Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Tribute to a Great Lady and a Lesson to Remember...

Today I spent time with my great aunt, Emily Brown. Aunt Emily is 102, sharp as a tack, independent, beautiful b-e-y-o-n-d words, still lives completely on her own, and has survived: two husbands, losing a fortune in the Great Depression, running her own business when women didn't do such things, and countless other challenges since her birth in Eagle Lake, Maine, in 1907. (Right, Aunt Emily watching the balloons we released at her 100th Birthday celebration in 2007).

The setting today: a nursing home in Manchester, Conn.; the situation: her baby sister (my 92-year-old grandmother) needed help getting from her wheelchair into bed. My dad and I had already asked for help, but it was slow in coming and grandma was painfully exhausted. Aunt Emily, ever impeccable in her trademark 2"-heels and pearl strand necklace, took off down the hall with her cane (dad and I knew much better than to try to stop her). She returned, hugged Grandma, settled into a chair beside me and assured us all: "They'll be right here." 

She then leaned in and informed me: "I asked if they could send someone quickly and they said yes, so I said, 'You won't forget now, will you?' and I smiled." Squeezing my hand, she added wisely: "Remember to always smile and be kind. It is the best way to connect with people, and the best policy, no matter what."

No more than two minutes later, two aides were there to help Grandma.

So, here's to my Aunt Emily, the very definition of a "Great Lady", and her simple (yet, oft-neglected) lesson, which has led (and continues to lead) her through life's challenges. May we all smile and remember it...

Social Media PR 101

For many small businesses, marketing via social media is still a great unknown. I hear time and again: "I think I need to 'do' social media, but I'm just not sure..." This is usually followed, at some point by: "How do I know if a social media program is worth the cost?"

Understandable. Businesses want deliverables. Especially small businesses in this economy. They want to see a tangible return on investment. If you are one of those business, please read this article, as it is the best explanation I've seen on social media ROI. 

Also, I offer my own take... an uber-simplistic explanation of social media's power. Social media "PR" is a matter of dialogue and building relationships via give-and-take conversations on various social media. That said, imagine the vast universe of your potential clients and customers. Now imagine they are residents of a small town. Let's say you (clearly, an example for the women out there) just moved to this town, and that your favorite hairstylist is now 500 miles away. How do you find someone with whom you can entrust your tresses? Generally, you have three options:

  1. Look at ads in local publications. (Ahhh, there's a pretty ad, but clearly the salon wrote their own advertisement)
  2. Search for media coverage of salons in the area. (But where to look? And where do I find time to search?) 
  3. Ask for recommendation from your very stylish neighbors. 
Now, say each of the three examples above yield the names of different salons. Which would you be most likely to trust? 

Okay, back to your real self as a small business owner trying to reach that customer:
  • Option 1 is clearly the paid-ad route. It can be effective, but today's consumers are savvy enough to understand the bias in what they are reading. 
  • Option 2 is the traditional PR route, which can also pack ooomph (but, honestly, given the state of publishing today, not quite the power it used to have)
  • Option 3 is social media. People talking to other people about brands with which they feel a relationship or connection.
In sum, this scary new world of "social media" is really just a new-fangled, global approach that taps into what has long been the most effective way to grow your business: strong relationships and word of mouth. In today's global marketplace and Social Media age, consumers seek out recommendations in a cyber, rather than geographic, neighborhood. So, what is a social media PR strategy "worth"? Well, the answer can be found in whatever worth you've traditionally placed in fostering your strong reputation and positive word of mouth.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Marketing to Women: A Success Story

As my friends and family will verify: few things make me happier than being right (please, no comments from said friends and family). And, yesterday evening, certainly unwittingly, Ameriprise financial planners in Cranston, RI, proved me right. Specifically, they confirmed all the reports I wrote during many years reporting on the financial and buying power of women.

At the gracious invitation of Lori at Tomgirl Tours, last night I had the pleasure attending Ameriprise's "Girls' Night Out" event, a small gathering of professional women at Ameriprise's office in Cranston's Garden City shopping center. Not sure what to expect, I found myself greeted by three warm, funny and friendly (and, most importantly, no-pressure) financial planners: Christopher Di Fronzo, Christopher Hager and Eric Tunstall. From there, I was able to network with my peers for a while, and met some fabulous women. Then, Ameriprise offered a short (again, I stress: no pressure) introduction to their services, with a slant on how women (or anyone) can navigate these trying economic times. 

