Friday, 18 December 2009

Real Business #1 - Crazy Bags

Real Business is a series of posts that analyses the marketing opportunities and challenges of real businesses in the South East. The articles are also appearing in The Courier.

Launched in 2000, Crazy Bags is one of the UK’s leading providers of eco, carrier and promotional bags. The company was established in Southampton and moved to Crowborough two years ago. Now a £2 million turnover company, Crazy Bags has recently relocated to stunning offices within Eridge Park near Tunbridge Wells.

“The reusable bag has become embedded in the consumer psyche and brands are now looking for innovative, fashionable and practical bags to help boost their visibility and lengthen the life of their marketing campaigns,” said MD, Andy Steavenson.

The office in Eridge is the company’s head office – but all the warehousing is now based in Nottingham, where thousands of eco-bags are stored ready for printing. This allows Crazy Bags to meet the very tight deadlines of the promotional industry. Orders can be filled within seven to ten days, rather than the industry norm of eight to ten weeks.

Crazy Bags has worked with myriad customers over the years – including: Shell, Coca-Cola, BP, Sony, Sunseeker, Glastonbury Festival and Rolls-Royce: it has recently also signed deals with fashion store Boden and hair stylists Toni & Guy.

The company is one of the UK’s only providers of Fair Trade accredited bags and it is also a member of The Supplier Ethical Data Exchange (Sedex) – a membership organisation for businesses committed to continuous improvement of the ethical performance of their supply chains.

With eco-bags now prevalent in supermarkets across the UK, the next step is building that momentum on the High Street – and Crazy Bags is already talking to a number of retailers and department stores.

“It would be wonderful to have a crystal ball and find out how the eco-bag market will evolve,” said Andy.

In the meantime, Andy is delighted with the company’s new offices in Eridge Park where 12 people are located, with room for expansion. However, he admits that the company isn’t well-known locally – something he intends to change.

The Marketing Eye says:

The business has two key selling points which should be accentuated in its marketing: the short delivery times and the ethical production. In the current climate, businesses are making decisions to undertake promotional activity later and later, so the ability to supply at short notice, and meet corporate social responsibility standards, will help win business that might otherwise have been lost. There is also an opportunity to charge a premium for being able to deliver what the competitors cannot.

The business has a diverse customer base and the move into events, such as the Glastonbury Festival, shows good innovation by the management team. There should be a constant search for new products and new markets. The product is currently fashionable and markets that would not have been receptive in the past could be receptive now. Toni and Guy is a good example of this and there should be more. Trade shows provide a ready market and there is a growing trend for towns and villages to produce community bags that are handed out by the local retailers.

The crystal ball that Andy is looking for can be created by market research. A mix of qualitative and quantitative research is required and a specialist market research company will be able to advise on the best methods to use.

The company’s local profile could be raised with a well chosen sponsorship. I would also recommend that the senior management team immerses itself in the local business networks: the recently formed Royal Tunbridge Wells Lunch Club is specifically designed for businesses of Crazy Bags’ size.

An opening event would create both a PR story and an opportunity to bring a number of local businesses and suppliers together. A direct marketing campaign using one-off bags specifically created for the prospect name would provide a graphic illustration of how the product could work for them.

With thanks to freelance journalist Angela Ward who is interviewing the businesses featured in these posts.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Integrated marketing

Marketing a product or service has many challenges. First, there is a need to raise awareness of the brand and promote it's promise; second, the marketing activity must drive sales and get customers to sign on the dotted line. Creating a truly joined-up marketing campaign is the ultimate challenge for every marketer.

Traditionally, marketers have thought in terms of above-the-line for brand building and below-the-line for response. Now the line is more blurred. Pressure on budgets means there is rarely room for campaigns that do one thing or the other: we are being forced to think holistically.

The danger of enforced cutbacks is that we think excessively about channels and too little about target markets and niches. The standard response to reduced marketing budgets has been to make wholesale cuts to specific media and channels. The most dramatic cuts have occurred in newspaper and magazine advertising, swiftly followed by direct mail and sponsorship. The principle beneficiary has, of course, been e-mail marketing and social media, not I suspect because they work, but because they are quick and cheap.

We need to carefully consider if these lower cost media are really effective alternatives.

Rather than scrambling for social media programmes, marketers need to step back and realise that it is the interaction of a variety of media that raises awareness and ultimately drives a purchasing decision. A reduced budget should be addressed with focus on a more tightly defined and better understood target audience, not 'we cannot afford to advertise' or 'we cannot afford the direct mail programme'.

An integrated marketing approach is not, in itself, a strategy: it is the tactical implementation of a marketing strategy. The distinction is important, because without the right strategy, no amount of talk about integrating channels and mediums will make any difference.

When all is said and done, an integrated marketing approach is not an option, it is essential. The notion that different channels perform different roles is wrong.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Moving on up - new offices for The Marketing Eye

Today is another big day for The Marketing Eye as we move into our new offices in Uckfield town centre.

After two very happy years in East Hoathly, we now need to be nearer to our clients and give ourselves more space as we work towards our medium term vision of being the most sought after provider of marketing services in the South East.

The new offices at Nelson House in the High Street provide us with 1100 square feet of working space, separate meeting facilities, a staff area and customer parking. We hope the town centre location will be appreciated by our clients and employees alike.

At the commencement of our search, we looked at properties as far afield as Lewes, East Grinstead and Tunbridge Wells, but we decided to stay in Uckfield because of its central location and friendly business community. While our clients are spread across London and the South East, we have a loyal following in Uckfield and want to build upon it. At the same time, Uckfield allows us to reach Eastbourne, Brighton, Tunbridge Wells, Haywards Heath and Crawley with ease and London is but a short train ride away.

The wisdom of committing to new premises and a larger team when the economic climate remains so uncertain will be questioned by some. At The Marketing Eye, we believe dealing with the recession is a state of mind: we can let it crush us and demoralise us, or we can accept it and work hard to overcome it. We prefer the latter option. There is business out there for those willing to go out and find it and finding it we are.

Now, faced with the prospect of unpacking boxes, plugging in computers and re-printing stationery, our first priority is to maintain business as usual for our valued clients. We will throw open the doors to our friends and neighbours with an official opening event very shortly.

We leave the beautiful Hesmond’s barn with a heavy heart, but great excitement and optimism for the future.

Foot note
We would like to take this opportunity to thank and recommend the following businesses for their help with our move.
Chris Boakes - Acumen Business Law - for all legal matters
James Neeter - Neeter Solutions - for organising our telephony requirements
Tim Knibbs - Knibbs Computer Services - for taking care of our IT and cabling needs.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

An Indecent Proposal - or how to get your way with Finance

Having put the relationship with Sales right, it is time to turn attention to Marketing’s other tormentor-in-chief, Finance.

