Episode 18

Why FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) PR should be Amazon-ready

with Jim Hawker

About this episode

Since the world went into lockdown, millions have turned to Amazon. The online retailer is due to release sales and profit figures on 30 April, however analysts have already forecast a sales increase of at least 22%.

It’s been predicted that during the pandemic Amazon has experienced sales of $10,000 every second, day and night! Wow.

Just before the pandemic was announced, I met Jim Hawker, co-founder of agency PR & marketing agency, Threepipe to find out about a new growth area for them; Amazon optimisation.

It’s not a common skill-hire or PR service we talk about in the industry so I was keen to hear more.

In this podcast interview Jim explains why:

  • Threepipe built a whole department focused solely on Amazon
  • How their PR tactics adapt in an Amazon strategy
  • Why Amazon is the new Google for FMCG brands
  • Where brand reputation comes into play in a new way
  • Why being bold in trying a new techniques doesn’t just build your clients business it can build an agency too…

This podcast was recorded just before COVID-19 hit in the UK and US, yet the insights Jim shares couldn’t be more relevant right now.

Here’s the transcript from the podcast:

Stella: Welcome to the PR resolution podcast. I’m your host, Stella Bales. In this podcast series, I’ll be interviewing experts in emerging areas of PR. We’ll be taking those hot topics in public relations, dispelling any myths, breaking down the jargon so you’re completely clued up and ready to speak to your stakeholders by the time you reach the office. If you have any questions around the episode, please feel free to tweet me @stellabayles. 

Emotive public relations is talked about a lot in our industry. Often people will assume it’s about using a brand new tactic or the latest techniques in a campaign. I disagree. I actually think that innovative public relations is about finding out that insight that’s really going to grow your client’s business or help your clients achieve their objectives and joining all the dots, no matter what they are to help them get there. 

In today’s episode of great example of what I mean, here’s Jim Hawker. He’s a co-founder of Agency Three Pipe, which is based in the UK he shares with me some of their insight. They found out about Amazon actually ended up being one of the biggest service areas for their clients. So Three Pipe found out that half of every commerce dollar that’s spent in the U. S is spent on Amazon. That’s huge, and that’s growing across the world. That’s not just the US there’s more. Product search is now on Amazon than anywhere also include Google, so they knew they had to get their kinds more visible. Jim in our interview explains why Amazon is the new Google for FMCG brands. 

How Three Pipe discovered that there are brand new competitors that their clients hadn’t even considered before. How brand reputation comes into play in this new strategy. Also, how their PR team have adapted their tactics and the way that they approach an Amazon strategy. Why being bold in trying new techniques doesn’t just build your client’s business. And also, if you’re sat here thinking, Wow, it seems like a big new skill set to have a little go and learn well, even if you don’t want to hire a new skill set. If you’re working in product PR you absolutely have to educate in this area. 

Today I am joined by Jim Hawker at Three Pipe. Thanks for joining me Jim. We had a chatted a couple of weeks ago, and Jim mentions the new work that they’re doing around Amazon optimization and I had to step back and say, I don’t know what that is, so we wanted to capture this. So share a little bit more about what you’re doing with clients around Amazon days, the new service?

Jim: Yes, more and more of our conversations with clients were turning around, turning to Amazon and helping them build on Amazon strategy. Whether they were on Amazon or not on Amazon, Amazon is either a threat or an opportunity to a lot of the brands that we’re working with. And it became more and more important because more, more people were using Amazon as a search engine with more products starting on Amazon on Google. And the purchase intent is a lot higher on Amazon. Google.

Stella: Can we stop to jump in, which is really rude and not a very good interviewing technique but having come from a search agency, so when I first came from there into search, I was clueless which sounds very basic, but I don’t mind admitting it. I was shocked at how many people do it to use Google every single day. And actually where you really do think about everybody pulling the phone out of their pocket? Yeah, of course, is the amount of these over six billion a day. But you just mentioned very quickly there in your intro that more people are searching for products. Did you say on Amazon? Yeah, I mean, I didn’t even realize that. So that’s quite a big fact that anyone in retail marketing should be aware.

