Communications Strategies and the Communications Mix

Fill (2002) outlined four strategic approaches to the marketing communications mix; the Promotion element of the marketing mix.  These are:

  1. Positioning
  2. Audience
  3. Platform
  4. Configuration

A positioning strategy uses market analysis and segmentation to create communications strategies focused on the achievement of SMART marketing goals.  This approach aims to target finite resources efficiently and direct communication effort to the most valuable markets.  This approach has three parts; segmentation of the market; selection of target segments and positioning within markets.

To successfully achieve a positioning communications strategy, you need choose the market segments most attractive to your firm; matching your organisational goals so that you maximise returns.  A positioning strategy should position your products and your brand to meet the perceptions and expectations of target audience.  You therefore need to know your consumers needs.

You must also recognise that everyone has four states of identity:

  1. The Worry Self
  2. The Actual Self
  3. The Idealised Self; and
  4. The Fantasy Self

So which of these identities do you want to target.  Insurance firms target the worry self; Firms selling family hatchbacks target the actual self. Firms selling designer clothes target the idealised self; luxury brands often target the fantasy self.

A positioning strategy is key for developing brands. You develop a brand position which shows what the brand does, what the brand means and how the brand gives value.

FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods and other highly competitive, low margin sectors often favour a positioning strategy.

Positioning is an audience focused, not a product focused activity.  It is focused on brand meaning, brand values and differentiating your brand from that of your competitors.

Audience based strategies focus on the different ways items are purchased and the supply chain.  For example, the audience for consumer goods tends to be individuals whereas the audience for industrial goods tends to be buying groups which contain influencers. the decision to purchase a new piece of machinery will be made by a group within an organisation but that group will contain ‘influencers’ who initiate and advise on the purchase e.g. the Production Manager.

So your communications strategy will alter depending on the audience your message is intended for.  Your audience could be the end users of your product such as consumers, it may be your suppliers and retailers or it could be other stakeholders in your business such as shareholders and financiers.

This means there are three audience-focused communications strategies:

  1. Push strategies intended to target supply channel members.
  2. Pull strategies which target end users.
  3. Profile strategies aimed at third-party stakeholders.

Push and pull strategies work in relation to how product is drawn through the distribution chain.  You use push communications, such as sales representatives and trade press advertising to push your production onto the shelves of retailers and wholesalers (this can include using communications to attain prime locations in stores such as eye-level shelves.  Pull strategies , such as television advertising, target the generation of demand in the end users of your production i.e. you target consumers who then demand that retailers stock your goods.

Profile advertising is similar to a positioning strategy as you use communications to secure your identity in the minds of third parties.  This could be using PR and your corporate website to attract investors.

An audience strategy is about using the right communications tools to lock your products and brands in the minds of the intended audience.

All too often I see firms, particularly SMEs focusing much of their communications budget on social media advertising.  Some of this, like YouTube advertising is Pull advertising no different to traditional TV and Cinema advertising.  However, much of social media communication is push or profile communication.  It’s intention is to build a brand identity and develop customer retention.  It is a pretty poor way to lock your brand identity into the needs of consumers or to attract new customers.

You cannot operate solely on a pull strategy or a push strategy.  You need a bit of both.  You need to communicate with end users to generate demand and you need to communicate with intermediaries to ensure that that demand can be satisfied.

A platform strategic approach aims to express a brand promise through brand values and differentiated claims.  But to do so it must be consistent and be anchored in corporate principles.  It involves the development of a brand theme which is made up of consistent promises.

There are three platform types:

  1. Creative – Messaging consistent big ideas across different communications channels.
  2. Brand Concept – Which are routed in the brand identity but use different creative ideas (Guinness advertising is a brand concept strategy)
  3. Participation Platforms – using interactive channels such as social media to engage in dialogue with end users.  the aim is to integrate the brand into people’s lifestyles.

The final strategic approach is a configuration strategy which focuses on the way communications are structured.  This strategy is based on the form and format of communications e.g.

