While the coronavirus pandemic may have brought PR and communications to the fore, it’s important they continue to be part of long-term business planning, says Ashgrove’s Annie Macleod

Reflecting back on the past year has been an interesting one from a PR perspective. In many ways it has given PR practitioners an opportunity to excel, with the need for good customer and stakeholder communications shooting to the top of the agenda.

But it has also underlined that PR is still a very tactical tool for so many businesses, just brought out to deal with a problem and then put away until another crisis occurs.

According to a recent Communications Benchmark Report put together for Ragan Communications Leadership Council and based on a survey of professional communicators worldwide, 79% of respondents reported an increased workload due to Covid. This is hardly surprising, given that the pandemic turned traditional commerce upside down, often extremely rapidly, triggering crisis plans and crisis comms.

Interestingly the report revealed that 46% of respondents did not create a crisis communications plan in 2020 but 69% said they had a crisis plan prior to 2020, suggesting that many moved forward with these plans without needing to radically change them.

More worryingly, a small but statistically significant number answered questions about a crisis plan with “Don’t know”. One hopes they have seen the value of having a plan now!

One of the positives to come out of Covid for PR practitioners, and reflected in the report, is that 42% of respondents said they had forged stronger relationships with other company departments and just over 20% said they now had better access to the CEO.

It is a recurring frustration for many communications teams – whether they operate internally in a business or externally through an agency – that they are continually sidelined by other areas of the business and only called upon when there is a problem to solve or a message to write. So often communications are tagged on the end of a new project or a new product, or called in only when a problem has escalated to become a big issue in some shape or form.

This leads to very reactive rather than pro-active communications where external events, rather than the brand, are often dictating the messaging. It’s also a very ineffective use of resources.

One of the main complaints of comms teams in the report is the number of last-minute requests they receive. These often need to be completed on the hoof without proper planning and preparation, or sometimes even the scrutiny, they deserve.

This can result in disjointed, perhaps even contradictory, messaging that may solve an immediate problem but doesn’t uphold the long-term brand proposition or the company’s market position.

Putting comms and PR at the heart of the organisation, with clear sight of the company’s strategic aims and plans, is a much more sensible and productive approach. Not only will your team be able to formulate how company comms can be rolled out to support the business objectives, they can also provide valuable customer insight and raise flags about potentially sensitive areas to which other teams might be oblivious.

PR is as much about preparedness and contingency planning as it is about providing a positive reflection of the business. It is a management discipline and one that should be treated with the same gravity as finance, operations or R&D. Words should be equally as important as numbers in the C-Suite!

Other interesting observations from the report are that PR and comms practitioners are expecting an increased focus on diversity, equity and inclusion in the next few years, as well as responding to the ongoing need for communication with remote or non-desk workers. Tellingly, a majority of respondents (66%) believed that remote or flexible working arrangements will be a permanent option in their companies going forward.

It’s also anticipated that technology and new channels will shape the way forwards with more communication by mobiles, more virtual and personalised communication and a greater reliance on social media.

All of this is relevant to businesses on the Isle of Man. PR and comms teams here –whether in-house or hired externally – face the same hurdles around integration into the wider business and access to the CEO/decision makers just like teams in much bigger international businesses. They are also afforded the same opportunities if they are allowed to take them.

At Ashgrove, we are often amazed at the number of companies we meet that do not feature PR/comms in their annual business plan. It is a strange omission when you consider the value that can be added both internally and externally.

Hopefully, the past year will have demonstrated to many business owners just how critical it is to have a good communications team. Now they need to make sure they make the best use of them going forward.

Georgia Seaward from the Ashgrove Marketing team looks at how changes in social media can be harnessed to help you get your message across.

At the age of 23, it’s safe to say that for almost 50% of my life, I’ve been using some form of social media or online communication.

For me, it started with texting a couple of mates on my Nokia brick phone. This turned into group chats on MSN with my school peers, and then on to setting up our own Facebook accounts. I can distinctly remember everyone chatting about their new account and how many ‘friends’ they had already accumulated as if it was a competition. 

