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How Small Brands Get Big Media Attention

In a fashion media landscape that favours advertisers, small brands have to be creative to draw coverage, let alone a spot on a magazine cover.
Emerging brand Grön Kulle's signature fleece jackets. Sophia Schrank.
Emerging brand Grön Kulle's signature fleece jackets. Sophia Schrank.

Gemma Greenhill, founder of California-based apparel label Grön Kulle says that for her brand, a mention in T Magazine, the New York Times’ dedicated style and culture publication, is “the crème de la crème” of media placements.

It’s a dream held by many small or independent fashion and beauty brands hoping to capture mainstream attention. But for a brand of Grön Kulle’s size — it launched in 2020 and only has about 3,400 Instagram followers — getting on T’s radar is a tricky task, particularly because it does not pay for media advertising or offer influencer or celebrity gifting programs.

But in March, it did just that, earning a feature in T’s “The T List,” a newsletter series that recommends five covetable things to readers. Greenhill had been promoting Grön Kulle on her existing brand Santa Venetia’s Instagram page, which attracts a dedicated following of clog enthusiasts. Lauren Mechling, the T writer who also runs an Instagram account called “The Clog Life” reached out to Greenhill for more information about her new venture.

The “T List” mention drove a 90 percent sales increase in the month the feature was published compared to the month prior. It also drove a bump in the brand’s email subscriber list and following on Instagram, Greenhill said.

Organic press attention is still valuable in helping brands build their businesses and trust with consumers. But in the current state of pay-for-play in fashion media — where advertisers dominate digital shopping features, editorials and even magazine covers — securing earned media placements is often difficult for smaller fashion brands, especially when compared to the relative ease of advertising on social media or through influencers, forcing brands to get creative with their press outreach.

“There’s still a lot of value in earned media,” said Cindy Krupp, founder of The Krupp Group. “It gives [a brand] that validation, it gives it that stamp of approval. When you see someone in the media writing about it and they weren’t compelled to write about it because it was a paid opportunity … we still see it translate into direct-to-consumer sales, new retail partners and brand partners.”

Making Room For Independent Brands

For their part, fashion editors are making an intentional effort to make room for new players, with some publications literally pledging to help emerging brands. Both Vogue and InStyle committed to the 15 Percent Pledge, requiring the titles to feature independent BIPOC businesses in its pages and online monthly. Other media outlets, like Refinery29, have dedicated sections of their website to supporting Black-owned brands or features that list AAPI-led businesses, while WhoWhatWear runs a regular weekly feature series called “Who What Wear Spotlight.”

“We ‘take care of business’ by featuring our fashion partners, but not at the expense of a great image, or shoe-horning talent into a ‘credit’ because we’ve gotten ourselves in the unfortunate situation where our business depends on it,” InStyle editor-in-chief Laura Brown said, noting that the magazine’s two upcoming June covers do not include any advertisers.

Even with this space made for smaller brands, the onus is primarily on publicists to secure coverage. Higher effort typically equals higher reward in that sense. Sending generic “email blasts,” for example, should be avoided, even if multiple outlets are covering the same topics or events. Pitching a brand to editors at consumer-facing and shopping-focused publications around relevant calendar events is what Krupp calls “low hanging fruit.”

“Our pitch efforts have always been very personalised and probably more so now than ever before,” Krupp said. “Do research around the journalist that you’re pitching, what they’ve covered in the past, what sort of content they normally cover and tailor a personalised pitch to that.”

When connecting with editors, attaching high-resolution product or campaign images may lead to brand coverage as well, assuming the brand is targeting the right editor or publication in the first place. Launchmetrics, a brand marketing platform, said the firm has seen up to a 238 percent increase in the use of gallery image coverage during various fashion week calendars, specifically, runway show galleries or “best of” features, the company’s chief marketing officer Alison Bringé said.

The return of in-person gatherings, particularly one-on-one appointments with journalists and more intimate showroom events, offers another opportunity to build relationships with editors, even if an immediate story does not materialise.

A Slam Dunk For A Sales Bump

Reaching out to the right publication is also key. Often, brand founders and designers instruct publicists to aim for a feature in Vogue or The New York Times, two publications which are effective in building brand awareness. But a credit in less obvious titles may do more to drive business in the short-term.

Regional press is really important because that community sticks.

For example, placements in the Los Angeles Times and HelloGiggles for the launch of Greenhill’s Santa Venetia brand didn’t drive sales. Instead, a 2019 feature in the San Francisco Chronicle, with a daily circulation of 176,721 and 437,000 daily readership, according to a Hearst Bay Area 2020 media kit, drove sales up 1,298 percent month-over-month from February to March that year. Although the Chronicle has a national audience, Greenhill said the article helped drive local interest in the shoes, given their production in San Francisco.

“Regional press is really important because that community sticks,” said Melissa Duren Conner, partner at Jennifer Bett Communications (JBC does not work with Santa Venetia). “[Readers] know it’s one of their own, so they’re obviously going to invest in that brand.”

There are national media and digital-only outlets that are effective in driving immediate sales, however. Duren Conner points to broadcast television and publications that reach a variety of audiences, like Gallery Media Group’s PureWow, a women’s lifestyle website, as particularly effective, said.

Plus, landing media coverage in one outlet can sometimes snowball into more headlines elsewhere. For example, JBC sent SPF from one of its clients, the beauty brand Cocokind, to a Women’s Health editor who tested it. The trial resulted in an online feature, eventually winning a beauty award from the Hearst title, and was then mentioned in a segment on the American morning program “Today.” JBC said the brand’s television appearance “inflated sales for the product after airing.”

Leveraging Coverage

Although a credit in a fashion editorial may seem like a career-defining moment for a brand founder or designer, its impact may be limited if the brand lets the story end with the publication.

“If I get a ring on a cover in a model shot … that’s not doing all that much for us except [building] brand awareness, but that’s not necessarily going to translate into sales,” Krupp said. Instead, Krupp’s approach to earned media means pursuing editorial features in addition to stories about a brand’s founder plus an influencer and VIP strategy. “That all has to happen in order to generate a desire for the brand to get the consumer motivated to actually make the purchase.”

At JBC, earned media coverage is then used to create content for digital ads, helping a brand extend the initial attention it received. Duren Conner said that digital ads that include assets from a press feature can drive double the return.

“It’s okay if maybe [a press feature] is not going to immediately drive the sales, but you want to be able to use that as leverage … because using a Vogue placement for digital marketing will convert even if that initial story did not.”

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The Shifting Power Dynamics In Fashion PR

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