It is often the case in larger organisations that it is the public relations department and not the marketing team that leads the over-all communications activities.
Let us review what is happening: is there really a takeover of marketing communications by public relations professionals, or is there a deeper reason why the public face of many corporations is less about marketing and more about public relations?
The truth is that marketing efforts are no longer restricted to the marketing department. Traditionally, marketing professionals reported that customers wanted higher quality, more reliability, trendier looks, lower fat levels, etc. But today, introducing the research and development department directly to the customer turns those comments into action faster and more accurately. Good listeners in the product design team relate to what customers need and want, and are eager to quickly solve pressing problems. Giving product designers the benefit of direct customer contact and interaction unlocks the real value that buyers and users seek. An added bonus is that the customer becomes an active partner in the creative process.
In service businesses, operations management are often in direct contact with customers at the most critical time: delivery. So there is no need for marketing to serve as an interpreter. And if general management, such as personnel and finance, is able to gain access to real-time market and customer information, they are ideally positioned to respond to changing markets using their special skills, and put the company in the best position to gain efficiencies, develop expertise, and maximise returns. So is there no need for marketing in this direct-connect future? In my opinion, not at all.
Freeing the marketing function of some of its traditional activities does not diminish the value of marketing. In fact, this osmosis of marketing activities to other functions has expanded the role of marketing and made it more strategic. Today’s organisation has absorbed marketing into its DNA, influencing every action and every plan. It is proof of the half-century-old adage of Peter Drucker that a company has just two functions – innovation and marketing.
With other functions being customer-focused and market-oriented, marketing not only becomes the repository of knowledge about customers and markets, but also – like finance and distribution – reaches into every corner of the organisation. And any confusion between marketing and marketing communications is gone forever. This leaves public relations to manage the public image of the company, working to agreed marketing strategies, and developing a two-way dialogue with customers, distributors, and the media. In this scenario, the public relations team translates the strategy into cost-effective tactics that are sensitive to the needs of media and audiences. Added to online and traditional marketing communications, an integrated mix of messages not only pinpoints specific users with relevant information, but provides tools and platforms for those users to react with, and partner with, the organisation, its knowledge, and its products and services.
Serving the customer
Analog Devices is a multinational semiconductor company specialising in data conversion and signal conditioning technology. We have moved from product-centred marketing, through solution selling, on to customer services. Marketing is embedded in all aspects of our business, creating a brand that shows it is responsive not just to the needs of the customer, but one that reflects their experiences.
Our press and public relations activities develop this theme, suggesting and reporting on what customers are achieving, in detail, and including our industry partners in those stories. In some cases, our channel partners group us and our competitors together in messaging when there is a demonstrable advantage to our customers. Of course, it is a win-win situation for all. In the past, the marketing department might have been unable to take this friendly competition. But when marketing is running through the very veins of the entire organisation, a new reality, based on the customers’ views, allows us to grab opportunities like this. And by constructing an easy-to-use two-way channel between prospect and supplier, a customer relationship is not only quickly formed, but it is also fully functional from the beginning. Public relations add a degree of testimony to the brand, marketing communications provides the content and the media provide the channels.
How to spot the old school
Often in those companies where marketing is still in its own separate silo, senior management pits marketing against public relations, usually in order to stretch budgets even further. To these managers, public relations seems like an affordable way to get messages across, and invariably features the involvement of those head honchos themselves. Whereas marketing, on the other hand, is seen as a cost, rather than an investment. This thinking, based on 1980s management techniques, quickly sets the marketing department – or more accurately, the marketing communications department – against their public relations colleagues. Cost justifications are pushed by both sides, with metrics such as ‘column-inch equivalent spend’ and ‘opportunities to see’ stretched beyond credibility.
This equivalent of chariot racing in Ancient Rome provides management with an afternoon’s diversion, yet there is little positive result from this curious exercise in justification. The marketing director tries to control both the marketing communications and public relations chariots, with the unwanted result of an even more spectacular race. Social media pioneers now add a further complication, claiming that they are truly cost-effective and the only way to embrace the future. Their high tech race team, complete with Google-liveried horses, receives a lot of attention.
After the exhausted participants have managed to show that the only thing that marketing can do well is entertain the other serious departments, everyone is wounded: marketing has been reduced to a menu of tactics, not a core competency. Comparing tactics without discussing strategy is pointless and divisive: the management equivalent of the politician’s debate of whether we should favour the Navy or the Army.
First, get the strategy right
Many public relations practitioners would claim that their skills are strategic, but it is the overall marketing function that must provide the strategy: the direction and objectives for all the communications activities. Otherwise, public relations become a fire-fighting exercise. When a marketing communications plan is being followed without consideration of market trends and customer demands, then responses tail off, customers get confused, and salespeople break away and do their own thing. The only certain thing about a long-term strategy is that it will be wrong.
The speed and size of change in markets, in attitudes, and in relationships, means that strategies must be flexible. Having marketing represented across the organisation aids this ability to change. If one department seeks to change even one part of the business, it will take time, cunning and planning. But if all departments recognise the need to change, then change happens. If departments are sensitised to the customer, then recognition is continual – it is like radar.
Early warnings, and understanding of the size of the challenge, help to create strategies that lead the market, and keep that lead.
Then, deploy the right tactics
With all the many marketing communications tools, media and approaches available to even the most modestly-budgeted organisation, there are no longer any excuses to create and execute great campaigns. If the budget really is too little, then go niche and ensure that your product or service truly offers more, or offers something different. In many cases, marketing itself adds that differentiation. By developing additional support or context for the product, marketing serves to enrich the offer.
At Analog Devices, we use marketing expertise to develop virtual products which amalgamate our design tool software, our parts validation services, and our contact centre and communications channels to deliver an electronic design service throughout Europe. This service can be expanded, changed, and re-purposed quickly to meet new or emerging needs. But it is targeted solely at engineers, our core specified audience. It is branded, positioned, and supported like any of our semiconductors, yet it is a product put together by marketing, aided by product development – a very interesting reversal of traditional roles.
Marketing does not restrict itself to customers, either. Marketers also work on developing effective relationships with members of the value delivery system. Now we routinely analyse our propositions and our partners in delivering and supporting those offerings, and manage appropriately. Again, the objective is to create and develop excellent and profitable relationships. Marketing is well-placed to provide an understanding of how these relationships work with specific markets and types of customers. It is a strategic function, and it can be critical to the long-term success of the business.
Marketing is inescapable
When an organisation has marketing expertise embedded throughout every function, customer responsiveness becomes equally entrenched. Previously, in a traditional arrangement, training and monitoring were essential to ensure each external touch point could be relied upon to recognise, react and follow-up on customer contact. Now, marketing is endemic, and customers are understood to be the focus and the foundation of the business. Maybe the marketing department is smaller, but marketing is pervasive. For the marketing team, personal career development is not restricted to the department – rather, all functions are open.
No other function in the firm is as well suited to address strategic issues as is marketing.