not arrogant, just better

paul stallard's pr blog

#PR – Ask the experts: Paco Underhill, CEO of Envirosell and author of Why we buy

Written by Paul Stallard

Paco Underhill

Today I am launching my new range of interviews – #PR: Ask the experts – that I hope will be insightful and interesting to PR professionals. I have approached respected individuals from our industry as well as experts from other fields that I believe PROs can learn and benefit from.

I have always tried to aim high in everything I do. People who have worked with me will know that I love a target. So when I sat down and wrote down the top five people that I wanted to speak with regardless of location or industry, one of the names that was on the list was Paco Underhill.

I was first introduced to Paco’s work by Andy Budd of Clearleft fame and after reading his book, Why we buy, was inspired to see how much of his science could be transferred to the PR world. It is now a permanent fixture on my desk and I have recommended it countless times to colleagues, friends and readers of this PR blog.

I admire his work and was delighted that he agreed to speak to me a couple of weeks ago where I found him to be both humourous and self-depreciating while still demonstrating his brilliant mind. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did conducting it.


Paul Stallard: Hi Paco, please can you introduce yourself and what you do. 

Paco Underhill: Well, most places where I turn up in the world, people know me as the author of international bestselling books.  I do have a day job, which is being a Chief Executive Officer of Envirosell. We are a consultant firm. We work with merchants and marketers all across the world.  We have offices scattered all across the world, including an office in London.

Paul Stallard: Ah, so do you come over to the UK much, Paco?

PU: A couple of times a year.  I was doing a little work for one of the English grocers and then I gave a speech at the National Football Museum in Manchester on ‘The Science of Shopping.’

PS: You have obviously put your research into the science of shopping to good effect with retailers but have any PR firms ever approached you to help them better understand how to communicate with their clients, and, how they can help drive sales for their clients, and their products and services?

PU: We certainly have not worked directly for a PR agency, but the PR agencies are often involved in our work with a specific client.  They are interested in what we see and do, and what the potential opportunities are that we are creating for them.  Certainly, whether you are a merchant or a marketer, understanding a sense of place and what the potential guerrilla marketing opportunities are, is a way of plucking low hanging fruit.  All of us in the 21st century are looking for ways in which creativity can trump money.

PS: I believe that PR is a big part of the storytelling mix, and that impacts on everything.  Do you think that this is improving as companies are becoming more aware of getting this right, or it’s actually getting worse because there are so many things now that people have to think about?

PU:  Well I think part of the challenge here is that with all of the different medias out there, there’s a certain measure of cacophony, meaning there’s too much noise.

The degree to which we can manage that noise and anticipate that noise-, because part of what we recognise, is that our customer out there is trying to sort through the verbal and visual clutter.  The degree to which we can find ways to get through that verbal and visual clutter, is a critical part of generating our impact on the world.  I think it’s ironic that it isn’t necessarily the scale of your campaign, it’s often how clever it is.

PS: Do you think that businesses do enough to understand who their customers are? For example, you talk about some retail websites, like Amazon, that attract women, while other sites actually turn women off.  Why do you think that this is still happening?

PU:  I think we live in a world that tends to be owned by men, managed my men, and designed by men, and yet we expect women to participate in it.  In virtually every job that we’re doing whether we’re working on a petrol station or even a tractor dealership, we have to ask the question about, ‘Is this female friendly?’

I think one of the ironies of our world is that the design profession-, I don’t mean the design of clothing, but I mean the design of stores, and fixtures, and graphic designs, have just gotten integrated in the past ten years.  I can go to a gathering of store planners, and there is generally not a single female over the age of 50 that’s in the product vision.

Whereas if I look at a younger audience, yes they’re there, but the role of the female creative has just been pioneered literally in the past ten or twenty years.

PS: You talked in your books about the level of impulse purchasing going through the roof now. You’ve also talked about how you can influence these decisions on the shop floor.  Have you done much work at looking at how you can influence these impulse purchases via social media?

PU:  Well, certainly we know that social media is trusted, in some ways, more than advertising is, because people are interested in what other people have to say.  By the same token, one of the things we’re also very confident of, is social media, at the present moment, is getting deeply corrupted, as companies try to take over what was the person communicating.  So we’ve had instances, for example, of people being given discounts or paid money to ‘like’ or leave positive reviews.  I think that the role of social medium, as it relates to our purchasing habits, is very much in flux and that part of what we’re recognising, is that our relationship with social media is imminently promiscuous.  Things get very cool very fast and thing get uncool very, very fast.  Therefore, I am not holding any stock on Facebook.

PS: Just while we’re talking about the Internet, one of the sections of ‘Why We Buy’ that I found particularly interesting, was the section where you were talking about how lists work well online.  How is this evolving?

PU:  Well one of the topics we know is that we are trying to manage what is global and what is national and what is local.  That’s true, whether that is Netflix recognising that there are some films that are more popular in some parts of the country than others, or it’s a fashion brand recognising that there are dresses that will fly off the rack in Dallas, the company will try on in Philadelphia.  I think this is actually one of the challenges that the net has, is that until very recently, we have been seeing it as a global phenomenon, when what the evolution of the net is being driven to, is how can I not just localise the content, but personalise the content?

PS: Is the internet and e-commerce something that your firm is looking more at? 

PU: We’ve been certainly involved the analysis of clickstreams for years.  The point is that we, as a company, aren’t in the in depth collection business about the Internet, because collecting data in the 21st century is really easy and lots and lots of people are doing it.  What we are involved with is the much tougher task, of what this means you can do with the information.

PS: Is there a piece of advice you’d give a PR professional that has been given the task of communicating to a client’s consumers?

PU: Yes, I think one of the messages, which I am very adamant about, is that you have to wear rubber-soled shoes.  Meaning that we, as a culture, have got very comfortable thinking sitting down, and that the way-, whether you’re a retail executive, a marketing executive, or a PR executive, is that going out there and being at the point of contact where a product and the customer meet, or the product and our service customers, is a very critical part of being able to bring some tactical knowledge to the execution of a PR strategy.

I think the skill of being able to think, talk and look standing up is a very critical part of any success.  It is also what makes a good leader, because if you as a leader, or as a Senior Executive, are doing it, that forces everyone else in your organisation to do the same thing.

PS: Thank you, bye.