Launch it

While the whole world was watching Jamie Salé and David Pelletier skate through the Winter Olympics scandal, Procter & Gamble was zooming in on their plucky smiles.
The company was about to launch a new tooth-whitening product called Crest Whitestrips. Sure, a slick ad campaign was in the works. But wouldn't the brand have a better shot at instant stardom if those spotlighted figure-skaters would beam on its behalf?

While the whole world was watching Jamie Salé and David Pelletier skate through the Winter Olympics scandal, Procter & Gamble was zooming in on their plucky smiles.

The company was about to launch a new tooth-whitening product called Crest Whitestrips. Sure, a slick ad campaign was in the works. But wouldn’t the brand have a better shot at instant stardom if those spotlighted figure-skaters would beam on its behalf?

Yes, indeedy. So P&G inked a quick deal with Salé and Pelletier and, voilà, there they were on NBC’s Today Show, telling Katie Couric and the world all about Whitestrips. Says Toronto-based P&G spokesman Win Sakdinan: ‘It was a perfect fit for us.’

How do PR professionals make that happen? Here are some of their best practices for blasting out of the starting gate and into consumer consciousness.

Create cred

Advertising’s job is to subjectively proclaim that a product is peachy. PR’s job is to get others to objectively proclaim that peachiness so strongly that consumers will clamour for it, explains Giselle Argentin, president of Montreal’s GA & Associates. ‘It’s called adding third-party credibility.’

Obviously, the third parties with the loudest megaphones and the least vested interest in selling products are the media. But PR practitioners like Argentin know better than to simply send out news releases flatly stating that a client’s peachy new product has arrived – ta da!

Instead, they come up with catchy, timely and even quirky news hooks to press the media’s WIFM (what’s in it for me) button, convincing them that a launch isn’t merely a launch, it’s a compelling news story.

The cleverest PR pros do this by executing a 1-2-3 punch. Whenever Argentin helps Ikea introduce a new store, for example, she first creates a buzz in the surrounding community by offering novel opening-day contests. Then she tells the media the community is buzzing. And then the media tell their audiences what’s causing the buzz.

Heinz’s green ketchup benefited from that same punchy technique when Lisa Bednarski, practice manager with Toronto’s Cohn & Wolfe, advised the client to schedule the launch for St. Patrick’s Day. Next, she offered green ketchup to every Irish pub she could find. And then she notified grateful reporters exactly where to find a nifty new wrinkle for their obligatory wearing-o’-the-green stories.

Hop on a pig

The ploy of piggybacking on something that’s already well-known, as Heinz did with a popular holiday, goes way back.

In fact, the technique was already perfected by the early 1900s, when the American Tobacco Company decided to hitch a ride on the female emancipation bandwagon. It parlayed Lucky Strikes from the number-three brand to first, partly by getting parading suffragettes to brandish cigarettes as symbolic ‘torches of freedom.’

There are many other ways of piggybacking or, to put it in classier lingo, leveraging pre-existing equity.

One of the most sophisticated, says Kathryn Boothby, a principal at Toronto’s Marketing & Communications Solutions, is to identify ideally timed opportunities for a client to speak out on topical issues or trends, either in media interviews or as the author of by-lined articles – thus indirectly publicizing his or her launch.

A sudsier version of this method is used by Toronto-based Molson Breweries to spark word-of-mouth about new additions to its Rickard’s Ale portfolio, according to Molson marketing publicist David Jones. ‘One PR technique we use is to get our brewmasters booked on the talk show circuit to communicate with beer connoisseurs.’

Anniversaries can be good pig-hopping opportunities, and so can survey data. Coca-Cola Canada used both when it launched Diet Coke with Lemon, says Vancouver-based spokeswoman Wendy Kubota. ‘We brought it out to coincide with Diet Coke’s 20th anniversary in Canada. And we supplied a human interest hook by doing a survey on the large number of consumers who [habitually] add lemon to their beverages.’

To belabour the porcine imagery just one more time, the ‘good works’ pig can be another effective vehicle for garnering publicity indirectly. Absolut Vodka, for instance, latched onto two cultural projects with the help of Susanne Courtney, president of Toronto’s Courtney Group. They are: Hot Docs, an annual documentary film festival celebrating its ninth year, and absolutdigitalart.com, a Web site featuring Canadian digital artists.

Don’t cry wolf until you’ve got a wolf

Even before strategizing about the wisdom of using the preceding techniques, PR pros can earn their keep by saying ‘no’ or ‘not yet.’ In other words, they help clients understand that, while a launch is a profoundly big deal in their world, the media may view it as a snoozer that doesn’t hold a candle to other breaking news.

‘If you just keep hitting them with press release after press release,’ says Coke’s Kubota, ‘it’s like crying wolf too many times.’ What’s the solution to that dilemma? Read on.

Scribble a catchy back-story

Launching a new initiative without telling a good story is like winking in the dark. You know what you’re up to, but nobody else does. So turning the light on by spotting and telling great stories is another of PR’s jobs and nothing in the marketing equation beats its capacity to do so.

Long before Heinz’s green and, later, purple ketchups hit the grocery stores, its PR team concocted an irresistible backstory by having children help choose the colour extensions and design a new ‘Ezee Squirt’ bottle that’s especially user-friendly for tiny hands.

Another case in point is the relaunch of Plymouth gin, scheduled for later this month. Courtney Group account director Jeff Fredericks helped the century-old client frame its story with historical resonance by taking spirits industry reporters on a junket to the product’s ancient distillery in Plymouth, England.

