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Win the fight for relevance

Rachel Friend, Weber Shandwick
Rachel Friend, Weber Shandwick

Against a backdrop of government spending cuts and fluctuating consumer confidence, PR agencies can give partner brands the creativity and expertise needed to stand out from the crowd, writes Weber Shandwick's Rachel Friend

Consumer confidence rose sharply in August, despite the austerity onslaught from the government spending review and rising fears of a double-dip reces­sion. The GfK/NOP four-point rise is the first since February, sparking debate as to whether the public is taking a long-term view, accepting immediate personal hardship in exchange for a better long-term economy.

This shift in attitude signals the start of the most interesting period for consumer marketing since the banks crashed two years ago. As the nights draw in, heating goes on and Christmas looms, households will go through the annual re-evaluation of their budgets.

While a high number of house­holds were affected by the crash, a significant section of society worried and stopped spending, only to discover they still had their job, their mortgage was much cheaper and they were a little better off. How confident will this group of people be feeling today?

Those immediately affected are the ones who thought their jobs would always be safe – public sector workers. Now that the Chancellor is looking for cuts in every department, recent research suggests that up to a third of the population may be feeling insec­ure about their future. Who can realistically predict the knock-on effect on the private sector? And how long until we start to feel that long-term benefit we are so hope­ful of? Whether there’s a double-dip or not, we’re certainly entering phase two of this recession.

Therefore, it couldn’t be a more crucial time for brands to be close to customers. Consumer attitudes, confidence and behaviour will change as the cuts play out.

Brands have already spent two years fine-tuning their recession messaging. Many have converged, combining their core positioning with a value proposition. As a con­sequence, sectors are now filled with brands that offer little differ­entiation. Marketers will have to begin again, with a renewed focus on customer relev­ance to create standout and loyalty.
This makes it the most exciting time to be in consumer marketing.

After a couple of years as head of consumer PR at Sainsbury’s, I recently took up my role at Weber Shandwick. As the recession hit, Sainsbury’s worked incredibly hard to maintain its quality creden­tials, while also talking about value in a way that effectively connected with its customers.

The Basics range and campaigns such as ‘Feed your family for a fiver’ and ‘Switch and save’ were born out of a deep relationship with customers. At the same time, Sainsbury’s continued to talk about its market-leading CSR: the world’s biggest Fairtrade retailer; animal welfare standards and fundraising for Comic Relief.

Within my first month at Weber Shandwick, I already have three briefs on my desk from brands looking for the big idea to create consumer relevancy. Just as at Sainsbury’s, the briefs are not PR-specific; all three are looking for that big idea that will be played out across all disciplines and channels. Our clients are not hung up on disciplines: a good idea is a good idea, as long as it resonates with the target audience.

Clients are looking for evidence that the creative solution will achieve standout and drive loyalty. Planners and creatives have never had a bigger role to play.

We have the strongest central team I’ve seen in PR, combining a planning team with creatives, digital, broadcast and print experts, who, together with the account teams, work on all new briefs. The debate as to whether PR agencies should have these experts is long gone; they are part of the fabric of the agency and help us to work as genuine partners with other marketing agencies.

In the unpredictable 12 months ahead, it’s only those agencies that can stay close to consumers and refine messaging at pace that will win the battle of relevancy and differenti­ation for clients.

Rachel Friend, managing director, consumer marketing, Weber Shandwick

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