During my great morning battle (the Victoria Line rush-hour commute) I noticed an advert that caught my attention. It showed an image of King Richard III, whose remains were recently found under a Leicester car park, with a message to prospective university students saying something like: “Big discoveries are being made at Leicester, so why not come to its University where we can help you discover your potential?”
I found the unlikely association of the digging up what’s left of a notorious king who died over 500 years ago with a reason for choosing your possible place of learning for the next three years quite amusing as a cheeky bit of marketing. However, from a PR perspective should this advert be seen as an example of desperate brands jumping on any bandwagon going or just a witty, harmless and legitimate way of using current news to raise a smile?
There’s no doubt that events around Richard’s reburial in Leicester Cathedral this week are generating an enormous amount of national and international media coverage and there are bound to be lots of local businesses looking to somehow piggy-back on this publicity to get their products noticed. There would seem to be no limits to the ingenious/crass ways in which marketeers seek to relate big news events to the most mundane of products in ways that are often frankly laughable. One brave example is the £25 Richard III-inspired bowl haircut on offer at Leicester’s Ungaro Hair Studio (Mail Online, 24th March – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3009049/King-kitsch-Fridge-magnets-mugs-Richard-III-haircuts-25-sale-Leicester-critics-brand-burial-money-grabbing-pantomime.html)
So, should such publicity stunts be looked on as just harmless, or does it hold potential dangers of reputation damage for the products involved? A general rule of thumb that emerges is, be witty but be careful. The most effective attempts are quirky and amusing but there is a need to be wary of your target audience not getting the joke or being offended so that the resulting publicity backfires and ends up not being a laughing matter for the company or brand concerned. Going for the immediate shot-in-the-dark marketing ploy that goes for a quick result and possibly a cheap laugh may end up being counter-productive and having a negative impact on a brand strategy and reputation that has been carefully built up over a period of time.
Coming back to King Richard, a Channel 4 programme about him this week highlighted how much controversy still surrounds this monarch. The pro-Richard camp paint him as a much maligned and good King whose reputation was forever damaged by Shakespeare and the Tudor PR machine. The anti-Richard camp, however, are convinced he’s the murderer (allegedly) of the Little Princes in the Tower and most evil English king ever.
So, with all this potential negativity and reputational controversy around (and assuming that undergraduate admissions don’t go through the roof at Leicester University), think twice before you jump on the fastest gravy train.