Branding, messaging and a unique selling proposition are just a few buzzwords that make up today’s marketing lingo. However, many smaller, thriving, localized businesses find it a challenge to relate to the international big-name corporate examples of how these terms translate into reality. Jargon does little to improve a business unless the words can be applied for the non-Fortune 500 companies of the world.
For example, consider a regional residential architecture firm that has 25 years of experience and countless projects in its portfolio. A few years ago the firm hired a consultant to organize its marketing efforts. Although the plan clearly supported the thinking of the leading marketing gurus, and while every tactic was arguably on target, the marketing company missed the mark on relevancy.
The plan, as accurate and complete as it was in building a brand, defining a unique selling proposition and delivering the key messages to the marketplace, lacked any sort of relevancy to the company’s culture, business, budget and resources. Unfortunately, the result was a place for the plan on the bookshelf.
In contrast, countless firms in the residential market have succeeded in making sense of today’s buzzwords simply by finding relevancy in what the gurus are preaching. Through the use of online research, even the smallest of firms can effectively assemble a marketing plan. And by integrating public relations efforts and effective advertising into their efforts, firms can benefit from creating brand awareness. If all of these brand-building marketing tactics are incorporated into a plan, chances are your customers on the other end of the phone will be asking for a proposal.
Begin with research
There is no escaping the importance of a plan to guide a firm’s marketing efforts, although the planning process often stops when research is mentioned. Luckily, through the use of the many available online resources, the research component finally has become a manageable process.
Research helps guide a marketing effort by answering questions that help position a company to achieve success. While most smaller firms are not in a position to launch primary research such as data gathered through first-person surveys and studies, secondary research (data gathered from other sources) has never been so easy to obtain.
For example, most associations and publishing houses not only conduct industry research for members and subscribers, but they often welcome suggestions or questions about an emerging trend, market conditions or industry predictions. Imagine the power of sharing with your next potential client that the suggested layout for their family space is reflective of a growing trend in higher-end homes.
Although search engines are a common part of daily work practices, they often are not integrated as a tool in business research efforts. It is crucial to search for information on competitors, clients, community and target markets at least once a quarter. Business owners also would be wise to search for information about their own companies to illustrate how potential employees and clients view their business. With the proper data assembled, one can predict industry growth, target certain clients and anticipate trends.
Building a brand
The concept of branding might generate images of McDonald’s golden arches, so building a brand in the custom home market can seem both overwhelming and expensive. However, with a carefully planned and consistent course of action, even the smallest of firms with minimal marketing dollars can realize the power of branding.
The secret to branding is consistency. Conducting a marketing audit can help determine the consistency of a firm’s marketing materials. To do this, gather all information that actually leaves the office — through the front door, via e-mail or by fax — and examine each piece carefully for inconsistencies in message or theme. Don’t forget items such as advertisements, coffee mugs, logoed clothing or other giveaway items, business cards, invoices and more.
Reviewing these materials at the same time will make it easier to spot obvious discrepancies, as well as evaluate which message to send. Be sure to pay special attention to the logo since it typically serves as a firm’s sole identity. Frequently changing the logo, however, will destroy any penetration in the marketplace, so resist the urge to tweak.
Public relations, or PR, is the formal way in which organizations communicate with their public audiences. It is planned or managed communication and arguably the most inexpensive yet effective means of building a brand, because unlike advertising, PR is the only way to deliver a name and story to the marketplace without having to pay for the delivery of that message.
While a purchased ad can display a great message, a feature article in a local newspaper that highlights a company’s innovations delivers a third-party endorsement that simply cannot be purchased. However, since PR is not paid for, there are no guarantees. To ensure success, one must have a keen nose for news, strong writing skills as well as the ability to build relationships with editors and an audience.
To begin a PR program, one must first determine which stories to tell and then determine who would have an interest in those messages. When developing a list of potential media contacts to pitch story ideas to, go beyond the obvious daily and weekly community newspapers and include association newsletters, industry trade magazines as well as market-specific pieces. Think outside the box and consider new outlets such as real estate firm newsletters, insurance brokers, financial consultants, civic organizations and more.
After assembling a target media list, it is crucial to identify story ideas. Focus on unique projects, the use of new products, or a trend. Has your firm done more of something than any other firm? Can one of your projects or new products be tied to a larger trend in the industry?
