Past APG Awards winners show PR strategies' potential for brand building and growth, writes WARC's Chiara Manco. 

The 2021 APG Creative Strategy Awards are open for entries. With the aim of showcasing the best strategic thinking worldwide, the Awards will have international reach and encourage entries the world over.

The theme for this year’s competition is ‘What is Great Creative Strategy?’. Judges will be looking for pure creative strategy: inspired, original thinking that solves business problems and drives long-term growth.

The deadline is 31st March. To read more info and submit your paper, visit the APG website.

Historically playing the supporting role in communications, in recent years PR has shown its potential as lead actor. As Wunderman Thompsons’ Will Humphrey said in the 2020 Lessons from the Effective 100: “It used to be that effective communications PR’ed the advertising. Now, increasingly, effective communications advertises the PR.” 

And there’s no better time for marketers to wake up to the potential of PR strategies. With many brands forced to reduce their ad spend, PR activity can help them maintain visibility and minimise the damage caused by ‘going dark’.

Rewarding strategic thinking in all of its shapes and sizes, the APG Creative Strategy Awards have witnessed their share of PR-led thinking. From brands to charities, winners of the latest edition of the Awards show the many ways PR can play a starring role in effective strategies.

Marmite: culture vs. communications

Divisive spread Marmite used a PR-led strategy to breathe new life into its ‘You either love it or hate it’ slogan. Looking to get Marmite into more UK households, the brand realised that ‘hater’ parents often assumed their children would be haters too, which begged the question, ‘are people naturally born lovers or haters?’ Through its long-time agency adam&eveDDB, Marmite worked with genetic researchers DNA Fit on a scientific study to determine the existence of a Marmite Gene responsible for one’s predisposition towards the spread.

The brand wrote a white paper and created Marmite Gene Test Kits, then sent them to journalists to kick off engagement. Even before advertising started, the campaign earned fame across national media. To follow the PR launch, Marmite went all out with TV roadblocks during primetime family shows, cut-downs for digital and eye-catching point-of-sale displays featuring special-edition jars. 

The campaign generated 2bn impressions and showed that baking PR into strategies from the start has the potential to deliver significant business impact. In the six weeks following the launch, sales increased by 14%, and the growth was sustained for the rest of the year. The paper won Gold at the 2019 APG Creative Strategy Awards, proving the power of an idea that, in the authors’ words, becomes “part of culture, not just another piece of communications”.

KFC: fame-driving crisis management

In February 2018, news of a ‘chicken crisis’ spread across the UK. It seemed impossible, but fast-food restaurant chain KFC had run out of chicken due to issues with a new delivery provider. Far from only affecting loyal customers, the shortage meant potential debt for franchisees and unemployment for staff. Having to think on its feet, KFC opted for a bold strategy that would acknowledge the issue, rather than trying to sugarcoat it, and drive PR in buckets.

First, the brand issued an apology to the public, a mea culpa that explained the reasons behind the shortage while also letting KFC’s humanity shine through. The ad, featuring the iconic bucket re-branded as ‘FCK’, was shared 220m times on social media and neared 800m impressions through editorial coverage. As the winning paper reads, the media coverage generated by this timely piece of content was “infinitely more valuable than a perfected ad”.

Then, as restaurants begun to re-open, KFC looked back to its brand values and revived the Colonel to spearhead the comeback. A character that had not appeared on UK screens for a long time, he reframed the crisis from a symptom of weakness to one of strength: the shortage would not have happened had KFC served frozen chicken.

The work of Mother London, the Bronze-winning campaign helped KFC come out of the crisis stronger than before. It witnessed increases in reputation, relevance and satisfaction, with customer penetration levels reaching their pre-crisis state within only eight months of the restaurants closing.

CALM and National Safety Council: arresting installations

Two charities earned a medal at the 2019 APG Creative Strategy Awards with physical installations that brought to life their causes. The powerful displays entered people’s consciousness more effectively than any traditional media could have, spurring conversations and earning national coverage.

Suicide prevention charity CALM turned to a fame-driving idea after a traditional approach failed to grab the public’s attention. Despite suicide being the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK, the silence surrounding the topic made it even harder for men to seek help. CALM initially tried to spark a national conversation with Notes – print ads featuring real suicide notes – but the bold and touching execution fell on deaf ears.

As the paper says, this was the moment adam&eveDDB London realised they “needed to stop behaving like an advertising agency”. Instead of looking for a message, they looked for an image and found it in Project 84: a striking installation on top of London’s ITV Tower. Eighty-four life-sized statues represented the men that took their own lives weekly in the UK, making it impossible to ignore the magnitude of the issue.

The moment the statues appeared on top of the Tower, media took notice. A partnership with ITV ensured national attention beyond London, allowing CALM to communicate its message to millions of people’s homes via their TV sets. 

The Silver-winning work was covered by national and international news outlets. In the three months following the campaign, quarterly calls to CALM’s helpline increased by 62% year on year, allowing the charity to estimate that the campaign saved 239 lives. 

Meanwhile, in the US, American non-profit National Safety Council (NSC) wanted to raise awareness of the opioid epidemic the country was facing. Though prescription opioids kill 22,000 Americans every year, NSC found that the public largely believed to be safe: no one sees themselves as vulnerable to addiction.

NSC created a memorial to opioid victims: a wall covered in 3D-printed pills representing victims’ faces. Some were modelled after real people who lost the fight to addiction, and their stories featured in videos screened on site. The memorial was backed by radio, OOH, print, radio and social activity.

Energy BBDO, the agency behind the work, wrote in the Bronze-winning paper: “we knew the memorial had the capacity to out-earn what we could afford in traditional channels.” And it truly did, earning 2.5bn impressions and leading people to perceive addiction as a serious threat to them and their families. The impact of the initiative was such that the White House asked to host the memorial in DC.

More than meets the eye

Work that heavily relies on PR is often dismissed as ‘stunty’ and ‘one-off’. But, as shown by these winners, when backed by insight and strategy, PR activations can be shortcuts to talkability, fame and growth.

The deadline to enter the 2021 APG Creative Strategy Awards is 31st March. To find out more and submit your work, visit the APG website.