We all know that accountants are frustrated marketers. They are dying to have a close working relationship with us: not just on an intellectual level, but up close and personal with real physical contact. Finance might bang on about relevant metrics to demonstrate added value, but the real way to an FD’s heart is to consult him or her on advertising strategy or the need for a new logo. If all else fails, get naked.

Maybe not, but it’s an entertaining thought.

Tempting as it may be, there is no point in treating Finance as an alien race. The harsh truth is that financial management steers many boards away from pursuing a long term marketing strategy towards short term revenue generation and cost control. Marketers need a strategy of their own if they are going to get their way.

In reality, accountants probably don’t want to get involved with the advertising message or logo, but there is good sense in involving Finance early in the planning process and getting them engaged with the strategy behind specific initiatives. Robust, jointly owned forecasts of future value and a willingness to review initiatives together will lead to Finance becoming an ally and business partner.

And it is a partnership we need, for in the current climate, we need shared responsibility when faced with reduced profitability. Marketers must demonstrate good commercial and financial acumen, generating ideas that create financial value, not just creative satisfaction. For their part, the accountants need to recognise that short term sales are too blunt a measure of marketing ROI. Business growth is a long term, multi-dimensional strategy.

As I said in a recent interview, requests for budgets need to be presented in ways that are aligned to the strategic goals of the business - an integrated strategy that builds the brand and moves prospects through a planned engagement process.

If that fails, getting naked might still be an option, but let’s face it, high quality reporting, sharing of data and impartial analysis are likely to be a bigger turn-on for our bean counting buddies.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Connecting Sales and Marketing in B2B

The following post is a transcript of my responses to a set of questions put to me recently by Adam Needles, Field Marketing Director with US marketing automation specialists, Silverpop.

1.) What strategy have you seen work the best for connecting sales and marketing teams?

Sales and Marketing teams need to communicate often and earn mutual respect. By engaging with Sales and drawing on its knowledge of what customers want and respond to, Marketing can develop buyer-centric campaigns that Sales will want to support. Similarly, Sales can learn to accept the strategic direction set by marketing in terms of key messages and target markets.

In sales-led organisations, I have always focused on developing a rigid process that gives Sales a set period of notice before a campaign goes out. The objectives of the campaign, the key messages and the creative are all communicated, the prospects that are being contacted are circulated and the database carved up and allocated for follow-up. Once the campaign has landed, the Sales function identifies a day to dedicate itself to making 1:1 contact with the prospects that have been targeted. Results are collated afterwards and success is celebrated together.

Sales and Marketing need to combine to form a powerful business development unit that works as one to nurture a prospect from target name through to customer.

2.) What metrics have you seen work best for tracking and measuring the ROI of lead-management programs?

Ultimately, the only true measure of success is sales conversions, but ROI, as measured by sales income, is too blunt a measure of success in the short term. We have to recognise that in B2B, it is rare to convert a business from prospect to customer in one hit: there are several steps along the way and it is therefore necessary to set goals and measures for the degrees of engagement. In the first instance, these goals can be opening rates on email campaigns; click-throughs on links and downloads of product information. Further along the line it is the results of targeted follow-up of the names that have shown the first signs of interest - perhaps agreement to a meeting or a product demonstration.

Lead-scoring and lead nurturing mechanisms are in their early days, but it is exciting to see businesses like Silverpop and The Accuitas Group working towards systems that work.

3.) If you were going to do only one thing, what part of a B2B lead-management program would you implement (demand generation, lead scoring, lead nurturing or ROI measurement)?

Lead nurturing. While we are nowhere without the initial demand, in the scheme of things, generating a contact is relatively easy. The challenge is turning the contact into a client. We have to have systems and methodologies that enable Sales and Marketing to constantly and appropriately increase the level of engagement to the point where the sale is made.

4.) Which business practices are working best in B2B lead generation today, and which would you like to disappear?

The practices and hence the campaigns that work best are the ones that have buyer relevance at their core. This means identify the issues that are important to the prospect and owning the conversation that surrounds them. Whether it is with e-mail campaigns, press releases, blog posts or advertising, the organisations that understand and incorporate buyer relevance into their communications will be the ones that win.

My perpetual hope is that one day we will see an end to the sniping between Sales and Marketing. Too many organisations operate in silos and with a blame culture: Marketing blaming Sales for not backing its campaigns and Sales seeing Marketing as disconnected from the real world, generating no leads or leads it can’t do anything with. Come on guys, we’re all in this together – let’s have a coffee!

5.) What's your advice to marketers working with executives who view marketing as a discretionary budget item during a recession?

Marketers need to present requests for budgets in ways that are aligned to the strategic goals of the business. Unfortunately there are still too many people in Marketing with insufficient commercial acumen. A proposal for an advertising campaign or trade show in isolation can look like a flight of fancy and will be deservedly knocked back. However, presented as part of an integrated strategy that shows the activity as an integral part of moving prospects through a planned engagement process, will make sense to even the most parsimonious CEO or CFO.

These are tough times for many organisations and Marketing can’t spend money that doesn’t exist. More intelligent targeting, for example, by identifying niches or top-slicing prospect pools; better use of lower cost methodologies, such as e-mail campaigns and social media; and, most importantly of all, avoiding the waste that is inherent in generating leads that aren’t effectively nurtured and converted, are all ways of adapting a plan to a reduced budget and maximising the ROI.

How would you answer any of these questions? Please share your thoughts.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Identify the issue and own the conversation - effective engagement in B2B marketing

The nature of B2B marketing is changing - the evidence is in our pipelines. The decision making process, which has always been slow and complicated, is now even longer and more unwieldy.

The economic climate means that the old adage of 'you'll never get fired for buying IBM' no longer holds true. Now we can say ‘you'll never get fired for deferring a purchasing decision' or 'you'll never get fired for implementing the lowest cost solution’. The shadow of the unseen decision maker- more often than not the finance department - looms large.

Marketers need to rise above the frustration and develop new strategies to generate profitable and sustainable demand.

Adam Needles of Silverpop pointed me to Jolles model of the decision making process. A more sophisticated interpretation of AIDA, it helps us consider our proposed activities in the context of where a prospect is in the buying cycle.

An enlightening finding is that purchasers spend 79% of their time in the acknowledgement phase - deciding whether or not they have a need that requires satisfying at all.

Armed with this information, we can make great sense of the importance of structured and relevant engagement marketing activity. This might include inbound marketing, such as search and social media, or more traditional outbound tactics including sponsorship and advertising. These are all areas where it is hard to show a short term ROI, but, as shown by Jolles model, they need to be in every marketing plan in one form or another.

The key to ensuring the investment is ultimately returned is buyer relevance. Businesses have to commence and maintain a dialogue with prospects on issues that are relevant to the buyer. The mantra must be: identify the issue and own the conversation.

