The importance of designing, developing, & communicating a consistent message

Stephen Fanning

During the research for themarketingconcept [e-book] I conducted extensive research with many managers and business owners. Some openly admitted that their business-marketing planning process could ‘be more robust’ and some articulated that they had identified a number of ‘marketing gaps’ that needed attention. A marketing gap is where the organisation’s performance is below the expectations of the organisation (see 5 gap theory in themarketingconcept [e-book]). 

After reviewing the field notes of the interviews, I suspect, that some may have used our meeting as an opportunity to discuss their marketing concerns. One manager expressed her concern – “pretty much every organisation I have worked at has the same accounting practices – but the same cannot be said for marketing practice”. A few retail managers, in large and medium sized organisations, stated that their marketing strategies were articulated, primarily, as sales objectives/targets. Obviously, meeting sales revenue objectives is critical for any organisation, nevertheless, it would be commercially naive to have a strategic objective without specifying the tactical actions required to achieve the objective. This highlights the relationship between business plans, marketing plans, and marketing action plans. The role of a marketing action plan is to identify and communicate the actions necessary to ensure that the marketing objectives are understood, adopted, and applied by the appropriate people in an organisation. Furthermore, a marketing action plan goes beyond stating the objective; it identifies the steps needed to implement the tactic and then to evaluate performance and take corrective action when outcomes deviate from the plan.

This market action planning process is often referred to as ‘internal marketing’ by marketing academics. Collectively, the marketing action plans could be thought of as an internal marketing plan. Herein lies a problem, internal marketing is often expressed in ‘popular’ business books and often on quasi-academic web-sites as ‘convincing employees’ activity, however, this attitude is more in line with the outdated selling concept than the more relational marketing concept.

Therefore, it is important to recognise that the effectiveness of an organisation’s marketing strategy is determined by the quality of the internal marketing processes.

The metaphor of business* as theatre is discussed within in themarketingconcept [e-book], it provides an insight to the relationship between internal and external organisational performance and also the production of a satisfying customer experience. Business as theatre is easy to understand and is therefore a valuable metaphor when employed in personal development seminars; the metaphor suggests that a theatrical performance of consistent quality has two components; front-stage what is seen and experienced by the customer and back-stage enabling actions that are hidden from the customer. The metaphor infers that a quality performance is a series of front-stage and back-stage actions; these actions need to be carefully scripted, produced, directed, and thoroughly rehearsed prior to opening night. Rehearsing requires the learning of roles, lines, and actions, some self-reflection and collaboration with other cast members and support people.

Why it is important to achieve cognitive consistency

Identifying and reducing any marketing gaps is important. One of the objectives of the business-marketing planning process is to ensure that the organisation is internally and externally consistent across all activities. Although we tend to think of internal and external consistency as being important to the organisation, we should also be mindful that consistency is also important to consumers as it make it easier to position a product in their mind and therefore makes buying easier – we generally refer to this process as branding.

Branding is a fascinating subject. I suspect, that when consumers think of brands; the brands that spring to mind are primarily global brands – brands that have a well-known history, have a meta-narrative that is ‘branded’ into the consumers’ minds from years of exposure to marketing communication and often through the consumer’s experience with the brand. In my marketing classes, most students can confidently recognise global brands by simply showing a part of the brandmark; for example Chanel, Dior, Ferrari, Google, Apple etc. However, and most importantly brand recognition drops dramatically when the font style and the font colours are presented in a manner inconsistent with the brand.

Keep in mind that not all of our purchases are globally recognised brands. When I analyse my own purchasing behaviour, usually when I am reconciling my Visa account, I notice that a good percentage of my discretionary income is spent on purchases with small-medium local businesses. Often when I have a great customer experience, and therefore I experience great marketing, it is at a small-medium neighbourhood business. Therefore, consistent branding and consistently delivering the brand promise, is important for large, medium, and small organisations.

As a marketing academic, I am more sensitised to positive or negative deviations in product quality than most people, therefore – my observations are not the observations of a typical consumer. Moreover, I am also aware that my experience may vary from the collective experience of all customers. Strangely, I often appreciate bad service, not for the experience as a consumer, but for what I may learn as an academic. Furthermore, I tend to dissect exchanges from two perspective – 1] the consumer and 2] the organisation.