From there, the evening evolved into an entertaining wine tasting and education hosted by the fabulous Marc Guillotte, of The People's Liquor Warehouse in Apponaug, RI. I'm sure there are countless others who will agree: there aren't many business networking events you attend where you (genuinely) laugh until you almost cry, and aren't perhaps watching the clock and the door for an escape route. This was one of those rare occasions. Indeed, the event was scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m. and when, at 8:30 p.m., guests were asked if they wanted to leave, most stayed in their seats. Yes, in one short evening I experienced exactly the lessons I preached so many times as a business journalist covering the high-end market, and those I continue to preach as a publicist for small, upscale businesses:

  1. Women have the financial power in today's economy
  2. Women need to be marketed to in a completely different (aka: low-pressure) way than men
  3. Build relationships, and business will follow
  4. Make lemonade: look for ways to make the most of a "bad" economy for yourselves and, more importantly, your customers

So, at approximately 9 p.m., after a three-hour event that surely required a lot of pre-planning and coordination (along with an investment by Ameriprise, which offered a lovely spread of food, and the People's Liquor Warehouse, which brought the fabulous wine we all sampled) what did these companies have "to show for it"? Did Ameriprise have any contracts signed on the dotted line? Did the People's Liquor Warehouse have any receipts for sold bottles of wine? Absolutely not. But, did 25 well-connected local businesswomen leave that room feeling so confident in and connected with their hosts that, whenever they (or, perhaps, more importantly: their friends via word of mouth) are looking for financial planners, they know exactly where they will go? Absolutely. And, when they are shopping for wine, they know what store they will patronize? Absolutely.

And that, my friends, is how a business taps into the financial strength of women in their community. Better yet, it is how they turn a "negative" (the economy) into a "positive" (how to survive it and thrive). And, from my view: best yet, it is public relations at its finest. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Are Celebrity Brands Still Relevant (and Working)?

So, another celebrity has jumped into the "designer" fray. Christie Brinkley--model, mother, serial-wife--is adding jewelry designer to her resume. Brinkley teamed up with retailer Ross-Simons to launch the Christie Brinkley Collection. While the line is actually well positioned with great prices (ring, below, is $125) and stylish (if not innovative, with floral, heart and boho themes) design, I'm curious about the whole "celebrity" angle. Is it still relevant? Does this strategy work in this economy? 

It may very well be that I'm jaded. First, I wrote through the years about far too many "celebrity" fashion and jewelry lines, most of
 which barely registered a blip on the mainstream style radar
 (um, Brody Jenner, anyone?). Second, I'm currently absorbed with the business of independent designers, artists and boutique luxury-service providers. Granted, this is a definite PR success for Ross-Simons (if this were just an unbranded line I and many others probably wouldn't pay it much attention). But, given that consumers seem to be focused on value over image right now, it seems to me that, while celebrities are still helping to drive fashion trends, the general idea of celebrity brands may be reaching the saturation point. I'm very curious to hear thoughts on the subject...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Luxury: The Good Thing About All the Bad News

After a busy few days, I caught up this morning on the news and walked away with my head a-spin, between high-profile bankruptcies and foreclosures, and reports about luxury spending

From a business standpoint, I cringe. But, honestly, digging a little deeper, I find myself encouraged and confident that this reality check will help the luxury market emerge stronger and more true to itself. 

Perhaps it is partially the old-school New England mindset drilled into me when I was a kid growing up in Connecticut (I can't count how many times mom shook her head and said: the truly wealthy don't put on a show). In my neck of the woods, the "rich" people drove boxy Volvo wagons (before Volvo luxed themselves) and wore L.L. Bean. So, when I started covering the luxury market as a journalist in the mid-1990s I experienced quite a culture shock. That shock came mostly from displays by people who owned small businesses, yet lived (to quote mom again) "like Rockefellers". Private jets, $10,000 bags, over-the-top real estate. Wow. How did they afford that stuff?

