Winning PR stories

Adam Ritchie Brand Direction’s album release campaign to multidimensional success – and a Bulldog Gold

Typically, a PR agency is given a product to promote—but this is a unique case where the PR agency actually created the product. Boston-based Adam Ritchie Brand Direction set out to make the discovery of new music exciting again, while getting consumers to pay for music and helping an indie band reach new fans. New albums from unsigned bands are no longer being discovered in music stores which sell vintage vinyl, reissued classics and pop culture merchandise. In addition, discovering new music online isn’t exciting or physically immersive. However, people are going to the beer store to discover new beers all the time. So, for the first time in the history of music and beer, the firm launched a new studio album on a craft beer can, using social media.

Firm client The Lights Out is a music and light project that wrote a sci-fi album about traveling through the multiverse, and synchronized it with a wearable light show. Meanwhile, Aeronaut is a Boston-area brewery founded by Cornell and MIT scientists, which creates experimental “adventure beers.” The agency partnered the band and the brewery for a joint release. Read on to see how the firm took this innovative idea to great success—earning the agency and its client a Gold Award in the “Best Arts & Entertainment Campaign” category in Bulldog Reporter’s 2017 Media Relations Awards.

The Challenge: “We were trying to solve three problems at once: First, we wanted to bring back the exciting, physical aspect of new music discovery that’s vanished in the digital era,” says firm principal Adam Ritchie. “Finding new music online has all the excitement of dragging and dropping a gallon of milk onto your online grocery order. People aren’t browsing music store shelves for new music anymore, and digital has sucked the fun and memory-making out of the experience,” he says.

“Second, we hoped to figure out a way to get people buying new music again—the value of recorded music has dropped to zero, and most consumers aren’t willing to pay for it,” Ritchie adds. “And third, we wanted to help a small indie band reach new fans on a shoestring budget. Hundreds of independent bands self-release new albums every day, and the majority of them remain under-the-radar, regardless of quality.

“To solve these problems, first we had to invent a new kind of product. Our strategy was to pair the band with an independent brewery to release the first-ever studio album on cans of craft beer, and turn the beer aisle into the next record store.”

The Strategy: The campaign team first tackled the unique challenge of launching an album and a beer as a single conceptually unified package, together at the same time. The brewery would develop a beer named after the forthcoming record (T.R.I.P., short for “The Reckonings In Pandimensionality”), prototyped while listening to a rough mix of the music, themed after the album and styled after the band members’ pandimensional traveler characters.

“The beer label contained a social media trigger. When posted, it gave drinkers access to the music that inspired the brew they were holding, along with a personal message,” Ritchie explains. “The album was about parallel universes, so the message told drinkers what an alternate reflection of themselves was doing right now in another world. We weren’t just going to give them a link or a QR code. That would have been easier on our end, but it wouldn’t have created a visible layer of engagement. We made them take a meaningful action that put them on the band’s radar, increased the band’s following and allowed drinkers’ followers to see what was happening. Twitter was our platform of choice, because of a special plugin that allows responses to be automated.”

The Implementation: “The campaign had to work with two very different production timelines—the final mixing and mastering of a professional studio album, and the recipe creation, brewing, artwork, printing and canning of a craft beer. Getting those puzzle pieces in place before we could kick off the campaign took a lot of coordination and trust between the partners,” he relates. “We had one case of beer earmarked for press mailings, and made each of those 24 beers count.”

After bringing the band and brewery together, the agency supported the dual album/beer launch with digital media production, a popup interactive live event and an aggressive communications campaign. Digital media production explained a multi-layered collaboration in a visually-compelling, non-commercial way. The popup interactive live event brought together both music and beer fans to go rock climbing in the dark with headlamps, taste the beer, and see and hear the album performed with a synchronized wearable light show designed to inspire social media posts.

“The campaign launched in the middle of three major holidays, an election, an inauguration followed by a series of protests and Super Bowl Sunday,” Ritchie says. “We knew the holiday season would present a challenge, but nobody could have predicted the extent and duration of the noise generated by the outcome of this election. With their own industry under fire, media didn’t want to hear about anything non-politics-focused. We had to come up with new angles, like positioning T.R.I.P. as the perfect beverage for people who felt like they just woke up in an alternate reality. In partnership with the band’s global digital distribution platform, we pledged a portion of proceeds to the ACLU during release week. At the height of the post-election noise, we even shifted to pitching the story to media in the U.K. It felt like flying an airplane around a weather system.”

The communications campaign then launched a national news story out of Boston designed to leave no stone unturned, with multiple angles developed for culture, lifestyle, music, business, beer, food, beverage, technology, design, science and art media—all with the same product—staggered across a series of announcements to continuously develop the story.

“We customized our efforts for every outlet and every reporter,” Ritchie recounts. “Know when to position your client as the hero, and when to dial it back and pitch them as part of a trend. When approaching the beer writer at one national business outlet, for example, we knew the limited regional impact of this small band and brewery wouldn’t be enough to move his interest needle. So we rounded up every recent band/brewer collaboration, and pitched a trend piece. We put our collaboration at the center of the trend, as the only unsigned band doing it, and the only one using beer cans as a vehicle to release new music. Don’t fear this approach, even though it promotes the competition. It can be nuanced in a way that positively acknowledges what they’re doing, while communicating what makes your client unique.”

Further Challenges: With such a unique campaign in progress, it’s not surprising that obstacles popped up at every turn—but the team responded quickly, keeping the effort solidly on track. “We didn’t have a final, mastered album, and a final, packaged beer to work with until two weeks before the launch,” Ritchie says. “We didn’t even have the beer labels until the morning of the photo and video shoot. The brewery’s CEO heroically drove two hours to get a batch of test labels from the printer so the shoot wouldn’t need to be postponed. We anticipated the small amount of time we’d have between product completion and launch, and prepared for it by pre-pitching the story more than a month ahead of the announcement. We soft-sounded reporters as we qualified them, prepping them for the news without letting on exactly what was about to happen or who was doing it.”

