YOU GOTTA EARN IT: HOW CULTURAL COURAGE EARNS MEDIA COVERAGE
20 SEPTEMBER 2016
You may have heard this simple adage from PR 101. But here’s a twist:
Advertising is what you say about yourself. PR is what they say about you. Earned media is owning the conversation between.
MAKING GREAT ADS THAT NO ONE WANTS TO WATCH
The concept of earned media is a practice that was born out of the ineffectiveness of traditional media buys. Build it, and it doesn’t necessarily mean they will come. Earned media is rooted in the belief that good content and great ideas will sell themselves. So, sure, we set in motion our brand stories by buying some media, but the real win is earning a place in the cultural conversation. And when a fire is lit that just can’t be contained, content becomes irresistibly shareable. While many claim that this phenomenon can’t be orchestrated—is it possible we have the equation all wrong? Brands in general are notorious for making ads that no one wants to consume—let alone their products. Even as a purpose-led creative agency, we too, are guilty of banging the gong when no one really cares. But in stealthy corners of the marketing landscape, brands are winning at this game again and again. Curious? Read on.
EARNED MEDIA GETS YOU MORE BANG FOR THE BUCK
How many brands do you know that just have money pouring out of their ears for every initiative they want to tackle? If anything, it’s just the opposite. The rise of the nimble creative agency is a direct result of brands requiring their once lavish media and production budgets to be spent on more nimble, disruptive and hard-working ideas. And the Lean Startup model has demonstrated a successful methodology of test and refine that flies in the face of large-scale annual marketing exercises. At the very least, brands are siphoning off dollars for more provocative and powerful initiatives ranging from internal innovation to external collaborations and cultural mockumentaries that remind us that marketing, in many cases, should be just a little more fun. Transforming “Drink More Ovaltine” into compelling stories against the backdrop of a highly commoditized world, it’s the savvy marketers who quickly respond to cultural cues who will inevitably win the day. Said simply: your money goes further when your message is carried not solely by traditional media, but in the hearts and minds of consumers everywhere—and amplified by earned media coverage.
PUNCH THE BIGGEST BRAND IN THE FACE–AND THE REST WILL FLEE
We’ve all seen it. That moment when the little guy, cornered and scared musters all of his courage and knocks out the biggest bully first. Only to see the rest of his posse fumble and flee. Nimble, light-footed challenger brands use the conversation around cultural hot topics as leverage. We call this: drafting off the cultural conversation. How do you do this? Well, first you have to stomach the risk. It all starts with identifying a topic that is surrounded with controversy and intrigue—where emotions run high and opinions rage like teenage hormones. It’s a little like walking into the middle of a street fight and putting on a pantomime show. That’s something I’d like to see.
As a challenger brand, your battle isn’t always against your direct competitors. Instead your battle is against other brands that are stealing the limelight—your limelight. Yes, there will be naysayers. But there will also be a healthy dialogue, and most importantly it has the potential to create that— “oh no they didn’t” moment that so many brands long for. And for the boring brands that want to play it safe, don’t worry. You’ll have plenty more months and years to drone on about features and benefits after this so-called flash in the pan is over. But seize the day, take a chance, get in the fight, grow a thicker skin and starting earning your stripes.
WHO'S CRUSHING IT WITH EARNED MEDIA?
How about the Apple Watch. No, the other Apple Watch. To get Jim Beam Apple back in the conversation, Jim Beam whiskey launched a nimble content-led campaign that earned them coverage on Mashable, Reddit and Fortune among others. On the heels of disappointing news from Apple, Jim Beam launched its own version of the “Apple Watch”—a satirical product that riffed off the less than exciting Apple news stirring up clouds of conversation on social media. Playfully posing as the Apple Watch you actually want to wear, it featured a telescoping shot glass that comes off the face of the watch and a green— “because some apples are green” watch band. All so you can pour that perfect shot of Jim Beam Apple, whenever you want. Within three or four hours, the 25 test models were sold out online. And with the flood of interest and curiosity, the Jim Beam Apple Watch will likely become the must-have item for every distributor, on-premise promotional giveaway and beyond.
“There is only one thing worse in the world than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” - Oscar Wilde
THE CONVERSATION IS EARNED BY COURAGE
Arby’s is a master of the craft—Meat Craft—that is. Over the last few years, they’ve successfully propelled their brand forward through earned coverage. And it’s had massive business impact. After a drumbeat of disruptive activity, they’ve shifted their consumer base to a younger audience, boasting a whopping 50% of their consumers at 35 and under. Their secret sauce? They would argue that they don’t talk as much as they listen. And while some brands would steer clear of controversy via social media, they dive headlong into it. In a 2015 Adweek article, Arby’s CMO Rob Lynch addressed this strategic shift in their business with these words. While the brand was suffering, he didn’t believe the brand was dead. Instead, it simply “craved some courage.” Arby’s shifted their message to focus on their onlyness— “We Have The Meats.” With a voice that only Arby’s could deliver, they entered the cultural fray and made some friends along the way. Whether a twitter callout to Pharell that went viral when he donned a hat shockingly similar to the iconic Arby’s brand at the Grammy’s or a satirical dialogue with Jon Stuart when he took a dig at them—they used their social platforms to create more and more of those “oh no they didn’t” moments that keep them top of mind when consumers get hungry. But it didn’t end there. On Leap Day 2016, meat-drenched Arby’s punk’d the world by introducing a faux Vegetarian menu—the same Arby’s sandwiches, just without the meat. Sure, they outraged a few on the fringe, but most got the joke—and the media happily carried it forward as yet another piece of satire from an increasingly beefy brand.
ONCE YOU'VE EARNED COVERAGE, KEEP THE CONVERSATION GOING
You’ve heard it said that if you don’t like the conversation, change it. Now that you’ve earned it in the hearts and minds of consumers, this is the critical moment to change the conversation. Earned media is a door opener, a pickup line; it can be funny, it can be satirical and it can be outright insane. But the point is to start the conversation and steer that dialogue into a storytelling constellation that serves as a long-form vessel for an above or below-the-line campaign. You should be prepared with a full-scale follow-up that is more strategic and drives action. This campaign on the heels of a successful earned media blitz will be relevant now that the world is hooked on what you have to say. So brand marketers, don’t be afraid of the big idea—the one that just doesn’t fit into the plan. Let it be your Trojan Horse. By acting courageously in opportune moments brands like Arby’s, Jim Beam and many others are stealing the limelight. The best part is: with a little courage and a little luck, you can too.
Ever Courageous graphic by Sydney Michuda.