Friday, April 28, 2006

ROI Drives Professional Services To Outsource Marcomm

As pressure increases to produce billable revenue, more professional services firms are partnering with marketing communications agencies as a powerful way to maximize marketing-related return on investment.

Lawyers, accountants and financiers have less time than ever before to build and maintain crucial relationship-driven business models. Necessity, being the mother of most innovative thinking, has driven many to conclude marketing communications can play a strategic role in developing these relationships. Simultaneously, however, they’ve realized creating and executing these strategies is not their core competency.

This is all part of a mind shift in professional services firms from “if we do good work, clients will come” to “we must communicate who we are and why we are better” to differentiate in the marketplace and attract profitable clients and powerful recruits.

Managing how a firm is perceived in the marketplace requires constant communication about actions taken by the firm to maintain perceived value, effectiveness, quality, credibility and competence with key audiences. Perception—good or bad, accurate or inaccurate—becomes reality and impacts a firm’s bottom line.

By retaining professional outside communications counsel, firms can leverage the unvarnished, more powerful perspective that is crucial to effective marketing communications while cutting internal overhead costs. Where internal staff retreat from confrontation, outside counsel serves as loyal opposition to tell firm leaders what they need to hear—how to truly differentiate their firm from other firms in the marketplace.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Deadly Sins of B to B Branding: Dying On The Sword of Consensus

This post begins a series of entries focusing on the most common missteps we see in B to B branding initiatives.

When compiling a list of the Deadly Sins of B to B Branding, it seems appropriate to start at the top. Not with the most common or heinous branding sin, but on one that begins (and ends) with the company’s president or CEO.

The sin is mistaking consensus for input. And if it doesn’t kill a branding initiative outright, it will erode the initiative’s effectiveness over time.

It happens when the company’s top executive and/or owner concludes that the company’s brand position—how the company needs to be known by all of its key audiences—is something that should be voted on by all internal participants in the branding process.

When internal consensus is an imperative in a branding process, vanilla is almost always the result. Instead of the most strategically sound approach winning the day, what wins are the position and supporting creative that are least objectionable to the most members of the internal review team.

Trouble is, vanilla doesn’t differentiate companies or their offerings. Not when the game is increasing sales, holding price premiums, recruiting and retaining top people and building enterprise value. And definitely not in a marketing landscape crowded with loads of players making similar claims using similar language.

Should people on the leadership team of a company have an instrumental role in determining a company’s brand position? Absolutely. Their input is indispensable to building a credible, effective brand.

Should the thoughts of employees from throughout the company be considered during the branding process? In almost every case I’ve seen, yes.

But there’s a world of difference between soliciting input and promising consensus. The rationale for moving this way in a branding exercise is no different from the rationale for empowering a president or CEO to make any sort of critical decision: ultimately, some one person must make the call, or organizational paralysis will set in.

Of course, the good leaders seek counsel from advisors both inside and outside the company. They carefully consider the possibilities. Then they make a well-grounded decision, announce it with confidence, explain the basis for their decision and move boldly forward.

Branding should be no different.

That’s why the most sensible B to B branding processes incorporate data from a host of sources inside and outside the company. Then, a team of branding experts distills the data down to a single premise that articulates who the company needs to be in order to accomplish its business objectives.

Part of that distillation needs to be making the case for a specific positioning. In other words, the team must show how, if we position the company as X, we’ll be able to account for and address what we heard from our internal and external sources in the data-gathering process. Showing internal participants that their input has been seriously considered is part of making the case for a specific brand recommendation.

Assuming he or she is on board with the findings, the top executive can then declare the exercise done, so the implementation team can get to work on bringing the brand position to life creatively.

All of which beats the hell out of vanilla.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Alliance, Anyone?

I just returned to the office after spending the morning with our company’s CPA. By the way, I’m also a CPA myself. Having said that, it wouldn’t surprise me if your first reaction was “Why doesn’t he just save his money and do the CPA-stuff himself?” That’s the point of this post.

If you’re a CEO or hold a key leadership role in your company, you’d probably never think of not retaining a CPA firm to handle your financial, taxation, technological, and/or mergers and acquisition activities. You probably routinely consult with your corporate law firm with regard to any legal matter that’s complex, or involves a strategic imperative for your company. You do this because you know what you don’t know. You also recognize that anything that involves opportunities or risks merits consultation with these professionals.

So why don’t some leaders take the same approach when it comes to marketing, branding, and/or marketing communications?

Is the capacity to differentiate your products and services from your competitors’, to lower your costs of sales, to successfully launch that new product, or to quickly align your work force behind a common strategic vision for your future less important than footnotes to financial statements or employment agreements for a new plant manager?

If these marketing outcomes are important, then change the nature of your relationship with your agency.

  1. Stop thinking of your agency as your advertising or public relations firm. Start including them in the design and development of your strategic revenue-producing plans.
  2. Re-characterize your annual disbursements in marketing and sales support as investments rather than expenses.
  3. Get explicit about the return you expect on these investments, and hold people accountable for delivering.
A strategically competent marketing communications firm will welcome these actions.

