Eight rules for building brand awareness

One of the most difficult things for any new enterprise or existing organisation with a low profile is the battle for awareness.Marketers sometimes refer to this as a lack of brand presence.  For people in this situation it is often expressed more dourly along the lines of: Why are we ignored?

The answer is not always that easy – especially if you are starting out, money for advertising is limited or non-existent and you are struggling for time.  The most obvious answer for companies with money is to spend some of it and simply buy awareness via advertising.  But even then, you need to be careful you are not simply starting a conversation in a very crowded and noisy room where your message just gets drowned out by all the others trying to get noticed.  So here are some tips for getting noticed:

1. Be very clear on the kinds of people with whom you need to build awareness.  This means avoiding the common mistake of trying to be all things to all people.  It could be that your business or organisation really only needs to create a connection with a very small group of people.  There are plenty of very successful businesses out there – especially in the business-to-business category that are only known by a very small group of people.  Example: Company X sells online purchasing software.  That immediately rules out all the companies that only trade from a physical location and have no online selling capacity – or interest.

2. Be absolutely clear on how you can best express the value your company or organisation presents to the segment of people with whom you want to build awareness.  This may sound stupid but often a business is ignored simply because prospective customers haven't worked out that what you offer is of value to them.  Example: Company X needs to be able to explain that its online purchasing software is unique in the market place and has specific attributes that provides advantages to users over other systems. 

3. Be ruthless in understanding the decision makers among the segment you are targeting.  For example, a business-to-business company may succeed in building awareness among relatively junior employees of a prospective client, while the senior manager who will make the ultimate decision over what is purchased is completely ignorant of you and the value you offer.  Example: Company X builds awareness among the lower echelons of its target client.  That's great, but really building awareness with Joe, the purchasing services manager probably matters a lot more.

4. Think about the mindset of the people with whom you want to start a conversation.  What problems are they most worried about? What is dominating their agenda right now?  The most useful interactions for them are going to be relevant interactions.  If you are in the right place, at the right time with a solution to the problem they are confronting right now, your chances of successful engagement are going to increase ten fold.  Example: Company X realises that right now purchasing managers are paranoid about the security of software system.  It just so happens your software system is ranked number one by independent analysis for security.  Guess what you should be talking about when you make an approach!

5. Think about where you are most likely to be seen by your target audience.  Again, this doesn't have to be hanging out on the street corner – unless that is the street corner where your target audience walks past to work every day or stops at to get their morning coffee.  Example: Company X might be better off just buying a small advertisement on the website of the professional organisation that Jo, the purchasing services manager belongs to – – rather than taking out an ad in the local paper. 

6. Think about what happens once your target audience becomes aware of your existence and wants to engage.  Make sure your website has a "contact us" section – and make sure any inquiries receive a quick response.  Make sure any information about your company is up to date – especially when it comes to contact details.

7. Don't forget the basics – first impressions DO matter.  Read Malcolm Gladwell's blink if you are uncertain what I mean.  The truth is that most people form an impression very quickly and if your website looks unprofessional – or your branding material looks amateurish, you might blow your chance of engagement in the first 10 seconds.

8. Consult a professional communications advisor because there are plenty of options.  It is strange to me how people will prioritise paying money to an accountant for financial advice or to a lawyer for legal advice, but then regard communication as something they can manage themselves. Depending on your background, you might well be able to manage.  But communications is a specialist field and spending a few dollars getting professional advice could be a very valuable investment.

Finally, don't give up.  You have to be persistent.  Sometimes you can do everything right and still not get the outcome you are seeking. But remember that building brand presence takes time and you will get value, even if it takes longer than you wished for – providing you remain consistent and follow my eight rules.

Get out and talk to the troops!

Some senior managers seem to think that communication is like a magic box of tricks that you pull out from time to time to get you through a problem period.

What alarms me most about this approach is that it misses the critical point: Communication isn't a commodity, it's a critical element of leadership.

Great communication programs–especially internal ones– should be about empowering the leadership team with the tools and processes to have regular conversations with their people.

You can have as many programs, project charts and policies as you like but none of that will help without a genuine commitment to staying regularly in touch with your people.  Communication is just a means to an end: To maintain relationships and trust.  As a leader, you respect me as a member of your team by acknowledging my need to be kept informed.  Not to know everything – I "get" the fact that there are some things you need to keep under your hat, that's just common sense.  What's most important to me as a member of your team?  That I know you genuinely WANT to stay in touch and that you respect me enough to keep the conversation going.  My number one tip for senior managers wanting to engender good communications internally? Get out and talk to the troops!

Can you keep a secret?

Most people can't keep secrets.  It goes against the grain of human nature to keep information to ourselves and yet so often I see senior management naively assume that bad news won't get out or that gossip leading to speculation and insecurity won't proliferate.  In case you are in any doubt about this, let me spell it out for you: PEOPLE LIKE TO TALK.  

There are three primary reasons why people in companies or large organisations spill the beans.

  1. The fear factor - because they are worried and are fulfilling the basic human need for comfort by sharing a worry or a woe.
  2. The simple truth that information is power – and the opportunity to disclose and display knowledge overwhelms  the sense of right and wrong.
  3. Vindictiveness, anger or frustration with a pending decision and the desire to cause damage to the people making those decisions by exposing their pending announcement to drive a negative reaction.

