Tips for Communicators from American Girl
By Beth Anne Mumford, CMA
My daughter asked to visit the American Girl store for her sixth birthday. McKenna, the 2012 Doll of the Year, and the only thing she wanted from Santa, was waiting for her under the Christmas tree just a few months earlier. I agreed to take her to the closest American Girl retail store for shopping and a birthday lunch at the café.
There, among the frenzied girls, pink walls and bright lights, I discovered some good lessons for today’s public relations and communications professionals.
1. Respect your history, but look toward the future: American Girl got its start with a line of fictional historical characters that live in historically significant times that both pre-date America and follow our nation’s path through the civil war, the Great Depression, World War II and the 1970’s. Each doll has an interesting story that brings to life major issues of the time while teaching about important values such as integrity, friendship or self-esteem. A mid-1990’s marketing change (more on that in a minute) away from historical characters to dolls updated for today’s modern girl has proven to be vital to American Girl’s continued and growing success three decades after its founding.
Knowing when to put successful programs and outreach of the past aside to implement fresh, new communication ideas is a vital skill for every communication or PR professional tasked with keeping a brand, idea or organization relevant. History is important because it helps us understand how our messages, ideas and products fit in with today’s discussion and give us a credible platform from which to build. But, connecting with consumers in today’s environment means thinking ahead, understanding trends and meeting consumer’s rapidly changing values, not resting on history.
2. Personalize your outreach: That mid-1990’s adjustment at American Girl led the way for the highly successful My American Girl line that continues to expand today. Instead of choosing a doll with a defined personality and historical setting, today’s young shoppers can create a special doll with unique characteristics. From eye and hair color to skin tone and freckles, each doll may be personalized in hundreds of ways. Add clothes, pets, sports equipment, musical instruments or wheelchairs, and girls can create a doll that represents the things most important in their lives.
PR pros are often faced with targeting a variety of audiences with unique and specific interests. Just like those young shoppers, adult consumers want the information they receive to be meaningful and important to their specific needs and interests. Today’s communication and outreach must be personalized for targeted audiences or it is not likely to be effective. Both messages and communication tools mush be diverse and flexible enough to work for a variety of audiences.
3. Tell a rich, compelling story: A rich, detailed and compelling story adds to the popularity of American Girl. McKenna, the doll over which my daughter dotes, is a gymnast, just like her, with light brown hair and blue eyes, also just like her. McKenna has a pet, friends and a little trouble with reading. The doll’s story is robust and detailed, and many young girls can relate to it.
American Girl has mastered the art of story-telling and connecting with values. It’s not enough to have a good product or idea. In today’s environment, communication and PR efforts must tell a compelling story and effectively articulate how a product or idea meets customer’s values and expectations
4. Merchandize the message: Flip through the American Girl magazine, and you discover quickly that the dolls are just the starting point. The company has mastered the art of elevating a simple doll to represent an interesting story that leads to ongoing interaction and engagement. The early historical dolls came to life through books and a magazine. Today’s American Girl characters have those, too, but also websites and movies, web-based games, puzzles and e-cards. And of course, you can visit a retail store with a café and a beauty salon (which is actually for the dolls).
Any successful communications campaign must merchandize the message so that it reaches as much of the targeted audience as possible. Today, this includes using digital tools, such as websites, social media, podcasts, videos and images to deliver content to audiences. It’s no longer enough to issue a statement or press release and just hope the audience notices. PR professionals must provide ongoing and interesting opportunities that encourage audience and customer interaction.
5. Make your budget count: Even if you have never bought an American Girl doll, you are probably aware that the prices are higher than average. My daughter asked the rest of our family to send a few dollars for her birthday instead of sending gifts so she could do a little shopping. She added some of her own savings, and we had a budget for our shopping trip. But, alas, it was not enough for all that she saw and wanted. Plus, she’s only six years old, so math is not yet a refined skill.