With stories identified, it is time to communicate these ideas to the media. However, this often is where many forget their manners. Editors are like any other businessperson — they have deadlines, families, bosses and feelings. Treat them with the same respect given to any other prospect. If you don’t have an answer to one of their questions, get the answer. Inquire about their deadline and then follow through by meeting it. Also make sure you are reachable, and commit to serving as a resource.
Most journalists know a little bit about a lot of things, so educating them is encouraged. For example, educate a local publication about truths behind today’s mold concerns. Teach a local reporter about the new products that allow for more energy-efficient homes.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking a purchased ad equates to the right to demand editorial coverage. Most publications keep a strict distinction between purchased advertising and the editorial coverage their readers deserve. Finally, if you’re in over your head, hire an experienced freelance writer. A well-written press release or story by someone who clearly understands your business, as well as your target audience, will quickly find its way to the top of an editor’s inbox.
Reinforce with advertising
According to “Barron’s Dictionary of Marketing Terms,” advertising is the “paid form of a non-personal message communicated through various media. (It) is persuasive and informational and is designed to influence the purchasing behavior and/or thought patterns of the audience.”
While PR is a nonpaid marketing medium that is effective in launching a brand, paid advertising is an effective tool in reinforcing brand awareness. Advertising reinforces all of the essential elements of a defined public relations campaign and distinguishes a firm from the competition. According to Al and Laura Ries in the “22 Immutable Laws of Branding,” advertising is a powerful tool, not simply to build leadership of a brand, but to maintain that leadership once it is obtained.
So how does one go about making decisions regarding where to advertise, what to say and what to expect? Once again, planning is the first step toward ensuring success. Too often, the appeal of the last-minute deal in a local publication issuing a special residential supplement could leave one haphazardly developing an ad that does not accurately convey a firm’s message. As such, it is important to research and select the ideal publications for advertising efforts based on editorial calendars and readership.
The next step is to develop a goal. Is your firm attempting to generate sales or solidify its brand? Understanding the goal will help clearly define the message as well as a call to action so readers know what you want them to do. While an ad displaying a logo and other company information probably won’t generate phone calls and leads, such a piece can serve to brand a company. In contrast, an ad that offers a free report on lighting trends or new products may generate phone calls.
Creating such an ad should be done carefully. Readers will decide in a split second whether to keep reading an ad. Therefore, the graphic layout must be visually appealing and the copy should address the needs of the reader first and foremost. Do not clutter a message or overwhelm the reader with too much text. Further, make sure to document any claims and avoid phrases that cannot be substantiated, such as, “We are the best.”
Also, consider the benefits of frequency over size. Opt for a smaller ad with a six-month placement over a full-page ad that will run only once. Repetition will reinforce a message and provide the greatest potential for success.
Make the proposal
Once a marketing plan, PR efforts and consistent advertising begin to pay off, you should begin to hear customers saying that magic phrase, “Give us a proposal.” Before celebrating in victory, remember that the proposal stage is where the sales process often falls apart. A proposal presents yet another chance to be eliminated from consideration. But with some changes in processes and an increased focus on detail, chances for success can be increased.
After deciding whether or not to respond to the proposal request, begin the response by clearly identifying what is known about the potential client and their needs, desires and goals. Be wary of those who say, “We just want to see what you come up with,” as this attitude may inadvertently be reflected in the tone of the proposal, if not careful.
Clear, concise proposal writing is essential. While paying close attention to every word in a proposal, it is probable that the reader will focus on certain areas first, such as the cover letter, examples of other projects and pricing. As such, the cover letter should be kept to one page, clearly discussing the relationship, and should ask for the work. When it comes to the section on pricing, points can be won by being up front and clearly explaining what is included. Don’t underestimate the importance of good grammar and spelling.
Like it or not, first impressions are inevitable. People look at images before they look at text, so graphics that are confusing, cliché or meaningless can quickly raise issues of credibility. While creativity is applauded in some respects, be wary of using anything but 81/2- by 11-in. paper or standard binding options as many oddly sized proposals are awkward to file, copy or mail. Also, use tabs to separate sections of the proposal.
Finally, before a proposal goes out the door, be sure to have expressed that the business is important to your firm. Attention to detail in a proposal, or lack thereof, speaks loudly about your ability to make a potential customer’s dreams a reality.
Kimberly Kayler is founder and president of Constructive Communication. Kayler has experience serving both the residential and commercial building markets, as well as working for a full-service advertising/marketing communications agency. Kayler is the author of more than 500 published articles on a variety of design, build and other technical subjects. Wendy Ward of Constructive Communication contributed to this article. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.