Richard Bush, MD of Base One Group said recently:
"We need to change our traditional approach of: 'Find; Convert; Develop; Keep' to 'Engage; Convert; Develop; Keep'".

How to engage is the tricky bit. Insight is at the heart of building more buyer-centric campaigns and a variety of techniques can be used. There is, of course, the option of formal research, but more economically, a Twitter search is a great way of feeling the pulse of people's reaction and opinion on any topic. A simple Google Alert can do the same job, as can reading the trade press. And let's not forget the basic principle of keeping engaged with sales – talking to the people that are talking to customers every day.

When the central issue is identified, it can be used as the platform for advertising messages, email campaigns, blog posts and press releases that inform and engage. The goal is 1:1 marketing on a mass scale.

There is no denying that it is difficult. The central issue for one audience will be different to the central issue for another. Segmentation, niching and top-slicing are probably the best chances that we have got and, even to get to this point, research, data analysis and an incredibly robust CRM system are essential to delivering the right message to the right prospect at the right point in the buying cycle.

Can it ever be automated? Companies like Silverpop and The Annuitas Group are making immense strides with lead scoring and lead nurturing, but even with great systems, marketing messages that don’t engage are lost in the wind.

The business that can identify and own the topic of the day is the business that will be top of mind when acknowledgement moves to search.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Cut to grow - a plea to politicians on behalf of small businesses

With the growth of our business being at the top of my agenda, I find myself paying closer attention than ever to the political situation.

Like England's one-day batsmen, Brown and Darling look to be on their way back to the pavilion. Never at their best in public, last week's party conference did little to boost their ratings and confidence.

This is a shame, because in the single most important issue of recent times - the global financial crisis - Brown has proved himself to be the safest pair of hands. The support for the banks and the expansion in public spending has been instrumental in containing the depths of the recession - a model that has been copied across the world. When the dust has settled, this will go down in history as Brown's legacy. As the BBC's Nick Robinson observed: 'Now it seems the electorate will treat him as they treated Churchill in 1945: "Thanks for the help, but now it's time for you to go"'.

These are finally balanced times. Where we see signs of recovery - rising house prices and increasing confidence in the UK; the end of technical recession in France, Germany and Japan - we see signs of a double dip recession elsewhere. Higher than expected unemployment figures from the US pushed the FTSE100 back below the psychological 5,000 level on Friday.

Finally balanced indeed.

Forgive the bias, but one of the principal policies for economic recovery must be a strategy for the growth of small businesses. Small businesses like ours with an ability and ambition to grow have the potential to create jobs and wealth, which in turn will create wages, spending and tax income.

As an advocate of the spending that is happening now, I accept that it has to be met with increases in tax revenues in future. My anxiety is that Brown's strategy is geared to raising revenue with tax increases rather than economic growth. We already have the prospect of £10 billion worth of tax rises next year - amongst them increases that will hit small businesses very hard: fuel duty, VAT rising again, higher business rates and the pending increase in employers' National Insurance contributions. These make me, and I'm sure every other business owner, very nervous indeed. This is not a healthy situation.

Despite my admiration for Brown as a financial manager, there is a worrying lack of logic in many of these rises.

Employers' National Insurance is an explicit tax on jobs. We should be encouraging businesses to employ people, not taxing them more for doing so.

Higher business rates will hurt cash flow and lead to more empty shops and offices. Empty shops and offices depress the nation. Furthermore, as many commercial premises are owned by pension funds, the value of people's pensions and their feelings of security will be hurt, leading to cut backs in spending.

The pointless cut in VAT at the last pre-budget report remains lost on me. The changes required to implement the change are significant and impose a costly and unnecessary distraction on small business owners.

But it is a tax that is not currently flagged for increase that causes me the greatest anxiety. Corporation Tax is the biggest inhibitor to business growth. Like many businesses, we have an impending tax bill based on last year's profits and have had to create a reserve to meet it - a reserve that could be used to fuel the expansion of the business. A cut in Corporation Tax would lead to significant increases in employment and investment in the short term and propel growth and a higher tax take in the long term.

Through the conference season, I haven't heard any party come out with solid policies for small businesses. The party that eventually does will get my vote this time.

What do you think? Let me have your views.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Maxine Davenport

These are exciting times at The Marketing Eye. With a move to new offices on the horizon and our eyes firmly fixed on our next phase of growth, we are pleased to welcome Maxine Davenport to the team.

Maxine has been appointed as Client Director and will support Neil with the development of new business and the management of key accounts.
Maxine is a qualified marketer with over 15 years event and marketing experience and particular knowledge of the leisure, retail, IT and security industries - markets that we intend to establish a presence in over the next few years.

Working with blue chip clients such as Hewlett Packard, Cisco, Virgin, Siemens and Sony to name just a few, Maxine is well known within the industry and has planned and implemented a number of award winning campaigns across the globe.

Maxine’s energetic approach and creative flare is a valuable complement to her experience.

Previously a semi-professional tennis player and now an artist and enthusiastic karaoke singer in her spare time, there is seemingly no end to her talent!

We look forward to introducing Maxine to new clients and old.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Beyond No Logo

This post is co-authored with Jo Allen, Creative Director with The Marketing Eye.

Several years have passed since ‘No Logo’, Naomi Klein’s seminal backlash against multinational corporations. In her book, Klein uncovered a betrayal of the central promises of many of the world’s most revered brands: Bill Gates became a global whipping boy, Nike's swoosh was equated with sweatshop labour and McDonald's arches turned into a synonym for childhood obesity. Little wonder that these brands found themselves on the wrong end of a can of spray paint.

Since ‘No Logo’ we have seen some seismic shifts. The world’s most valuable brand, Coca Cola, recently acquired a stake in Innocent Drinks, in part, because of the positive light Innocent would reflect back onto the corporate brand. We have also seen Coca Cola focus on healthier drinks with the launch of Diet Coke Plus and Coke Zero.

We see a similar situation at McDonald’s, which has been addressing the healthy eating issues that have dogged it in the past. Starbucks too is looking at how it can realign its proposition with the needs of a more informed and discerning audience.

Business direction is now being moulded by brand strategies dictated by customer values not business values. The information age means there is no place to hide any actions, policies or values that run contrary to the core values of the consumer. Audiences are sophisticated and informed. They choose the brands they want a relationship with, not the other way round.

The important lesson in these case studies is that branding doesn’t have to mean greed and excess, nor, incidentally, does it have to have to be the exclusive domain of large corporations: it is only when we realise this that we can understand how important and positive it can be for a business.

