Turn Small Brands Into Blockbuster Hits

PR advisers are positioned to do well throughout this difficult economy during which marketing dollars need to work harder than ever. In a nutshell, this is because our profession has the expertise to build brands and business for our employers and clients. And, we can do so with credibility and cost-effectiveness. Demand is greater than ever to create awareness, generate leads, shorten the sales cycle and encourage core groups of loyal customers to buy more of the products they like.

This strategy of focusing on the affinity of a market segment rather than market share was originally the domain of the risk takers who founded cult brands. Now it is a more mainstream way to introduce new brands and refresh tired ones. With paid-media dollars scarce, and even traditional marketers turning to social media as well as traditional media placements, the importance of PR will only grow in the near future.

Hard as it is to believe now, mainstream brands such as Snapple, Coors, Apple, Saturn, Harley-Davidson, Southwest Airlines and Ben & Jerry’s began life as cult brands. Cult brands are typically niche products that attract a dedicated following few mainstream brands enjoy. They arouse a passion in the customer through an emotional response or an affinity that most products or services don’t provoke. Often, these customers become evangelists for the brand or purchasers of the parent company’s stock, too, so it is a powerful strategy.

Success breeds success, which is why yesterday’s cult brands are the brand behemoths of today. They became successful by selling more products and services to a smaller number of dedicated fans. Then they went mass market. The challenge is, can these young brands grow into the mainstream without alienating the core audience? The answer is yes—if they follow some tried-and-true lessons:

â–¶ Know what’s precious about the brand and protect it. Suppose Maker’s Mark bourbon started selling its low-volume, high-quality product in containers without the distinctive red wax seal. Would it have the same appeal? Identifying these clues is the heart of the issue for the PR practitioner.

â–¶ Begin by thinking in terms of starting a club as well as building market share. How do we generate repeat purchases by the consumer? Think of the marvelous PR opportunities generated by the Harley-Davidson rides, in which scores of owners take their choppers out for a long weekend ride. Some mainstream marketers have begun arranging tweet-ups, face-to-face gatherings organized on the real-time communications and social networking service Twitter. Recently, about 30 tweeters held a tweet-up to open trading on the NASDAQ, reinforcing the exchange’s long-standing commitment to technology.

â–¶ Treat customers as if they are fans and club members. Newsletters, user groups in B2B settings, events, sponsorships, partnerships, micro-Web sites, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn groups and targeted media offer different opportunities to cultivate such relationships. All are ideally suited to PR strategies and tactics as opposed to paid advertising or direct marketing.

â–¶ A scarcity strategy or other related strategies may boost small-budget publicity programs. Products or services that are hard to get, or sell out quickly, generate all the more interest. When Canfield’s’ impossibly sweet diet sodas or Coors beer were unavailable in certain markets, they became national sensations. This scarcity phenomenon certainly fueled some of the appeal of the iPhone, with TV news footage of people standing in long lines to buy their phones contributing to the overall excitement.

It can be tricky to figure out where a particular brand may be in the passage to the mainstream. Despite this, it is important both strategically and tactically to try to determine the brand status, whether by formal research or intuitive “soft soundings.” The reason is that some brands cycle through mainstream and cult status over a long life and even become short-lived fads.

Chuck Taylor basketball shoes are a great example; they are worn by rock stars, teenagers and middle-aged rebels much more frequently than by basketball players. They pass in and out of popularity through the years without ever disappearing. Fads are really a hybrid of mainstream and cult brands; they can generate a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and sales in a short period of time, but shrink quickly and unexpectedly.

Men’s bow ties, once a mainstream clothing item, have been replaced by long ties but have survived as a cult item for decades. This fashion season they have been revived as a fad that will probably disappear quickly. The cult of the bow tie, however, will live on. The question is, who among us is creating the new brands of tomorrow?


This article was written by Steve Carr, managing director of Dresner Corporate Services. He can be reached at scarr@dresnerco.com.