Adam Ritchie Brand Direction

He offers another example: “We had to resurrect a number of media opportunities after an interested editor left their position, and started back at square one with their replacement. We made it work, but it’s important to remember interest doesn’t mean squat until you’re holding a published piece in-hand. One writer even completed an interview and left her job before submitting the final piece. We had to chase down her editor to make sure it got done.”

“Even when there’s interest, there are still a number of potholes on the road to coverage. Never assume something’s in the bag. Knowing all the things that can derail a seemingly ‘done’ opportunity—after the better part of two decades in PR, I consider every finished placement a small miracle,” he added.

The Results: The concept reintroduced the immersive “quest” aspect and excitement to physical new music discovery. Its execution earned an undeniable amount of attention, generating national news coverage in MarketWatch, ADWEEK, Paste Magazine, Food & Wine, Men’s Journal, The A.V. Club and more—and reactively earning coverage as far away as Russia, Finland and Thailand.

“Coverage begets coverage. A big UPROXX placement early on led to other outlets picking up the story,” Ritchie explains. “We always present coverage in national outlets to regional outlets that haven’t done a story yet, and vice versa. Media trusts other media, and like to know their counterparts at non-competing outlets believe in a story enough to cover a particular angle of it. It shows it’s already passed the bar. With T.R.I.P., we designed a story that had legs with music, food, beverage, beer, culture, lifestyle, business, technology, design, science and visual arts media. There were hundreds of viable national and regional targets to pursue. The hardest part was stopping. We’d still be going if we had more time.”

Additional achievements include:

  • The campaign and interactive live popup event generated rich consumer- and news media- generated social media content on all major social media platforms
  • The initiative successfully cut through one of the toughest media environments in recent history (mid-election, mid-holidays, mid-inauguration, mid-protests)
  • Gave the band a new following among craft beer lovers
  • Expanded the brewery’s following among live music fans
  • Completely sold out of the product

“We wanted the coverage to exceed the geographic footprint of the collaboration. All of the action was happening in Boston, but its significance in the music and beer industries was bigger than one city,” says Ritchie. “We wanted to secure a national placement in every potential category (i.e., music, food, lifestyle, business, tech), and we did, even though we had to fight for it. We ended up securing more than 100 million media impressions, and spent less than the cost of 10 cases of beer. Some of the most validating results came from the social content generated by consumers. We sent them on a treasure hunt, and they proudly posted photos hoisting the album beer in the air, making art with the labels and voicing their support for the experimental nature of the project.”

Key Takeaways: “We maintain a running Google Doc called ‘Lessons,’ which grows in real-time with each campaign,” Ritchie offers. He outlines the following lessons from the T.R.I.P. album + beer launch:

  • The importance of having a polished LinkedIn profile. Sometimes it’s your only way to connect with writers who don’t provide other means of contact.
  • It still comes down to the person you’re pitching, and their passion for the subject. Even if it’s a solid idea, you still have to find that one person at an outlet who will appreciate it.
  • Media outreach is like finding a needle in a haystack—with the deep-seeded personal interest to care, at just the right time.
  • Continuously shift platforms as you follow up. If emails are being ignored, comment on some of their stories. Tweet them something relevant. Use the phone if they’re working somewhere with an extension. Slowly chip away from every side with carefully-measured patience and persistence.
  • Never try to launch anything big in the November of an election year. If the idea wasn’t as strong as it was, we wouldn’t have stood a chance. Unless it’s a product recall, don’t announce anything in November at all, if you can avoid it. It gives you too little time to develop story leads before reporters check out for Thanksgiving, and barely recover before Christmas, before getting buried on New Year’s and it becomes last year’s news.
  • If your campaign includes a live event, partnering with a venue that already employs an events manager is worth its weight in gold. The events manager for Brooklyn Boulders Somerville, the rock climbing gym where we held the launch, put the whole evening together with us, as part of her job, and knocked it out of the park. It was a co-branded event that generated revenue for the partners instead of becoming a cost center.

Secrets of Success: Ritchie offers the following insights that you can use in your next arts and entertainment campaign—and displaying why Adam Ritchie Brand Direction and its client won a Gold in Bulldog’s 2017 Media Relations Awards:

  • If you believe in an idea and someone says, “no,” that’s when the real work begins. “Finding the right partner to go in with your client on an unprecedented idea is tough, and the road to “yes” can be lonely and discouraging. Even when it’s a go, you still need to make the outside world care, and that can be just as difficult. Having a silver bullet doesn’t guarantee a bullseye.”
  • Don’t fear pitching with photo attachments, as long as they’re tiny. “Email a visually compelling low-res image with your pitches to take advantage of automatic mail previews that help them stand out in a busy inbox. Make sure the file size is less than 100 kilobytes. If the reporter is checking their email on a mobile device with a weak signal, you don’t want to be accused of causing a data traffic jam. We were specifically told by one national outlet during follow-up that they missed our pitch the first time, but because we sent a follow-up with a compelling pea-sized image, it got their attention.”
  • Build in plenty of time for follow-up. “Your short timetable is never the reporter’s problem. Give yourself the luxury of appearing cool and collected when checking in over weeks and months with fresh developments. Be classy, not crazy.”
  • Stagger a series of developments and date-driven angles throughout the campaign to keep it relevant. “We used an announcement, interactive live event, an in-store date, a National Beer Can Appreciation Day holiday, a global digital launch date and a video release date to keep the story moving. If you lose momentum, it’s tough to get the boulder rolling uphill again.”
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