Every communications pro knows what it’s like to be richer in ideas than resources. Make the budget count by identifying the target audience and your goals; what you want them to do, think and believe after interacting with the outreach campaign. Take time to prioritize the budget and identify the programs and outreach most likely to succeed in meeting goals. And, like we did at the store, decide what can wait for the next time.
6. Life is short: If you do find yourself at the American Girl café, order dessert. It’s worth it, and so is spending the day with a happy six-year-old in her best party dress.
By Abby White, CMA
I’m getting married next weekend. The big day is almost here, and my fiancé and I couldn’t be more excited! We’ve had a fairly long engagement, and all of our details are finally coming together. I’ve been in PR for a while now and have done my fair share of event planning, so planning a wedding planning should come easy for me, right?!
Turns out, there are quite few similarities between a wedding and planning a PR campaign.
Know your audience. Our wedding is laid back. When you look at our invite list, the term “laid back” fits most of our guests very well. Our family get-togethers are never fancy affairs with nice china and polished silver but, instead, usually backyard barbeques or potluck dinners on paper plates. Our friends are happy to gather around in lawn chairs on our back deck instead of dressing up for a night out on the town. Our wedding fits our audience—we’re planning an outdoor ceremony at my parents’ ranch— just as any PR campaign should.
Communicate. Sure, there are similarities between engagement announcements and press releases, wedding invitations and brochures, ceremony programs and point-of-sale pamphlets and wedding websites and product websites, but there is also that communication back to the client, or, in my case, my soon-to-be husband and my mom. With every wedding checklist item I crossed off, I made sure to communicate the details. The same is true in client relations; keep the client in the loop and provide regular project updates.
Stick with the plan. We planned to have a medium-sized ceremony with friends and family. When it came time to send out the invitations, we pondered, ‘Shouldn’t we invite my dad’s cousins we haven’t seen since 1993?’ For us, the answer was ‘no.’ We needed to stick with our original plan and guest list. Plus, we didn’t want to blow our wedding budget. Similarly, in PR, while sometimes client needs will change, most well-thought-out plans are that way for a reason. Don’t change things up in the heat of the moment without careful discussion and planning. Clients will often thank you for staying on-target and on-budget.
Our wedding countdown continues, and I only hope our big day is as successful as some of the PR campaigns I’ve worked on have been.
By Jana McGuire, CMA
At CMA, we’re all about food. Most businesses are in one way or another, heaping bowls of candy in the conference room, endless grazing on goodies in the office kitchen, the carb-loaded ‘I need a Thanksgiving nap now’ client lunches. We do that, too, but food is our niche. We communicate about food, strategize about it and engage in public conversations that are food-focused. So, what better way to celebrate April Fools’ Day than to prank with, that’s right, food!
I searched high and low to find the best food gags, most of which are fun and fairly harmless (This is where I insert the “CMA takes no responsibility for paybacks” disclaimer!). Whether you try these on a co-worker or at home, they’re sure to bring big smiles – or major smack-downs!
1. Stealthy Swap: If you’re a novice, start with the classic “salt in the sugar bowl” switcheroo.
2. Make the Cut?: My mom’s favorite: Throw strips of cloth into pancakes or waffles while they’re cooking. (And, she always told us life isn’t about material things!)
3. Pour Me: Freeze the milk overnight and put it back in the fridge before the family awakes to a big glass of….nothing.
4. Captain “Critter” Crunch: How easy! Throw some nasty plastic bugs in the cereal box.
5. Morning Mayhem: On April Fools’ Day eve, dampen the family toothbrushes and sprinkle with salt. No need to set your alarm. You’re bound to get a wake-up call.
6. Cookie Crasher: Remove the white filling in a few Oreo cookies and replace it with a thin layer of white toothpaste. Put the cookies back in the bag, and wait for your first victim. Really, who doesn’t want fresh breath AND black teeth?
