Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Considering a PR Campaign? Building Credibility, Relationships Takes Time

The essence of public relations is building credibility and relationships. Both take time, commitment and nurturing.

Whether attempting to build brand awareness through media channels or winning over the local planning commission for a new development, the end goal of public relations is to establish credibility for yourself, your product, your organization as a means to building mutually beneficial relationships with influential audiences who affect whether your agenda flourishes or dies on the vine.

Strategic public relations counsel, therefore, requires more than a press release to local media. Public relations—in its most valuable form—requires thinking about what actions to take, when to take those actions, how to communicate about those actions and with whom to communicate to ensure two-way communications and, ultimately, understanding result.

In short, strong communications from credible sources helps build strong relationships.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Recruiting: From Boom to Bust?

Manufacturers, professional service firms and other B2B companies have a wide variety of marketing concerns, but one issue keeps coming up in our conversations: recruiting and retaining skilled workers.

You’ve probably heard a thing or two about this *little* group called the Baby Boomers. They’ll be retiring soon—taking their skills and going home. People refer to this reality as the “graying of the labor force.” Based on their large numbers, replacing the Baby Boomers in your company won’t be easy. People are warning of impending worker shortages. Meanwhile, studies show that many companies, especially manufacturers, may not be doing enough to prepare for the change.

So what’s this have to do with marketing? You might think of branding as being directed primarily at clients and customers. But employees and employee prospects are a critical audience that must not be overlooked—because your company is only as good as its people.

As far as the relationship between branding and recruitment goes, simple logic is at play. Strong candidates seek strong companies. A clear, consistent brand promotes the perception of strength and leadership not just with customers, not just with the public, but also with top recruits. The more they think of your company as stable and strong, the more they’re reassured about their financial future working for your company. Furthermore, a well-focused brand that captures a niche can attract the attention of the highly specialized talent you need to continue your success.

Here’s a microcosmic case in point. A funny thing happened on the way to a direct marketing project we developed recently for a professional services firm. The original goal was to corral new business prospects by highlighting some seasoned talent the firm had hired. Well, we did get results in the new business realm. But on top of that, the project had an unforeseen benefit: it caught the eye of some talented candidates—the recruitment and retention of whom is a critical element of the firm’s growth strategy.

If your company has a similar growth strategy, or even if you’re just worried about replacing the Boomers, you’d be wise to consider the role marketing your firm can play in attracting the talented workers you’ll need. When marketing reinforces a clear, compelling story about your company and its brand, prospective employees can’t help but take notice.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Good Parenting

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the Business Marketing Association’s annual meeting in San Jose. The conference was tremendous: great speakers, loads of serious B to B marketing practitioners, and a chance to be part of a re-energized organization that’s reasserting its relevancy in the marketing world.

One of the keynotes was James Richardson, Cisco Systems’ senior vice president for its Commercial Business segment. During Q&A, Richardson spoke to the dilemma many B to B enterprises face: build equity for standalone product brands, or introduce new products under the banner of the parent company?

In the commercial segment—which easily accounts for the majority of Cisco’s revenue—all products bear the Cisco name. On the consumer side, the company has established its Linksys brand, explicitly tagged as “A division of Cisco Systems, Inc.” You can’t miss the fact that when you’re buying Linksys, you’re buying a Cisco product.

This “branded house” strategy is definitely a departure from the “house of brands” approach of a company like Procter & Gamble. As you know, P&G has created scores of standalone product brands that aren’t explicitly linked to their parent company.

Richardson was asked to share his thoughts on the difference, and on Cisco’s decision to build a branded house.

Richardson's answer? The company is the brand. Maintaining standalone, differentiated product line brands is expensive and complex. Few have the money, time or talents of P&G to pull it off.

Instead, Cisco sought to build equity for the parent, knowing the rest would follow. For most B to B enterprises, that’s great advice.

More often than not in B to B, companies produce the biggest returns by building powerful, valued, clearly differentiated company brands.

Among other things, leading with a strong company brand softens the beaches at the product level. People accept new products more quickly when said products are connected to a parent company they already know and trust. Over time, customers’ satisfaction with a product creates additional good will and equity for the parent company.

This is increasingly important given mounting evidence that links company brands to enterprise value (privately held) and market cap (publicly traded).

Of course, companies need to beware of the dangers of overextending their brands to offer or endorse product and service categories that will erode the brand (a la Ries and Trout in their seminal work on positioning in the 80s and 90s).

Short of the appearance of Cisco-branded knockwurst or beachwear, though, most B to B enterprises would be wise to follow Cisco’s and Richardson’s lead.

Meaning that "brand the company" should be the default setting for any consideration of whether to lead with company or product in the quest for bigger brand equity.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Re-Thinking “No Comment”

Fans of television legal dramas understand “no comment” to be a cornerstone strategy when confronted by media.

No comment, in fact, is a phrase coined by lawyers to win in the court of law. The thinking goes, “If you don’t say the words, those words cannot be used against you.”

The court of public opinion, however, has little tolerance for lack of transparency and far fewer rules to follow in reaching a verdict.

Saying nothing creates an aurora of mystery, intrigue and deceit, which leaves media audiences craving an explanation. You can be certain the media will give them what they want—it’s their job, and a vital one for democracy.

So what, you might ask.

With or without your input, the story will be told. But, if you’re not telling your story, you leave the story telling to others. Someone else will specify how you, your company, your products are positioned with media and perceived by their agenda-affecting audiences.

No comment may win in the courtroom. But in the court of public opinion, the famed phrase has led to perceptions of distrust, uncertainty and instability. These perceptions can lead employees to quit, analysts to turn a cold shoulder, vendors to focus attention elsewhere, board members to resign and customers to stop buying.

