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Marketing Communications

What is IMC?

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Integrated Marketing Communications is a simple concept. It ensures that all forms of communications and messages are carefully linked together.

At its most basic level, Integrated Marketing Communications, or IMC, as we'll call it, means integrating all the promotional tools, so that they work together in harmony.

Promotion is one of the Ps in the marketing mix. Promotions has its own mix of communications tools.

All of these communications tools work better if they work together in harmony rather than in isolation. Their sum is greater than their parts - providing they speak consistently with one voice all the time, every time.

This is enhanced when integration goes beyond just the basic communications tools. There are other levels of integration such as Horizontal, Vertical, Internal, External and Data integration. Here is how they help to strengthen Integrated Communications.

Horizontal Integration occurs across the marketing mix and across business functions - for example, production, finance, distribution and communications should work together and be conscious that their decisions and actions send messages to customers.

While different departments such as sales, direct mail and advertising can help each other through Data Integration. This requires a marketing information system which collects and shares relevant data across different departments.

Vertical Integration means marketing and communications objectives must support the higher level corporate objectives and corporate missions. Check out the Hall Of Fame later for more about missions.

Meanwhile Internal Integration requires internal marketing - keeping all staff informed and motivated about any new developments from new advertisements, to new corporate identities, new service standards, new strategic partners and so on.

External Integration, on the other hand, requires external partners such as advertising and PR agencies to work closely together to deliver a single seamless solution - a cohesive message - an integrated message.

The many benefits of IMC are examined in the section called, 'Benefits of IMC'.

Benefits of IMC

Although Integrated Marketing Communications requires a lot of effort it delivers many benefits. It can create competitive advantage, boost sales and profits, while saving money, time and stress.

IMC wraps communications around customers and helps them move through the various stages of the buying process. The organisation simultaneously consolidates its image, develops a dialogue and nurtures its relationship with customers.

This 'Relationship Marketing' cements a bond of loyalty with customers which can protect them from the inevitable onslaught of competition. The ability to keep a customer for life is a powerful competitive advantage.

IMC also increases profits through increased effectiveness. At its most basic level, a unified message has more impact than a disjointed myriad of messages. In a busy world, a consistent, consolidated and crystal clear message has a better chance of cutting through the 'noise' of over five hundred commercial messages which bombard customers each and every day.

At another level, initial research suggests that images shared in advertising and direct mail boost both advertising awareness and mail shot responses. So IMC can boost sales by stretching messages across several communications tools to create more avenues for customers to become aware, aroused, and ultimately, to make a purchase

Carefully linked messages also help buyers by giving timely reminders, updated information and special offers which, when presented in a planned sequence, help them move comfortably through the stages of their buying process... and this reduces their 'misery of choice' in a complex and busy world.

IMC also makes messages more consistent and therefore more credible. This reduces risk in the mind of the buyer which, in turn, shortens the search process and helps to dictate the outcome of brand comparisons.

Un-integrated communications send disjointed messages which dilute the impact of the message. This may also confuse, frustrate and arouse anxiety in customers. On the other hand, integrated communications present a reassuring sense of order.

Consistent images and relevant, useful, messages help nurture long term relationships with customers. Here, customer databases can identify precisely which customers need what information when... and throughout their whole buying life.

Finally, IMC saves money as it eliminates duplication in areas such as graphics and photography since they can be shared and used in say, advertising, exhibitions and sales literature. Agency fees are reduced by using a single agency for all communications and even if there are several agencies, time is saved when meetings bring all the agencies together - for briefings, creative sessions, tactical or strategic planning. This reduces workload and subsequent stress levels - one of the many benefits of IMC.

Barriers to IMC

Despite its many benefits, Integrated Marketing Communications, or IMC, has many barriers.

In addition to the usual resistance to change and the special problems of communicating with a wide variety of target audiences, there are many other obstacles which restrict IMC. These include: Functional Silos; Stifled Creativity; Time Scale Conflicts and a lack of Management know-how.

Take functional silos. Rigid organisational structures are infested with managers who protect both their budgets and their power base.

Sadly, some organisational structures isolate communications, data, and even managers from each other. For example the PR department often doesn't report to marketing. The sales force rarely meet the advertising or sales promotion people and so on. Imagine what can happen when sales reps are not told about a new promotional offer!

And all of this can be aggravated by turf wars or internal power battles where specific managers resist having some of their decisions (and budgets) determined or even influenced by someone from another department.

Here are two difficult questions - What should a truly integrated marketing department look like? And how will it affect creativity?

It shouldn't matter whose creative idea it is, but often, it does. An advertising agency may not be so enthusiastic about developing a creative idea generated by, say, a PR or a direct marketing consultant.

IMC can restrict creativity. No more wild and wacky sales promotions unless they fit into the overall marketing communications strategy. The joy of rampant creativity may be stifled, but the creative challenge may be greater and ultimately more satisfying when operating within a tighter, integrated, creative brief.