So what should business leaders do when it comes to passing on sensitive information?  My golden rule is quite simple: Be deliberate in how you release information and have a plan.  I've lost count of the number of times leaders blithely assume that information won't get out.  It will and sooner than you think.  Once you've made a decision that is going to eventually need to be shared you need to sit down and think about the nature of that sharing process.  

Clearly there are times when legal impediments loom large – as is the case with stock market rules about disclosure.  But so often, the focus on other operational imperatives means that discussions about when and how disclosure will occur are left to the last minute.  You need time to prepare your messages and make sure you are talking to the right people with the correctly targeted messages.  Most critically, you need to ensure you are anticipating the likely questions and ensuring you have thought through how you will answer critical questions.  What will this mean to our jobs?  How do timing, cost and other consequences need to be considered?  Ultimately here we are talking about issue management planning, which companies like mine can help you with.

The critical thing is to assume that information will get out and it is far better to have a plan for an ordered release than to pretend those around you will keep their mouths shut.  Many years ago I recall a client whose most senior executive was notorious for warning his management team about keeping sensitive information in the board room.  Time and time again, though, the information would find its way outside.  Months later one of the other executives told me precisely the nature of the problem.  While the boss was good at warning others to be discrete, he had an alarming habit of letting the cat out of the bag over a few drinks.  Read a couple of espionage books if you don't believe me – people like to talk – even the guys at top.  So plan to be found out, because it WILL happen.

The true extent of information overload

For anyone in the communications game the biggest issue right now is message cut-through, due to the sheer volume of information being flung at the average human being every day.

We talk about information overload, but occasionally you come across evidence of the trend that just stops you in your tracks and provides insight into just how big a challenge it has become.

A book worth reading, especially if you love business trends, is Big Data by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier.  It is all a bit mind blowing to be honest.

Consider, for example, the fact that Facebook gets 10 million new photos uploaded every hour.  (Yep, that’s hour not day or week).  Or that users of You Tube upload over an hour of video every second.

The figures that leapt out of the page for me quote the work of Martin Hilbert from the University of Southern California's Annenburg School for Communication and Journalism. Hilbert has been trying to put an actual figure on the amount of information that now exists in the world.  Obviously the figure is galloping ahead constantly but going back in digital history to 2007 he has worked out there were 300 exabytes of stored data.  An exabyte is equal to one billion gigabytes or the rough equivalent of a billion full length feature films. In 2012 the total amount of stored information worldwide was four times bigger at 1200 exabytes.

Reading figures like this makes me almost want to go and crawl into a corner.  Surely, one little communicator like me can't compete?  But that's when I remind myself that communications is just the means to an end and as always the focus needs to stay on what really matters. What PR practitioners and marketers should be doing everyday is focusing on making genuine connections and building relationships.  The rest is just noise.

A pragmatic approach to issue management

There is no question that one of the critical roles for anyone charged with overseeing a company's interaction with the outside world is issue management.

Whether you call it PR, corporate affairs or communications doesn't really matter.  The ability to scan the external environment and ensure your company isn't left flat-footed is critical.

Issue management has become a whole discipline in itself with passionate practitioners quite rightly arguing that it should not be a sole responsibility of the PR team – but instead needs to extend up, down and across the management chain.  I think that this is true, although in my experience many companies inevitably fall back on a thin veneer of issue management and a solid reliance on crisis management if an issue turns into a reputation damaging fiasco.

If you want to dig a bit deeper on this topic visit here for a post by the Issue Management Council setting out what, in their opinion, are the indicators of best practice issues management.  It is an excellent basis to understand the enormous potential of this function.

While I applaud the notion of best practice, I'd caution in-house PR practitioners to avoid the risk of shooting for the sky and falling flat on your face.  Best practice issue management requires significant understanding and commitment from the Executive table.  For corporate affairs operatives who want to begin the journey to a more professional approach, here are my tips:

  1. Make sure you genuinely understand your company's business.  You can only effectively anticipate issues likely to impact on your company if you understand the business.  So get out of the office and spend time at the front-line immersing yourself. Apart from anything else, you will win the respect of your management colleagues and be able to understand the conversations around the management table.
  2. If you haven’t already done so, put in place a basic issues scanning mechanism and once you are comfortable with its consistency and effectiveness, begin adding it to your monthly report.  This will illustrate proactivity, knowledge and means you will begin to introduce those above and around you to the notion of issues scanning.
  3. Consider adopting a simple issue management review tool as part of your regular review of brand and reputation performance or as part of your monthly PR report.  This might begin with you creating a list of the top issues impacting your company and asking your senior colleagues to rank them in terms of priority and impact. This list then becomes a handy tool to guide the work of you and your team in terms of understanding where you will devote your energy in engaging with the outside world.
  4. One great way to "sell" the notion of issue management to your senior colleagues is to express it in terms of risk management (which is to a large extent what issue management is.)
  5. Once the list is created, pick one issue and create an issue management plan to illustrate to your boss and the management team how a considered, thoughtful and planned approach can genuinely make a difference – as opposed to an approach relying solely on crisis management.
  6. Get feedback and assess the level of understanding and support, apply those lessons and persist.
  7. Be patient.  This can be the hardest part of the whole process and introducing a company to the notion of issue management can take time so don't expect too much too soon.  Persistence will pay off and as you have small wins, respect for you and the process you are advocating will increase and you will build momentum.

If you have questions or comments about anything here, please feel free to drop me a line.