Jim: Yeah, it’s huge. Last year it was sitting at about 54% of product search starts on Amazon on again.. Actually, this morning was half of every ecommerce dollar in the U.S. Is spent on Amazon at the moment. Say it is a huge thing, and actually it’s just one part of the Amazon empire. But actually, yeah, it’s more. More of our clients are sort of waking up

Stella: So again, this might be a city question, but are all of your clients in the retail space or did you mix?

Jim: We have a real mix, but actually you don’t have to be a retail client to be thinking about Amazon. And I think that’s the interesting thing. Because, you know, the Amazon audience is traditionally quite a B2C one. It’s very metropolitan, and actually, you can run a lot of campaigns through Amazon as a branding opportunity one. I think you’re seeing a lot more marketing spend from financial services companies, for instance, that keen to get a bit more awareness in front of that audience because actually, they’ve got less places to get because you know, there’s a duopoly at the moment for media advertising between Google and Facebook. And that’s why you’re seeing a shift in marketing spend coming to Amazon, whether it’s to drive product or brand awareness.

Stella: Can you give us an example of a brand awareness piece or like where…or even if it’s not an exact example, but where a consumer would see that branding maybe.

Jim: Yeah, sure. So it’s half term at the moment. Last night I flipped open my Kindle device and saw an advert aimed at me as a parent to take my kids to see the latest Paw Patrol movie. Yeah, because they know what kind of products to buy, what kind of brands, what kind of licenses I’m interested in. And so whoever is behind the Paw Patrol movie is pushing for half term awareness to take your kids to the nearest cinema.

Stella: Yes, so the insight that they’ve got is probably a lot more targeted. Still in other places, online makes sense. Okay, So what kind of things do you do if your clients for on Amazon right now?

Jim: Yeah, I mean we at the moment we’re sort of starting at the basics, which is like, Okay, let’s do an audit of where you’re currently sitting on Amazon. And the interesting thing about Amazon is that we can actually scrape so much data that we can’t from other platforms. So if you are a brand on Amazon, we can tell you exactly how much sales you’re leaking to your competitors. How much, what’s the search intent around your product, your category and how much of their sales you’re missing out on. The interesting thing is, actually, it’s not the usual suspects from your competitors. Landscape perspective. We’re seeing really agile brands that you’ve never heard off. Born out of China, doing interesting things from a supply chain perspective, coming to market really quickly with products. They’re really cannibalizing a lot of established legacy brand opportunities. And so actually a lot of our clients are not even aware of the competitors. They’re actually losing revenue too on Amazon, which is really interesting, and then we go from there we sort of help them build out a plan, and I guess it’s using the basics of SEO and paid search to some extent. But in the Amazon ecosystem, so half the time a lot of our clients are their products are not discoverable, not optimized for how people are searching or which categories they’re searching in. They haven’t really understood how Amazon operates as a search engine in itself, and I think that’s that’s where we’re educating clients.

Stella: Okay, so I wanted to  stop on that point. So some of our listeners off this podcast know some things about search and SEO. But for those that don’t, it’s probably worth saying The reason why we’re talking about this and what for research is because PR is a huge influence on search for Google searches. As much as I know anyway, on the fact that anything that’s sort of earned media, Google look to see that as a great recommendation – we could do a whole another podcast on this – but they are definitely has its place that does earned media and paid have any influence it’ll on on Amazon or is a completely different kind of algorithm.

Jim: Well, the Amazon algorithm is called the A9 algorithm. It’s because there’s 9 factors that impact how you become discoverable through its algorithm. But, yeah, it’s slightly different from the Google opportunity for PR people because you know you can incorporate best SEO best practice and help your clients from a Google perspective. Obviously, within Amazon, it’s slightly bespoke, it is a slight difference within an ecosystem separate ecosystem. I find the way that we’re helping from a PR perspective is product reviews, product placement, driving people to specific Amazon branded stores or Amazon landing pages in URLs. So there’s a lot you can do from a sort of supporting campaign, but probably outside of the Amazon world.

Stella: So Christmas was recent. Not that long ago although it feels like it was about a year ago, because January’s been the longest month ever, and so gift guides with products were maybe some of the tactics within your PR team. Am I right? 

Jim: Yeah influence our outreach, say where we’re collaborating with influences on product reviews, you know, we can engineer an agreement to link back to the Amazon store over to the brand site so yeah there are ways of supporting an Amazon strategy from a PR perspective. But yeah, I think I think at the moment that’s where we’re seeing the limitations from PR play on. It’s probably more from its more traditional SEO techniques and paid search techniques coming into the Amazon offer.