Playing the maple leaf card can also make for a dynamite back-story. That’s the technique Global Television chose for the launch of its Global National news show last fall, says publicity and promotions VP David Hamilton. His team, aided by Vancouver’s Wilcox Group, put the focus squarely on the repatriation of their Canadian-born anchor, Kevin Newman, after a successful career in the United States.

Other back-stories with maple leaves fluttering all over them include Corby Distilleries’ introduction of CC&G, which capitalized on the long-standing Canadian penchant for mixing rye and ginger ale; the participation of homegrown poets, comedians and academics in designing the Canadian edition of a fast-selling board game called Cranium; and Krispy Kreme’s now-Canadians-can-finally-eat-what-Americans-adore shtick.

Another version of flying the Canadian flag is making sure that, when products destined for north of the border are launched from the U.S., Canadian implications aren’t overlooked. When Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduced the iPod mp3 player in California, for example, Simon Atkins, president of Toronto-based Socratic Communications, made sure the Canadian media were simultaneously brought up to speed with information affecting Canadian consumers.

The no-brainer of telling a back-story is laying claim to ‘first’ status. Typical of this time-honoured technique was the public relations campaign recently designed by Betty Alexander, principal of Toronto’s Xposure PR, to introduce PointSite’s Graficard – the first interactive electronic loyalty card on the Canadian market.

To press conference or not to press conference

What Alexander and many other PR practitioners don’t automatically do nowadays is throw a press conference to launch something new.

‘There are often better and less costly strategies,’ she explains, ‘especially if the client isn’t a Fortune 100 company. You can spend a lot of time and money booking the venue, arranging the catering, contacting the media and organizing the event. And then some other major story breaks and nobody shows up, or some do but their stories are spiked.’

Far less risky is the 1-2 plan Alexander executed to launch PointSite’s Graficard. ‘First, we sent out an introductory news release, then we followed up individually with just the right editors and reporters, offering one-on-ones with [company president] Farhan Merchant. And then we took him around and made sure each [news outlet] got fresh quotes.’

Subaru went a ‘Mohamet-to-the-mountain’ step further than that to launch its 2003 Forester SUV. The company could have just told key automotive reporters about the new vehicle’s features, or even schlepped them to a nearby course for a test drive, says Baron Manett, director of strategy and client services at Toronto’s Myriad Marketing.

Instead, they decided to go for the full press junket and (ideally) whip the reporters into a frenzy of enthusiastic stories by flying them down to Birmingham, Alabama, to put the Forester through its paces at the famous Talladega Speedway.

Why go those hundreds of extra miles? ‘Because many media events are same old, some old,’ Manett explains. ‘We were pretty sure this adventure would result in some exciting stories, which would come out just as the Forester hits showrooms this spring.’

When is a press conference the right way to go? Winnipeg-based Jim Kingdon, managing partner of strategic services at Direct Focus Marketing Communications, says it’s the ideal venue for launches such as the one his company organized last month to introduce a diabetes-prevention initiative called ‘To Life.’

‘It pretty much had to be a classic talking-head event because we had about 50 stakeholder partners from the health field.’ These included the Canadian Diabetes Association, Health Canada, Manitoba Health, the Wellness Institute and many fitness facilities – all of whom, says Kingdon, wanted to appear at the press conference to promote their role in the program. Then he used the occasion to tease the upcoming ad campaign, which is basically a challenge to Manitobans to buddy up and commit to healthy diet and exercise regimens.

Speaking of multiple stakeholders, adds Edmonton’s Margaret Bateman, senior VP at Calder Bateman Communications, it’s the PR team’s responsibility to make sure all of them are fully briefed before press events, ‘so everyone’s on same page’ when reporters ask them questions.

She employed this technique recently when designing the rebranding of Edmonton’s Space and Sciences Centre, which was relaunched as the Odyssium thanks to, among others, a variety of sponsors in the tourism industry.

Make a spectacle of yourself

Nothing in the PR tool kit can be more fun, according to Halifax-based Steven Parker, CEO of the Corporate Communications Group, than launching with a great big publicity stunt.

‘They’re back big-time now that 70% of Canadians use television as their primary news source. Great pictures are manna from heaven to TV producers, so if you can dream them up, they’re bound to make it on-screen.’

What’s Parker’s idea of an effective publicity stunt? ‘To relaunch Red Rose tea, we turned a Volkswagen Beetle into a mobile teapot by sticking a handle and spout on it and driving it around to various events. And, for Alexander Keith’s beer, which is named for a three-time Halifax mayor who died over a century ago, we ran Mr. Keith for mayor in a municipal election, mutton chops and all.’

Publicity stunts can even leapfrog media gatekeepers, who decide what’s news and what’s not, capturing consumers directly, says Tania Koster, creative director at Ground Control, a Toronto agency that specializes in youth marketing. For this summer’s Canadian launch of Skechers’ retro rollerskates, Koster is repeating a strategy she also uses for Chupa-Chups lollipops.

‘We’ve put together the 4Wheelers Team [of young female stunt skaters], glammed them up in rave-type jumpsuits with Las Vegas-style glitter, and we’re taking them to high-profile events such as Toronto’s Gay Pride parade in June and Canada Day celebrations in July,’ she explains. ‘We take [the product] directly to the kids so our message can’t be diluted in any way.’

To sum up, when marketers have something new to launch, it’s news, and PR can prime the market in a way that traditional advertising can’t. ‘The magic’ to achieving maximum media fanfare and consumer excitement, says Halifax’s Steven Parker, ‘is knowing when to use one technique, when to use the other and when to use both.’