Saturday, January 17, 2009

Understanding Marketing Communications - Read up

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Understanding Integrated Marketing Communication (IMC)

by Dante de Miura

Why do smart companies go to great lengths to ensure consistency in their brand marketing messages across all marketing channels? There are many levels of answers to this, but ultimately it comes down to two things: Winning the battle of perceptions and generating sales.
In today's heavily cluttered marketplace with heavily fragmented media and heavily time-taxed consumers, companies are struggling to get the kind of exposure for their products they used to get 30 years ago. In order to get noticed, and in an attempt to cut through the noise generated by so much advertising and promoting of product, companies are smartly creating highly-focused communications that more accurately reflect the desired brand's image and using the same style of executions in all mediums and at all touchpoints with target consumers. The result? Higher brand recall by consumers, more effective awareness, more impact from marketing dollars spent and a higher probability of of triggering desired outcomes, namely, favorable perceptions and purchases.

Thirty years ago, all Proctor & Gamble had to do to reach well over 70% of the homemaker market segment was run a few TV commercials on a few different daytime TV shows (usually soap operas). Today, with the proliferation of now hundreds of TV stations and programming options, and with fewer stay-at-home spouses, P&G would reach a mere fraction of that with the same method. Add to that the the many other mediums and modes of communication we have today and you can see why company executives scratch their heads about how to best reach their target audience. The number of people with computers, Internet access (to millions of "channels"), cell phones, portable media receivers, etc, between 25-to 45-year-olds is staggering compared to just five years ago-and it is still growing.

Today, companies must use a wide and varied mix of media to reach a large portion of their audience, save for the middle and elderly part of the Senior market, but even that is changing. And in order to create a lasting impression and to trigger certain perceptions in the future at a moment's glance they need to ensure consistency in look, feel, style, tone, color and message at every touchpoint with consumers. And, equally importantly, they need to do it with a highly-impactful visual layout and few words. And it is not as easy as it may seem.
Creating integrated marketing communications, then, means expressing the core brand message in the same or very similar fashion at every touchpoint with the target consumer (or business-to-business customer).

As humans, we can really only comprehend just a few ideas at any one time so very focused messaging is usually more effective, anyway. Still, companies struggle with this because they have so much they want to say. But what they are learning (finally, after all these years) is that they can say way more visually about their brand, in the few seconds they have our attention, then we would have time (or care to take the time) to read about their brand. Enter now the world of perceptual management and see what companies are really getting a handle on and why integrated marketing communications will become the standard practice for all brands.

"Perceptions" are what drives purchasing behavior. Perceptions are formed in our minds through judgments-sometimes immediately and sometimes after careful consideration. The strongest perceptions, or those that we feel most passionate about, are those formed through emotional judgments, or the ideas, notions or concepts that we feel attach strongly to our own values, wants or likes. This understanding by corporations of perceptions and how to pro-actively manage them has led to a boom in the brand-building industry and better, more focused branding efforts that, in the end, help consumers more easily determine what brands we want to align with.

So, you might wonder, if brand managers are looking to make quicker, more lasting, more effective communications today by delivering consistent and "integrated" communications through a plethora of media, threading highly-selected visuals and written words into every mode, medium and message, then aren't they taking a huge risk? If everything looks and sounds the same, aren't they hanging their hat on only one hook? What if it doesn't work?
The answer represents a shift in accountability. In the "old" days, if a product "campaign" didn't work, the creative team was blamed and the ad agency was fired or a new team was installed. Today, with the focus on brand-building, integrated messaging and managing perceptions, the blame lies squarely with the developers of the brand strategy. That's because the "science" (as it were) of managing perceptions has created a visual and verbal translation mechanism that provides more highly reliable input for creative executions AND a way to validate those executions prior to going to market with them.

When creative executions are left to the creative development team to "translate" traditional written research and strategy documents and creative briefs, these professionals communicators do their best to intuitively develop visual and verbal executions they think hit the mark.
This led to consumers either deriving the "correct" meaning and feeling of the ads, commercials or brochures or getting an incorrect, or unintended meaning, feeling or perception. This left many companies to spend millions of dollars in HOPES of triggering favorable perceptions and garnering correct positioning in the minds of their audience and in the marketplace in general. The notion of being more proactive in managing these perceptions at the outset rather than to "guess" is what led to the perceptual management practice.

Now, companies can actually have a better handle on how their customers will view a brand by highly-focusing what they want a that brand to represent. Brand strategies today should not conclude with, say, a 200-page written document, but rather three or four desired perceptions that are formed directly from the research and strategy work. These core perceptions should represent the desired effect of how consumers should think about this brand and must meet three main criteria to be considered "on target." The perceptions must:
1. Be meaningful to the customers 2. Show differentiation from the competition 3. Be true to the actual nature and values of the brand
Once these are determined, they must be visually translated - in a very raw sense - and by customers, not creatives. To do this, a brand manager can take each desired brand perception and create for it what's called an "opposite" perception, or one diametrically opposed and not desired. For each brand perception and its opposite, a series of visual images will be gathered to test with consumers. Each series of images (say, eight to ten) will be within the same subject matter, like people or scenery or perhaps even more in context, like various other company Websites (with brand/company names removed).

Consumers are then asked, in small groups of four to six, to rank these images linearly according to the desired perception and its opposite. The result is a spectrum (or spectrums) for each perception, illustrating how target consumers see visual information as it relates to the perceptions. More accurately put, they are basically telling the manager what types of imagery is triggering the desired perception. This can be done with logos, key words and brand names, as well.

Results from this type of qualitative activity provides much better input to the creative team and helps them better perform their jobs. In fact, upon analysis of these results, what they are getting are visual and verbal cues that trigger desired brand perceptions. Rather than having to sift through hundreds of pages of documents, or try to intuitively decipher a written creative brief, creatives (especially graphic designers) are handed a palette of visual information to use in their work. Doesn't make more sense to hand creative people more precise visual and verbal data to embed in their executions versus stacks of documents? Of course, and typically they have a more immediate understanding of not only where the brand needs to go executionally but also which cues to avoid. This saves time and money and the frustration of re-work.

Once the creative team pulls together initial concepts for ads and such, these concepts can again be tested with consumers to find the one most effective at triggering desired perceptions, or what refinements need to be made. It is after this that all the necessary and final executions for all varieties media to be employed are executed. With each execution embedding the "winning" cues, and with all the pieces having similar look, feel, style, tone, etc., that the brand manager is better assured of triggering desired perceptions for brand and creating better brand recall and awareness.

In all, the proliferation of means to promote and advertise products in this day and age, and the dramatic bombardment of messages consumers receive daily, have led to increased costs for marketers that want to gain significant exposure for their brands. The attempts to cut through the clutter, gain recognition and awareness and use marketing dollars more effectively led to an international drive towards communications integration. This, in turn, led to more focused brand-building, the proactive management of desired marketplace perceptions and an easier way for consumers to more quickly evaluate a brand against their wants and desires.

(yes I know so many words). But it is very informative to have the feel and thought about what marketing is about.

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