Stella: I guess, from going to do measurement if one knows I like talking about your homage, but they’ve got to have that full picture off. Here was a PR campaign, but it doesn’t stop there. Here’s the link. Here’s the click throughs and then you start your whole analysis of what then happens on Amazon. I mean, that is a lovely picture to be able to draw for your clients.

Jim: It’s no different from any. I mean, if you take the example of Christmas gift guides, you know which retailer do you want the consumer to go and buy that product at? A lot of our clients say we work with a few toy companies. It might be Smyths toys or the entertainer would be the url. You’re trying to get, it’s part of you knowing where to go buy. This increasingly is becoming Amazon because in the toy sector, especially, you’re seeing that audience migrate onto Amazon because Toys R Us is gone. Mothercare’s, gone. 

Where’d you go to buy those products these days? And actually, increasingly, for very millennia, it is Amazon. That’s that’s where that’s where a lot of our conversations are a moment, and that’s where a lot of growth potential is for our clients.

Stella: So how I mean, how many of your clients are used in this kind of Amazon work?

Jim: So way launched our Amazon team about six months ago. We finally came out beta, I guess, a month or so ago, but we’ve been in development for 12 months. We developed our own technology in-house to help us help our teams do that. We’ve got six people that are working specifically on Amazon, not just UK but France and Germany as well. I say we have about a dozen clients at the moment of varying sizes. Some retainers, some more campaign led, but mostly retained pieces of work and across all different categories. Oh, yeah, we’ve got toy companies, we’ve got food cos we’ve got healthcare businesses as well. Say, that’s the interesting thing, But the principles are the same from a product perspective and product discovery. Actually you can be quite diverse in your products portfolio.

Stella: That’s quite a big investment, not just financially, with your head count and technology, but also of time and skill development. They’re a swell. So this must be worth it, right? 

Jim: Yeah I mean, you know, way. We’ve been thinking about this for a couple of years on and off, looking at the numbers of media spend going into Amazon and it felt like a good horse to back.

Stella: So just on that, then were you managing the media spend? Were you looking at that as just what your clients were doing anyway? Or their competitors? And was that feeding your decision? 

Jim: yes, a mixture of both, but yeah, just from a holistic big picture perspective. You know more and more media spend being taken away from Facebook, Google on into into Amazon.

Stella: So with the looking at media spend for Amazon was that then pushing you to think about how you could naturally up like trying push those products up rather than just being into media spend as well?

Jim:  That’s right. You need a jewel strategy and often the best traffic is the organic traffic -size it for free to set to some extent. We start with the basic principles,  understanding the algorithm and optimizing products, with that with that in mind say, yeah, we’re going after the people that actually already searching for your products or your products in that sort of category and then we will say, then build in, you know, AMs or paid search functionality. AMs is Amazon Media service which is essentially a way of booking media spend through the Amazon platform. So branding opportunities or delivering adverts, the Kindle described. But you can still obviously ‘run a paid search’. I’m doing inverted commas as I speak, campaigned through AMs as well.

Stella: This is a whole new world. So you mentioned some technology that you have been developing here. What area does that sit in? Is that the organic side or paid?

Jim: It’s actually a variety of tools, which are helping us better monitor things like pricing so that clients can adjust their pricing on a more fluid basis one, complete efficiently against some of their competitors. It’s helping us better manage sales forecasts. One of the big things Amazon hates is when a product is not available, you just drop off from an algorithm perspective.. Forecasting well, will mean you’re gonna be much more visible on Amazon more regularly. So you know, we’ve developed a suite of tools which scrape all the information from competitors and from the actual clients as well.

Stella: So that’s openly available through Amazon than for you to look at your competitors.

Jim: Yeah, it is. Yeah. The interesting thing is that Amazon’s quite in its infancy. Compared to a lot of the tools that we can use on Facebook, instagram or even Google. And they’re a little bit behind the curve on that in terms of the tools that agencies can use. Let’s say, we’re Facebook and Google Premier Agency partner. We get access to everything that we need. Amazon is still sort of a little bit behind, and we felt actually, we needed to create our own tools to fill that gap there. That’s what we’ve done. And, yeah, there’s a huge amount of data that you can grab from the platform through the tools that we’ve developed.

