The RBR Sunday Feature: An Interview with Michael Payton: Marketing Communications in times of economic turmoil, by Larry Eder


Over the past thirty years working in the sport of running, I have been fortunate enough to work with some exceptional individuals. You have recently read some columns by Mark Bossardet. Another one of the friendships that I have prized is Michael Payton, a man, who helped me appreciate the need for public relations and marketing communications in our sport. In our current economic turmoil, public relations, marketing communications and advertising, which many American companies race to cut during down times, can make the difference between a brand thriving and a the collapse of a brand.

Michael Payton is the President and Founder of THE PAYTON GROUP, a full-service integrated marketing and sports communications firm located in Barrington, Rhode Island. Payton's client list is a whose who in the running industry: Reebok, Mizuno, FILA, Salomon and Karhu. He recently completed a project for the Institute For International Sport as well as a relaunch of Karhu brand of running footwear.

I recently asked Michael his opinion on how to use Public Relations and effective communications strategies in our current economic upheaval. Payton had some fascinating things to say. In full disclosure, I have been fortunate enough to have worked with Michael on most of his various projects and have been fascinated, not only about he creatively reaches to media and consumers, but also, his ability to deftly present a message or product in environments that would not always be considered open to a new technology, much less, a new vendor.

We hope that you enjoy the interview:

RBR, 1: What part does public relations and communications play in this economic climate?
Payton: These challenging -- if not dire -- economic times are impelling all companies, not just the athletic footwear brands -- to drastically curtail their investments in such well-proven marketing vehicles as advertising and sponsorship marketing. Economic conditions will no doubt impact the investment in PR -- or what I would define here as active engagement and communications with the media, bloggers, opinion leaders, et. al -- though PR will always play a very important role in ensuring that a brand's messages are conveyed in a timely, precise, honest and constructive manner. PR must and will be used to reinforce or maintain a brand's core qualities -- its images, accomplishments, associations, community investments -- that make up its unique identity.

All of the brands in the industry employ highly capable professionals -- many colleagues and friends of mine -- who possess a great depth of experience in their trade; have a sophisticated understanding of product design, development and marketing; know their consumers intimately; and enjoy close and constructive relationships with many members of the worldwide media, relationships built over years of dependable and reputatable service. With many new media coming online every day, the PR professional -- invariably the first resource for information and access to senior management -- must be on top of his/her game concerning every aspect of a brand and what it offers to the marketplace. In the final analysis, reputation and credibility matter immensely.

RBR, 2: Your launches were done many times during major events, many sponsored by competitive brands, how did you launch products without crossing the line into guerrilla marketing?
Payton: My company, THE PAYTON GROUP, planned, organized and hosted many successful special events where our clients -- Mizuno, FILA, Salomon, among others -- very effectively launched new products or new marketing initiatives before audiences comprising many of the preeminent members of the news, trade and consumer press, industry opinion leaders, and other key influentials. Most of these special events were conducting during the days leading to a major marathon, track & field competition or road race, but typically not at a time or place that would "ambush" other events conducted by an event's organizers or major sponsors -- though I will admit that so-called "guerrilla marketing" is frequently used in the business to upstage the competition. We generally avoided using this tactic.

RBR, 3: What is your take on the economic issues in the sport of running?
Payton:From what I hear from the retail side, particularly specialty running, the running business is strong and seems to be weathering the economic storms fairly well indeed. I think that this suggests that consumers are turning to aerobic activities as running to get or keep fit and to maintain a positive attitude amid the constant drumbeat of doom and gloom that's pervasive in the press these days. Plus running doesn't require any major expenditures apart from good quality footwear and apparel. And one can enjoy it the unfettered environment of the great outdoors.

RBR, 4: How would you deal with a company crisis?

Payton: Effective crisis communications always begins with a well-thought plan that's constantly updated and improved. Crisis communicators must be well-prepared at any moment, 24/7, to respond immediately to any exigency or crisis. Failing to do so typically engenders suspicion and criticism that can do irrevocable damage to a brand's image and reputation. The emphasis here is on immediacy and transparency -- and never about "spin."

