I had to stage an intervention for my client.
This was a client I was deeply passionate about – sharing their story of success and brilliance in speeches and presentations across the world. The kind of client you are proud to have on your portfolio, even if the mathematics doesn’t come together.
He is hugely successful in his industry, actually the domestic market leader. But he wanted to expand beyond the psychographics that he dominated – moving from a mass market where every naira counts to a more elite market where the spender quality is the measure.
Our PR business had done a good job doubling down on the primary market, according to him. But it was now time to move to a new space, a new level.
The problem? We knew PR wasn’t the solution.
This wasn’t going to be an easy meeting, and so I pulled out the big guns and pulled in the C-Suite: the chief executive officer, the chief marketing officer and two members of the board.
I brought in four members of my team as well, because convincing a highly successful, strong-willed client that the medicine they seek is not the medicine they need is the stuff of wrestling matches.
If you want the market to change, our proposition stated, the product itself would have to change in significant ways. Either by itself, or as a sub-brand.
The meeting panned out exactly as we had planned it. One of the board members began to make our case for us, the two executives had aligned their position with agency. Holdout was CEO.
Sensing that he was losing the argument, he (a highly ethical client looking for a way out of a difficult spot) went straight for the jugular: our competence as a PR company: “So are you saying that as an agency, if I come to you with a bad product that has failed and is causing trouble, and I say ‘use PR to sort it out’, you will say you wont do it?”
I knew the answer he expected, but it was an easy corner for me to back out of.
“I would say no, because my job is to tell the client the truth, and then help that client tell the most impactful version of that truth,” I said, keeping a straight face. “And even if I failed to do that because I want to keep the money, that doesn’t it make it the right thing to do. The right thing to do is to give the client the most useful advice that would actually help the brand succeed in the long term – which would be: accept responsibility without necessarily admitting complicity, engage with stakeholders, work together to rebuild trust.”
It was easy to back out because I needed this client to get the point: Public Relations cannot solve everything.
The discipline of communication is a wide ranging one that encompasses a huge range of fields: brand management, identity management, media planning, advertising, product and brand strategy, experiential marketing, digital marketing, community relations, government relations, media relations, customer acquisition, out of home, and so on.
This client needed product strategy.
Not newspaper mentions, press releases, a press conference, interviews, advert placements or street activations. We needed to develop a new product line, and after that, a new brand for the product to wear.
And I have found myself preaching this message to several shocked clients: you don’t need PR.
Public Relations is the art of managing audiences to align with a preferred reputation. The business case is that the built reputation ultimately feeds into your bottom-line, which is usually money or glory.
Product strategy is the craft of creating something that people will buy – mostly tangible: the thing that you actually want to sell.
Building a product is first, building a brand is next, then communicating the brand follows, which is where PR, Advertising and the rest of the sub segments exist.
What I find with Nigeria is that, first and foremost, most businesses desperately need a product strategy. And when we see that problem, we make that pitch.
We use this pitch to reject a lot of personal brands, especially entertainment celebrities. Generally, successful artistes in this market generally don’t need anything more than periodic PR support. They are usually masters at brand building, and understand how to generate the attention they need – because passionate audiences (raving fans) make it easy to sell what you need to sell. In this market, successful entertainment talent products automatically generate good reputations – at least the kind of reputation that feeds their bottom-line.
Those that come are those who are having problems already. And that’s usually the first sign.
It’s the first sign that the product is faulty to begin with.
So, first, our Entertainment Practice gets to work on the important questions – what kind of music do you sing? Why do you sing this kind of music? What does the market want? What does the market need? What producers are you working with? How are you managed?
Many times, the music, not the reputation, is the problem.
Sadly, like many Nigerian brands, they usually they want a quick fix: A Band-Aid over their mortal wound.
So, we guide them gently away. There is no point undertaking an assignment that’s going to fail.
You find the same problem with a lot of tech businesses that come to you for help, and especially with e-commerce. In fields where there are more copycats than originals, saturation creates a red ocean, and it becomes important for communication to help define a brand that truly stands out.
In this case, and always, it’s the job of the confident professional to insist on what he knows to be right, the way a doctor must insist on what the patient needs.
Many months ago, a potential client came with a mobile product targeted at university students. The product involved video. He wanted a one-year PR strategy.
The head of our digital company and the head of our communication company listened attentively, very excited at what he wanted to do. But something was nagging the back of our minds that we couldn’t quite put words on.
So we peppered him and his team with questions. Then we took all the answers home and brainstormed through them.
We found out what it was. The product had a major problem – data.
To do the kinds of things he wanted students to do, Nigeria’s present data capacity would make it impossible. The product would not be intuitive. The cost of PR would outweigh significant short and mid term potential revenue. Until the client solved the ‘hard thing’ of its data roadblock, the needle would not move in the market place.
We made this case: that it would be malpractice to provide a PR solution for a larger business problem; and we provided a detailed road map that would lead to a functional product strategy.
As we suspected, we didn’t hear from the client again. The mental cost of re-invention was apparently too daunting
Many, many months after, and PR activities later, the product has still failed to launch.
The more people refuse to listen to the solutions they actually need, insisting that they know what they actually don’t, the more products and brands we will have in Nigeria that will fail to launch, or will fail to make the transition from good to great.
Which is really a tragic, tragic waste of potential.