Think of any well-known modern day brand and you will find an organisation behind it that has:

· A clear customer promise

· A well defined set of values

· An ‘all for one’ philosophy among the people who work there

· A strong employee proposition designed to attract and retain the best employees

· Consistent and well targeted communications that inspire

There is nothing morally wrong in any of this, on the contrary. If the honesty exists; if the values of the business are properly aligned to those of the consumer and lived and breathed at every level within the organisation, then we create powerful businesses that can be a force for good.

An unfortunate consequence of the global downturn is that businesses – particularly smaller businesses - have become more inward looking. With the focus being on short-term cost-cutting and survival, ‘the brand’ as a concept is seen by many as too intangible and too esoteric to justify time and investment. How unfortunate and what a missed opportunity.

The truth is that building a brand doesn’t necessarily require significant investment: it needs vision, commitment and structure. A brand strategy, fully embraced from the start and consistently nurtured throughout its life, can be the difference between average performance and stellar success.

To achieve all this isn’t easy, but the prize for those that go for it is a significant one.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

I wanna be a rock star - a new model for marketing

In his post ‘Will 10% unemployment be the new full employment?’, Charles Besondy predicts that permanent marketing employees will soon be a thing of the past.

He argues:

“There is too much uncertainty in the land to confidently invest in a strong and capable marketing department. There is too much volatility in the marketing programmes budget to justify a fully staffed marketing department. Better to keep fixed labour costs to a minimum and bring in the rock star interims for a few months as needed. No long-term commitments, no health insurance concerns, just the perfect skills and knowledge applied to the opportunity or problem for a season”.

Besondy is an interim manager and we shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, to hear him take this position.

Certainly, it is the case that economic conditions are imposing long term changes on business models. The move towards the outsourcing of non-core skills, be they marketing or otherwise, continues unabated: probably because it works, but does this mean the end of the in-house marketing team is inevitable?

Besondy stops short of looking at the pros and cons of a permanent marketing team or analysing which parts of the marketing discipline should be kept in-house. Having operated on both sides of the inustry, I feel qualified to have a try.

Pro’s of a permanent marketing team
  • Dedicated to the business
  • Deep understanding of day-to-day issues and developments
  • On-hand whenever it is needed
  • Potentially cheaper in the long run if fully employed

Con’s of a permanent marketing team

  • Risk of silo thinking and loss of perspective on what is going on outside of the business
  • Risk of temporary or permanent loss of drive and focus
  • Potential to be absorbed by the minutiae at the expense of ‘the big picture’
  • Potential to be under employed
  • The substantial and inflexible cost of full time salaries, holiday pay, sick leave etc.

The case for outsourcing is certainly a strong one, but is it an open and shut case?

I have posted regularly on the difference between the marketing discipline and the marketing department. The marketing discipline has to be owned by the board: the marketing department has to look after the elements of the marketing mix that are assigned to it – more often than not, this is brand and promotion.

Besondy has his focus on the traditional marketing department and I agree with his views in this area. I have never seen any benefit in an in-house creative team and believe too that many, if not all, forms of campaign development and delivery can be delivered more effectively by external resources.

The picture becomes more blurred in the areas of strategic marketing and marketing management. To think of strategic marketing as something that can be stopped and started according to the ebbs and flows of business fortunes is dangerous. Marketing, in its broadest definition, has to be constant and this means there needs to be somebody who is able to link the strategy of the board with tactical implementations in all areas of the 8P’s. Whether this should be resourced in-house or outsourced is a question of scale and affordability.

An outsourced marketing operation that can provide strategic consultancy as well as tactical implementation is the ideal solution for a small or medium sized business: not only is it more cost effective, but the client can access a level of experience that it would take several years to build in-house. With the right provider, there is no reason why this outsourced resource shouldn’t be fully focused on the business and available on demand.

The larger business is likely to have the scale to warrant permanent resource, but it too will benefit from blending internal structures with outsourced experience. I predict the corporate of the future will have a non-executive Director of Strategy & Marketing on the board and a permanent Head of Marketing in a senior management position. The non-exec will be somebody with deep marketing experience in a range of industries, who is able to guide and advise the board on its marketing strategy. The Head of Marketing will be responsible for the delivery of the plan and management of agency relationships. Naturally, for the model to be effective, the Head of Marketing will need to see the non-exec as an ally and mentor, not a threat.

In conclusion, therefore, even if the days of the permanent marketing employee aren’t completely numbered, the nature of the roles that many of them fulfil at the present time are. Jobs for life, if they ever existed in the first place, will go and short to medium-term performance related contracts will become the norm.

Marketers should embrace the opportunity the change presents. The chance to move from business to business makes for an interesting and varied career and, moreover, it allows greater value to be delivered to the client. Through this transition, marketing as a discipline might finally gain the respect and recognition it deserves.

Whether we should swagger in like rock stars is a different question!

Saturday, 15 August 2009

The future of print advertising

I have often complained about the dearth of business news in our area. Our local weekly paper, the Courier, can only manage a double page spread and the resources of one freelance journalist. The Argus, which is daily, has business news once a week and tends to be centred on Brighton. Across the border in Kent, The weekly Kent Messenger produces an 8-page supplement once a month.

In magazine form, we have South East Business, which is increasingly beholden to thinly disguised advertorials. Kent Director is run out of Cambridge, Sussex Business Times has disappeared and I haven’t seen a copy of Business First for several months either.

The issue, of course, is advertising, or rather, a lack of it. With advertising revenues having plummeted and so much content being available for free on-line, there is no money to pay the journalists. This is not a healthy situation for any of us. We need quality journalism in a democratic society, whether it is reporting on local news or international conflicts.

The dilemma for media owners is well documented, and, whatever the answer to their conundrum is, it is hard to see how it lies in advertising. A recent survey showed that most marketers now find print advertising the least effective form of promotion when measured in ROI terms.

This is hardly surprising. The Internet in general and Twitter in particular has allowed us all to become our own editors. We can pick out the content we want from a vast array of sources and easily filter out anything we don’t want – most commonly, the advertising. There is no shortage of readers; it is just that they have gone to other sources, such as blogs, e-newsletters and social media.

I had these thoughts in mind when The Courier came to see me this week to talk about its new approach to business news. The paper, like the Kent Messenger before it, has decided to consolidate the business news into a monthly 8-page supplement. I like the idea. In fact, I’d like to see it go further and set up an on-line forum to allow two-way dialogue with the business community on business news.

Naturally, the representative didn’t come to see me for my insight: it was to sell advertising and what struck me this time was, rather than give me the usual spiel about stellar circulations and perfectly aligned audience demographics, the approach was to say “if local businesses want a business paper, they will have to support it with advertising”.

I don’t know if I find this resigned or refreshingly honest. Either way, it does raise the question about how media owners will be selling their advertising in future: as a means of raising awareness of products and services, or as a form of corporate social responsibility?