As bankruptcies pile up, I realize: they couldn't. Somehow, over the past 15 years or so, "luxury" became all about hype and image. Spending (on credit) was the way to go. Obviously, I'm not stating anything we don't all already know (and perhaps I'm sounding like a broken record). But, as our collective fears are stoked by each wave of bad news, and as we scurry to find our way through these times and regroup for whatever the future of "luxury" holds, I stand firm in my faith that the luxury market, however gradually, will not rebound as much as reemerge. Those companies who remain focused on quality, live and work within their means, and base their businesses on value (rather than hype), will be those who survive and define the future of "luxury"... Not unlike those who defined the word to begin with.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

When a Tweet Isn't at All Sweet

Integrating social media outreach into public relations strategies is a major part of my business. As such, Twitter is among the tools I routinely recommend, especially to small businesses. Like any medium, Twitter has benefits and drawbacks. And, while I'm confident the former outweigh the latter, I have my moments when Twitter makes me a little loony. 

Here's my highly technical recommendation to those who are starting to use or are considering using, Twitter as part of their business: don't be annoying. 

I speak here to newbies, as I find I am most often asked: "How do I Twitter"? Well, to start, avoid these three major Twitter offenses (and if you disagree, I'd love to hear feedback, as we're all navigating a new s.m. world)...

1) Tweeting for the sake of tweeting. Yes, it is vital to be authentic and genuine, so sharing non-biz related tweets is important. But balance is key. If you're tweeting 12 times a day to update on every errand you ran and chore you did, or if you post 14 random quotes or 32 links to favorite songs--essentially tweeting for the sake of tweeting--I say one thing: Please, stop. You might have 1,000 followers, but there's a chance 800 of them are just too lazy to un-follow you.

2) Saying the same thing over and over and over (and over...). Promoting yourself is great, but find a relevant new way to communicate your message. Link to a news story or blog post, or find others who share or support your mission and give props. Really: if your followers didn't respond the first 400 times you told them the exact same thing, chances are they won't the 401st time, either. 

3) Holding personal conversations in public. @JohnDoe is a great tool to foster a personal connections on Twitter. But once you and John Doe are connected and want to have an extensive conversation, be kind and take it to another place so your followers don't have to scroll and scroll and scroll through your personal communication. 

While Twitter and other social media are new and unknown for many, remember: when you boil these down to their essence, they are simply ways to communicate. That being the case, the same rules of apply here as they do in any form of communication: Don't be pushy, think before you speak, listen carefully and, most of all: be considerate of others. 

Friday, June 19, 2009

Still Doubting the Use of Social Media in PR? Read On...

Here's a must-read article for those questioning if they should utilize social media as a public relations strategy. The answer: well, the Public Relations Society of America is so convinced that it's the primary focus of the annual conference. My favorite quote:
“I think many are doing a disservice to their companies,” said Michael Cherenson, the chair and CEO of the PRSA. “Now is not the time to hibernate. To be understood, you have to understand.”

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

It's the Little Things That Count

I'm a stickler for customer service. I've written here, and in numerous editorials during my tenure as editor, about how to earn repeat customers. Clearly, making judgements on customers is a bad idea, as I've already posted. But what little things make a one-time shopper a loyal customer? 

Almost everyone can name a favorite place to shop or dine. And, aside from those who are label-obsessed, it usually boils down to the experience. My sister in Connecticut, for example, is loyal to Michaels Jewelers, because the salespeople are friendly, non-assuming and offer little things like jewelry cleaning while she shops--regardless of whether she's spending $50 or $5,000. My best friend, Jenn, a high school teacher in the D.C. area, meanwhile, shops at J. Crew because the mega-brand gives props to hard-working (and underpaid) educators by offering a 15% discount. 