The obvious counter-point here is that “we already have smart, talented people in our organization focused exclusively on marketing.” Well, part of the value of working with outside help—whether it’s a CPA, an attorney or the like—is their ability to bring fresh eyes to a situation. As we like to say in our firm, “sometimes it’s hard to see the house from inside the house.”

That’s why so many firms that already have in-house legal counsel maintain relationships with law firms. By complementing their own expertise with the fresh perspective and market knowledge of experts from outside the business, they develop strategies and tactics that are better-grounded and more effective.

If you’re not already doing so, your company would be wise to take the same tack when it comes to your branding, marketing and marketing communications.

Now, what did my CPA say about the new rules regarding the valuation of goodwill?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Keep It Simple and Great Creative Will Follow

Sound strategy + singular message = great creative.

Simple, right? You’d be surprised. When an agency lets a flabby strategy go to the creative department, the outcome will most certainly be flabby creative.

You know you’re there when the conversation after the creative presentation goes something like this:

Client: Nothing really WOWS me.
Agency: Really? What do you mean?
Client: Nothing here captures what I want to say.
Agency: Are we trying to say too much?
Client: Maybe….but bring back more creative...I’ll know it when I see it.

More creative? Don’t even begin to think about it until you’ve outlined—in writing—a sound strategy and a single-minded message. And secured buy-in on both from the client. That way, client and agency alike are sure where they’re headed and what to expect from resulting creating.

Absent a sound strategy and single message, creative directors can’t direct. Writers and art directors can’t create. Account people can’t evaluate. And clients can’t decide whether or not the agency has nailed a creative idea.

Clients often resist narrowing the message because “everything is important.” Any agency worth its salt will help zero in on a single, compelling selling premise with supporting copy points—and do whatever it takes to help clients see that they’re best served by keeping the premise behind the big idea as compact as possible.

Beyond causing frustration for all involved, “backing into" a creative solution can be very costly for client and agency.

Start from a well-grounded strategy and a narrow, clearly articulated message, and the creative process can’t help but produce ideas that are on-strategy. Because once strategically sound ideas have been delivered, the only challenge becomes which concept do we all think will resonate with the target audience?

And that’s a great place to be.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Numbers Don't Lie

For a host of B to B companies, branding has long been on the back burner. But that appears to be changing, according to a recent survey by the Business Marketing Association.

The BMA survey reveals—among other important findings—that company budgets for branding have increased an average of more than 12 percent over the last two years. On behalf of all marketing communications professionals, I can assure you this isn’t because we all suddenly made these companies an offer they couldn’t refuse. So, why the increase in brand spending?

For many years, B to B companies of all sizes have understandably been preoccupied with other pressing problems: global competition, quickening commoditization of products or services, resource constraints and more. Interestingly enough, though, these are some of the very same reasons more B to B players are taking a serious look at branding today. They’re coming to the realization that a strong company brand can help them gain and sustain a competitive advantage in a game in which quality products, “custom-tailored solutions” and full-service offers simply no longer differentiate one player from the next.

The BMA study also shows that nearly 90 percent of companies are in the middle of branding or re-branding efforts right now.

If you're among the ten percent not in action, is it time to panic? No, not yet. There’s still time to stake out a niche that positions your company to thrive in the 21st century economy.

Even with so many hopping on the “brandwagon,” B to B companies are still far behind their B to C brethren in branding. But if the recent BMA survey is any indication, B to B companies have begun to catch up. So watch out, Nike!

Thursday, April 6, 2006

Maximize the Business Impact of Your Media Coverage

Getting media coverage is one thing. Getting messages in front of audiences who wield influence over business agendas is quite another.

That’s why I’m careful to remind the clients I work with that the value of media coverage begins—not ends—when media cover their product, service, company, organization, or issue.

Your company’s audiences view publications and broadcasts as credible entities providing objective reporting. By association, your product, service, company, organization or issue receives an implied endorsement from this objective third party known as the media.

But securing media coverage doesn’t guarantee that the audiences you care about most will see that coverage—or take the actions you want them to take.

To fully leverage the business impact of your media coverage, consider the following actions:

  • Purchase article reprints and send to influential audiences, such as clients, prospects and recruits.
  • Link online articles to your website to maximize search engine rankings. Post articles, video and audio clips on your website.
  • Send one paragraph e-news updates describing media coverage to influential audiences. Post a link to the full article to drive website traffic.
  • Pitch a similar story to non-competing media in different markets and trade media covering different vertical markets.
  • Pull quotes out of media coverage to use as "call outs" in collateral materials and advertising. Attribute the quote to the media outlet.
  • Extend media coverage by exploring a topic further in a whitepaper, speech, blog entry, e-news commentary or news media op-ed.
  • Add media participation to executive biographical information to enhance their credibility as a leader.

By doing so, you'll extend the value of public relations efforts in a way that makes it easier to link dollars spent in public relations to dollars generated for your company.