But isn’t this the way that newspapers started in the first place – as a way for business people to promote their political persuasion and points of view? Perhaps it’s true. Everything does come full circle in the end.

What do you think? Do businesses have a responsibility to support their local media with advertising?

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Putting the star and bucks back in Starbucks - Starbucks trial brand strategy

Coffee is a regular topic of conversation in The Marketing Eye office. Normally it’s an argument about whose turn it is to make the next one, but now, for a short time at least, we can claim a professional interest.

Recent reports have revealed that Starbucks is planning to open 3 unbranded coffee shops in its home town of Seattle. We are told that each of the new shops will be unique and tailored to the community in which it is situated. One of the test outlets will feature poetry readings and live music and there will be alcohol on offer and free Wi-Fi. The address of the cafe will be used in the branding, for example one is to be called 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea. Most importantly, there will be no Starbucks branding.

Lambasted by the conspiracy theorists as stealth marketing, the Starbucks experiment is a fascinating case-study in brand life-cycles and brand strategy.

Globally ubiquitous, the Starbucks brand is a phenomenon. Since expanding out of Seattle in the 1990’s, it has re-defined the coffee market and become synonymous with the boom years and globalisation. The signs are, however, that Starbucks might now have reached its peak. Last year’s results showed a heavy decline on previous years and in April, Starbucks reported a further 77% fall in quarterly profits.

The reverse can’t be blamed entirely on the recession as the evidence is that, even with less money in our pockets, there is still plenty of coffee being drunk. The Starbucks star has definitely lost its sparkle. We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that returning CEO Howard Schultz is looking for new ways to invigorate Starbucks' performance and return it to growth. The brand has got too big too quickly and is in need of re-invention.

Tailoring a product to the needs and wants of the market goes back to the basic principles of good marketing. The ‘one-size-fits-all’ Starbucks’ model needs modifying and evolving. People have grown tired of the homogeneous outlet and its mass produced product. As consumers, we know that a far more satisfying experience is found in the local coffee shop where a bespoke and lovingly produced beverage is mixed with a genuine appreciation of our custom. Schultz recognizes that Starbucks must present itself as a neighbourhood coffee shop instead of the corporate conglomerate that it has become.

Management Today said: “The move is interesting because it’s essentially a reaction against the kind of bland, ubiquitous corporatism with which Starbucks has become synonymous to many people. It’s basically admitting that some customers are now put off by well-known popular brands and are more inclined to favour smaller local ones instead”.

Opinion on Twitter is divided:
@karentoms said: “How cruel, I'd be gutted to find I'd been inadvertently lulled into Starbucks”, whereas, @
bellakatz posted:” Interesting idea. I kinda like it”. @danielmarino summed up most people’s views with his simple: “questionable, but very interesting” comment.

The chief concern seems to be about honesty. @jeremyrandall said: “Unbranded shops feel like subterfuge. How about unique cafes/names, but keep a small Starbucks logo, so it doesn't seem like trickery?”

Starbucks will do well to heed this tweet of wisdom. Adopting and implementing a local marketing strategy under the umbrella brand would be seen as a much more open approach.

As we have said in previous posts, there is no reason why a business shouldn’t operate two or more brands and even allow the brands to compete against each other.

A different brand for a different market is not a new concept: Toyota does it with Lexus: Donna Karen does it with DKNY and there are many more examples. The important point is that there is something different in the customer experience and the customer promise. The early evidence is that this is the intention with the new Starbucks brand, but the strategy will unfurl if it can’t be maintained. The organisation will undoubtedly want to leverage the efficiencies of its larger operation, for example in purchasing. If that also extends to recruitment and training, one wonders how different the customer experience can really be. Same coffee, same staff, same processes - will we essentially be left with only a change in decor?

To work, the change must go deep into the core values. As The Community Room posted on its blog: “Starbucks needs to whole heartedly handover its stores to the community.... How many people would love to host something in these pieces of real estate? Let customers run everything and change the emphasis, so it’s honestly about the local community”.

Starbucks will be faced with some fascinating dilemmas if the new stores out-perform the branded ones: What is the future of the corporate brand? How does it achieve economies of scale in a brand with unlimited physical iterations? How does it become welcomed and not isolated by the communities it wants to be part of?

The authors of brand and marketing text books around the world wait with bated breath.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Leave Auntie AIDA alone - understanding consumer buying behaviour

The esteemed consultants at McKinsey have been burning the midnight oil to come up with the startling revelation that consumer purchases are, wait for it, needs and wants driven.

Yes, it’s true. In its recent paper on the
Consumer Decision Journey, McKinsey challenges the linear progression of consumers from awareness to purchase and now says that consumers start with a trigger event that spurs them into action: they decide they need or want something and then set about finding it.

Well, knock me down with a feather.

The disturbing thing, beyond the fact that people are actually paid to come up with this stuff, is that Mckinsey is confusing the psychology of buying with a marketer’s approach to intervening in the process.

The linear progression that McKinsey challenges is based on AIDA – Awareness, Interest, Desire & Action.

To my knowledge, nobody has ever maintained that this is how people buy. We have understood since Maslow was a boy that human actions are based on fulfilling needs. When we have a need, we set about fulfilling it at a speed dictated by the urgency of the requirement and the degree of risk in the decision.

A B2C or B2B marketer’s challenge is to intervene in the process and create a purchase of their product at the highest possible price. This could involve stimulating an impulse buy or making sure that the brand is on the consideration list for a more measured acquisition.

‘A’ stands for ‘attention’ or ‘awareness’ and makes AIDA a good guiding principle when developing the approach to anything from a new brochure to a long-running multi-media campaign.

In the context of a shop, AIDA can mean grabbing attention with a compelling display and then turning the initial curiosity into desire with a great product and packaging. This, in turn, should lead to the action of a purchase.

A brochure or a website, be it B2B or B2C, should follow the same principle. The creator must find the compelling Home page or cover message that encourages the reader to delve deeper and deeper until action is taken.

Awareness comes into play for the more complex decisions when the purchaser may decide to explore the market. A marketer needs to create awareness to ensure the product or service is in the consideration set in the first place. This awareness could be created by brand advertising or a face-to-face relationship, either way it is a necessary pre-curser to interest in the marketer’s product, the decision that it’s the right solution and the action of purchasing it.

AIDA remains valid and has its place for those that understand it. To claim insight from the revelation that purchases are needs and desires driven is like proclaiming the Earth orbits the Sun.


Saturday, 11 July 2009

When the tail wags the dog – the great sales versus marketing debate

How can you tell if a salesperson is lying?

His lips are moving.

Don’t you just love the arguments between salespeople and marketing? Ali v Foreman was nothing compared with the constant bickering between these two old adversaries. Like brothers, they defend the family honour in public and snipe at each other in private.

