There has been significant change in the perceived importance of brand within the shipping and related industries over the past ten years, and the requirement to communicate with an organisation’s key stakeholders. This decade has spanned a period of unprecedented economic turbulence, downward regulatory pressure, low freight rates, and little liquidity – and yet, we have seen many companies within the industry invest more extensively in marketing and communications.
As is typical within shipping, particularly from an owners’ perspective, Maersk initially drove much of this. They realised that their reputation, within the context of the wider industry, was drifting into the spotlight in a negative way, predominantly on the back of the regulatory and consumer perception of shipping as a significant polluter of the environment; taking over the mantle from aviation, which had received such flack in the first few years of the new millennium. They also realised that with the increased competition up and down the shipping supply chain, communicating and engaging in the right way were important components in maintaining market leadership.
In line with this, Maersk delved to the depths of what its brand stood for to build an organisation founded on ‘care’, one that was working to create an industry that is truly sustainable and that could evolve successfully with the current and future demands of the global economy, trade, and society. What they achieved in a comparatively short span of time was significant; transforming their communications, exploiting all channels – online and offline – with the singular aim of building a company that people could trust.
Other companies soon followed. They realised that it genuinely matters in business what people think of you. If they like, trust, respect, and relate to you, they are far more likely to want to buy from you, work with you and for you, and invest in you. It’s a relatively simple concept. But it has acted as a catalyst for a real shift in movement from the smorgasbord of traditional – and when compared to other industries, outdated – marketing activities in shipping; for example, basic trade advertising to promote products – “I always take the back page, but only at half price” – and sponsoring coffee breaks at conferences that continue to multiply in number.
While there is undoubtedly a long way to go in matching the sophistication of brand building in other sectors, particularly consumer-facing industries, in the space of ten years we are seeing buzzwords such as ‘content marketing’ used with regular abandon by marketers in shipping. The benefits of ‘earned’ and ‘owned’ media are being lauded as more influential than paid-for content. The importance of using digital and social channels within the communications mix is now seen as essential. Reliable sources even have it that there was a meeting in a large shipping multi-national where the CEO asked if Snapchat should be an integral part of how they engage with their customers.
Yes, the plethora of channels through which to influence has grown exponentially. Real opportunities have been created for wider, better, more impactful, and more engaging communications. But, the question remains: ‘are we exploiting the true power of brand?’ As the industry becomes increasingly commoditised – in part driven by the access to global competitors created by the internet – there is no question that the marine industry is communicating more. But does it fully appreciate the fundamentals of what ‘brand’ is and the commercial opportunities that can be created when leveraged properly?
What is brand?
A prominent marine industry publication recently published an article based on a ‘marketing 101 course’ for shipping companies, under the guise that more needs to be done by individual companies, as well as by the wider industry, to improve image. With regards to the former, some parts of the article made valid points. But alarm bells start ringing when phrases such as: ‘in a nutshell, a brand is the view that others hold of you…’, and: ‘branding gets a little fluffy when marketing types start talking about emotions and feelings’.
The reality is that this is plain wrong. And, it seems, that even good journalists are yet to fully grasp what brand is. A brand is a company’s DNA; its core identity and values, creating the culture that pulses through its bloodstream to make it genuinely different and unique from the competition. Brands are not built externally, but from the deepest parts of the internal machinations of an organisation; on the truths that define it. Brands are not built just for communications purposes. Yes, they should define the experience and engagement that an organisation has with all its key stakeholders: from customers to shareholders, employees to partners. However, it is also a fundamental barometer for day-to-day commercial decision-making and defining your business strategy. Ultimately, as soon as an organisation does not act in line with the brand, it is diluted and ultimately risks failure, creating confusion and potential dissatisfaction amongst stakeholders.
In the current shipping market, we are certainly seeing organisations understand more about the concept and importance of building a ‘profile’ and ’being out there’. There are also many companies that have developed values. The key questions though are:
Are these values truly meaningful and articulated in line with what the company genuinely stands for and why it exists?