That was 10 years ago and the hype around social media hasn’t died. Neither is it going to any time soon.

We now live in a world of ‘influencers’ with a captive audience watching their every move, even down to the most mundane ‘My Morning Routine’ YouTube videos (that, bizarrely, sometimes include clips of individuals fake-waking up in the morning).

Obviously, sharing a picture of your avocado on toast for breakfast isn’t the only use for social media. In a world where knowledge is accessible at the touch of our fingertips, failing to understand the importance of digital marketing from a business perspective is no longer acceptable, and age is no longer an excuse.

Yet, although it is now a recognised form of marketing, I still feel like social media is underappreciated. To show just how powerful it can be, let’s take the example of our favourite naturalist presenter, Sir David Attenborough.

On 24th September 2020, Sir David joined Instagram at 94 years old. Why? Because he understood that to create change in the modern world, he has to reach out through new communication avenues. Already well-known and respected within his subject matter, he wanted to extend his reach beyond those who have always watched his TV programmes and create conversations to inspire that change.

Sir David broke the World Record for the quickest time in which an Instagram account collected one million followers, achieving it in just 4 hours 44 minutes. In his videos, he spoke directly to us in his latest plea for the world to change its ways for the good of the natural environment, before it’s too late.  With his content, he and his team created an instant community of like-minded individuals, who shared it worldwide within minutes. It was a remarkable feat.

Although Sir David already had a strong fan band of admirers outside of social media, which contributed to his rapid accumulation of followers, the same principles can be applied to business social media strategies:

  1. Create a community.
  2. Share relevant and useful content, preferably engaging people with different types of content as you go.
  3. Use it as an opportunity to connect with your audience directly.

This can be applied universally, to any business in any industry. Say you are setting up a new furniture store, then don’t just post stock pictures of the products, share lifestyle images and videos so your audience can visualise the items in their home and how they might be used. Think about what other ways you can present information – maybe a testimonial or a review, maybe a comment on a new innovation. You are not restricted to posting photos of 101 chairs!

Social media makes it incredibly easy to provide your audience with the information you want them to see, and with the information they think they need to see – although you do need to pay attention to delivering these through the right channel for your intended audience.

Media consumption habits change over time and this has been particularly impacted by the pandemic. A study carried out by the GlobalWebIndex in 2020 reveals that different generations changed their consumption in different ways. For example, the study found that my fellow Gen Z’ers media consumption is now primarily through short online videos such as Tik Tok.

The phenomenal success of the quickfire and quirky Tik Tok has, in turn, has forced other social media platforms to review their content with Instagram, for example, introducing their ‘Reels’ feature to remain competitive.

Of course, not everyone’s target audience looks for the same type of content, and I doubt you’ll find accountants filming Tik Tok dances to attract new clients. It’s about using the appropriate platforms and content for your brand and making it work for you – but remaining mindful that new contenders can come on the scene quite quickly.

Social media, and digital marketing as a whole, should be treated as ongoing development. Content trends change, and so do the personal tastes of your audience. This is where direct communication with your audience will come in handy, as you can grow and develop with your audience. And of course any insights from your customers or potential customers will be useful for other aspects of your business, so it’s a win-win situation.

In summary, social media is no longer a nice to have – it should form part of your overall digital marketing strategy and be given appropriate investment in time and money.

We all hope there won’t be another pandemic any time soon, and when we’re no longer ‘WFH’ there might not be quite so much time to scroll through our social media feeds. But the genie is definitely out of the bottle – social media is not going away as a marketing medium, you just have to embrace it!

Ashgrove Marketing’s Terry van Rhyn is no fan of bland advertising and soulless marketing. He argues that change is a useful catalyst to help brands shape effective communications that connect with consumers at an emotional level.

So are we now in the new normal? If we are, how is it different from the old normal? And how many ads will still be talking about the new normal long after the new normal has ceased to exist?