  • The frequency of contact between parties
  • The direction of communications either vertically down distribution channels or horizontally across a market.
  • The modality of the communication – how it is to be transmitted e.g. print, digital, TV, Radio, person to person, etc. Whether communication is formal or informal; regulated or spontanious.
  • The content of the communication is it a direct advertisement or is it indirect communication such as PR and social media chat? Does the message directly focus on a subject or is it a ‘nudge’ to alter behaviour.
  • The exchange relationship – Is the communication aimed at creating a long-term collaborative relationship or is it an ad-hoc, one off contact?
  • The climate within which the communication is sent e.g. the level of trust between parties, compatibility between parties, etc.
  • The power dynamic: Who holds the power in the relationship, you or your customer?

None of the above strategies are mutually exclusive and you will find many organisations using a combination of all four strategy types in their communications mix.

Integrated Marketing Communications

Over the past couple of years I have kept a keen eye on recruitment advertisements for marketing staff in my local area.  Many of these advertisements are wholly focused on digital marketing, in particular social media account management.  It seems that many businesses in my area see social media as the main plank of their marketing activity.  I suspect that they view social media as a cheap and easy way to market their business, often at the exclusion of more traditional marketing communications channels.

I also meet many individuals who offer services as social media account managers on a freelance basis.  Often these individuals are good at the physical operation of social media platforms.  Often however, they fail to grasp the strategic goals of social media use.

Now there is no doubt that in certain markets social media is an important marketing communications channels.  If your target audience is consumers under the age of 40, and you are selling fashion or digital gadgets, social media is a perfect channel to deliver your marketing messages.  If your target audience is pensioners or you are selling to a business audience, your use of social media has to be different.

I have also found that many of the local businesses using social media channels do not do so strategically.  They have no underlying goal as to their use of social media beyond advertising their goods and services.  They do not measure the outcomes of their social media use.

Social media has yet to be shown to be a good sales channel.  Before using social media, you need to understand why you are using it as a marketing channel and you need to measure usage against predetermined goals.

The main of social media in marketing is not to directly advertise products.  It is a two-way communications channel.  You use social media to:

  • Retain existing customers by moving them up the relationship ladder (from prospect to advocate or partner)
  • To emphasise your Brand identity (brand personality)
  • As a signpost to your website or to your physical locations
  • to develop electronic word of mouth

Recently, I have seen recruitment advertisements for marketing staff from firms operating in business to business markets.  Again, there seems to be an over-riding need to use social media.  Yet the target audiences for these businesses tend not to be individuals but discreet buying groups made up of a number of people who take purchasing decisions collectively.  Social media tends to be communication from one individual to another, not an individual seeking a group to make a collective decision.  Again, there is little evidence that social media is an effective channel in such circumstances and the use of more traditional marketing communications channels may prove more successful.

It is also misleading to think of social media channels as a cheap and easy communications route.  To use social media effectively, often takes greater physical and  financial resources than traditional marketing communications channels.

So if you are tempted by claims that social media is the answer to your marketing communications delivery, beware.  Before jumping on the social media bandwagon, examine your target audience, define the purpose of your social media use and set clear goals and don’t expect miracles.

Over recent decades marketers have focused on perfecting mass marketing; selling highly standardised products to the masses.  As a result they developed mass communications techniques to supports such strategies.

Companies would spend large quantities on mass media advertising, television or print.  A single advertisement was able to reach millions of readers or viewers.

In recent years, marketing communications have changed.  In fact the media industry has changed.  Promotion has becomes the most altered part of the marketing mix.

Marketing managers have had to face the realities of the changing promotional and media landscape.

Consumers are changing.  We live in a digital connected world where consumers are better informed and they are communications empowered.  The recent Fake News crisis shows that consumers can be targeted almost on a personal basis and messages can be designed to fit with their preconceptions and beliefs (even if those preconceptions and beliefs are not true).

Consumers no longer rely solely on information provided by retailers and manufacturers.  They can easily find other sources of information through the internet or through their peers.

