Wednesday, July 16, 2003

More tales of marketing communications

The development of an effective marketing message is often like the emergence of a long-lost heir to the throne in a chaotic kingdom--it's born in secret, carefully nurtured and developed by a few courageous caretakers, and unveiled just at the right moment to save the day before the grumbling council of jaded politicians can have it brainwashed, dismembered, or sent to rot in the dungeons. Had the heir been raised by the politicians, he or she would be one of them, and the empire would truly be in trouble.

As a communications consultant, I've spent much of my career producing marketing materials bearing what's left of an organization's messages after committees have finished gumming them into pap. Is the scenario always that grim? No. Usually, but not always. Here's a story with both a good and a bad ending:

A few years back, I was doing marketing materials for....hmmm....let's call it a research center. Two teams in the research center liked my work for the director's office and hired me to design marketing packets for them. The scope of the work was similar, my proposals were accepted, and the contracts signed. One week later, I met with the point person from Group A; four weeks later, Group A was happily mailing out its four-color brochure to prospective clients. Seven months later, I was meeting with 11 members of Group B, and rewriting the descriptive text for their brochure for the umpteenth time.

Where do good messages go wrong? Right at the beginning, as a rule.

The ideal message would be one designed by an organization's leader, assisted by a communications professional. The leader's job is to ensure that the message genuinely represents the organization. The professional's job is to make sure it will make sense to a variety of audiences and will work well in a variety of media. A good communications professional will also give the leader feedback on the how long the message is likely to remain useful, and find out if it needs to be linked to messages about other organizational activities.

This is rarely what happens. For some reason, most leaders think they don't have enough time to focus on the topic for a half hour. They prefer to waste weeks of staff and consultants' time.

My all-time favorite tale involves a multi-billion dollar organization that decided it needed a mission statement. The leader asked the company's organizational psychologists to spearhead the effort. They designed a survey to determine what words came to mind when people thought of the organization. This survey was delivered--by the means of special publications--to hundreds of customers and staff. From all these results, the psychologists compiled a list of the 20 most frequently used words. Then they organized a retreat at which a committee of staff and customers wrote descriptions of the organization's mission that included all of the 20 words.

At the end of this expensive process, the committee went to the CEO to present their sentences. The CEO looked puzzled and annoyed. "This doesn't sound right me," the CEO said. "I thought our mission statement would say 'We do X, Y, and Z for A, B, and C.'"

The company PR person, who had been an unwilling captive of the psychologists and the committee through the whole affair, blurted "That sounds like a good statement to me." Committee members shot him looks that could have stunned a rampaging elk.

"Great!" barked the CEO, getting up from the table. "Let's put it in the annual report."

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