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Traditional PR Doesn’t Work Anymore. Here’s What Does.

Designer credits and profiles in glossy magazines don’t move the needle like they once did. Here’s what small and mid-sized brands are doing to build awareness.
[Clockwise from top left:] Social media posts by Amy Smilovic, Telfar, Rodarte, Co, Eckhaus Latta and Entireworld | Source: Instagram and Twitter; collage by BoF
  • Lauren Sherman

NEW YORK, United States — PR just isn't what it used to be. Consider the experience of Tibi designer Amy Smilovic, who started her New York-based label in 1997, just three years before the launch of Lucky, the Condé Nast magalog. Unlike higher-brow fashion magazines that danced around the fact that they were in the business of selling clothes by orchestrating artful fashion shoots and lengthy designer profiles, Lucky was about one thing: shopping. It lacked elegance, but its intelligent copy offered trustworthy advice on what to buy and where.

For Smilovic, whose line has always sat in the middle of the pricing spectrum, Lucky became an important public relations tool. (A single product shot in the magazine could sell out an item.) "We would advertise sporadically in magazines like Vogue, but we were never quite sure because you couldn't connect the dots back then," she said. "Lucky was Instagram on paper, once a month. It did look so pedestrian, but it also drove sales."

Today, Lucky is no longer, and placements in magazines don't do so much for Smilovic, who successfully pivoted Tibi in 2011 from an over-merchandised, print-heavy contemporary label to something more advanced, design-driven and reflective of her own personality, more than doubling sales along the way and crossing over into profitability.

At the beginning of the turnaround, Smilovic relied heavily upon like-minded influencers to help get the word out, but she recently got serious about Instagram herself, posting her own outfits — she mixes brands she loves (like Loewe and Balenciaga) with her own designs — almost daily, and offering both styling and business advice for entrepreneurs. (On Sunday mornings, she does a call out for questions, which she'll answer throughout the week).

“No one is asking me how to slice avocados,” she said. “No one is writing in, asking, ‘What’s your horoscope?’ But they are asking me how to calculate a gross margin.” Her Instagram following remains small, but has doubled to 18,000 since April. Smilovic has also relaunched her “Unstitched” speaker series — focused on the inner workings of the industry —at Tibi’s Manhattan flagship and as a podcast. The in-store events often draw more than 200 fans.

“The more truthful you are, the more you communicate, the more it resonates,” she said.

It's a far cry from the days of Lucky. Now, awareness can be measured, as can sales conversions, bringing greater transparency to what works, and what doesn't, when it comes to public relations. Smilovic still does many of the things that she once did — she cultivates editor relationships; she shows at fashion week — although the way in which she does this has also changed.

The more truthful you are, the more you communicate, the more it resonates.

Not every brand or public relations firm has been able to adapt. A designer profile rarely attracts the attention it once did, unless the designer is already a celebrity and says something outrageous. Instead, designers are better off building online personas of their own and interacting directly with the customers. What’s more, product placements in print rarely drive discernible sales. (The exception is major newspapers, which have an older readership.) Today, the goal is to land credits on shopping-specific websites, on an influencer’s feed or through Instagram Shopping, which Tibi president Elaine Chang described as a “potent” tool.

And even if you believe that traditional press still brings a glow to a brand, securing those plum placements is harder than ever. Established fashion publications increasingly prioritise advertisers both online and off. The rest of their diminishing resources are focused on stories that will travel and attract eyeballs. In the past, publications would often run small news pieces that were not going to move the needle but were done as favours, or simply out of enthusiasm. Now, small staffs and measurable results make it much harder to justify these sorts of stories.

Here’s a quick primer on what works when traditional PR doesn’t.

Push Stories, not Products
In the past, brands would come to a publicist with a product they needed to push — perhaps a new design, or a new collection — and entrust the publicist to bill that product as news to a journalist. Today, consumers are exposed to new things several times a day. For that product to stick, the brand and publicist need to work together to come up with a legitimate reason for a consumer to pay attention.

"You have to have a strong narrative, and a strong story to tell," said Lisa Frank, a partner at Derris, the agency behind direct-to-consumer brands including Everlane, Reformation and Warby Parker. "If you need to push a product, that can work on your own channels. But for media, you need to find those storytelling moments. A new colourway is not news. No one cares."

At San Francisco-based basics label Everlane, oft-cited for its PR prowess, there are a handful a major press pushes each year — for instance, its intention to eliminate virgin plastic from its supply chain by 2021 and the launch of sneaker sub-brand Tread — dotted by product pushes most notably delivered via email marketing.

In high fashion, successful storytellers include Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond, whose contribution to the cultural conversation has attracted both press and consumers, allowing him to forge a long-term contract with Reebok. Simon Porte Jacquemus generates eyeballs via novelty: his super-sized hats and miniaturised bags may not be margin-drivers, but they are perfect meme fodder.

Tap a Range of Celebrities

Just a few years ago, getting product on an influencer like Olivia Palermo or a nouveau supermodel, preferably a Jenner or a Hadid, almost guaranteed a sell-out. But the Biebers and Bellas of the world are changing outfits so frequently now that it's harder to get seen.

What works more effectively is a broader seeding strategy that is not solely focused on celebrities and influencers with mass audiences, but a range of names that help create a brand identity in the eyes of the consumer, said Brian Phillips, founder and president of communications firm Black Frame, which works with brands from Eckhaus Latta to Nike, and creative agency Framework.