Stella: You’ve got clients and all sorts of different off products sectors you’ve mentioned  beauty products. It could be food. I don’t think I’ve ever bought food from Amazon, but it’s a heart that is a whole section

Jim: We worked for a protein supplement business. Nothing is technically a food. It could be health care or fitness acting. That’s the interesting thing is that that product should be in three or four different categories, but yeah, well, we just started working with an alcohol brand. Alcohol brands are really investing into direct consumer platforms, including Amazon,  because more people drinking at home, different behavior, less people going out there is significant business that basically looking for new channels to market in, light off, people, going out less, actually, and consuming more products or more of their beverages at home.

Stella: It’s really interesting. when I was in a PR agency, Diageo was my biggest client that I worked on was Smirnoff and Guinness and proving success for that kind of sector was always quite difficult. I’ve hung out quite a lot of James Alexander at Diageo and was with him and last Friday, when he’s been on the podcast as well, and he goes into all sorts of detail to try and prove the impacts and success of different lines of marketing of their alcohol brands. But this is great that you can just see direct sales, and that is a change in the way that those kinds of products are being bought. But yeah, that’s that’s really interesting that they’re people buy on Amazon like that.

Jim: Yeah, I think there are certain categories which makes sense. You know, we’re talking to a quite big pet food business at the moment you mentioned beauty, you know, we work for Cussons and they’ve got a portfolio of brands, some actually really lovely products, but they’re flying at the moment on Amazon. You know, we started working them six months ago and are now increasing the investment over time because they can see quite quickly the impact that you can have just purely based on the maps. Sales go through just by little tweaks or improvement. Incremental improvements in how products are positioned on Amazon can make a really big difference right quickly.

Stella: And for some of your clients, this is something that they were doing before. I know that whenever I’ve worked directly with a product in FMCG , it would always be that they would be working with their retailers. And it would all be about directing foot fall sales if you like, or awareness, but to the retailers. So this is, I guess, a retailer. But it’s just a very different one, because it’s much more direct impact. But is there something they were doing before?

Jim: It’s a real mix –  some people have still got a lot of hang ups about Amazon. But interestingly, for a lot of the companies, their products are being resold on Amazon by other distributors and resellers. Therefore, they’re not in control of their brand, and they’re not in control of the pricing strategy. So in a large part, this is almost like maintaining some order or actually a defensive strategy as well. So I think even if you don’t want to be selling on Amazon I think you need to try and get a grip of what’s going on with your brand on Amazon, because the light there is that if you’re not on there someone is grabbing your product from somewhere in your supply chain, is merchandising it through Amazon. One client we’ve been speaking to,  part of the strategy is to try and better manage the resellers and pricing differentiation and take more control –  there are ways that we can help do that.

Stella: That’s quite interesting for a brand to be in competition with a lesser known retailer. 

Jim: That’s the thing, they’re unauthorized resellers but actually off are doing extremely well on Amazon when the actual brand owner isn’t on. Do you know that that comes into your contractual arrangements? And actually it’s an increasingly problematic area for clients.

Stella: So quick go back to the organic side of Amazon. So how products are appearing in searches. You mentioned that there’s a number of points that you have to achieve to be able to appear in such.  What are those?

Jim: So it’s ah, a lot of it actually reminds me of the classics of keyword stuffing of SEO yesteryear from a sort of product page perspective. And, you know, just making sure that you understand how people are searching, discovering products on Amazon and also in which categories. So we talked about protein.  Actually, people could be finding that in health fitness or in food, it’s just making sure that you’re actually present in all those different categories and understanding where the volume of search actually is. One of the mistakes we see a lot of clients making is just not having the right number of images or right mix of products and lifestyle. Amazon likes to see a certain fixed number of a number of images attached to products and product reviews is actually really, really important. Customer reviews have a huge impact on conversion. Say, you know, how do you actually get people to review a product and post a review back in Amazon and the biggest thing by far is his stock availability. If your stock is not available, you drop down the rankings. They also like you to support with some AMS spend. So that is factored into the algorithm as well. So there’s a whole host of different things to consider when trying to understand how to game the algorithm.