My own personal favorite example: Tim Hortons. For those not in New England, Tim Hortons is, roughly, a regional competitor of Dunkin Donuts. Being a coffee fiend constantly on-the-go, I stop for coffee, on average, once a day. When I moved to Rhode Island last year, I drove right past this unknown Tim Hortons and headed for the DD I knew from New York. Until, that is (I don't remember why, but) I hit the Tim Hortons drive-thru in Westerly about a year ago. As usual, my lab pup, Mia, was in the backseat. We pulled up to the window and along with my coffee (which is also, I should note, cheaper than DD), the employee asked if Mia would like a Timbit (Tim Hortons equivalent of a DD Munchkin). Well, with that, Tim Hortons certainly earned a loyal customer in Mia. Like most with fur-children, I'm a sucker for my pup. So, I was thrilled that this chain-restaurant offered a little something special to my little girl.
As a result, I avoid Dunkin Donuts (even when Mia isn't with me) and seek out Tim Hortons. Now, I'm not a mathematician but, by my rough estimate: in a year, Tim Horton has invested $50 in free "timbits" for Mia. In return? They've made about $600 in profits off my coffee purchases. Dunkin Donuts, meanwhile, with higher coffee prices, has lost roughly $900. 

Interesting food for thought, no? Generally, as this example illustrates, it's a matter of seeing the forest and ignoring the pesky trees. Sometimes merchants think they can't "afford" to "give" things away... even little things, regardless of what they may mean for customers. But, when you break down the numbers, the question really is: can they afford NOT to? 

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Bravo to Upscale Boutique Firms Who Create Their Own Opportunity

Clearly, this is not a good economy for small, luxury, boutique firms. Or, wait. Is it? Well, it all depends on your frame of mind, I say. If you think creatively and find solutions, these economic times can be spun from gloomy to bright. Opportunity, afterall, can come in strange disguises.

Last night, one of Miamore Communications' clients, Tomgirl Tours, proved this truth. A little background: Tomgirl Tours is an upscale, boutique travel firm specializing in culinary and adventure travel for women. Tomgirl founder (and dynamo) Lori Carr loves to travel; but she also loves her hometown (and my new one): Providence, RI. As such, Tomgirl is offering three culinary tours of this gorgeous, quintessential New England town this summer. Click here for details on the tours (al fresco cooking course on the rooftop of a boutique hotel, anyone? How about a progressive dinner in Federal Hill, an Italian neighborhood with restaurants that can whup the best any larger city may claim to boast?). 

Despite the obvious appeal of these tours, as we all know: this is a rough year for the tourism (and most other) industries. But Lori is not deterred. Instead, she is inspired... so she joined forces with the Hotel Providence (you MUST check out this hotel. I had a tour and, forget visiting... I'd like to live there) to host a special event last night. The guests: travel
agents. From afar? Notsomuch. About 20 agents from the local region attended. The payoff, aside from learning about Tomgirl Tours and the gorgeous Hotel Providence? A colorful narrative and conversation with Providence icon and former mayor Buddy Cianci (right, with Carr). Now this, my friends (if you've been under a rock for the past 20 years) is a man who can sell the region. 

The result? Well, for starters, busy travel agents who agreed to come from 6-7:30 p.m. happily lingered til 9. Notes were scribbled, press kits devoured, and, I'm confident, some New England "staycations" will be sold. 

The moral: Lori and Tomgirl Tours, along with the Hotel Providence's incredibly gracious Mark Feinberg, are two spectacular and inspirational examples of upscale boutique firms taking the economy's lemons and making sweet, sweet lemonade...

Monday, June 8, 2009

Fashion Trends from the Tony's

Old habits die hard and, after a decade covering fashion and jewelry (and noticing that none of the jewelry industry mags reported on the Tony Awards today), I couldn't resist lending a hand, donning my old "fashion editor" hat, and offering my expert trend report (aka: spouting off my opinion).

First, my personal favorite. Seriously, had my invitation to the awards not been lost in the mail, I totally would have worn  the same ensemble as Anne Hathaway (right). Love how she went subdued in black and diamonds (appropriate for the times), but then added her own personal touch (and, perhaps, a statement on optimism) with those killer red shoes. Perfect!

Okay, now for the trends... Honestly, not much new to report in the jewelry category. Dangly drop earrings were the fav (no shock there), though I was a little surprised to see a bit more "chandelier" than we have during the past year. Something to note, in jewelry, we're seemingly moving away from the linear drop earrings and the bolder shaped drops, and back toward the more feminine, chandelier-ish look.

The big trend in fashion? Jewel tones. Vibrant-hued gowns (greens and purples seem to be the most popular, see below), especially with coordinating gemstone cocktail rings. And, for a rare something-new-under-the-sun take: those jewel tones paired with black (love it!) Both dresses with black accents... either in the design, like Lauren Graham, (left) or matched separates like Hathaway's ensemble. Also: vibrant jewels set in blackened metals. No doubt this trend: saturated hues are something to keep in mind for fall and holiday.


