The idea of integrated marketing communications is nothing new. We’ve all heard of the benefits of a 360 degree approach to marketing, self-promotion and advertising. The question is, are we using all the resources available to make it happen?
The idea of taking a more joined-up approach to marketing communications might sound easy on paper, but the reality is somewhat different. For a start, ’integration’ is something we find difficult to comprehend. Is it a simple case of terminology? After all an integrated marketing communications plan is difficult enough to get your tongue around. Let alone your head. Or, is it the thought that conformity equals uniformity and that’s not the stuff creative juices are made from. As with many things in life, there’s often a case for and against. So let’s stick together, and appraise the virtues of joined-up integrated marketing communications.
There’s no doubt, it’s a tough call. It’s less restrictive, and probably more rewarding, to approach each marketing communications assignment in isolation, rather than having to to cross-reference a brand doctrine. But, where’s the bigger-picture thinking here? To build a truly successful brand, you have to plan, execute and evaluate co-ordinated, measurable, persuasive strategies and programmes. And you need those programmes to reach your target audiences, whenever and wherever they come into contact with your brand. And that means having an integrated marketing communications plan.
Prospective clients have more choice over their decision making than ever before, and they’re exercising that choice more discriminately. Put simply, clients and new business are harder to come by. Believe me, I speak from experience. An organisations reputation – manifested in its brand – is critical to that decision making process. And, although your tactical communications are undoubtedly important, prospective clients build a view of your brand from many sources and other angles. Including, but not limited to, your company’s website, digital marketing and advertising campaigns, email communications, environmental branding and signage, and even the way you answer the phone. It’s no wonder then, that true 360 degree marketing is so hard to achieve unless you have an unlimited budget and a small army. But don’t despair…
Ironically, there’s one resource that’s often overlooked – your creative agency. At Fabrik, we’re commissioned to work on individual communication pieces. While experience tells us this work forms part of a grander scheme, it can be difficult to ascertain the precise fit. It’s akin to working in the dark. We appreciate the business, obviously, but we’re not convinced this way of working provides best medium to long-term value for money. It’s like piecing together a jigsaw, only to discover the pieces do not form a single picture. The overall impression would be one of confusion, and unfortunately it could be a last impression. While this is a somewhat schizophrenic comparison, it does further support the case for a dedicated integrated marketing communications plan.
The right consistency
Consistency is key. Clear, consistent messaging – both verbal and visual – is more effective and efficient than competing messaging and will do a better job of cutting through an increasingly cluttered commercial landscape. If your marketing activity comprises of fragmented, isolated communications and disparate, one-off campaigns, you’re probably wasting time and money, missing opportunities to get your message across and not getting the results you need. To counter this, measures can be put in place that enable you to spot where consistency is slipping. Meaning you can put it right quickly by identifying gaps where additional, consistently branded material could reinforce your overall offer.
Businesses, of course, can have a number of barriers to overcome in achieving truly joined-up marketing communications. Thankfully, this isn’t down to people: marketing is highly professionalised and the understanding and appreciation of basic marketing and branding principles is strong across the board. Most people now know that branding goes well beyond visual wrapping.
But, in some quarters, there’s still a lack of financial commitment to the integrated marketing and branding function. Integrated marketing communications can, in fact, save you money by cutting down on duplication of effort, while employing better metrics will make sure you’re spending in the right places. If this is an issue for you, focus by taking a bird’s eye view of your marketing and communication activities. If this doesn’t help you to find ways of creating economies of scale, then think about scaling back.
Another barrier to integrated communications planning is often organisational structure. Every facet of an organisation needs to work together to maximise the potential of your external marketing effort. But, all too often, they work in silos. Similarly, you may be grappling with the problems of managing sub-brands or a large portfolio of services. People within your organisation may argue that one unified brand doesn’t apply to their portion of the organisation and that various strands of the business are too different to support a single core brand strategy or creative approach.
Luckily, this just isn’t true. In every organisation, there’s a single thread that holds all of the pieces together. A good creative agency can help you identify that unifying thought and create a brand hierarchy whereby the sub-brands are clearly defined but operate under, and chime with, the single over-arching brand. And they can also help you apply that brand structure in-house, by creating easy-to-apply templates or running design workshops that will help make sure your communications continue to be effectively and consistently branded.
Other stumbling blocks towards an integrated marketing communications plan are harder to overcome. There may be a belief among in-house marketers, for instance, that a more integrated approach may impact on budgets and staff numbers. Or it may be the need to get buy-in for large numbers of people across the organisation that is slowing you down. There’s no easy solution to these problems and finding a way forward can be hard. But, again, by making greater use of fewer creative partners, you may be able to achieve cost efficiencies that will ease the pressure on budgets. And your agency’s objective, high level view and experience-based advice on what does and doesn’t work can often help smooth the buy-in process.
If you recognise that your integrated marketing communications plan is not as joined-up as it could be, one of the best first steps you can take is to benchmark your marketing activity – both internally and against your peer organisations. It’s a quick and effective way to identify strengths, underlying issues and gaps that need addressing.
This is one activity your branding agency can really help you with: an objective point of view can be very revealing. We regularly conduct research for our education clients – both visual audits to make sure all your marketing collateral is working seamlessly as a set, and deeper brand audits that can help you get to the heart of your institution’s unifying concept and can be the start of a wider brand review.
The point of an audit is to get a clear and objective sense of your organisations identity and value from the perspective of your potential customers. An internal marketing communications assessment reveals who you think you are and who you think you serve; an external marketing communications audit reveals who they think you are and who they think you serve. Then ask yourself how similar – or different – those two perspectives are.
The messages and themes generated by an image audit can not only help you get your various communications back in line, they help you identify which channels are likely to have the biggest impact on your audience – whether it’s your website, digital and e-marketing, advertising campaigns or anything else in the marketing armoury. And then you can make sure your marketing budget is spent as effectively and efficiently as possible. Your audit may even provide you with testimonials you can use in your integrated marketing communications. Quantitative surveys are fine, but qualitative research does a better job of revealing factors that drive decisions to enrol.
Taking a joined-up approach to your integrated marketing communications plan is not a simple solution. But it is worth it. As studies have shown, integration can increase efficiency by up to 100% because of the interaction between different and complementary channels. But you don’t have to go it alone. Involve your creative agency more in the early stages, make use of their objective advice and consider bringing more individual campaigns under one creative roof, and you’ll soon see the benefits.