Collecting data for themarketingconcept exemplars involved travel. As a traveller I am also a consumer – I stay in hotels, consume meals, journey on planes, trains, and hire automobiles. During this research project there were many great customer experiences. Interestingly, when I analysed the consumption experiences, I found that there were very few experiences that were below expectations [less than 3% of hotel accommodation and less than 1% of meals in restaurants]. I am not suggesting that the percentages are representative of industry standards as I have a strict selection process and overall I tend to make better choices than I did 30 years ago. I am also not suggesting that my experiences as a researcher-tourist are representative of consumers in general. However, my proposition is that most consumption experiences could be improved to some degree and the gaps are smaller and less obvious in some organisations than in others. Furthermore, in many cases the gaps could be reduced by improvements within the business-marketing planning process.

Whilst, we learn a great deal from marketing exemplars such as the ‘Milanese Restaurant’. There is a risk of appearing to be a ‘Polly-Anna’ if only examples of good marketing practice are presented and the the marketing gaps are ignored. Having said that, I am always reluctant to identify organisations [or staff] that fall short of my ‘academic expectations’. I also have concerns about dissatisfied customers ‘venting’ on social media; particularly when staff are named and shamed; or when staff are threatened with a bad review by an overly aggressive consumer or a person overly consumed with self importance. I am not alone in my concerns for ‘naming and shaming’. One restaurant owner said that social media is ‘both a blessing and a curse’.  Furthermore, the affect on staff of social media was mentioned without prompting during qualitative interviews with executives in large well-respected organisations. They believed the damage to an individual can be considerable; they wondered whether ‘reviewers’ actually considered the affects that their words have on another human being with feelings, emotions, and with colleagues, family, and friends that they must face. With the need for both balance and tact, I have elected to provide discrete examples of gaps in marketing practices in all my examples. Furthermore, I intend to respect what should be kept confidential where instances have been confided.

The following examples are provided to assist marketing practitioners when they are analyzing their own situation, designing and developing new documentation, implementing and evaluating new strategies and tactics and taking corrective action.

The present is never good enough

On one occasion I was visiting the management team at a very successful well-established organisation that manufactures durable, specialty products that are distributed through retailers and then purchased by domestic consumers. It soon became apparent that the management team was ‘uncomfortable’ with their present position in the marketplace; they felt that with such high quality products they deserved better market respect, higher margins and a greater market-share. Given their passion for quality – they were concerned that some retailers lacked an appreciation of quality and the cost to produce quality and they always lobbied for lower pricing.

When I approached this organisation it was because it was recommended as an exemplar – I was interested in gathering information not giving information. I was totally unaware of these concerns when we began our discussions. Therefore, the change in direction of the conversation took me a little by surprise. Quickly, I realized that this was a troubling and complex situation, that I needed to listen to their concerns, consider what was being said, and then explore the topic further – they asked for recommendations [there are never textbook solutions in marketing] and I promised to get back to them.

Q: Why did I agree to help?

A: I find that when management operates predominantly from a selling concept – then it is as we speak a different language, however, in this case the management team had already embraced the marketing concept – they were customer-centric and they were receptive and committed to best satisfying – and I liked these people.

The traditional markets for this organisation had declined since the GFC. Consequently, they had looked for new markets and new distributors. As they expanded geographically they had expanded beyond their reputation and were struggling to manage this dilemma. I gathered from conversations with their retailers that this business has achieved high levels of  ‘customer intimacy’ in the past. Customer intimacy is the building of quality relationships with their marketing channel and end customers; it is a strategic objective for marketing practitioners.

As I travelled around I asked retailers if the stocked this organisation’s products and six weeks later and after considerable research and analysis I contacted the managing director and offered to discuss my thoughts; not with the management group but in a one-on-one discussion – I felt it was his job to talk with and manage his team – he agreed to meet.

I mentioned earlier that I often test brand recognition with my students and how recognition is reduced when I consciously play around with a known brandmark – what I had stumbled upon was an organisation was an unconsciously inconsistent in their marketing communication. Initially, when I mentioned to the managing director that there were too many inconsistencies in his branding, that too many things appeared random, that there was little order; he was, naturally, defensive of his team. Then as more examples were presented to him he became more aware of how his organisation was presenting an inconsistent message to their retail partners and to the end consumer. I recommended that their marketing communication needed to conform to the same exacting standards they applied to the manufacturing processes. They needed to ensure that all of their quality efforts they made in manufacturing were rewarded in repeat business, customer recommendations, and in time higher margins. It soon became apparent to the managing director that inconsistencies in their marketing communication would reduce the ability of satisfied customers to retrace their purchasing steps and evolve into repeat customers and advocates for the brand [i.e., manage the salespipeline].