Saturday, June 6, 2009

Twitter, How Does a Small Biz Love You? Let me Count the Ways

I'll admit, six months ago I was one of those who rolled their eyes at the mention of Twitter. One of my former colleagues started tweeting last fall and my response was something to the effect of: Do you not already have ENOUGH to do? Okay, Jen, you were right because, fast-forward and here I am, a tweeting faithful.

Catching up on my reading today, I found Time's cover story on Twitter, which led me to this report on how Twitter will change the face of business. Right on the money, I think. And I say this not just theoretically, but as someone with concrete examples of its benefits. I launched miamore communications just a couple months ago. And, through Twitter, found and
connected with several potential clients I would have NEVER met otherwise. As a small "boutique" business, serving others in that same category, Twitter is a priceless networking tool for me. It helps level the playing field for small businesses like us. Ten years ago, if a boutique firm with a limited budget wanted to reach (or find) customers and resources, it was nearly impossible to compete against corporate firms with their immense marketing and advertising budgets (thus, of course, the sad decline of mom-and-pops). Social media like Twitter, however, allows us to communicate with customers and peers in an environment where personal interaction has far more value than glitzy ad campaigns. 

I'm asked (a LOT): what is the POINT of all this social media? Well, I've formulated my response: Twitter alone is growing at an incredible rate (32 million users this year, vs 2 million in 2008) and old-school print media is sputtering, leaving enormous brands and chains scrambling to "do" social media. But, there are blogs and reports all over the web where those "traditional" public relations gurus admit to being lost in this new world. It makes me think of a small race car up against a tandem trailer. Sure, in the "old" PR and marketing world those tandem trailers ruled the roads, leaving little room and a frightening experience for those of us driving our own little vehicles. But, on this new highway, with it's quickly changing nature, we are suddenly much better equipped to navigate and control the road. 

So, yes, I have become one of the converted for many reasons. I'm loving how social media allows us all to "spread the word"... which, after all, is miamore communications' tagline and mission. 

Friday, June 5, 2009

Are your connecting with or, unwittingly, alienating clients?

It is a rainy, chilly night on the Rhode Island coast. After a crazy week that included whirlwind travel to the jewelry industry's biggest trade shows in Las Vegas, and a lot of work on a fab new promo kit for Tomgirl Tours, I'm reaaaaaally happy for an excuse to be tucked into my cozy Victorian house in Westerly for the night. Seeing as I find cooking a great way to relax, I went to the grocery a few hours ago to get all the ingredients for my favorite Greek feast (for those New Yorkers out there: yes, you can take the girl out of Astoria, but you can't take the Astoria out of the girl... even if she has to make due with sub-par Feta. Sigh...)

Anyway, after hitting my favorite market, I realized the only missing element for a proper rainy-night feast at home was a good bottle of wine. Now, if you don't know Westerly, RI, here's the scoop: there are two really good wine shops in town. One is right on the commercial strip and very convenient to the food markets. The other closer to downtown and a bit out of the way from the groceries. Tonight, as every night when I want a good bottle... despite rain, being tired, and having a stir-crazy restless puppy in the backseat, I drove right past that "convenient" store and drove a few miles out of the way to Dick's World of Wines. Why? Well, while the other store has a great (perhaps superior) selection of domestic and international wines, I haven't set foot in there since last October. See, in October, 2008, I was preparing a special birthday dinner for a friend and needed the perfect bottle of wine. So, on that afternoon, after a looong walk on the beach with Mia, I stopped at said wine shop to find a great red to match my (if I do say: AMAZING) seafood risotto. And my experience is what has lead me to Dick's, even if out of the way, ever since.

