national accounts such as 7-Eleven. After helping to take the brand to the “highest same-store sales increases” in 12 years, and after developing one hell of a Slurpee habit, Britton moved to Garden.com. Under his care as Director of Brand Development, Garden.com became one of the highest rated e-commerce sites of the late ‘90s. Following these successes, Britton moved to Prodigy as Senior Brand Manager. Through acquisition, Prodigy became SBC/Yahoo!, Britton became Director of Advertising and Yahoo! enjoyed one of the most successful Internet launches since Pamela and Tommy Lee. Though skeptical of his credentials -- come on, “Skidmore College” sounds made up -- Mark and Bryan snapped Britton up in late 2002. He brings a deft strategic mind and a keen understanding of branding and positioning to the McGarrah/Jessee team, not to mention a passport full of impressive-looking stamps.
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