7. Cotton Ball Confections: Fill a fancy box with cotton balls dipped in chocolate.
8. An Onion-A-Day: Make caramel apples, and throw an onion into the mix. Roll in chopped nuts for added authenticity!
9. Sponge Cake Anyone?: Frost and decorate a car wash sponge, and wait for your just desserts.
10. Carnivore Cupcakes: Bake meatloaf in foil muffin liners, and frost with colored mashed potatoes.
11. Did You Know?: If you freeze mayonnaise, it looks exactly like vanilla ice cream. The possibilities are endless!
12. Spaghetti Spoof: Sprinkle a Kool-Aid packet in a container of dry spaghetti. The powder will go undetected until the goods splash down. Watch the water – and the cook’s face – turn colors!
13. A Dust Up: This is one of those “funny if someone else does it” kind of pranks. Put a thin layer of flour on top of the ceiling fan blades, and – well, you know what happens next.
Okay, so I can’t stop at 13: Throw a few raisins in the bottom of a friend’s coffee cup, replace the apple juice with vinegar, put food coloring in the milk, or slip a plastic-wrapped cheese slice in a sandwich. The things we do to amuse ourselves at the expense of others. But heck, it’s just one day, and it’s all in fun, right?
Stay tuned for our next blog: Crisis Communications in the Workplace: Who Knew Your Boss Was Allergic to Onions?
With that, Happy April Fools’ Day!
By Hinda Mitchell, CMA
I’ve been spending a fair amount of time on airplanes early in 2013. (In fact, I’m writing this from a cruising altitude of 36,000 feet, and we’ve now been approved to use our portable electronic devices.) My travels got me thinking about my airport and in-flight experiences, and how they mirror many of the experiences our agency team has in communications planning and execution.
1. Expect the unexpected. Flights get delayed. Weather problems happen. Crews don’t show up. In communications, like with air travel, you need to anticipate the unexpected. While as communicators we can write the best plans and execute them flawlessly, we can’t predict everything. Preparedness means planning for what happens when things don’t go as planned. Ask others to “shoot holes” in your perfect plan. Find your “devil’s advocate” and use him or her to help you anticipate what could happen.
2. Make the connection. There is nothing worse than missing a connection at the airport. It’s even worse when you’re sitting on the tarmac watching it happen in real-time. Take the time to target your audiences; then evaluate your communications efforts as you execute. Did you reach those whom you wished to reach? Did they hear the messages you were sharing? The best campaign makes no connection if the right audiences never hear it.
3. There’s usually a screamer. We’ve all had the flight with the screaming child. Communicating has them, too; we call it the 80-10-10 rule. The two 10s are the screamers – those audiences at both ends of the spectrum who are the noisiest. Target messages and tactics are the 80 percent in the middle – that’s where you’ll find the best results, not in converting the screamers.
4. It may get uncomfortable at times. What made that person think eating stinky Chinese food on the plane was a good idea? Why are we often seated by that person with an unusually bad case of flatulence? Communications does not always go smoothly. When things get uncomfortable, shift gears, or even take a break if you need to. Don’t let an uncomfortable moment take you off-course.
5. Pack lightly. Over-packed suitcases are hard to lug through airports. They often don’t fit in the overhead compartment. Take a look at your current communications programming. Does it fit? Is it more than what you need? Ask yourself honestly if you’ve packed the right things in your communications “suitcase”. Sometimes less is more.
6. The moving sidewalk will come to an end. So your program is on the right track. Things are moving forward swimmingly. And then, all of a sudden, the sidewalk ends. Whether your latest campaign is completed or just taking a new direction, always look ahead and think about what’s next. Will you be headed the right way when you’re walking on your own once more?
7. It’s all about getting from Point A to Point B. While air travel can be grueling, so can executing a communications campaign. As the trip (or the plan) is coming together, remember this: It’s all about using the right strategies to achieve your objectives. Whether your destination is business or personal, staying focused on the desired outcome is critical.
8. The sky is the limit. Let your most innovative ideas take flight. Whether it’s for a client, your company or a volunteer effort, don’t be afraid to fly higher. While common tactics still deliver results, those who excel as communicators embrace innovation and shoot high. In addition to the expected, try something new. Maybe it’s a new social media strategy, or perhaps taking the conversation into an emerging medium, either way, consider giving something new a try.