I came across an excellent LinkedIn discussion last week started by a sales guru who was giving marketing both barrels: sack the Chief Marketing Officer; make every marketer spend at least a year in sales and measure marketing performance solely on the basis of reductions in the cost of sales where among his more strident remedies.

Never one to resist an argument, I couldn’t help but wade in with a view.

So, let’s try and resolve this once and for all. Should the marketing department be a support function to sales or is sales a function of marketing?

In my career I have seen examples of both. Now I’m running my own business, I see it from yet another perspective.

Among my favourite definitions of marketing is the one provided by Professor Paul Fifield who says that the sole purpose of marketing is to sell the maximum amount of units at the highest possible price.

So there you have it, even a Professor of Marketing admits that, in the final analysis, marketing has to deliver sales and profit. Perhaps the salespeople are right? Marketers should immediately bow down to Sales and accept their true position in life.

But what would happen if they did?

I have worked in organisations where salespeople rule. The top roles were filled by the top salespeople and every conversation was about turnover and pipeline. In this environment, the role of marketing was invariably limited to tactical direct mail campaigns, brochures and corporate gifts: all geared to supporting this week’s idea and today’s income target. To create a discussion, let alone gain sponsorship for more strategic initiatives was all but impossible.

This is not to say that the salespeople who were promoted into the senior management positions didn’t have the ability to be strategic. Of course they did, but because the culture was so heavily geared towards short term measurable results, tactics tended to dominate the decision making process. Business performance was highly cyclical as a result with great highs and near catastrophic lows.

Another great definition of marketing is ‘making friends with people who might need you one day’.

The definition needs some work. ‘Might need you’ feels untargeted and ‘one day’ too uncertain, but I love the whole concept of marketing and business being about ‘making friends’ and forging relationships. The idea that a customer would consider a business a friend is a brand Nirvana, providing as it would a platform for long-term sustainable growth and resistance to the worst highs and lows of economic conditions.

Inevitably the idea of building a brand and making friends is too soft and intangible for many people.

Let’s be in no doubt, and I see this first hand in my own business, Sales is one of the most important components of the marketing strategy. If the leads aren’t being found and converted, there is no long term to plan and position for, so the marketing department needs to get its finger out and do its bit to feed the machine.

But Sales is exactly that: one part of the marketing strategy and it puts the cart firmly in front of the horse to have Marketing reporting to Sales. All of the elements of product, price, place, promotion, people, process, physical evidence and positioning need to combine before a business can make friends with customers and sell the maximum number of units at the highest possible price.

A Head of Sales who has the ability to do all of this - manage sales performance as well as think about strategy, targeting and positioning - isn’t a Head of Sales at all, but a Head of Marketing... and thoroughly deserving of the title.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Let me entertain you

With Wimbledon filling the screens and my old chums at RBS coming under attack yet again, this time for laying out £300k on tournament tickets, I couldn’t help but stick my oar into an online discussion about corporate hospitality.

Twitter led me to a blog post aimed at the professional services sector. The post held that entertaining clients and referral sources wouldn’t, by itself, lead to new client work. The phrase ‘by itself’ saved the post from being overly contentious, but I couldn’t stop myself jumping to the defence of good old fashioned client entertainment.

The recession has led to a rapid reining in of hospitality. As The Marketing Eye reported in its news pages last month, many marketers have considered removing corporate hospitality from the marketing mix altogether. A corporate paranoia has emerged, where companies are afraid of being perceived as being profligate in their expenditure on clients.

This is understandable, but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

The value of corporate hospitality was reinforced to me on Friday when the business development manager from our printers came to see us. Brian might be described as being from the old school of sales. There’s nothing he doesn’t know about us: where we go on holiday, how many children we have, what our hobbies are – is all information stored in his mental hard drive. And, of course, he doesn’t just know about us; he has the same information stored on all of his clients.

Brian’s knowledge of his clients is second to none. The occasional lunch has been part of his information gathering strategy and has done wonders to reinforce our opinion of him as a genuine nice guy. The result is a loyalty that is hard to break.

While we wait for the economy to recover, there are few better investments than getting to know clients. Generation Y decision makers might be satisfied with getting to know people through Facebook profiles, but until they dominate there is no substitute for getting to know customers face to face. Relationships will always be deeper, more enduring and more productive.

Whether it is to seal a deal, embed a relationship or say thank you for the business, lunch or a round of golf is an ideal way of spending a concentrated period of quality time with a client or prospect. Just remember why you are there.

Anyone for tennis?

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Tweeting about a revolution

As the events in Iran unfold, we are witnessing what many will claim to be the first Twitter enabled revolution: a situation where the social networking tool is credited with sidestepping the censorship efforts of an authoritarian regime to allow democracy and people power to win out.

Monitoring #iranelection over the past week has been fascinating and disturbing in equal measure. The tweets are so numerous and so rapid that it is almost impossible to keep up with them.

"Iran Khodro workers on strike, Vahed bus drivers announce solidarity. If oil workers join movement, this can change history."

"Basij marking homes again! Check before entering, & wipe it off w/ oil"

"We've been beatn, tortured&killed for the last 30yrs. Nothing supreme liar says can break our will for freedom"

"#Neda video, a girl being shot in Tehran by Basij sniper"

We are told that the government in Iran has slowed internet speeds to a crawl and is blocking popular communication sites. Twitter, which can be updated from mobile phones, has allowed the messages to keep coming out.

"RT @persiankiwi Yahoo, Gmail and Hotmail is now completely out of service in Iran"

Tweeters are turning their avatars green in support of the people of Iran, a call that has been widely taken up as a tide of emotion and solidarity sweeps across the globe. President Obama warned Iran on Friday that "the eyes of the world are watching you" and nowhere is this more true than on Twitter. Time magazine said: "President Ahmadinejad finds himself in a court of world opinion where even Khrushchev never had to stand trial".

As Andrew Sullivan observes in today's Sunday Times, it is tempting to reflect on how things might have been different in the Chicago demonstrations of 1968 had Twitter been around. One wonders too how the government of the day would have reacted - would it really have been any different to the way Iran is reacting now?

There is a need for caution, however. For all Twitter's influence we have to be careful that we don't get swept up in a one-sided view of events.

Twitter is a populist media. Uncensored and unedited, people can post anything to it they want. Identifying the truth from the rumours, lies and misinformation is almost impossible and while it is wrong to question people's intentions, it is evident that there are a number of people jumping on the 'go green for Iran' bandwagon without a proper analysis of the facts.

If Twitter is going to be a true tool for democracy, tweeters and their followers have to be discerning in what they post, read and believe. However distasteful it might seem on occasions, the medium also has to be available to both sides. Whenever we see any hint of support for Ahmadinejad, or possibly even an attempt by the regime to use Twitter for it's own ends, it is quickly denounced.

