Standing Apart From the Crowd

I was caught ridiculously off guard during a recent new business client presentation. The potential client asked what three qualities or attributes set my agency apart from others. In the 24 years since I started my agency, I’ve found that potential

clients want to hear more about our thoughts on their business than a recitation of our qualities, so I was more ready to discuss the client’s most mediagenic attributes and our strategic and creative ideas to help achieve their objectives.

Oh, sure, I had case studies at the ready about our past experience and successes related directly to the potential client’s business, but I had gotten used to taking our own qualities for granted. Surely, I conjectured, every new business prospect knew all about us, our wonderful achievements over the years and our qualities that made us “legendary” (measured with one part self-deprecation, one part ego-generated and one part down home, honest truth).

So, I fumfered (or phumphered) a bit and was saved by my team.

However, later in thinking about it, I decided to reevaluate our differentiating position and the qualities of my agency in which my team and I took the greatest pride, had the most credibility and were highly promotable.

Since I founded Fineman PR in 1988, we have become nationally known for Brand PR (we coined the term back in 1995), effective consumer messaging, reasoned and principle-based crisis communications and food safety initiatives, multicultural outreach, wine expertise and community relations. Is that what potential clients want to hear? Or is it a list of attributes that we hold dear: creativity, strategic thinking, senior level involvement, diligence, excellence, relentlessness and responsiveness? What agencies would not make those claims? I also put the question to my staff.

From my intrepid group, the top three points of differentiation have to do with our Brand PR focus, the strategic approach we take with all client counsel, especially from our crisis experience, and the large agency talent we offer with small agency responsiveness. This mirrors the feedback we have repeatedly heard from clients who have previously worked with other agencies – including some with very large, multinational firms.

Here is what we ultimately came up with:

1. National credibility – We are a boutique-sized agency, but we have successfully worked on and are known for a number of high profile issues, including marketplace-honored communications for Odwalla’s tainted juice issue; ending a Berkeley radio staff insurrection; terminating the national Avian Influenza scare; battling false charges against produce companies; dispelling rumors and false charges during a fiery conflagration in Santa Barbara County that threatened the reputation of a respected College; responding to wine taint issues, ultimately chronicled in a best-selling business text; and so many others that never came to fruition due to excellent crisis management. We also helped launch a number of well known natural foods into the mainstream marketplace, popularized packaged salads, promoted, early-on, the “Wrapp” concept, launched successful dot coms that are still alive and kicking today; and, of course, for developing our annual Top 10 PR Blunders list, published nationwide and now in its 17th year.

2. Brand PR focus – In 1995, when I first came up with this concept of promoting brand values and integrity in story form as a differentiator, we published The Brand PR Newsletter and distributed it to food companies nationwide. It was all about anecdotes and expert testimonials that demonstrated the importance of market trust in a brand’s legacy and how-to’s about making the brand promise so meaningful that other mitigating factors (price, for example) would lose relevance. Soon after, many of those large companies reorganized their marketing and communications to include “Brand PR” departments.

3. Strategic communications based on principle – Our crisis experience has been marked across the board by success and deceleration of marketplace noise and hostility. We believe it is because we start with a principled approach (what we have termed in an acronym – PANTCHEK). Too often, we witness crisis responses from agencies that seem to come “on the fly” or by the “seat of their pants” without much in the way of responsible client counsel. So often, these efforts are marked by adversarial communications, deflecting blame and defensiveness without much reflective insight about what the marketplace needs to hear to be able to trust in the organization’s long-term values and viability.

This exercise we initiated was good for us from the standpoint of staying relevant to an evolving marketplace. And it’s to assure I don’t get caught ridiculously off guard on this issue ever again.

 

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