On that October afternoon, I wandered the wine shop, (props to them for this:) an employee
 approached me and asked if he could help me find the perfect wine. As a luxury publicist (at the time, editor), I was impressed by the service and told him exactly what I was preparing for dinner, and that I was specifically looking for a red that would match. It was at this point that I felt/saw the "once over". You know: the judgement that too many purveyors of higher-end goods and services make. So, he led me to a (actually) great and very affordable French red. However, as he recommended it, he said: "This is the only one in this price range (under $15) I'd recommend." Um. Okay. At NO point did I say that something OVER $15 would break my budget. In fact, we never discussed my budget whatsoever. He made a foolish snap judgement based on my appearance. It is the biggest mistake any upscale business can make

So, that was it for me. Actually, it was a very special dinner for a very special person in my life. Granted, the wine ended up being fantastic but I would have spent much, much more than $14.99 for a bottle. But I would have felt a whole lot better had some liquor store employee not insulted me in the process. Not that I'm a gazillionaire who wants to spend hundreds of dollars on a bottle of wine, but the statement by this person was clearly a condescending judgement based on my appearance.

After 3 miles on the beach, I didn't look the part; but THAT is the point. Luxury customers--especially in this day and age, don't necessarily "look" the part. We shouldn't NEED to. Perhaps he would have kicked himself had he seen me leave the store and climb into my late-model Saab. Yes, the wine was great but, really, I don't need for a wine shop worker to pass judgement on me. And I have NO intention of dressing up in order to be treated properly in a LIQUOR store. Hello? Welcome to the 21st Century, folks.

Bottom line: since October, I've probably bought a lot of wine. But, since that date, I haven't been back to that shop. As such, they've lost a whole lot of sales. If I went back and mentioned this experience to that particular employee, he'd probably be shocked... as this is a shop that clearly focuses on customer service.

My point? Even if you are approaching and believe you are connecting with clients... are you really? Or are you, even then, making judgements that leads to a loss of sales? Indies can NOT afford to make this mistake. So, as a sip a glass of nice red (purchased at Dick's) and finish preparing my Greek feast, I wonder how many other customers for wine, and who knows how many other products and services, have had similar experiences...

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Fendi Hits the (Publicity) Jackpot

Okay, I'm about a week behind the times (it's hard to keep up with the general absurdities of the world while immersed in the greatest absurdity of them all: Vegas), but I need to chime in with the other gazillion bloggers out there chirping about Fendi's new bicycle. I'm probably not the first to say this but: really?? $10,000 for a BIKE??? Let's see, in the list of things I'd spend $10,000 on, after a vacation, jewelry, clothes, artwork, extravagant dining experiences... I'd say a bike comes in... mmmm... d-e-a-d l-a-s-t. What would I do with a $10,000 bike? I'd certainly be afraid to hitch it to the back of my car; I'd never take it to the streets of New York and chance having it mangled or stolen; I don't know that I'd even ride it around Westerly for fear of dings from gravel. But, what do I know? Because Fendi reportedly sold four of the bikes at the launch party alone.

The Fendi Abici Amante Donna comes tripped out with all sorts of luxury touches (like a detachable Fendi carrying case and a leather GPS holder), but clearly this is about status. While I clearly am not a fan over-priced status symbols, I am slightly encouraged that this may be a sign of better times ahead for luxury goods and services. I also have to give Fendi props for doing what I'm constantly nagging about: thinking creatively. Had they launched yet another bag, it would have barely registered a blip in the traditional and social media. Google this bicycle, on the other hand, and find pages of blogs and news reports. The Fendi Abici Amante Donna may not be the most effective mode of transportation, but it certainly is an effective PR vehicle. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Damiani: Buy a Ring; Get a Vacation!

Who doesn't love a good cross promotion? We learn the joys of the buy-this-and-get-that mentality early in life (Think: Buy a Happy Meal; Get a Free Action Figure), and we never stop falling for it. 

Italian jewelry power-house Damiani (the brand you may know from its celeb associations... from Brad Pitt to Sharon Stone), has hit upon my personal all time favorite with 
its latest cross promo: buy a fabulous, limited edition precious ring inspired by one of 12 cities in Italy, and get a free Italian vacation. Seriously? Sign me up! (okay, as soon as I come up with a few thousand for the ring. Minor detail). 

In celebration of the brand's 85th anniversary, its new Gomitolo collection of 12 gorgeous rings (each design limited to a numbered production of 85) comes with this vacation offer for anyone who buys one of the rings (my fav is Torino, below, with ice and black diamonds)... kudos to Damiani for the creative thinking in this special offer and, as always, in its creative designs.