Benefits and barriers to integrated communications

This article explains clearly what is meant by ‘integrated communications’, describing the different types of approach to integration, the various benefits that it can bring and the common barriers to its implementation.

Benefits and barriers to integrated communications

Is there anything really new in this? Isn't it what good managers have always done anyway? Not so, says Paul Smith. Here he looks at what integrated communications are all about - the benefits, the barriers and the golden rules for successful intergr

TOMORROW'S information-overloaded customer might be able to sell his or her attention since customers will have the power to shut out unwanted types of information. This is what Microsoft's Bill Gates predicts in his recent book. Imagine Guinness offering you a pound to watch their multimedia advertisement. Perhaps they would offer a coupon, bottle or even free software to play with their Internet web site. But how would they tell you that they wanted to buy your attention in the first place? Other routes would be required. A very integrated approach would be necessary. That is all in the future, yet integrated marketing communications (IMC) has been around for a while. But what exactly is it? Whatever you call it - Ogilvy's 'Orchestration', Y&R's 'Whole Egg', or 'Harvard's Hybrid' - IMC is a simple concept. It brings together all forms of communications into a single, seamless solution. At its most basic level, IMC integrates all promotional tools so that they work together in harmony. The toolbox includes packaging, point-of-sale, direct mail, advertising, sales promotions, sponsorship, PR, the sales force, exhibitions, corporate identity, and new tools like the Internet. This communications mix works best when the tools work together in synergy rather than in isolation. Creative synergy means the sum is greater than the parts if the mix speaks with one voice all the time, every time. IMC guides communications so they carefully link together. This may seem perfectly obvious, but does not always happen. It appears that many organisations still operate in a conundrum of organisational structures and marketing philosophies that just do not seize the initiative and subsequently forfeit the advantages of integration. Perfect IMC requires many different levels of integration beyond the mainstream communications tools. For example, horizontal integration creates integration across the marketing mix and across business functions like production, finance and distribution. All the people in these sections should work together and be conscious that decisions made by any of them can send messages which ultimately influence customers. Vertical integration requires that marketing and communications objectives should fit neatly into the higher level corporate objectives and corporate missions. Data integration uses a marketing information system - collecting and sharing relevant data to help different communications departments such as sales and direct mail. Internal integration keeps staff abreast with relevant developments in communications, particularly new advertising campaigns and new corporate identities. External integration requires that external partners such as advertising and PR agencies work closely together to deliver a cohesive message in a single, seamless solution. Although integrating marketing communications requires a lot of effort it delivers many benefits. It helps to create competitive advantage, boost profits and sales, help customers, while strengthening relationships and simultaneously saving time, money and stress. IMC helps to move customers through the various stages of their buying process - before, during and after. It helps an organisation, or a brand, to consolidate its image, develop a dialogue and nurture a relationship which, ultimately, builds a bond between buyer and seller. This bond can protect the customer from the inevitable onslaught of competition, thereby keeping the customer for life (not just Christmas) - 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. A consistent, consolidated and crystal-clear communication strategy has a better chance of cutting through the 'noise' of the several hundred commercial messages which bombard individuals every day. At another level, initial research suggests that images shared across advertising and direct mail campaigns, boost advertising awareness, and, simultaneously, response to the mailshot. IMC can boost sales by stretching messages across both communications tools and business functions to create more avenues for customers to become aware, aroused and ultimately, buy a product or service on a repeat basis. Carefully linked messages help buyers by providing them with timely reminders, relevant information and, where necessary, special offers which help them move comfortably through the stages of their buying process, reducing the misery of choice in a complex and busy world. IMC also makes the range of messages more consistent and, in turn, more credible. This reduces risk in the mind of the buyer which then shortens the search process and helps to dictate the outcome of brand comparisons. Unintegrated, or disintegrated communications, on the other hand, send disjointed messages which dilute message impact and sometimes confuse, frustrate and arguably arouse anxiety in certain customers. In contrast, integrated communications present a reassuring sense of order. Consistent images and relevant, useful, messages help nurture long-term relationships with customers. This is where customer databases can identify which customers need what information, and when - throughout their whole buying life. IMC saves money as it can eliminate some duplication in areas like graphics and photography, since they can be shared across, say, advertising, exhibitions and sales literature. Agency fees may also be reduced when using a single agency for all communications. But even with several agencies, time can also be saved if meetings, whether strategic, tactical or just briefings, bring all the disciplines together. As well as fusing bright minds into synergistic sparks, multidiscipline meetings reduce repetition which in turn reduces workloads and subsequent stress levels. Despite its many advantages, IMC has many barriers. As well as the usual resistance to change, there are other obstacles, including lack of know-how and lack of commitment to IMC; rigid organisational structures infested with protected power bases; sensitive egos and creative paranoia; timescale conflicts and the special problems of communicating with a wide range of different target markets. 