Phillips cited his own client Rodarte. While the Los Angeles-based label is better known for its handmade garments than commerciality, its "Radarte" merch has been a consistent revenue generator since it first launched in 2008 and has been worn publicly by friends of the designers including Kirsten Dunst and Dakota Fanning, but also Jay Z, Rihanna and comedian Will Ferrell. "It's the surprise of seeing something you didn't necessarily expect," he said.

From Designer Profiles to Designer Instagram Accounts
For brands, big designer profiles are often not worth the risk. Just like actors, designers are skipping magazine pieces and talking to their fans directly via social media, where they can better control the narrative and interact. While certain top-tier publications still offer the stamp of approval that some designers want, they don't necessarily move the needle.

“The more personal your brand is, the more successful your brand is,” said Tibi’s Chang. “Amy’s Instagram is so powerful because direct communication is really important.”

The more personal your brand is, the more successful your brand is.

From Rihanna to Marc Jacobs, designers have made a point of using their own platforms to help illustrate their personal worlds. It doesn't always result in direct sales conversions, but it does keep them in the conversation. Gucci's most recent advertising campaign was not covered by popular fashion and culture publication The Cut, but the site did write up an Instagram post from creative director Alessandro Michele, featuring his friend and frequent collaborator Jared Leto.

Don't Sweat the Credits
Visit the office of the chief marketing officer of any major print advertiser and you'll see magazines marked up with sticky tabs, indicating where the brand was featured in the issue. Unfortunately, these credits, which once showed a publication's commitment to their partnership — a pay-to-play arrangement that was often unspoken but effective — no longer mean as much as they once did. And if you're not an advertiser, the chances of brands getting their margin-driving hero products — think t-shirts, jeans, classic handbag styles — into a magazine is unlikely anyway.

That means brands have to think of new ways to market their bread-and-butter products, and it's typically not through traditional editorial placements. What works: Affiliate links via shopping-driven sites — such as The Strategist or Who What Wear — or influencers who make a believable argument that they really love what they are shilling.

Build a Community
"With brands that are smaller scale and are looking at developing their tone of voice, the very first thing we talk about is the community," Phillips said. "It needs to be authentic and distinctive."

I've never seen our sales go up from celebrity dressing or an article.

Community is a significant part of the direct-to-consumer playbook, from Supreme to Glossier. And for many fashion brands that deal in exclusivity, "clubbiness" has long been a part of the appeal. But cultivating that community from the bottom up can be a challenge. Telfar Clemens, who first launched his label in 2004, has parlayed his mission to make fashion more inclusive into a commercially viable business with passionate advocates. He often uses the line, "Not for you—for everyone." Clemons didn't win the Council of Fashion Designers of America Accessories Designer of the Year award for his hit "Shopping" bag, but he did receive an outpouring of press and community support. (In August 2019, long after the CFDA Awards and far longer after the bag first launched, Dazed Digital's Emma Hope Allwood wrote an ode to the item: "Why the Telfar Shopping Bag Is This Decade's Most Important Accessory.")

Create a Media Channel That Never Stops Streaming

Drip-feeding content is nothing new, but making it work has never been more challenging. Not only do you need a budget to build media, but you need good ideas. There are so many ways to go about this. Entireworld, the Los Angeles-based basics label launched in March 2018 by Band of Outsiders founder Scott Sternberg, is working with a limited budget. And yet Sternberg and his team are dolling out eighties-inspired, bizarro Instagram video campaigns, starring internet friendly celebrities including Busy Phillips, Jason Schwartzman and Amandla Stenberg on the regular. These moments, made possible by personal relationships and creative integrity, are helping to shape the point of view of a brand that can afford very little paid marketing at this stage of growth.

And right now, using Instagram as the vehicle is a key component. For Entireworld's first celebrity-driven video campaign, the brand teamed with a major women's fashion publication, which had the 'exclusive' and ran videos embedded from the label's YouTube page within an article on their site. The view count after a few days was in the low 100s for each video. On Entireworld's Instagram, those same videos received 1,500 to 15,000 views per post, and that was when the account had under 10,000 followers. (It now has close to 45,000.)

"Enthusiastic comments with friends tagged, along with the IG algorithm doing it’s thing, proved to be a much more effective PR machine than giving one publication an exclusive, which seems to be the requirement with any sort of content these days no matter how antithetical the concept of exclusivity is to social and digital media," Sternberg said. "From our past experience, press was always most powerful in its ability to create a collective buzz around a specific moment for a brand...those collective moments are just fewer and further between these days."

Think IRL, Too
Brands are also using physical spaces as a form of media. Co, another Los Angeles-based label, has rarely employed traditional methods of PR. Founders Stephanie Danan and Justin Kern have never staged a runway show or any formal presentation and they've done little to court the press, influencers or celebrities. "Artificially pushing doesn't work," Danan said. "I've never seen our sales go up from celebrity dressing or an article."

Instead, the company, which is profitable and on track to generate close to $20 million in 2019, has invested in renting the Fitzpatrick-Leland house, designed in 1936 by famous mid-century architect R.M. Schindler. (The MAK Center for Art and Architecture, a nonprofit, owns the house.) There, they host appointments with buyers, private appointments with customers and casual get-togethers and dinners throughout the year, all in lieu of a traditional store and press events. They also shoot their lookbooks there.

“A couple times a month, I’ll get introduced to someone and the person will say, “Ah, that’s the brand with that house,’” Kern said. “The person may not know the brand well, they may not yet own a piece, but they’re aware.”

Disclosure: Lauren Sherman worked at Lucky magazine from 2011-2012.

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