RBR, 5: How does or should a brand deal with a tough story or negative review?
Payton: No brand is exempt from the "hard" story that is critical of a product, athlete or event endorsement, or any activity for that matter that a company is engaged in, domestically or globally. Even the very simple naming of a product can provoke a firestorm of criticism and protest. The communication pro knows this all to well. But these stories must never compel the communications pro to condemn forever access by members of the media to company spokespersons or information. It is fundamentally a relationship-based field, one built on mutual respect and trust.

RBR, 6: How would you advise a new brand, trying to get its running shoe brand on the shelves, in this current marketplace?
Payton: Tough one. But product in this industry has always been king!

It appears more niche brands are trying to gain a place for their running shoes "on the wall" regardless of the retail channel. Some will succeed initially on the basis of their marketing spend. Others, however, will not.

But ultimately, all brands succeed because they design and deliver products that perform well. Mizuno, one of my favorite clients, is a perfect illustration of this point. In the late 90's, Mizuno and their VP or Marketing, John Rogers, retained my firm to launch the WAVE line of technical/performance running shoes at the New York City Marathon, but had a small budget to do so, compared to their much larger competitors.

But Mizuno's WAVE line went on to enjoy spectacular success because their high-end shoes performed exceedingly well (I still run in the WAVE RIDERS) and earned many prestigious accolades from the running trade press and distinguished evaluators/reviewers of running shoes far and wide (my colleague Cregg Weinmann in California, the footwear review editor of the Running Network, comes instantly to mind, so, too, Bob "Wish" Wischnia, formerly of RW magazine, now, with Austin Runner).

Salomon, also a former client (formerly, a member of the adidas Group and now, on their own again), broke into the adventure sports arena in the mid-90's, and very soon became a highly credible player, if not leader, in that market segment -- again, because of superior designs and technology.

Finally, service must never been second-rate when it comes to building a brands presence at retail. The shoe company -- whether new or legendary -- that fully understands the dynamics of the marketplace, understands the needs of the retail community, understands the trends that have emerged or are nascent, will ultimately stand out from the pack.

RBR, 7: Any favorite launch stories come to mind?
Payton: One launch that will always remain a favorite was the introduction of Reebok's groundbreaking INSTAPUMP technology, an innovative variation on its legendary PUMP technology that was launched in the 80's. Here was a running shoe unlike any the market had ever seen, or will likely see again. A high-end shoe whose exoskeleton-like upper could be inflated using a hand-held pressurized gas activator to the preferred comfort or firmness of the runner. The press attention was unbelievable, and was instrumental in helping reinforce the company's reputation as a credible technical running brand. I took the INSTAPUMP FURY's wherever I went -- major road races, marathons, industry expos, THE IRONMAN Triathlon -- and had little difficulty generating media interest in doing stories on the product and the company.

The other notable launch was the unveiling at the Boston Marathon of FILA's DISCOVERY USA elite-athlete development program. My good friend and long-time colleague, Mark Bossardet, who at the time led running marketing for FILA, hired my firm to assemble the worldwide media to attend and cover this very important iniative -- and they did in large numbers.

RBR, 8: How would you advise a brand to deal with a positive test by a highly visible athlete?
Payton: This is a serious matter that requires utmost attention to clarity and transparency. A dark cloud remains suspended over our sport because of high-profile cases in the past several years where there were strenuous denials by athletes who were ultimately found guilty of illicit performance-enhancing drug use.

No one is above the law, and that includes athletes who enjoy substantial material support from the footwear companies. I know that if I ever found myself in a situation where I had to decide on the future of one of my athlete/spokespersons, I would counsel severing ties with that athlete. Period.

A brand's well-developed, well-protected reputation as a model for good corporate citizenship is at stake here. There can be no equivocation on this point.

RBR, 9: Any final thoughts or advice for management in this challenging time?
Payton: Unfortunately, many c-level managers seem to believe that highly specialized and effective PR is ultimately expendable, especially when the economy is tight. The more enlighten, however, those who've experienced the results generated by great communications (such as described above), will neve deny PR's important place in a fully integrated strategic marketing plan, both near- and long-term.

Special thanks to the Payton Group.

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