Branding Is Dead! Long Live Sustainable Identity!

Ed Niehaus and William Ryan predict that the future of public relations will require standing out, being different -- branding is dead.

It's not just women who are reinventing public relations. Enter William Ryan and Ed Niehaus, who together have crafted Niehaus Ryan Group Inc., one of the hottest independent public-relations agencies in the world of new media, with 78 employees and 1997 revenues of $7 million. They've been so successful at building the images of Internet startups like Yahoo!, CyberCash, Four11, and NetObjects Inc. that long-established technology giants like Apple Computer and Silicon Graphics have recently signed on.

Founded in February 1991, NRG plied the competitive software market in the years before the Web took off. Since then, the firm has carved out a position as an industry-savvy organization known for bringing consumer-marketing punch to techie products.

This positioning reflects the skills of the firm's founders. Ryan comes from a consumer public-relations background, while Niehaus leans more to the technical side of things (his hobby is nanotechnology). But despite their strong backgrounds, excellent client base, and central position in the thick of the information revolution, the two men are not given to complacency. A year ago, Niehaus and Ryan created a special internal initiative, called PR 2000, to study the future of the profession. One conclusion: The primary goals of their profession - branding and positioning - "are running out of gas," in Ryan's words.

"Branding is dead," says Ryan, the firm's chairman. "When everyone is applying brand-marketing, it doesn't work anymore." In its early days, say Niehaus and Ryan, the Internet was open territory for the creation of strong brands like Yahoo! Now the mind-space is getting crowded. Companies will have to do more - or do something different - to stand out.

Ryan sketches out a few possible directions: Create an event that evangelizes your vision. Establish venues, virtual or real, where you can bring together customers and key industry players. And use your Web presence to share what you know. Niehaus Ryan does exactly that, publishing views on PR in the cheekily titled "Deep Thoughts" section of its Web site.

Another conclusion from PR 2000: The Internet has introduced a whole new group of players into the "influencer" chain that PR people must connect to, and the opinions of these Web pundits present a new challenge for PR to grapple with.

What is the object of public relations in this fast-changing environment? NRG's answer: to establish a "sustainable identity" for your company or your client. A sustainable identity doesn't mean a fixed one, however, as the case of Yahoo! demonstrates.

At first, NRG promoted the company as the creation of two whiz kids from Stanford, Jerry Yang and David Filo. But that identity had to change: "Before the IPO, we said, 'We can't have the image of two crazy kids running around without shoes. It doesn't fly on Wall Street,' " Ryan says. Yahoo! began to refine and expand its business model (according to NRG, Yahoo! is now best understood as a "media company") and to showcase a new management team led by seasoned executive Tim Koogle. Partly as a result, its IPO was the most successful in high-tech history.

Creating a sustainable brand means knowing how to "balance your core identity with the need for perpetual makeovers," says Ryan. Ultimately, he says, the goal is for customers to think, "'This is a company that totally gets it.'"

Visit the Niehaus Ryan Group on the Web http://www.nrgpr.com

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