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Randy Savicky

[April 19, 2004]

Strategy + Communications Column:
Strategic Differentiation

BY RANDY SAVICKY


In the previous column, “Being Strategic,” we looked at examples of how three companies utilize different approaches to public relations to market themselves -- the reactionary, product-focused program; the intermittent hit-and-run approach; and the “big bang” theory. While each of these programs may be effective with the media in the short term, none of these programs will be successful over the long term. Each one fails by that important benchmark because they lack two key interrelated factors: A thorough understanding of how the media works and the long-term perspective and related commitment necessary for success. 

By understanding both of these factors, you can lay the groundwork for establishing an overall strategy and then the communications programs necessary to make the media at first aware of your company and then interested in writing about you over the long term.

The first step in developing an overall strategy is to conduct an internal audit of what makes your company unique. Your uniqueness becomes the foundation of your company’s strategic differentiation in the eyes of the media. While the phrase “internal audit” conjures up a costly and lengthy process of surveys, interviews and meetings that can often center more on the process than the results, we have found from our experience with companies of all sizes that a focused half-day session with a company’s key executives is the optimum approach. 

By gathering this core group of executives, we establish a forum that enables everyone to contribute their views of what makes your company unique. Members of this group range from the obvious top-level positions as CEO and division heads to the not-so-obvious, such as those more responsible for the day-to-day operations at your company, such as product and sales managers. Corporate communications staff and outside agencies would of course be included as well. 

The strength of this approach is in the numbers; the secret is to be inclusive so that all key viewpoints are represented, but at the same time limit the number of participants to a workable number. From our experience, this group has been as small as three people at a startup to as large as 20 at a Fortune 500 company. 

GETTING STARTED
To maximize the output of this group session, we always prepare a document that presents our own, studied “outsider’s” perception of your company. This marketplace SWOT (“Strength Weakness Opportunity Threat”) analysis is designed to focus the meeting and get “everyone on the same page” prior to its start.

In order to prepare this document, we research a number of areas:

  • Media coverage -- both quantitative and qualitative -- and interview key journalists;
  • Analyst coverage, including interviews with key analysts that follow your company;
  • Marketplace analysis and positioning of your real and perceived competitors;
  • Your own marketing communications and public relations materials, such as sales and promotional literature and company-issued press releases; and
  • Your Web site and an analysis of how it compares to your competitors’ Web sites.

This preliminary overview document is distributed well in advance of the meeting to give everyone attending time to review it and provide feedback prior to the meeting. If necessary, the document may be revised prior to the meeting based on attendees’ feedback. 

THE REAL WORLD
After reviewing the agenda and the desired outcome of the meeting, the overview document serves as a springboard for discussion. Everyone’s input is valuable during this session, and we have found that those “in the trenches,” the product managers and sales staff, often provide the real world experience that gives the necessary perspective to more senior level executives. This context is essential in establishing your strategic differentiation. Let’s face it, the product and sales staffs are the ones out there selling every day. They receive direct feedback on the key reasons your customers and clients should buy your product or service. They learn firsthand what determinant attribute -- whether quality, price, availability, distribution, brand reputation or some other factor or factors -- is the key to closing the sale.

These determinant attributes are the characteristics that are important to your customers, yet distinguish your products from competing products. By identifying the product or service attributes that your customers use to differentiate among competing products or services, we learn why your products sell and begin to understand what makes your company unique. 

Once the meeting attendees have agreed upon a list of attributes, we then determine the importance of each attribute and how strong your differentiation is on each one as compared to your competition. We then focus the discussion on refining the analysis of each of these attributes. If you have, for example, the most efficient widget, we might ask these questions to gain more meaningful information:

  • What company is in second place?
  • How much more efficient are you than them?
  • How does the rest of the competition stack up?
  • What company looks to be a short- and/or long-term threat?
  • Are there outside factors that affect this attribute?
  • Are new companies moving into the market that might affect your leadership position in this particular area?

It is important that the focus of our strategic thinking be on those attributes that clearly set your company apart from the competition – this list may be as short as one or as long as a dozen.  The end result of this meeting is powerful source material for developing an overall marketing strategy as well as a communications program for your product or service. 

In the next column, we’ll take the results of this meeting and discuss the next step in putting strategic differentiation to work – the development of “key messages.”

With his unique "both sides of the editor's desk" perspective, Randy Savicky’s advice and counsel on public relations and marketing has been sought after by some of America’s largest corporations and best-known brands.  He has designed strategic plans, managed communications programs and obtained major news coverage for such Fortune 500 companies as IBM, Fujifilm, Motorola and Sony, early stage companies like Arbinet, Dialogic and Juno as well as startups like Barnesandnoble.com, ClubMom.com, New Paradigm Software and Viaweb.  As President of Strategy + Communications Worldwide, he helps companies gain mindshare and win market share by improving their communications to their key audiences through the use of outside experts.  He welcomes your comments and questions on how to put his ideas to work and can be reached at (516) 467-4122 or randy@strategypluscommunications.com.

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