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Engineering Speak

As B to B communicators, one of the challenges many of us face is winning over engineering audiences. That’s because in the companies we target as prospective customers, engineers are often decision-makers or influencers in the selection process.

And even if the target for your communications program isn’t someone in an engineering role, that person may have an engineering background.

The same goes for internal customers of many branding and marcomm initiatives. In engineering-driven organizations, it’s common for engineers looking for new challenges take on roles in marketing or sales.

But engineers are notoriously tough customers when it comes to marketing and marketing communications. They want the facts, and have little patience for marketing claims they perceive to be unsubstantiated.

As such, we advise our clients to live by the following rules when it comes to marketing communications aimed at engineering audiences:

1) Credibility is king. Engineers are skeptics by nature. Do everything you can and more to support your claims about why and how your company, product or service delivers unique value. Minimally, that means providing technical content at or beyond what engineers have come to expect in your industry.

Sharing the numbers is also important. You’ll win big cred with engineers by documenting the results your company or product has produced for customers.

2) Lead with the claim, not the technical details. Too many companies make the mistake of getting too technical too early. They miss the chance to frame technical content with a clear, valued and differentiating premise. A better approach is to launch the premise at the outset via a brand tag line or campaign theme, and then extend that premise through all other content as a unifying idea. (See an earlier post in this blog for more on this topic.)

3) Position your company’s engineers as thought leaders. Like the rest of us, engineers are more likely to trust those they consider their peers. By positioning your company’s engineers as thought leaders, you make it easier for engineering audiences to conclude that they can trust your company.

Proactive Public Relations is a particularly good way of accomplishing this. Contributed features from your engineers, speaking engagements at industry conferences, white papers and other tactics are all ways of connecting your engineers to those in your customers’ organizations. You also help engineers build their own professional identities in the marketplace—an important element in keeping engineers satisfied with their tenure at your company.

4) Don’t skimp on the creative. Engineers are consumers, too. They’ll appreciate and remember high-impact, highly inventive and even humorous creative—particularly if the creative demonstrates an understanding of how engineers see the world. But get to the facts quickly. And provide engineers with a quick way to get much more information if they’re interested.

Friday, May 5, 2006

SET MY CREATIVE FREE! — Or, how integrated marketing liberates creative

Effective marketing communications (note the “s” in communications) takes many forms. Integrating your story into the appropriate mix of media helps break down the messaging into meaningful and digestible pieces. When you avoid an “info-dump” in any one medium, you increase your chance of pulling the prospect through to the close.

Case in point? I was paging through the April 17th issue of Fortune magazine and noticed an ad for KeyBank. It appears the “info-dump” strategy won and their pricey ad has all the stopping power, persuasiveness and focus of a sell sheet. Lots of copy—I mean, LOTS OF COPY. But next to nothing that compels you as a reader to stop and read the copy or remember the ad, let alone take any action with the advertiser.

Note here that the quality of the creative you’ll be investing in is largely shaped before it gets to the creative people.

Focusing in on clear and concise messaging and using the appropriate mix of media increases your odds of producing creative that’ll leave you stunned, amazed and left gasping for breath.

In the same issue of Fortune, you’ll also see a great example of someone doing it right. Acura obviously focused on a single message and charged the creative people to bring it to life in a big way. They did. To the point where I was compelled to visit their website where I got much more detail. Nice strategy…use compelling creative to drive traffic to another medium. Then use that medium to begin selling and building a relationship.

Monday, May 1, 2006

Want ROI? Don’t Forget What The “I” Stands For!

While I haven’t been in the advertising industry my entire career, my background as a CPA and former CFO probably affords me an unusual amount of direct experience dealing with ROI’s, Payback Periods, Discounted Cash Flows and Economic Valued Added (EVA). During my tenure in the agency world, I’ve noticed many people talking and writing about ROI. And I have watched with both amusement and concern as our industry seems to break out into sweats, convulsions and hives whenever the topic is seriously broached.

I also have witnessed what I think is a fatal flaw with regard to ROI in our industry: the propensity of leaders (both corporate and agency) to forget what the “I” in “ROI” actually stands for. Lest anyone forget, it stands for “investment." Then why do so many move around and act as if expenditures in branding/positioning and B to B communications are really expenses?

Yeah, I know that the Financial Accounting Standards Board requires you to record these expenditures in your income statement as expenses. But if you know this, you are also no doubt aware that pharmaceutical companies, biomedical companies and start-ups in the nanotechnology industries are also required to record all of their research and development expenditures as expenses, too. It is safe to speculate that none of these companies diminish their R&D activities solely because of the FASB’s accounting and financial reporting rules. Rather, these companies “know” that R&D expenditures are their path to increased future revenues, market shares, and enterprise value for their organizations.

Safe to say that Coke “knows” this, too. Ditto for Proctor & Gamble. And Microsoft, Nike and Gatorade. In the B to B world, more and more organizations are moving similarly.

So why the change? My speculation is that for many of these companies, the shift to seeing marketing as an investment begins with a dramatic change in their narratives about the value of marketing and marketing communications. It's likely that enlightened leaders in these companies knew they could no longer look at these annual expenditures as merely operating expenses, or a drag on their earnings per share. Rather, they began seeing marketing dollars wisely spent as strategic investments in their company—investments that must be recurrently made. And, most importantly, investments that are rigorously reviewed and assessed from a “return” perspective.

I seriously welcome conversations with clients (current and prospective) which evolve into ROI discussions. Why? Because, if they truly are committed to producing a return on their communication programs, there is a pretty good likelihood that they know what the “I” stands for, and that they understand what it really means: before you can have “return," you first have to start with an “investment."