Stella: Um, you mentioned that  in preparation to really have this service in full flow you’ve got people dedicated to this service. What kind of skill sits within that team? It sounds like there’s, ah, a mixture here of paid experience, but also understanding algorithms. What kind of hires did you need to make?

Jim: Actually, we’ve to some extent, we’ve actually moved people across. So people who are working in our SEO team or paid search team. Actually, some of them have asked to come across because, you know, this is a great learning opportunity, something a bit different. So, yeah, you write a lot of those more traditional skills are being moved across into the Amazon team. But actually, the interesting thing is also creative as well. So we have our own creative team that increasingly are developing assets for Amazon as well. In the same way they’re developing assets for Facebook really, or Google shopping is understanding and testing what’s working from a creative perspective.

Stella: And when you say crazy is that imagery?

Jim: Imagery and video content? Yeah,

Stella: What kind of video content?

Jim: Mostly product on the same sort of formats you’re seeing on Facebook and Instagram to some extent. But, you know, we talked about how Amazon is becoming more of a branding platform as well. Say use of video within some of those ad formats through the Amazon ecosystem is a priority for a lot of the clients we’re working with, say, it’s interesting that it is taking two or three or four actual different skill sets to actually construct an Amazon offering. Obviously we have a data science team building a lot of this stuff.

Stella: Right at the beginning I’ve loved watching Three Pipe’s development from afar mainly because I relate to some of the different elements of PR and SEO. And then I went off to software through CoverageBook which he’s a slightly different route. And now I’m finding out about one of these. Amazing? How long have you been going?

Jim: 2004. So yeah, 16 years. We still have a PR team, you know that. That’s still a key focus for us, though I’d say that’s moving more the conversations and more traditional PR, which you’ll be happy about. I feel like the last couple years we’re seeing more briefs coming through on that and actually PR to us is, you know, we have a lot social programs. Campaigns influence their outreach, say traditional is still important, but actually is increasing for us it’s more traditional PR.

Stella: I’m interested to know, you know me – you don’t have to fully share all of this, but it’s interesting for me to think marketing just generally. And look where the brief comes in from. So I mean that flow off his product. Do you have many of yours from original PR moving over to Amazon or they’re coming through the Amazon brief? 

Jim:  It’s a real mix actually. I think I think the thing that pulls all that together, you know, the funnel or the flywheel whatever you wanna call it is actually insight and planning and say, you know, we’ve become more more reliant on working with our planning team to actually understand what is the right mix of strategies because no one can afford to do everything because that’s that’s a lot different work you’ve described. And the reality is immediate or marketing budgets haven’t necessarily increased in the line with the media fragmentation on all those things you talked about. How important you know, broadcast coverage can do a huge job in accelerating sales as much as making sure that when they come to arms and they can find you. And I think it’s trying to understand clients and what and often that comes down to is what resource they have in house, what other agencies do they work with? Where did they actually most need that help but increasing the strategy and planning side to actually guide us as to which teams make more sense to have in the room. 

Stella: Do you have any clients that are taking most of those boxes first? I’ve got two parts to this question.

Jim: Yeah. I mean, I’d say, like, say, a client will be working with us across an average of about three channels with us, which you know, would be PR, a paid search, Amazon say, and that number is tracking upwards on. That might be because, you know, we have the ability to take that work into different channels, but the reality is that every channel impacts another on you can’t isolate them. We don’t live in those silo channels anymore. And you need a holistic view or a data lead view to tell you what you should be doing and how one piece of work in practice another channels.

Stella: Leads me very nicely into the second part of my question. Measurement reporting because I love that. Do you have separate reports for those different lines? Or do they have merged together? Because obviously they do kind of influence each other, But then they also have their own stand alone success as well.

Jim: Yeah, I guess that depends on who we report into how they want to see the information. So we have some clients who have dedicated PR inhouse. For some, it’s more marketing directors with spend like you guys. So we built our own dashboards. More data visualization, more sort of how you aggregate that data resource that we have also built our own attribution software as well. So you know, helping clients make sense of that data because actually, if you can’t, then you don’t really know where to start. In fact, that’s becoming an increasingly frequent conversation is like ‘We just don’t know what’s working, help us figure out what’s working well!’