Organisation-brand-product nomenclature

One area of inconsistency that became apparent in this organisation was inconsistency in their naming system; what is often referred to as nomenclature. When considering organisation-brand-product-variety nomenclature I find it convenient to apply the hierarchical naming protocols of the plant world. Let’s consider the ‘sugar gum’ a common tree in Australian gardens as the example:

Table 1: Plant and organisation nomenclature

Naming structure Plant world Business world
Family Myrtaceae Organisation
Genus Eucalyptus Brand
species cladocalyx product
variety nana variety

Employing a family, genus, species, variety structure is helpful when crafting communication messages – importantly it provides guidance  for the different audiences – stakeholders, channel partners, and customers. To some audiences the organisation name may be given priority and the brands and products are included to support the organisation. In other cases the brands and products may have priority and the organisation is included to support the brands and products. Having a structure is important when creating a style-guide for stationery, brochures, signs, point of purchase posters, advertising, videos, uniforms.

With one product range, the managing director was unaware, that after the product packaging had been discarded there was little chance of brand identification and therefore repeat business by satisfied customers. Unfortunately, with this product the product packaging would have been discarded immediately; therefore the customer would have no way of identifying the product.

As I explored the concerns of this management team I began to realize that the root cause could be traced back to poor internal marketing. As I have mentioned internal marketing is often seen as increasing staff involvement – this is a different type of internal marketing – from my observations the staff at this organisation were highly involved [committed]. However, their marketing plan and marketing action plans were inchoate they lacked the necessary specifications – to guide the staff’s decision-making and to craft a consistent message. If an organisation doesn’t show respect to a brand through consistent branding then it unlikely that the retailers will respect the brand.

Poor internal marketing, reduces the return on investment from marketing expenditure. Internal marketing is about providing guidance through detailed instructions. This organisation was unaware that an inconsistently branded product, regardless of the product quality, would have reduced appeal to channel partners who have the reputation and skills that are needed to retail quality products to the end consumer. An end to end marketing channel is like a chain and each link must be strong.

When the managing director realized his problem his reaction was to say that he would engage a marketing company to help him sort it out. I said ‘hang on’ YOU ARE THE MARKETING COMPANY. Also, before you talk with your team I want to show you all the things that you are doing really well, I want to ensure that you ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bath water’.

After that, we discussed the need to ensure that the business plan, the marketing plan, and the marketing action plans were in order before they rushed around and changed things. I emphasised that this is super-important you must sit down with your management team and show them the problem and discuss how it can be managed. Conduct a marketing audit – document your organisation’s philosophy, create a ‘mindmap’ of what you do, how you deliver value to your customers, which customer segments do you serve, what are the qualities you seek in channel partners, and what are the key messages that will develop your meta-narrative to your channel partners and end consumers. This will be pretty consistent for the next 5 years – it requires care. Then you need to audit your customers, your organisation, the markets where you compete and who you compete with, and then audit the products you offer and identify the value proposition of each product. Then when you know all of this you must articulate, in your marketing plan, your strategic intentions, where and how you will compete, and with whom you will compete. Then in your marketing action plans articulate the priorities and allocate the budget to successfully complete each objective.

One of this organisations marketing action plans should be to develop a style-guide. In the business plan and the marketing plan this could be stated in broad terms, for example

Objective: The objective is to ensure that our products provide a consistent message and enable satisfied customers to easily locate our distributors and to purchase other products in our portfolio.

Task: A priority task for the organisation in the next 12 months is design and develop a corporate style-guide, to audit our existing marketing communication to identify and rectify any deviations from specifications. The corporate style guide will cover …

To ensure that the task is carried out to specifications the entry in the marketing action plan should be more detailed than the business plan and the marketing plan. All the why, what, when, where, who, which, and how questions need to be detailed. The action plan must articulate who will be involved, who is responsible, detail the budget expenditure and the completion date. Only then can you identify all of the inconsistencies in your messaging and select what to keep and what to delete.