For the truth is that we are always in a state of constant change. And that’s how things should be. After all, we are human: we create, innovate, collaborate, adapt and change naturally. That is how we survive.

Let’s just look at the past six decades which are especially relevant to old guys like me.

Think about communication: how we have gone from having to ring a central exchange to make a landline call to having a single phone per household (jealously guarded by your parents so you had to use a phone box to make more intimate calls) to the personal handheld devices we take for granted today.

Not only do we have global accessibility in the palm of our hands, we have it in full audio visual joy!

The impact of this on other parts of our lives has been huge. Where once we may have relied on a few drab department stores with minimal product options for our shopping, we can now use our smartphones to place an order online from any store around the world. We also expect (perhaps even demand) delivery within days if not hours.

We are always in constant change – it is part of who we are as beings! So how, as marketers, do we respond to this?

The answer is not to churn out what we’ve always done. For another truth is that the world is filled to the brim with mundane, average and simply boring communication messages, not to speak of utterly dull and uninspiring advertising.

It’s our role as marketers to help brands break through this, so that when you come to articulating your message to the outside world, you do it in a memorable and significant way. Aim to capture the imagination of your audience, stand out and be brave.

So how is this achieved when people have limited capacity to recall specific messages, especially when endlessly exposed to many thousands of remarkably poor ones on a daily basis?

Generally, statistics show that just a tad over 15% of people will be able to recall a brand or brand name. Even some of those will struggle to make the connection to its relevance.

There are a few things to consider.

Firstly distil your brand message down to ONE unique idea or message that defines you and then make sure you present it in a powerful and creative manner so people remember your name, what you’re offering and why they should care.

Do not over-complicate things – we will not remember ten things you do well, we will only know how you make us feel for one reason.

Secondly, remember that, as humans, we respond to emotional messages. We make buying decisions based on our “feelings”. Donald Trump was someone who recognised this, simplifying his message to give his supporter base exactly what they wanted to hear.

A study by Binet & Field found that emotional campaigns are twice as likely to work as rational ads and are more than twice as efficient at driving market share.

Thirdly, ask yourself a few questions about your brand and proposition, and answer them truthfully (rather than giving the responses you want to hear). This includes looking at things from a client/customer perspective, given they should be at the centre of your universe anyway. (They also often have all the answers you are looking for, just ask!)

Creative consultant Dave Trott has outlined the fundamental questions you should be asking before any campaign. The first three – are you looking at brand share or market growth, are you targeting current or new users, and are you promoting your brand or product (ie emotional or rational reasoning) – relate to your business.

A further three – who should buy it, why should they buy it and what could they buy instead – relate more to the customer.

Very often mistakes are made by not understanding the difference between short-term sales activation and long-term brand building. Knowing exactly what you are setting out to do makes the whole thing a lot easier and more likely to end in success.

For those brands/businesses using an ad agency, pick one you can collaborate with and that offers not only strategic value but will deliver creative substance.
External perspectives and challenges are important otherwise you risk simply reverting to type and saying the same things you have been saying for a long time.

It is inevitable that we will continue to endure ads and companies talking about their “new normal” and it’s likely these will be lost in the mists of time as we navigate to newer normals over the coming years.

In many ways, advertising echoes its current environment and community, but it also has the power to change perceptions and shift thinking…maybe it’s time for advertising to do its thing and move us all on?

Doug Hey, Strategic Brand Marketing Consultant to Ashgrove Marketing and former senior marketer and executive for The Coca-Cola Company, explains why businesses need to give marketing the respect and resources it deserves

Marketing is an investment in growth. Contrary to some popular opinion, it is not about putting up posters or the next social media post: it’s a business discipline designed to drive positive value over time.

Marketing efforts should always support or even, in many cases, dictate the business model, its products, and offerings and how they interact as a portfolio to further the company’s growth objectives. Yet often I feel that many marketers don’t feel the pressure of that responsibility.

