The public relations balancing act
The PR darling of outdoor industry, Eric Henderson, shares insights on how brands can help retailers with sell-through before the next season hot new stuff hits the airwaves.
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These days, next year’s gear from Outdoor Retailer hits social media feeds within seconds—or even before the show—giving consumers pause in their purchase decisions: “Maybe I should wait until next year to buy those new skis with the latest technology?” Those early announcements irk retailers who are focusing on today’s sales, but brands feel the need to push up their timetables as trade and production cycles move earlier and earlier. It all leaves public relation professionals like Meteorite PR’s Eric Henderson walking the fine line to target their marketing. Henderson, who’s seen many sides of the business as a former ski guide and athlete, PR manager, media sales director, and now owner of his own PR agency, tells us how he does it.
What’s the current status of the balancing act between public relations, brands, and retailers?
Eric Henderson: It’s a tightrope that we in PR need to make sure remains tight across all three platforms. All three need a success story, and all also need to be informed and involved. If one side isn’t, there’s slack in the tightrope, and it falls apart. From my perspective, we need to focus more on the retailer as the primary customer because they are the in-person connection to the end consumer. The retailer needs to focus on selling product and building trust with customers, and we can’t have them distracted from that mission because we aren’t communicating properly throughout the entire year.
As the selling and production cycles continue to move up, so do the big product announcements. Is that unfair to the retailer? Are brands cannibalizing sales?
EH: It is unfair if there is no plan to involve the retailer. Before any announcement is made, the retailers have to be involved. They have to know they are part of the plan from sell-in to sell-through. Our job is to have that PR plan for the full year ready, mapped out with deliverables every six weeks: “Here’s what we’re doing to drive sales through the rest of the year.” It’s all based on the editorial calendar. If we aren’t making the announcement now, then we missed the exposure when people in trade are thinking about making those buying decisions for 2018-19.
What exactly can a PR manager do for the retailer? What are those deliverables?
EH: We build toolboxes for the sales reps, aggressive POP (point of purchase) and POS (point of sale) tools, and we also invite retailers on our press trips so they can test the product in person, but the most important deliverable is getting to the shop kids and educating them. They need to be so excited, and they need to be talking about the gear all summer. If they aren’t talking about it, then it’s over. The job involves clinics, face-to-face time, and letting them feel empowered. There is no question that it’s the brand’s obligation to provide as many resources as possible to the retailer.
So you hype the product all year, support your retailers, and then an even better product for 2019-20 is announced. Or worse, there’s lots of hype and the product under-delivers when it hits shelves. What do you do?
EH: There are always those risks, but you have to gamble. One of the main ways to counteract that is getting the product in the hands of media, athletes, and ambassadors to validate and endorse the product. It’s crucial that the consumer hears from a third party. That gives it legitimacy. How many “Best of Show” awards given here at OR go on to be bestsellers? I’d imagine not many—they haven’t been tested yet. But BACKPACKER’s Editors’ Choice awards, those that have been tested by the editors and experts, those are what sell. So it’s crucial to get those endorsements.
Where are today’s consumers getting their info? How are they making purchase decisions?
EH: Number one, when the product announcement is made, I think consumers are going to online forums. Whether they’re social media groups or communities like Teton Gravity Research or Wild Snow, they are crucial for that initial sell-in. Number two is print media: They still give the strongest third-party validation. Number three is athletes, influencers, ambassadors, and friends—they are going help push consumers into the stores. And number four is the shop kids—they will make the sale if they are educated and empowered.
This article originally appeared in The Daily Day 4 (winter 2018).