Creating a consistent meta-narrative and the use of a style-guide is discussed in greater detail in themarketingconcept

This was not the only example of a lack of marketing consistency, some of the organisations were successful and strong in a number of areas, yet, acknowledged that improvement could be made in some areas [moved]

In my discussions I discovered that the root cause of this problem was that many organisations had marketing plans, however, many freely admitted that their marketing action plans were lacking in detail. They openly admitted that the action plans that should have provided guidance and consistency were not as comprehensive as they could be. Makreting action plans are important they detail how tactics and strategy come together.  It stands to reason, that the more comprehensive the specifications, within the action plans are – the more consistent the organisation performed.

Marketing action plans are multifaceted and provide guidance for every marketing activity that the organisation performs. As every organisation produces a unique total product the marketing task specifications should be tailored to suit the customers the organisation serves, the type and needs of the organisation, the marketplace in which the organisation competes, and the nature of the products produced. Let me provide another example, once when traveling on a particular airline I observed that although the marketing communication such as the website, the boarding pass, the plane signage and interior decor and the staff uniforms all indicated strict conformance to a corporate style-guide there were marked differences between the service experience on two particular flights taken on the same day. Service marketing academics refer to this as ‘service variability’ and this is where the actions of different service providers within the same organization vary from one service provider to another. With some products variability cannot be totally eliminated and in some products variability should be cultivated, however, the service should always conform to predetermined specifications. The first flight was characterized by staff who were inattentive, abrupt, and rude, they were scarce after the food was served – was one comment. This was not just one flight attendant having a bad day it was the entire flight crew; this was not the weather creating factors that impacted on the delivery of the service component of the product. A search of the airline’s web-site indicated that not only did they not behave in a manner appropriate to their customer’s expectations they did not behave in a manner that was consistent with the organisation’s expectations. I was sitting behind a employee of the airline who had a row to herself, in a nearby row were three stocky males who were a little uncomfortable and when one attempted to sit in one of the two vacant seats he was told by the employee passenger that it was reserved, when he requested more room to a flight attendant his request was dismissed and he was treated like a misbehaving child; it was only intervention from the chief steward that prevented an escalation of the incident. Throughout the flight the level of service given to the employee passenger was noticed by other passengers in the immediate vicinity and their expressions to their travelling companions indicated that they were aware that they were experiencing ‘service discrimination’. The second flight was more in keeping with the brand promise and characterized by service that was delivered in ‘textbook’ fashion. The point I am attempting to make is that detailed specifications are not restricted to the area of graphic design that communicates how the logo should be incorporated, or what typography, or what is the specific colours that may be employed. These areas are about crafting a brand image, and this is important, however, the marketing design specification should include the components and qualities that make up the total product, qualities that the customer experiences and ultimately produce the brand identity. Marketing academics and practitioners often talk about brand personality – the attribution of human qualities to a brand. This may be part of the problem. Often, within the style-guides they are referring to the message elements the emotions that are evoked, the values, the tone and the voice and all of these are important, however, it would be irresponsible and naïve to overlook that brand personality is also determined by the actual human qualities of the service providers – the emotions, values, the tone, the body language and the voice.  If the marketing practitioners of this airline are exploring the comments on Tripadvisor they would see that service variability is an area of concern for their customers.

We can see from the two examples that although they appear to be quite different problems the root causes are the same –  a lack of understanding of the product as a total product and then a failure to design, craft, and implement a comprehensive set of marketing design specifications. Therefore, marketing design specifications should also be holistic and focus on the total product – the layers, the relevant product considerations, and the product components. The specifications should include the design of the goods, services, ideas, experiences, people, and place components to meet the customer, organisational, market and product situational factors.

When it comes to the design of the goods having a design language that crafts and communicates the ‘product style’ can be a key success factor; for example the Fiat 500 or the Mini have a particular ‘design’ that is distinct, distinguishable, and discernable from other cars. In the case of motor cars the specification goes beyond the aesthetic elements of the car and must include the driver experience. Having these design elements carefully documented is critical to ensure that all product components and the product qualities are consistent and help to craft a product with a unique value proposition that is compelling. This design language forces everyone involved to consider what, why, how, and when they are doing what they are doing and how they help build value for which customers. Having comprehensive marketing design specifications provides guidelines that can be communicated, however, it also provides quality specifications that can be later audited and improved.

The metaphor ‘business as theatre’, originated in a journal article by Grove, S.J., Fisk, R.P., & John, J. (2004). Services as theatre: guidelines and implications. In C. H. Lovelock, P.G.  Patterson, & R. Walker, (eds.). Services marketing: An Asia-Pacific perspective. Frenchs Forest, NSW: Prentice Hall.

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