I fear that the age of digital marketing is breeding a sense of immediacy. A behaviour of short-term tactics that are often very hard to measure. This is more observable in small to medium firms where budgets are modest and apportioned opportunistically or sporadically at times through the year, instead of annually in support of a sustained and cohesive plan.

This type of ad hoc planning and lack of foresight results in erratic communication and campaigns. Nothing sticks and it doesn’t build or sustain brand equity. Consequently, the next wave of communication has to work just as hard as the first, rather than building on and supporting a growing base layer of awareness, understanding or growing love for your brand.

But why does this happen? If a finance director recommends funds be put aside for audit fees, or a manufacturing director advises an equipment upgrade, it’s usually done and approved without much fuss. So why, when we need to invest in the very thing that keeps the business running – the thing we can sell, and if done properly, sell for more – is there so little trust?

So often, only small sums of money are issued forth, and worst of all, there is a ready acceptance of no, or a poor, result from the effort.

I think that is the issue. Many business leaders seem to accept failure in marketing as if it is the way of the world. This is not good enough. If we bought a substandard piece of equipment or poor-quality ingredients, we would get poor quality, inconsistent products, or services.

So why hire marketers with no experience, or an agency without a strong proven track record? You would never put a rookie in charge of your factory or dealing room, or choose an untested team of lawyers.

Yet this is often what happens with marketing. A friend is trusted to design a logo or brand trademark for free. Somebody “cheap” is selected to write the social media strategy or copy. What this leads to is random communication with no link to the overall business and long-term plan.

If you hired a lawyer, you can be sure you’ll have an invoice for eye-watering sums of money for their advice. You pay that invoice and you listen to that advice. But with your most precious commodity, your product or service, so many people are happy to accept the opinions of spouses, friends and neighbours rather than experts in the field.

Is this because businesses don’t know how to measure marketing success? I think that’s part of it. I’ve been to many campaign kick-off sessions where I have asked what behaviour we are trying to change and what measure of equity are we trying to improve. It’s alarming how many times I am met with a blank stare.

In these instances, you have a team that are not working to a plan. But as a business leader, maybe this is down to you. Have you hired an experienced team who know where to start to build a plan for success? Is this team integrated properly into the business and aware of the strategic plans for the future?

Fortunately, the great thing about marketing expertise is that if you don’t have it in-house, you can contract it in. Much in the same way that you might hire a law firm to address a legal problem, you can benefit from a group of experienced, talented people and pay only for the work that is needed at that point. This gives you access to – and advice from – those who are skilled in the particular area that you need at the right time.

I strongly encourage anyone thinking marketing can be done on the cheap, or on a whim, to stop and think again. Get the right advice. Insist on a proper marketing plan that has clear deliverables and measures in place.

Marketing is a discipline and, if treated as such, has a much greater potential to create the business growth you are seeking.

Ashgrove Marketing’s new recruit Georgia Seaward reflects on the misunderstood art of marketing and how its importance is often easily under-estimated

It’s been an odd year (and a bit), having graduated from university and begun my first full-time job at Ashgrove whilst navigating the never-ending time warp we call ‘the pandemic’. I have been incredibly lucky not only to land a job, but to keep hold of it when I know so many others my age have struggled.

The pandemic definitely made the student-to-employee transition a little complicated but it has also allowed, at times, a level of independence when working that I might not otherwise have been given. However, perhaps the biggest discovery I’ve made since starting work is that marketing is still very misunderstood.

At university, I studied International Business, which covered a variety of topics focusing on strategic business decisions for operating internationally, although I cherry-picked marketing modules where I could. Looking at my degree retrospectively, I’ve realised just how integrated marketing is into every aspect of a business. But the way we were taught, it was as if the marketing element was almost a hidden element of an overall strategic approach.

It was the same in almost all of my modules, where marketing was never given full recognition because it was buried in the overall ‘business strategy’. This begs the question that if the education of business ‘hides’ the importance of marketing, how can business people be expected to understand its value and the importance of doing it right?

