Marketing is the catch-all term for changing or maintaining perceptions, identifying and meeting expectations, and anticipating future demand. This is not just about customers; employees and suppliers are subject to marketing strategies too. Every sale you make involves an element of marketing. Even your proposal is a marketing execution (for better or worse). The key elements of marketing include Research, Branding, Advertising, and Public Relations. There are more, but for today let’s focus on these more common concepts.
Research tells us things we need to know about our customers, our competition, and ourselves. You need to do research in order to establish pricing, know what products to buy and sell, or choose a company name. Too little research and you will lose touch with the market; too much and you will get stuck in analysis paralysis (the act of not acting because more information might indicate you should have acted differently). Some research is quantitative and delivers hard numbers, eg: The percentage of direct view displays to projectors installed in board rooms is increasing by x% per year. Other data is qualitative, eg: Customers perceive that suppliers from Midwestern states represent a better value over coastal states.
For the average AV integrator or rental company, a combination of quantitative industry research and light qualitative analysis of customer preferences and opinions is enough to point you in the right direction. This research will influence your branding message and medium, indicate whether advertising would be productive, and identify any public relations opportunities. It might also help you learn whether your pricing is high or low for your product or service or if there are opportunities for products and services that you don’t currently offer.
Branding is the touchy-feely part of marketing that eludes most of us. Companies have the least control over their brand image, but it impacts the business as much or more than anything else you do. Brand is what people perceive you to be. It is influenced by everything you do and say, but there are a few things you can do that will help in a big way. The good news is that smart branding will trump most of the little mistakes we all make along the way.
Branding starts with your company name and what it says to the customer (research!). Your logo and tagline (if you have one) set the tone for the branding experience. However, the biggest single impact you can have today is your website. The content of the site is not as important as the look and feel. At a minimum, viewers will assess you and make a judgement about your brand based on what your website says about you in less than thirty seconds.
Advertising is the act of strategically placing a message in front of consumers. This can be an advertisement in a trade publication or sponsorship at an event. Trade show exhibiting is part of your advertising budget. If you spend capital to place your message somewhere specific – it’s advertising.
For most of my clients, I find that advertising is not the best return for their budget. There are too many things that need to take place first in order for ads or trade show booths to have any impact. However, the opportunity to advertise is sometimes thrust upon us so it helps to be prepared. For instance, if a trade magazine wants to feature an event or project you have worked on, then a well-placed ad can help you capitalize on that opportunity. Be ready.
Public Relations is the tool we use when the brand, message, or image of your firm is affected by actions or events in or out of your control. PR is how we explain things that happen to our public audience. The AV industry is rather niche-y, therefore our “public” is often quite small. Public Relations can be as simple as picking up the phone and calling a key customer to discuss a recent announcement or incident. Especially in an election cycle, PR as an art seems very reactionary. However, a regular press release regimen can augment branding and advertising efforts in a proactive way.
I hope this is helpful background information, but there’s an elephant in the room called Social Media. I still get regular emails or calls asking, “My boss wants to know if anyone has ever sold anything because they have a company Facebook page.” I wrote this article because that boss doesn’t understand the difference between advertising and branding. If I then go to that company’s website, I expect to find an antiquated, static, perhaps even ugly page with little or no personalization. The owner probably spent a ton of money for it ten years ago and never learned how to capitalize on it. No wonder they are suspicious of something that is essentially free! The answer to the question however, is “Yes, social media does have an impact on sales in terms of branding and public relations. You should learn how to use it.”
To sum up, my holistic approach to marketing is to first assess the current brand and market position of the firm (research). Discuss how the company wants to be perceived in its quest for more and better customers (brand). Then we can assess the value of the tools that are in place or available such as websites, social media, and visual branding. Finally, we develop a budget somewhere between 0.5% and 2.0% of annual revenue. More if you are catching up; less if you are maintaining. (Manufacturers might spend 4 to 10%!) In most cases, the process of developing a modern website would take you through the same steps. And while many marketing companies make this process a little too much like voodoo for the average AV Geek’s tastes, there are the few that understand that practical comes first. Remember this, you are a consumer and you have never bought anything that didn’t involve marketing. As a supplier, marketing is the tool that will deliver customers.