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P-P-P-P-PR a Penguin

Posted by Alex Warren on 4th December 2014

When it comes to marketing, it takes a lot of guts to take on a brand like Coca Cola. For years, the soft drinks vendor has dominated Christmas advertising with its red trucks, animated polar bears, and suitably bloated Santa Claus. For the last few years however, a growing focus on improved storytelling has left Coca Cola’s advertising team standing out in the cold. Now, there’s a new player in town, and his name is Monty the Penguin.

For the last four years, John Lewis has dominated the Christmas airwaves with tales of friendship, family, and the “true” meaning of Christmas. This year was no exception, with the release of the retailer’s latest advertising mascot: Monty – the little penguin who just wanted to be loved.

Only one month after its launch the campaign is already pegged for multiple advertising awards, with Monty himself expected to go down in ad history alongside Alexander the Meerkat, and that grubby Yorkshire tyke from the Hovis adverts.

While all this publicity is great news for John Lewis’ advertising team, I’m always surprised by how little praise such campaigns receive for their PR efforts. Monty the Penguin may be an advertising success, but it has only become so off the back of an extensive public relations strategy. According to PR Week, only a small percentage of the campaign’s £7 million budget actually went on producing the advert, with the vast majority being spent on digital marketing and PR.

Since before the advert was even released, John Lewis’ PR machine has been working non-stop, generating buzz around the campaign. From unbranded #MontyThePenguin billboards through to top-secret journalist viewing, John Lewis has created far more than just a standalone television advert.

Even now, almost one month after the official social media launch, John Lewis is still trickling out press releases and new campaign activities. Having revealed multiple “Monty’s Den” play areas throughout its UK stores, John Lewis has also unveiled a state-of-the-art “Monty’s Magical Toy Machine” at its Oxford Street flagship store. Developed using the very latest 3D scanning technology, this machine will allow children to bring in their favourite toys and have them converted into Monty-esk 3D animations.

John Lewis’ PR team has even taken this opportunity to push its CSR initiatives, sponsoring the WWF’s “Adopt a Penguin” campaign and promoting the plight of the endangered Adélie Penguin. This work has subsequently earned the company a PETA award for compassionate marketing.

Yet somehow, despite all this strategic, integrated PR, Monty the Penguin continues to be praised as a triumph of advertising and very little more. In many ways this is a direct consequence of the nature of PR. After all, most public relations activities are covert by their very definition, working through third parties and indirect communication.

While there still remains a lot of truth in the old adage that the best PR goes unnoticed, it seems a shame that as a profession we don’t promote our best work (at least not outside the walls of our own industry). The advertising profession is well accustomed to self-promotion, selling itself as an industry of “creatives” and “visionaries” looking to sell “stories” rather than brands. For the most part, we in PR are rarely so brash. This could be why so few people truly understand the nature (and the value) of PR. We are an industry that has grown accustomed to working behind the scenes. We prep and we plan, launch content and generate campaigns, build buzz and engagement, both online and off. And then…

We sit back and watch, as an animated penguin steals the show.

Alex Warren

Alex Warren is an expert in AI and marketing technologies. He has published two books, Spin Machines, and Technoutopia and is regularly quoted in PR, marketing and technology media. In his role as a Senior Account Director at Wildfire he helps tech brands build creative strategies that deliver results and cut through the marketing BS.