There was also a wide-spread assumption that marketing was an ‘easy’ subject and that’s a view I’ve come across in a work setting too. Sure, we don’t have to go cross-eyed trying to figure out double entry bookkeeping (thank God!) but it’s by no means easy. Performing an in-depth analysis of a client, a client’s competitors, and creating a fool-proof marketing strategy takes just as much skill as is needed for many other professions. Yet marketing continues to be perceived as a less worthy or important part of the business compared to finance, compliance and operations.

Clearly, I have a natural bias towards the subject but it’s been frustrating to see that, for some, marketing still isn’t considered a priority. Even in the short period of time I have been working, I’ve come across clients who question the point of marketing campaigns and feel their money could be better spent elsewhere.

While I do understand that people want to know exactly how each marketing activity will help their business grow before signing budget away, in reality marketing should be treated as an ongoing process, offering the opportunity to genuinely connect with and understand your audience. Not only should marketing activities promote your brand and provide you with valuable research material, but they are the chance to create strong relationships with your customers and encourage them to come back for more.

Let’s take some of the largest brands in the world as an example: McDonalds, Lego, Coca-Cola, or Nike. THEY NEVER STOP MARKETING. They are giants within their industries, and yet here they are, continuously marketing their brands.

Over the years they develop their branding to fit the new ‘now’ and update their marketing activities to adapt to upcoming trends, channels and other resources that have become available. Why? Because there will always be the threat that someone else can do what they do, but better. So, they make sure their audience knows they are the best. That’s the point.

Those brands invest in their marketing and they hire the best marketers they can to keep ahead of the competition. They don’t perceive marketing as ‘easy’ and they certainly don’t rely on reading about the ‘Top 10 Social Media trends for 2021’ or writing a witty post on social media and hoping it goes viral. They have well-thought out integrated plans that ensure their brand messages are communicated and amplified to their audiences.

They also recognise that any form of marketing could be the first point of contact with a customer, whether that’s through a website, an article in a magazine, or an advert on the side of a bus. It’s incredibly important these are crafted in the right way and they should all be treated with the same respect and care.

Perhaps part of the problem is that marketing isn’t a quantifiable commodity in the same way that other aspects of a business are. Although you can break down Google Analytics to the nth degree and see if something generally is or isn’t working, it’s often hard to quantify the impact a campaign, website design or social media graphic has on each individual that sees it. The success of your marketing activities may not always be tangible in the short term and it can take some time for new business to be realised.

The true value of marketing is in building long-term relationships with your customers. Ensuring they come back to you time and time again. That your brand is recognisable and customers know what to expect. This isn’t something that is “easy” but it is something that requires a well-thought-out marketing strategy and some strong creative talent.

Without marketing, some of the largest brands in the world would still be invisible to this day. Marketing is how you are seen and heard. And that’s why it’s important!

Ashgrove Marketing’s Terry van Rhyn looks at some of the trends identified by futurist Faith Popcorn and how they might impact on the way businesses move forward

Born in the middle of the previous century, I was a product of a science magazine called Popular Mechanics. This was a magazine that inspired the imagination of any twelve-year-old boy dreaming of flying cars, building your own personal jetpack or helicopter. It even had instructions on how to survive in the wilderness or a space colony. What is there not to like about that?!

Through these amazing inventions or contraptions that pushed the boundaries of the mundane I could dream big and see the future. My imagination could run wild and we predicted piloting cool-looking flying cars in our lifetime – at the very least by the year 2000, which seemed a million miles away from our perspective at the time.

It is probably no surprise then that I ended up in advertising where I could exercise my imagination and push the boundaries of convention and conformity. Part of my job is to predict how an audience will react in the future, especially when you are pushing an idea or concept close to the edge and away from the safe and comfort of the familiar. Creating dissonance is, after all, how we grow and expand our minds.

It was in the early 90s when I discovered The Popcorn Report written by Faith Popcorn, a futurist, with exciting ideas about evolving environments and resulting consumer behaviour in years to come. Something like the advertising’s version of Popular Mechanics!

Not everyone bought into these rather strange ideas and predictions at the time, especially the more conservative business leaders. Those who did pay attention reaped the benefits in the noughties.