's 'Business Marketing 1995' survey of 270 marketers revealed that, despite the high interest in IMC, implementation remains low - partly because most managers (58 per cent) lack the expertise. But it is not just managers who lack this - it is 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, which may be aggravated by turf wars or power battles where specific managers resent and resist having some of their budgets and decisions shared or, worse still, made, by someone from another department. This will change. DMB&B chairman, John Farrell, says 'people have got to be grown-ups'. Despite this, some organisational structures isolate communications tools, data, and even managers from each other. Do PR departments report the quality and quantity of press coverage to marketing? Are the PR people kept informed about possible new direct mail or sales promotion campaigns? Do sales promotion people look at potential promotional spin-offs from advertising campaigns? Does the sales manager meet the advertising people and so on? These questions lead towards a more difficult question - what should a truly integrated marketing department look like? On top of an organisation's structural restrictions, IMC can also 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 arguably, this presents a greater creative challenge when operating within a tighter creative brief. In fact creative synergy opens up new levels of creativity (see the Jurassic Park example at the end of this article). It should not matter whose creative idea it is, but unfortunately, it often does. An advertising agency may not be enamoured nor enthusiastic about developing a creative idea generated by PR or direct marketing people. In addition to these barriers, wide-ranging product portfolios and diverse markets add complications, particularly if operating on a global scale. How do you communicate carefully linked messages to diverse audiences who interpret similar symbols very differently? Integration across different markets is normally brand-driven. The brand remains the same while the specific messages surrounding it are tailored to suit each audience. Finally, time horizons provide one more barrier to IMC. Image advertising, designed to nurture the brand over the longer-term, may conflict with shorter-term advertising or sales promotions which are designed to boost quarterly sales. The two objectives, however, can be accommodated within an overall IMC if carefully planned at an early stage. Understanding the barriers is the first step in successfully implementing IMC. Here are ten Golden Rules of Integration - how some managers become integrated and stay integrated. These are just a few ways to beat the barriers and enjoy the benefits of integrated marketing communications. There is nothing really new, just common sense - but how common is it? Does anyone integrate? Some do, but most do not. Yes, a company like Tetley holds its quarterly 'gang of four' meetings (when marketing staff meet with the ad agency DMB&B, PR consultancy Biss Lancaster, and sales promotion consultancy Geoff Howe and Associates). Yes, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Kodak, Black & Decker, Vauxhall, Walkers and Adidas and many more do integrate to a certain degree, but how many do not? Talking to top agencies reveals a majority of clients that do not integrate. There are, however, some new developments. The IMCI (Integrated Marketing Communications Initiative) has emerged. It is backed by the DMA (Direct Marketing Association), IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising), SPCA (Sales Promotion Consultants Association) and the PRCA (Public Relations Consultants Association). Its goal is to improve the quality of service which marketing agencies give to clients by creating more integration. Over 60 agencies have agreed to swap work placements, and offer places on their training courses to people from other disciplines. IMCI founder Quentin Bell says, 'The next generation of top cats will grow up and see both the strengths and the weaknesses of all communications disciplines and balance them accordingly.' Meanwhile, the Chartered Institute of Marketing has included IMC in its Marketing Communications Strategy Examination, thereby ensuring a huge surge of interest from over 30,000 of tomorrow's marketing managers. The IPA want to take IMC further and is now looking at how to really get people to 'think integrated'. Maybe the Internet and its rich potential for research, database building, customer dialogue and brand enhancement using many communications tools will be the carrot which drives integration. We are already seeing advertising and packaging carry Internet addresses instead of just 0800 phone numbers. One final thought: there is always room for creative synergy, whether clever strategic alliances or just deep communications synergy, that deliver new levels of integration such as the book of the film of the book of the film of the film of the book identified in Stephen Brown's 'Postmodern Marketing': 'Occasionally, indeed, product placement and tie-in merchandising are ingeniously combined, as for example in Jurassic Park which contains a scene featuring a display of the fictional theme park's associated merchandise. Not only is this identical to the film's tie-in merchandise but, in a wonderful self-referential flourish, the book of the making of the film features prominently in the display. Thus, at this point in the film the audience is viewing the film of the book of the film of the film of the book. What is more, as the book of the making of the film also refers to this scene, we are actually dealing with the book of the film of the film of the book of the film of the film of the book.' IMC is more than merely ingenious combinations of, say, a flash web site linked to an ad linked to a video news release of the making of the ad and so on. Although opportunities abound, up to now they have been largely ignored by many seemingly successful marketers who, maybe, have succeeded by default: ie, no real winners, just lots of poor performers with some performing worse than others. The worst performers lose heavily while the 'least worst' performers win by default. Perhaps a score identifying the level of IMC, along with customer retention scores, intentions-to-purchase scores, customer satisfaction scores and quality scores will be key indicators which separate future losers from future winners.