Consumers can connect more easily and as a result peer pressure may form a greater element in purchase decisions.  Consumer ‘tribes are fragmenting. This has created micro-segments in markets

Marketing strategies are changing.  Mass markets have fragmented.  Firms must now use focused micro-segmentation strategies.  This has resulted in a move away from mass marketing strategies.  Products are increasingly personalised.  Henry Ford may have said of the Model T, “you can have any colour you like as long as it is black’.  Compare that to the modern mini or the Brompton bicycle where consumers can ‘build’ their car or bike from a vast range of product options.  The Mini has over 1600 product options from in-car accessories to choice of wheels.  This means virtually every Mini that comes off the production line is unique.

There has also been a move away from one-off sales of products to using marketing communications to develop a relationship between the producer and the consumer.  Customer retention and customer advocacy are key.  Often the aim is to turn consumers into brand advocates.

There have been sweeping advances in communications technologies.  From mobile smartphones to interactive televisions.  This communications revolution has had a huge impact on marketing communications.  The dominance of traditional media is collapsing.  Newspaper circulation figures are falling.  The wide range of television channels means audience numbers are declining.  A prime time television programme in the UK would often gain an audience of 12 million in the 1970s.  In 1989, the BBC cancelled Doctor Who with an audience averaging 7.5 million.  Today, such a size of audience is seen as high and the programme considered a hit.

So now the modus operandi of marketing communications professionals is to use a broad selection of more specialised and highly targeted media to reach smaller customer segments.  This involves the creation of more personalised and interactive messages.  It is less broadcasting and more narrowcasting.

Increasingly consumers are in control of media exposure.  For example some video streaming services offer the opportunity to skip advertisements.  TV advertising is still a dominant channel in terms of media spend but such spending has stagnated whilst promotional budgets have shifted to new media channels.  Advertising spend in radio and print advertising has fallen sharply.

We have moved from a position where advertising is force-fed to consumers as a mass and interrupts their activities to a position where marketing communications interact with smaller groups of consumers.

Regardless of your choice of communications channel, the key is to integrate media in a way which best communicates the brand message and which enhances consumer experience.

Marketing communications is no longer simply placing advertisements.  You are managing brand content and developing conversations with your customers over a fluid mix of communications technologies.

The result is that you need to integrate marketing communications across a range of communications channels.  Failure to do this produces a hodge podge of communications to consumers which do not provide a single marketing identity.

Consumers today are bombarded with messages.  Marketing professionals may differentiate between different channels, e.g. social media, television, print, direct mail, but consumers do not.  Your promotional activity needs to present a single consistent message. A single broad image or concept.

You cannot send out one message and signal in print media which is different from the message and signal given by electronic communications.  Mixed signals from different media blurs brand perceptions in the minds of consumers.

The challenge for communications managers is to bring together brand concepts and messages across media channels in an organised way.

This is where the concept of integrated marketing communications comes in.  IMC requires the careful blending of communications tools to create a compelling, clear brand messages.

Brand messages and concepts are no longer in the sole purview of marketing departments.  They take place at every interaction between a firm and its customer base, from sales presentations to after-sales service and complaint management.  They are the responsibility of all stakeholders in a firm.  You need to identify all the customer touch points with your organisation.  Each of these is an opportunity to convey your brand identity and message to consumers. Careful coordination of your brand message is required throughout the organisation.

You need to think not just of the message you want to convey but the best method to get that message to your target consumer.  You also need to define the unique role each function of your business has in passing on your brand message to your customer base.

SOme readers may see a contradiction between the goals of integrated marketing communications and my views on the use of social media.  I see no such contradiction.

My complaint is not that firms use social media.  It is that all too often it is seen as a magic bullet.  A simple and cheap way of meeting promotional goals.  Yet far too many businesses treat social media as a form of mass marketing communication.  They use the old rules of promotion in a new media.  They fail to take account of the changes in society and technology.  Most importantly of all, they fail to set identifiable goals for social media use and they fail to measure whether those goals have been met.