"DO NOT RT anything U read from "NEW" tweeters, gvmt spreading misinfo" was a popular tweet last week.

Ashton Kutcher called the creation of Twitter "as significant and paradigm shifting as the invention of morse code". That may be the case, but the role of 'old-media' journalists in gathering the facts and giving voice to both sides of the argument is now more important than ever.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Speed networking - is it worth it?

This post is by Bryony Saunders, Marketing Executive with The Marketing Eye.

I walked into my first ever speed networking event slightly late. I was delayed by a road accident on the way and by the time I got there, everybody was already in full flow. Bemused, nervous and embarrassed, I watched and awaited my fate.

People were seated at tables facing each other in deep conversation. Everybody looked so confident and business like and I could feel my heart beating inside my chest as I scanned the room for exit options. Unfortunately, my scheming was interrupted by the shriek of a whistle signalling the end of the first 4 minute networking session. This was it; I was taken to sit opposite my first victim.

I had thought through what I would say: I would introduce myself and then add a 2 minute piece about our company and what we do. I didn’t, however, expect to be put on the spot immediately. Sympathetic to my nerves, my first contact agreed to go first.

Then my turn came. I tensed myself to speak, but before I could even say our company name the whistle was blown. I had to move on...I had let him fill the entire four minutes talking about himself!

Right, I thought, I’ll do better with the next one and actually get to speak.

To my pleasant surprise the next victim was very handsome, which caused different problems. I immediately went red, started to stutter and lost track of what I was saying! Gosh, this is not what I expected at all...why is it so hard?

When my handsome opponent spoke, he was so well practised that his spiel was almost robotic...not very natural or interesting at all. My heart sank!

As I moved down the row of people every 4 minutes, the ritual did seem to get easier. Everyone relaxed a bit, become more natural and took more interest in what the other person had to say, rather than worry about themselves. I even started to enjoy it myself.

The people that came across the best were the most natural and slower speaking ones. The hard sellers were off-putting and the too well rehearsed just un-engaging. But you do need to know what you want to say and remember why you are there – to get business.

My advice, if you are going to give this networking style a go, would be:

  1. Think about what you are going to say, don’t rehearse it word for word, make it a quick and effective message about your business and the type of customers you are looking for

  2. Take your business cards to hand to each person

  3. Take a notepad to write details down about each contact – you’ll struggle to remember them all afterwards

  4. Be genuine, smile, and if you are not interested, try not to look too bored!

  5. Don’t promise things that you don’t intend to follow up on later simply to be polite

  6. Think about what you are looking to get from the event and measure your success

  7. Follow up any opportunity or interesting connection as soon as possible afterwards. Strike while the contact is still hot.

So is it worth it?

Well, once you get past the initial shock, I found it a very good way to network.
You get to meet lots of people quickly. At normal networking events you usually only speak to the people that are closest to you. At a speed networking event, you get to meet everybody, whether you like or not!

And everybody knows why you are there, so you can just cut to the chase! The time is long enough for you to work out if the person will be of any benefit to you without having to engage in all the awkward small talk that goes with it.

Even if you think the person you are talking to will have no use for your product or service, they are likely to have a large number of contacts. Most business people have several hundred contacts and you never know where your business card might end up.

If there is a downside, it is that everybody is there to find customers, not suppliers, which is why, I think, a lot of promised contacts come to nothing afterwards. The leads that are most likely to be successful are those where there is an opportunity on both sides.

At the end of the day, I came away with a handful of leads and a purse full of business cards. We’ll see what they come to, but on balance I would say yes, give it a go!


Thursday, 4 June 2009

Banking on a brand

Santander has announced that it is to rebrand all of its UK operations.

Bradford & Bingley, Abbey and Alliance & Leicester are to disappear from our High Street to be replaced by Santander, creating the prospect of 3 branches of the same bank in every major town - for the time being at least.

The driver for the change is a strategy to establish Santander as a global brand. Arguably one of the best managed banks in the world and currently 7th largest by asset size, Santander doesn’t yet have the perception of scale of an HSBC or Citibank.

To Santander, the solution is to make the brand ubiquitous. All group business will carry the Santander brand and there will be an ongoing programme of high profile sponsorships and media placements to support it.

But will this be appreciated by the customers?

As we look across the landscape of major banks in the UK, we see a variety of brand strategies in operation.

HSBC, like Santander, favours the monolithic brand approach, branding all of its businesses and marketing as HSBC.

RBS prefers to manage a portfolio of brands that includes NatWest, Coutts, Direct Line, Churchill and Lombard.

Lloyds Banking Group, like RBS, maintains a number of brands, including Cheltenham & Gloucester and recent acquisitions, Halifax and Bank of Scotland.

Barclays, on the other hand, is taking a sub-brand route with Barclays Capital, Barclays Wealth and Barclays Commercial, among others, being allowed to spin off and develop their own brand personalities.

So, why the different approaches and which one is right?

One brand applied to all businesses helps build brand recognition and is infinitely easier and less expensive to manage. There are limitations, however.

HSBC has been eminently successful in creating one of the world’s leading banking groups and its logo can be seen in all corners of the globe. The ability to adapt the brand to suit a particular target market is, though, constrained and being seen as a banking behemoth is not universally attractive. HSBC has had to invest heavily in the global ‘The world’s local bank’ campaign to show it is still in touch with its customers, whoever and wherever they are.

A monolithic brand strategy is fine in the good times, but when part of the business’ reputation comes under fire, the whole brand is affected. Never has this been more clearly demonstrated than in the current banking crisis.

The RBS brand, once hailed as the home of astute and savvy Scottish bankers, now finds itself a symbol of the meltdown of the whole financial services industry. The bank now has to hide the RBS brand under a bushel and promote the individual businesses for fear of derision if it does anything else. Fortunately, the brand strategy gives it this option.

Conventional wisdom says that if the target market, customer promise and proposition are different, then a separate brand should be used.

The multi-brand strategies operated by Lloyds Banking Group and RBS have allowed them to tailor different propositions to suit the different audiences they talk to. The cachet that the Coutts brand has to its high-net-worth clients, for example, would be lost under a re-brand to RBS Private Banking.

A multi-brand strategy also allows these banks to attack their markets on several fronts. A customer that decides against Halifax for a mortgage might still choose Cheltenham & Gloucester, be it through lack of awareness, convenience or some other perceived difference in the product, price or delivery proposition.

This then leaves the Barclays approach, which seems to be neither one thing nor the other and has all the hallmarks of an internal battle being won by certain sections of the business. We understand the breakaway started in Barclays Wealth, where the management felt their association with an everyday High Street bank was constraining their ability to win business. Rather than show the specialism with copy, image style and appropriate media choices, the bank has allowed a sub-brand to be created, which has then had to be replicated through the other divisions in the organisation. The danger of a sub-brand strategy is that, without careful management, the number of sub-brands gets out of control and the master brand becomes fragmented and diluted.