By Beth Anne Mumford, CMA
By now, you’ve likely seen the two-minute Super Bowl commercial, “So, God Made a Farmer,” narrated by the legendary voice of radio, Paul Harvey. The two-minute ad for Chrysler’s Ram trucks, which ran during the fourth quarter of the game to much acclaim, has been viewed online by nearly 20 million people since its release.
The poignant words that Harvey delivered in 1978 at a Future Farmers of America meeting, combined with stirring images of today’s farm families at work, creates a story that resonates with farmers and non-farmers alike. In addition, it reveals how a simple story told correctly can resonate deeply with audiences.
So, here are a few lessons both farmers and communicators learn from the “So, God Made a Farmer” ad:
Define success: In less than one week, Chrysler met its goal for video views by exceeding more than 10 million views. One way it did this: Pledging one dollar for each view of the “farmer” video, up to one million dollars, to Future Farmers of America. Of course, the ultimate goal of Chrysler’s overall 2013 “Year of the Farmer” campaign is to sell more trucks, but establishing a vision and giving people a reason to engage with the campaign, rather than simply asking them to buy vehicles, gave Chrysler something tangible to achieve beyond buying a single Super Bowl ad. It also gave them a way to measure success, and, if you don’t know what success looks like, you’ll never know when it’s achieved. Before you launch any communications campaign or outreach effort, identify your audience, identify your goals and then take positive actions toward achieving your goals.
Connect with values: The ad touched the heart of farmers and non-farmers by evoking the basic American values of hard work, stewardship and community responsibility. Knowing your values and being able to clearly articulate them is the best starting point as you begin to connect with intended audiences. If your skeptics feel that you share their values, they will be more willing to understand and support your efforts and what you have to say. Think about the values that guide you, whether it be as a farmer or a PR professional, and make them part of your personal conversations and outreach efforts.
Paint a compelling picture: Images can tell a story and illuminate an idea. Social activists everywhere know the right images may bring attention to a cause or turn an audience away from a brand. Think about the story you want to tell, and use honest words and compelling visuals to share it. Post pictures on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, create a website or share them via Instagram. For example, showing consumers where their food comes from is often more effective than simply telling them.
Simple is better: Today’s farming is much different than it was when Harvey made his original speech, and it is more complex than most people realize. It’s not easy to talk about the intricacies of science, research and technological advances that guide our farms today, and it’s even more difficult to help non-farmers understand why and how these innovations are beneficial. But, the values that guide farmers are easy to share because they’re the same simple values of which Harvey spoke. Simple is usually better when telling a complex story, and nothing is more simple or authentic than telling a story in your own words.
Don’t wait for your audience to find you: Chrysler launched the ad as part of a twelve month campaign that will also include a book of photos and donations to farming and hunger organizations. While the ad initially ran on TV, the company didn’t stop there. If you missed the ad during the Super Bowl, no worries, you can find it on YouTube, Facebook and many other online sites. Today, most of us choose where we get our information and from whom. Make sure that you know where and how your audience prefers to get information, and share your story on a variety of platforms—online, in print, in-person and through your social media networks. If you want people to understand what you do and why you do it, find ways to connect with them where they are and want to be; don’t wait for the audience to come to you.
Celebrate what you do: I was lucky enough to watch the ad with my favorite farmer, who just happened to be with us for a rare weekend visit. My husband’s cousin, who also was the Best Man in our wedding, runs the family farm, which has operated since 1870. The farm is located in a small New York town settled 350 years ago, and my husband spent his summers there learning about hard work, responsibility, engineering, agronomy, irrigation, construction, meteorology, marketing and all of the other jobs that are required to produce food. Feeding the rest of us is hard work and a noble profession—one that often is misunderstood and under-appreciated. Farmers have led the advances that allow us to grow more (and safer) food, using fewer resources than ever before. That’s a story worth sharing and one certainly worth celebrating not just during this “Year of the Farmer” but for days and years ahead.