Stella: The last podcast was actually all about attribution and whether earned PR can even play in an attribution model. I know that when I was working for big retailers, I was actually really doing the SEO, but leading the link building and the PR struggled to be part of the full attribution models that they were at that they had in place for the rest of their digital marketing. But that’s mainly because of the amount of budget that was being spent on paid and affiliates. But PR definitely wasn’t involved, definitely would not be part of the conversation back then. Whether that’s changed now, I don’t know. But it’s difficult. It is, it’s hard. We all know the amazing impact it could have if you get those numbers, isn’t it?

Jim: Yeah, I think ROI. Actually, most of the acceleration conversations we have around paid media. I guess people see, I didn’t know you could argue that PR they see it as organic and therefore less value attached to it is no, is no money leaving their business and say they were rightly or wrongly. We spent £1 million on media last year, but we don’t know what’s working, but they often wait to talk about how they’ve got, like five or six people sat outside the room, just churning out social content and not understanding the value of that as well. But yeah, I think that I think because there is a paid value attached to it rather than not attached to it. That’s where that’s what they were mostly interested in.

Stella: I wonder if we’ll ever get there one day. Who takes a click? Oh, yeah. I don’t know. The last podcast was with Russell, who is an attribution expert. But he hasn’t been able to bring PR really into any of the models that he’s worked on just because it is very difficult. Okay, so, like, where where was spread? You think the areas that you guys are offering for your clients are growing? Do you think this is gonna be an area that’s gonna keep growing for you –  Amazon? Do you think about other areas?

Jim: Yeah, I think Amazon will. You know that we had an event last week and we had some really positive conversations. I think a lot haven’t got an Amazon strategy at all, which I think is something that’s gonna change over the next year. I think it has to change because they’re just getting more and more market share. I can’t see that Amazon giant sort of disappearing any time. Yeah. I mean, we’re talking about digital PR. I mean, us integrating PR and creative teams terms, asset builds, asset strategy. All that sweet stuff. This is definitely an area where we’re focusing on as well anywhere that can have any sort of opportunity like that, where we can prove our value to the work we’re doing. Depending on how you view value is an area that we’re interested in.

Stella: Do you do that for all of your PR campaigns? 

Jim: Yeah, And to be honest, even if we’re not asked to, we do because you know, soft metrics aren’t gonna help us retain a client necessarily. I think we’re always trying to take clients on a journey and if it’s a traditional one that’s fine. But we’ll always try and, you know, bring them with us because at the end of the day, we want to retain our clients and grow our clients and demonstrate the value we are delivering. And if we just going along with the status quo, then nothing’s gonna change.

Stella: Yes, yes, yes, it’s good for it and for people who are listening and are doing PR for similar kinds of products that we’ve been talking about, but this may sound like a very big growth area that maybe they wouldn’t want to. Or maybe it not be able to invest the time in the budgets into movie in this area. But I think okay, this is going on and let’s definitely even join up my reporting or at least just know what’s going on. How should they get started in finding out whether this is happening on their products, that they’re working on him on their clients?

Jim: Well, I’m pretty sure it will be happening. I mean, if I were them. You know what I think is interesting at the moment you know, we’ve got a specialist Amazon team, but I’m starting to see special agencies popping up not just in the States. So if I were them, I’d be looking to sort of meet with them, get to know them, start working with them and build up your knowledge that way. That’s what I, that’s what I would do.

Stella: Yeah. I mean, I just remember when I first started in the search area I thought, okay, let’s go and meet the people just because I knew PR was able to then go with the search agency, we should work together because we’re gonna massively help each other. And it’s the same kind of thing here. Isn’t it like that if you’re in PR and there is another agency doing this kind of Amazon work, they could massively help prove sales from your PR on vice versa. Like if you could drive traffic so you’re gonna help them, too. So it’s we have back scratching going on.

Jim: Everything should be complimentary. So I don’t want to use the word integrated. Some people don’t like that word, but I think everything is becoming closer and closer together and say, yeah, for me, it would make sense to reach out and talk to those people and understand where actually some commonality or efficiency on where you can help each other for sure.

Stella: Nice. Thank you so much for sharing your whereThree Pipe’s going. But also some tips are for our listeners to thank you so much.

Jim: Thank you very much.