As social entities, organizations have an intrinsic need for effective communications. One of the best-known definitions of marketing places communications as the key link between the creation of value by a business on one end, and the delivery of this value to customers on the other. Customers are but one of the multiple stakeholders of an organization, and the latter needs to build effective interfaces with every element of the environment in which it exists. Effective communications contribute significantly to an organization’s long-term growth and success.
When can communications be strategic? The answer lies in the expected payout of a communication decision – it can bear long term or strategic gains, or solve a short-term problem, in many cases killing two birds with one stone. Savvy marketers and owners of communications function within organizations have always realized the pitfalls of taking a decision that offers short-term rewards, but one that is in conflict with the strategy, organizational goals or vision and mission of an organization.
From an organization or marketing perspective, the true strategic import of any communications decision is whether it contributes to, or takes away from the desired corporate or brand image. This is the reason why any effective marketing communications strategy always flows directly and naturally from the positioning of a brand or product. Sending an important signal to the industry, lenders or investors, often done through public relations, also falls under the strategic domain.
There are many managerial and strategic frameworks that guide communication decision-making for a marketing manager, including but not limited to the Product Lifecycle analysis, the growth-share matrix or its alternative, the GE-McKinsey matrix. These frameworks help the the decision-maker in the key strategic aspects of communications such as budgeting and prioritizing.
Not all communications is planned or executed with a strategic payout in mind. What is important is that the explicit brand or corporate strategy must always act as guiding lights for even the most tactical of communication decisions– for purposes as varied as generating short-term sales or sending a signal to competitors or market regulator.
As in the case of humans, organizational communications to a large extent is non-verbal. Savvy marketers realize that their decisions for product, price and place communicate as much to the customers, if not much more, than their promotional campaigns. Increasing retailer commissions instead of running an advertising campaign is a rather well known tactic in the hand of a marketer – the retailers are incentivized to push the marketer’s product off their shelves and their word often carries additional weight with a customer already in the store and set to make a purchase with ready cash in her pocket.
From the marketing perspective, communication decisions play in two dimensions: they are either about raising the awareness, or about changing the perceptions and attitudes of audiences, with the additional hope that their behavior will change as a consequence. Achieving these two disparate goals presents unique challenges.
When aggregated, there are eight key variables that determine the effectiveness of marketing communication campaigns. A message is most effectively internalized if it reaches an individual when she is expecting it, is not distracted, via a channel or media accessible to her, and liked by her, is not contradicting her core value system, and is designed to elicit the intended response through careful consideration of source, structure and appeal. The whole point of effective communications is to turn each of these variables in your favor, which is the expected payout of a strongly aligned process of strategy development, creative development and execution.
An important point to note is that persuasion is never guaranteed; even with a most creative and optimized communications strategy, one only maximizes their odds of persuasion. Whether to get persuaded or not is a decision that rests completely with the recipient and marketers ought to recognize and respect this right. As a pertinent example, imagine for a while the enormity of efforts made behind the decades of anti-smoking campaigns. The results are chastening – a 2000 study on US adolescents response to anti-smoking campaigns by published in Am J Public Health journal found that exposure to television antismoking advertisements had no effect on ‘progression to established smoking’ among adolescents aged 14 to 15 years, and there were no effects of exposure to radio or outdoor advertisements either (the study did however found television advertising effective among younger adolescents aged 12-13 years). Another study in the UK found results suggesting that the anti-smoking campaign under consideration would reduce smoking prevalence by about 1.2%. More studies in the US have found that industry-sponsored anti-smoking campaigns were not only ineffective, but also possibly counterproductive in creating associations around lower perceived harm of smoking, stronger approval of smoking and stronger intentions to smoke in the future.
Why do these campaigns fail? Although there are many hypotheses possible, but applying our strategic framework reveals a clearly misaligned variable: message contradiction with the value system of the recipient (smoker).