Faith predicted a trend termed “cashing out” which indicated people were done with the fast pace and the trappings of the 80s yuppie lifestyle and wanted to return to a “good life” at a slower pace and closer to nature. A more balanced life became the ideal. If you were involved in anything outdoorsy you would have done well to invest in off-road SUV vehicles, camping equipment, mountain bicycles, second homes in the country etc.

Similarly, the sharp increase in home entertainment related to her “cocooning” trend and if you were involved with anything to do with home kitchen appliances, you would have been riding an early wave of what now seems to be the norm – TV cooking programmes.

So, I took a peek at what Faith’s company – BrainReserve – is predicting for the next decade and beyond, now that we are in the midst of a quite dramatic shift in our day-to-day behaviour. Here are five interesting forces Faith identifies that she believes will radically change the way we work and the workplace environment:

  1. The wandering workplace: Office space has certainly become quite redundant in many cases and you can already see the shift in how quickly technology has moved to accommodate this new virtual office environment. According to this report, Zoom is already old-fashioned as Microsoft’s “Hololens” and Magic Leap’s “Mimesys” and “Vizible” allow you to create VR presentations. The early adopter companies will be the winners and things are going to move at a blinding pace. You can no longer dither or procrastinate – you have to move and move quickly.
  1. Big Brother is here, there and everywhere: We all worked remotely at some stage and it requires discipline and structure to get it right. I have worked from my home throughout my life for various reasons and under different circumstances, not only during Covid-19, and it is not ideal. You either work all the time because it’s easy and you never switch off, or you are distracted by temptations like an episode of a Friends rerun that you have never seen that gives the perfect excuse for a quick break. Who’s to know? Many will be unable to get the balance right. So yes – managers will now want to make sure we are productive while we are working from home and surveillance of our activity will become a natural part of our lives. Productivity monitoring with software like “Hubstaff” will become the norm.
  1. Communication recreated: Humans are social animals and we need touch and emotional interaction to stay in tune with our environment. Part of our corporate survival instinct is to read body language and we need all our tactile senses on high alert to stay ahead of the game. This is no different to our early ancestors in the wild making sure they give predators higher up the food chain a wide berth.

Here the report pushes the boundaries of convention a lot but it’s not unrealistic to expect that we will be able to create hyper-realistic avatars to represent us in virtual meetings. AI, like the “Replika” app, will evolve to become more and more representative of us as individuals and tech will be developed to measure the physiological response of those we interface with via pupil dilation and voice cadence.

  1. The boss reborn: This trend is already taking shape naturally in many virtual office environments. The emotional stresses of a workforce forced into an unnatural situation are compelling companies to change how they treat their staff. It is no longer a matter of a dismissive “snap out of it” or “shake it off”, especially with our younger millennials at the workplace. Managers should now become a compassionate caregiver to employees.

In reality, managers are often not prepared, or are simply ill-equipped, to fulfil this role – so education and training must start at the very top. What I found interesting is that Jaguar Land Rover is already experimenting with AI that allows cars to adjust to and optimise the driver’s mood. The report predicts that soon workers will be similarly scanned, enhanced and uplifted via tech solutions like “Cogito” which improves human interactions.

  1. Capitalism capsizes: We are probably all waiting for the inevitable to happen. Nicholas Brown, an economist at Stanford University, has said the path to economic recovery will take longer and look grimmer than first thought. Many of the layoffs during Covid-19 may become permanent and then those stimulus cheques for citizens may become the norm. As automation outstrips job growth, government payments will fill the gaps.

I’m a bit iffy on this last trend as I’m sure our online world will expand and take up the slack, allowing capitalism to remain alive and well for the foreseeable future.

What I am quite excited about is to get ahead of the curve and become part of the solution in marketing and selling an exciting new world to consumers.

So how about those flying cars? I know the much talked-about drone taxis are pretty close, and there are some interesting tests going on around the world – but, sadly, still no cigar.