Add different time scales into a creative brief and you'll see Time Horizons provide one more barrier to IMC. For example, image advertising, designed to nurture the brand over the longer term, may conflict with shorter term advertising or sales promotions designed to boost quarterly sales. However the two objectives can be accommodated within an overall IMC if carefully planned.

But this kind of planning is not common. A survey in 1995, revealed that most managers lack expertise in IMC. But its not just managers, but also agencies. There is a proliferation of single discipline agencies. There appear to be very few people who have real experience of all the marketing communications disciplines. This lack of know how is then compounded by a lack of commitment.

For now, understanding the barriers is the first step in successfully implementing IMC.

Communications Theory

How do we communicate? How do customers process information? There are many models and theories. Let's take a brief look at some of them.

Simple communications models show a sender sending a message to a receiver who receives and understands it. Real life is less simple - many messages are misunderstood, fail to arrive or, are simply ignored.

Thorough understanding of the audience's needs, emotions, interests and activities is essential to ensure the accuracy and relevance of any message.

Instead of loud 'buy now' advertisements, many messages are often designed or 'encoded' so that the hard sell becomes a more subtle soft sell. The sender creates or encodes the message in a form that can be easily understood or decoded by the receiver.

Clever encoding also helps a message to cut through the clutter of other advertisements and distractions, what is called 'noise'. If successful, the audience will spot the message and then decode or interpret it correctly. The marketer then looks for 'feedback' such as coupons returned from mailshots, to see if the audience has decoded the message correctly.

The single step model - with a receiver getting a message directly from a sender - is not a complete explanation.

Many messages are received indirectly through a friend or through an opinion leader.

Communications are in fact multifaceted, multi-step and multi-directional. Opinion leaders talk to each other. Customers talk to opinion leaders and they talk to each other.

Add in 'encode, decode, noise and feedback' and the process appears more complex still.

Understanding multiphase communications helps marketers communicate directly through mass media and indirectly through targeting opinion leaders, opinion formers, style leaders, innovators, and other influential people.

How messages are selected and processed within the minds of the target market is a vast and complex question. Although it is over seventy years old, rather simplistic and too hierarchical, a message model, like AIDA, attempts to map the mental processes through which a buyer passes en route to making a purchase.

There are many other models that attempt to identify each stage. In reality the process is not always a linear sequence. Buyers often loop backwards at various stages perhaps for more information. There are other much more complex models that attempt to map the inner workings of the mind.

In reality, marketers have to select communications tools that are most suitable for the stage which the target audience has reached. For example, advertising may be very good at raising awareness or developing interest, while free samples and sales promotions may be the way to generate trial. This is just a glimpse into some of the theory. Serious marketers read a lot more.

Golden Rules

Despite the many benefits of Integrated Marketing Communications (or IMC); there are also many barriers. Here's how you can ensure you become integrated and stay integrated - 10 Golden Rules of Integration.

(1) Get Senior Management Support for the initiative by ensuring they understand the benefitsof IMC.

(2) Integrate At Different Levels of management. Put 'integration' on the agenda for various types of management meetings - whether annual reviews or creative sessions. Horizontally - ensure that all managers, not just marketing managers understand the importance of a consistent message - whether on delivery trucks or product quality. Also ensure that Advertising, PR, Sales Promotions staff are integrating their messages. To do this you must have carefully planned internal communications, that is, good internal marketing.

(3) Ensure the Design Manual or even a Brand Book is used to maintain common visual standards for the use of logos, type faces, colours and so on.

(4) Focus on a clear marketing communications strategy. Have crystal clear communications objectives; clear positioning statements. Link core values into every communication. Ensure all communications add value to (instead of dilute) the brand or organisation. Exploit areas of sustainable competitive advantage.

(5) Start with a Zero Budget. Start from scratch. Build a new communications plan. Specify what you need to do in order to achieve your objectives. In reality, the budget you get is often less than you ideally need, so you may have to prioritise communications activities accordingly.

(6) Think Customers First. Wrap communications around the customer's buying process. Identify the stages they go through before, during and after a purchase. Select communication tools which are right for each stage. Develop a sequence of communications activities which help the customer to move easily through each stage.

(7) Build Relationships and Brand Values. All communications should help to develop stronger and stronger relationships with customers. Ask how each communication tool helps to do this. Remember: customer retention is as important as customer acquisition.

(8) Develop a Good Marketing Information System which defines who needs what information when. A customer database for example, can help the telesales, direct marketing and sales force. IMC can help to define, collect and share vital information.

(9) Share Artwork and Other Media. Consider how, say, advertising imagery can be used in mail shots, exhibition stands, Christmas cards, news releases and web sites.

(10) Be prepared to change it all. Learn from experience. Constantly search for the optimum communications mix. Test. Test. Test. Improve each year. 'Kaizen'.

Just a few ways to beat the barriers and enjoy the benefits of integrated marketing communications.

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