So, is Santander right to re-brand in the UK? We think not. We believe customers would have enjoyed the choice between the 3 businesses and that, in taking the route it has, Santander has given up the opportunity to position each brand for a different market. This would have given more options to consumers and created cross sales opportunities for the organisation.

We have no doubt that Santander will achieve the benefits of its scale, whether it rebrands in the UK or not. Organisations should keep in mind though that scale matters to the City, not to customers, and that analysts are more than capable of working out who owns what.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

What price a relationship?

Business life is rarely without its ups and downs and there are occasions when we all have to call in the odd favour.

Such was the case this week, when an issue arose with an advert for one of our clients. With the fault laying fairly and squarely at our door, our first response, after apologising to the client, was to arrange to run the advert again at our expense.

Having worked with the publication in question for many years, and purchased a reasonable amount of advertising from it, we asked for some leeway on the price. The response was an uncompromising 'No. This is your problem, not ours'.

This might seem perfectly reasonable. After all, why should the publication compromise its margins to help us out, particularly in these straitened times?

The answer lies in the pricing strategy.

The incident brought home to us that what we had seen as a relationship, the publication prefers to treat as a series of unrelated transactions, each to be exploited for the maximum possible price. No value is placed on our future spending power: the priority is to maximise revenue now.

This is a legitimate pricing strategy, but not without its consequences.

The discovery forces us to re-appraise the way that we will do business with the publication in future. The loyalty that we have felt towards it now looks misplaced and leaves us feeling a little foolish. We must now start to treat each transaction as the publication does and judge it primarily on price. We are also motivated to look more closely at the competitor publications and get to know the people behind them a little better. These are all the characteristics of a transactional relationship.

In contrast, a small concession would have deepened our sense of loyalty, encouraged our advocacy and even left us feeling a little in the publication's debt.

The publication has great confidence in its brand and, if it is right in its assessment that it is the No1 brand in its niche, it can indeed dictate terms in this way. For most businesses, however, applying transactional pricing in a relationship situation is a dangerous and short-termist approach. The pursuit of margins, in the absence of, or at the expense of customer loyalty, ultimately shifts economic power to the customer. Customers quickly leave when a better offer arises elsewhere.

Sour grapes? We hope not. We accept our misjudgment of our worth and respect the publications right to act as it pleases. We are happy to work under the new rules.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Spinning out your expenses - how to handle a PR crisis

Most of us are, of course, scandalised by the revelations surrounding MPs' expenses claims. Finding out that our elected representatives are troughing away at tax-payers expense to feather their already gilded nests has hit at the very heart of our trust and confidence in the political system.

The news has temporarily eased the failure of individual banks and the financial crisis in general out of the headlines, but the one thing that both issues have in common is that they are nightmare scenarios for the PR teams of the companies and institutions involved. Rarely the recipients of sympathy, one can only imagine the head-in-hands feeling that these people are suffering as they think how to salvage the reputations of their hapless charges.

We have seen an evolution in the tactics adopted by PRs in recent weeks, undoubtedly determined by the magnitude or sheer indefensibility of the circumstances they find themselves in. At one time, the standard reaction to a crisis was to deny that one existed and then swiftly follow it up with an attack on the accuser's credibility. One thinks backs to the handling of the infamous dossier used by the Blair government as justification for declaring war on Iraq.

More recently, denial has given way to attempts at justification (or even laughable claims of "I'm the victim in this") and then gushing apologies and requests for forgiveness.

The contrast between the banks' approach to the banking crisis and that being taken now by Parliament is marked.

RBS struggled to throw off its institutionalised arrogance when the scale of the crisis in the bank first emerged. Head of PR, Carolyn McAdam, doggedly issued 'no comment' responses on behalf of her bosses to the frustration of the media and the public alike. Sir Fred Goodwin and Sir Tom McKillop then did little to engender public sympathy with their forced apologies in front of the Treasury Select Committee. Only under new management has RBS shown contrition, which is now being rewarded by public acceptance and early signs of progress.

In Parliament, we have seen a much more rapid journey from denial through to apology. Last month, Home Secretary, Jacquie Smith, denied any wrong doing over her husband's late-night viewing choices. Since then, once it became apparent that the collective hand had been well and truly caught in the cookie jar, the tactics have changed. MP's have been forced in front of the media, apologies issued, jobs lost and statements of corrective action made. In no way, does this defend the indefensible (or pass comment on the sincerity of the apologies), but it does show how, when faced with a PR crisis, quickly choosing the right response is vital to mitigating the damage.

Knowing how to handle a PR crisis should form part of the disaster planning in any organisation. With new media, such as Facebook and Twitter, crisis situations, not always founded on reliable facts, can occur very rapidly and it is important to be able to react quickly and appropriately.

The lessons from the events of 2009 so far are to:
  • Respond promptly and address the public as quickly as possible. Failure to do so only fuels the rumour mill

  • Maintain honesty. Lying or attempting to cover up will be discovered and make a bad situation worse

  • Be informative. If there is a sense that there is more to come out, the story will run and run

  • Be sympathetic to the victims of the crisis. Take whatever steps you can to relieve any loss or anxiety

  • Maintain relationships with the media. A team that is seen to be helping the media will generally receive more favourable treatment, than one that blocks it with a terse 'no comment'.

A crisis communications plan doesn't have to be a weighty tome, it can be a simple set of guidelines that first considers the types of crises that could occur and then walks through the main steps for dealing with them. Like any form of insurance, to leave such things for another day is tempting, but dangerous. Temporarily diverting PR efforts away from new press releases to writing and fine-tuning a crisis communications plan could prove a valuable investment in the long run.

Do you have any experience or advice in how to manage a PR crisis? We are particularly interested in hearing opinions from professional PRs on how the current MPs' expenses crisis is being handled.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Reasons to be Cheerful - Part 1

'Tis a brave man indeed that calls the bottom of the market.

Surfing through the week's headlines we have seen:

Add to this that base rate has been held at 0.5% for a second month, the FTSE100 is up 21% since the start of the year and RBS has managed to only lose £897m in the last 3 months (bonuses all round), it would be a glass-half-empty reaction indeed not to feel the smallest glimmer of hope.

Of course, it's not all good news:

A lot of this so called 'good news' is based on slowing rates of decline rather than a return to growth, but could we at least say that we are bumping along a rather stony bottom?

Like many of the small businesses that we meet, we are not experiencing a catastrophic downturn. The decision making process remains protracted, but the enormous fear that has prevailed since last October is subsiding.

'Tis a brave man indeed that calls the bottom of the market.

Let's do business.