Daniel Tisch, Financial Post
Across the nation and around the world, executives are reworking their marketing and communications plans and budgets for 2009 — a tricky task in uncertain economic times.
Planning requires forecasting, and forecasting has never seemed so difficult. With massive, often-daily swings in capital markets, accurate valuations are elusive. The costs of doing business seem equally unpredictable. Few executives are accustomed to an environment where the value of the Canadian dollar moves almost 20% — and the price of fuel moves more than 30% — within a few weeks.
Public relations consultants have a valuable perspective from which to survey today’s business landscape. Because we have multiple clients in multiple sectors, we see a wide range of approaches to planning. And because our business involves representing clients to their publics, we watch consumer and investor opinion carefully.
Based on these observations, and on extensive discussions with Canadian and international industry peers, we see three broad approaches that separate leaders from the pack: – Build brands by being bold — but nimble In challenging times, executives divide into three categories: the uncertain, the timid and the bold. The timid pare back marketing budgets to cut costs. The uncertain succumb to paralysis, using today’s environment as a reason to postpone critical decisions. The bold see their competitors’ timidity and uncertainty as an opportunity to grab market share.
Being bold need not mean spending a lot of money, or taking excessive risks. Smart marketers look for “bang for the buck.” They choose strategies that are nimble and scalable, and use channels to market that are high in creativity, high in credibility, and yet modest in cost.
For example, a paid media campaign requires a substantial investment, an early commitment and a long planning cycle. An earned media program (promoting a company’s ideas, products or services to journalists) or a social media campaign (using Internet or mobile technologies to share and discuss information) can often be developed and deployed within days. Promoting a product, program or cause by securing an unforgettable media photo opportunity — or having a CEO launch a blog or deliver a speech with a compelling, unique and newsworthy point of view — costs far less than traditional marketing tactics, with a potentially powerful impact. – Build reputation through relationships. In challenging times, business leaders must rethink their interactions with their publics. The smart ones make communications a two-way street, not one riddled with blind spots and stop signs.
Uncertain executives neglect communications with key audiences such as consumers, investors, employees and third-party stakeholders, on the grounds that they are “not yet ready.” Timid executives say little, restricting themselves to one-way, outbound-only communications, not wanting to invite scrutiny or court controversy. Bold executives realize that when an organization has anxious, uncertain or even angry publics, robust two-way communications are more critical than ever in preserving and strengthening the corporate reputation that underlies every brand. They communicate actively and provide audiences with feedback mechanisms. In doing so, they differentiate their companies and understand their publics better. – Be creative but consistent Making a budget or plan is about making choices. Uncertain executives will postpone those choices, or perhaps store up resources for “one big splash” later in the year. Timid ones will focus marketing resources only on the products that generate the most cash in the short term, neglecting the products of the future.
Here, too, bold executives can differentiate themselves in difficult times. Yes, they may weigh their investment toward the short-term winners, but they will not neglect the bigger picture or the longer-term. A good rule of thumb is to begin with public relations, and follow with advertising. Many smart marketers focus their limited advertising dollars on their most established products. However, since public relations budgets are typically 10% to 15% of marketing budgets, these dollars can go much further. The PR budget can therefore be spread between the promotion of linchpin brands, emerging or strategic brands, and overall corporate reputation.
In an age of short attention spans, communications and marketing should never go dark. If an organization does not lead its audiences with education and information, its competitors will fill the vacuum. Smart executives know this.