PRHK Viewpoints: Neglecting your brand in search of instant gratification

The English language is full of phrases that extol the benefits of patience and a considered, methodical approach: good things come to those who wait; haste makes waste; Rome wasn’t built in a day. Such guidance can seem quaint in an age where a desire to break things and move quickly is all the rage. But marketers would do well to bear in mind that as with many of life’s more rewarding pastimes – like a good meal or a deliciously meandering film plot – not everything is best delivered at warp speed. Some breakthroughs need a slow burn. 

I make this point because I noticed something in the end-of-year round-ups that seemed to provide a statistical basis for a trend that, up to then, I only had anecdotal evidence for. Namely, that the long-term job of brand-building was being neglected in favour of short-term, tactical marketing.  

The report (subtitled ‘How Business Leaders Have Stopped Building Brands’) had surveyed 500 Financial Times readers around the world, including respondents in Asia-Pacific.  It noted that annual ad budgets had moved more than US$2 billion from brand building to performance campaigns. And a damning quote provided the rationale for this shift in resources:

“Stakeholders have been seduced by the immediacy of the internet and expect near-instantaneous analysis and feedback.”

Over half the business leaders questioned rated their knowledge of brand-building as average to very poor. And, the report explained, this paucity of understanding had led to too heavy an emphasis on transactional product marketing at the expense of cultivating long-term goodwill and brand affinity. 

Most businesses (although still not all, given some of the conversations I have) recognise that powerful brands improve commercial performance and create shareholder value. A strong brand lifts a business above a race to the bottom on pricing and gives people a reason to buy based on powerful emotional triggers as opposed to a less compelling, rational decision-making process rooted in product features and specifications.

As we began our tenure, the current members of the Public Relations Hong Kong (PRHK) board evaluated what we wanted to achieve for the industry in the coming year. One crucial point seemed to encapsulate much of the discussion: we as an industry should do more to showcase the power of communications. We realised that we needed to inform business and society about what modern, impactful communications now looks like; and what it can deliver in terms of commercial results and the ability to shape desired outcomes.

An organisation’s communications activities – whatever the format, whatever the channel – play a crucial role in defining and expressing the enduring values of a brand. As the Institute of Public Relations put it way back in 1987 with a definition that still resonates today:

“Public relations is about the sustained effort to establish and maintain trust, goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.”

In the age of fake news and online witch hunts, how does an organisation build trust? How does it showcase authority and credibility? How can a business demonstrate its understanding of an area, and its ability to help other businesses or consumers benefit from this expertise? The answer is with regular communications to target audiences and key groups of stakeholders that, over time, persuade them of the merits of your case and by being a catalyst for dialogue and the exchange of ideas in your market segment. Whatever previous eras of marketers might have said about an artificial divide between the two, an organisation’s reputation is these days an integral part of its brand promise.

Working at a specialist technology PR agency, I have noticed that one of the factors common to the success of many of our clients is their ability to prosper in, or enable their customers to compete in, what is often termed ‘the now economy’ – where convenience, simplicity and speed are the touchstones of the customer experience and impulses can be satisfied with a quick thumb scroll and tap.

And of course, these same options exist in marketing. In a matter of minutes, if not seconds, you can set up a campaign on one of the big global platforms and see target customers start to engage with your campaign. But just because you can do it, doesn’t mean that that’s the way to go for everything a brand’s marketing may need to accomplish.

For any business operating in today’s fast-moving environment, there will always be a need for marketing to drive quick results. But campaigns that deliver on short-term goals should be supplemented by an ongoing, focused, long-term drive to build brand reputation and foster goodwill among target audiences.

And this extends to a brand’s content strategy. With consumers and professionals bombarded on an hourly basis with automated ads, much of the marketing industry has for now settled on the premise that appealing content is the vehicle for brands to cut through and capture the attention of prospects and customers.

And public relations has a key role to play here. Creating persuasive content has always been one of PR’s strengths. Up until five years ago, a big part of a PR’s role was persuading one of the most cynical audiences of all: journalists. And this industry legacy means that a PRs approach to storytelling is rooted in an understanding of how to foster a mutually beneficial two-way dialogue – as opposed to the one-way, broadcast messaging push of product marketing. As such, it makes sense to have your PR team drive and own the brand content strategy – with a focus on the themes and narratives that implicitly showcase the appeal and benefits of a brand proposition without going in for the hard sell.

Traditionally, the return to work after the lunar new year is when Asia’s marketers are at their busiest. This year, however, the spread of the coronavirus has resulted in delays across the region to the roll-out of campaigns. With the unexpected pause in activities, now could be a good opportunity to consider which of your planned activities for the coming year offer more than a tactical product push. How will communications contribute to the long-term nourishment of your brand?

Marc Sparrow is the general manager of The Hoffman Agency, Hong Kong and the chairperson of PRHK, Hong Kong’s association for PR and communications professionals.

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