A large number of advertising or communications campaigns fail to achieve the desired results. Many of us are familiar with how a typical scenario plays out. After two quarters have elapsed in running a promising new campaign, it is realized that the sales did not grow as expected. The market share stayed constant or worse, declined. It became apparent both through intuitive judgment as well as hard data that people responded quite indifferently to the campaign’s message.

The marketing or brand manager caught in such a scenario finds it difficult to justify her investments to the internal stakeholders. The creative strategy is questioned and frustration with the agencies on roster grows. “It’s a communications problem, so the agencies should solve it,” goes the lament.

Except, it may actually not be a communications problem at hand. Which is why the agencies are unable to tackle it. Take for example a technology company facing the problem of falling sales of its flagship product –a mobile device. A structured product-market fit analysis might reveal that its targeted customer segment has actually dissipated, or its product’s value proposition has been completely undermined by a set of competitors. Attempting to solve this problem, as a communications problem is tantamount to applying bandage when the injuries are internal – the effort is bound to fail in achieving its purpose.

Many marketers intuitively know when the problem they are expected to solve has gone far beyond the domain of communications. However, since communications continues to remain ‘one’ of the elements that can help address the problem, and because communications is that one element that they consider themselves in full control of, they tend to overestimate the role it can play, and unwittingly go on to set up a disaster for them.

A product that is losing its relevance in its traditional market – either because of product lifecycle issues or changing consumer tastes, preferences and attitudes – is frequently thrown as a problem to solve to the agency partners. Elaborate campaigns are then drawn up that aim to grow the product adoption by changing the consumer behavior – often in brazen disregard to the underlying consumer motivations. Sometimes a repositioning is sought by demonstrating completely new product usage scenarios or benefits – that the product is perhaps not even capable of delivering. These campaigns inevitably fail because they are contradicting the consumer’s actual product experience – or the ‘moment of truth’.

It is no secret to marketers that consumers form their strongest and lasting opinions and perceptions about a brand by actually using a product. Other elements of marketing mix – pricing and the choice of distribution – also send important and unmistakable signals to the customers. In other words, the product, its price and its availability are among the most powerful ways to communicate with the customer.

In fact, even the choice of the targeted customer segment is sending important cues to your customers. How many times have you overheard a friend or colleague say – ‘I see so many people (of attribute X or Y) using this brand. Clearly, it’s not meant for me’? A communications campaign that contradicts these powerful opinions or perceptions – formed as a result of a consumer’s actual ‘moments of truth’ – in any manner, is attempting to swim against a very powerful tide. Extending the analogy further, communications come downstream in the natural marketing order, whereas creation of value is upstream. Mixing up this order is bound to fail.

As a result though, the repercussions can be damaging for the careers of brand managers or marketers. They are seen to have failed to deliver on their promise – revival of a brand under siege. Promising career trajectories can be altered in two or more organizations – the client and the agencies.

Can marketers proactively avert such disasters? The answer is yes – by forcing themselves to steer clear of any advertising or PR campaign that is not completely aligned to the larger business or corporate strategy. This point is so important that it deserves a repetition. Consider how the ultimate goal for any brand manager to make a meaningful contribution to the organization’s growth and profitability. One of the most fundamental ways they can achieve this goal is by ensuring that their marketing communications are completely aligned to the corporate and business strategy.

In times of rapid or disruptive change in the environment, they ought to build internal consensus for a thorough relook of the marketing or business strategy first, before investigating the role communications can play. A reconsideration of customer segmenting, targeting or positioning strategy may be necessary, with due support from an external consultant to overrule any blind spots.

Creating an internal consensus on the strategy re-evaluation is a tough ask that places far greater stress on a marketer than she is willing to take in many real life situations – for she needs enormous resources in bandwidth and political capital to pursue this path. On the other hand, it is also vital to ensure her continuing success in her role without risking the career-threatening ignominy of a failed marketing campaign.

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