Are they fully incorporated into the company’s brand proposition and its vision for itself, and the progressive and positive impact that it wants to have on the market?
And critically, have these values been translated into how the organisation behaves and represents itself at every touch point from internal communications and engagement, to sales and marketing, new product and service development, M&A strategy, to recruitment?
Strong brands, and companies that understand the true potential, deliver this. In fact – and much to the horror of the publication referenced above – they do create emotions and feelings with the people that they engage with. They build a relationship that transcends the products and services that they offer to create trust and an emotional connection. Based on the real knowledge of what they stand for, they understand their image – their ‘reputation’ – in the eyes of their customers and stakeholder groups. With this knowledge and the wider insights of what drives that engagement, they can deliver long-term retention, loyalty, an easier route to market for future products and services, and their wider growth strategy.
Take Harley Davidson as an example. With values of encouraging intellectual curiosity, respecting the individual, being fair and telling the truth, they realised that they were selling more than just great motorbikes. They were a gateway to freedom, exploration and for customers to express their own individuality; they were selling an iconic lifestyle.
Innocent Drinks has values, which are about being ‘natural’, ‘entrepreneurial’, ‘responsible’, ‘generous’, founded on a simple brand strategy of existing to help people live well. This defines how they engage at every level. From their HQ of Fruit Towers, designed aesthetically and fully in line with the brand; the tonality of language on their products; their philanthropy; to their principle of hiring great people – true entrepreneurs – that they know won’t stay, but will leave their mark on Innocent and go on to build great companies in Innocent’s guise. They celebrate and promote this, because, while unconventional to many in a world of desired retention and minimal churn, in their eyes it will help, in some small way, to create a better world. It is the very definition of who they are as an organisation and why they exist.
Of course, these are Business-to-Consumer examples, where ‘brand’ makes up to circa 70% of the purchasing decision. But successful Business-to-Business companies are also adopting the same approach. Leading 100 Interbrand top company Accenture’s core values of stewardship, integrity, client value creation and respect for the individual, shape the company’s culture and define the character of the organisation. It is the foundation of its ‘High Performance. Delivered.’ brand positioning, which they have used to pioneer B2B marketing and disrupt the convention by incorporating an approach to marketing and communications that is normally associated with consumer brands; one of real emotional and personal engagement.
Brand and reputation in maritime
As the majority of people would acknowledge, the marine industry is naturally traditional and perhaps reticent to change, but up to 25% of the purchasing decision-making process within transport and logistics sectors is derived from brand. Brand as an intangible also represents a significant part of overall enterprise value; it’s worth investing in.
Fundamentally, investing in the development of ‘brand’ enables companies to build the ‘reputation’ that they desire. A very senior communications expert in a leading global energy company recently stated that reputation is about what you ‘do’ as a company. It’s not. What you do has an impact on reputation, but your reputation, put simply, is what people say about your organisation when you are not in the room. It is the perception of others, defined by both your direct and indirect engagement with them. Utopia is when the brand (what you stand for), and your reputation (what others believe you stand for) align.
Central to building and managing reputation is of course communications. However, if an organisation has invested in properly developing its brand, then, as per the Harley Davidson, Innocent, Accenture, and, Maersk examples, the communications is richer, more influential, and impactful. It drives better, deeper, and more meaningful engagement that provides a greater chance of stakeholders responding, reacting and thinking in the way that you want them to. The process for communications must therefore be inherently grounded in, and aligned with, what the company stands for.
Engaging your audience
There is no doubt that more and more organisations in the marine industry are pushing content and ‘stuff’ out into the market, but it is often based on a scattergun approach founded on a basic desire to be visible. Who, what, and how stakeholders are communicated with is defined from the brand and business strategy, as well as knowing what makes them tick, which defines the insights to drive the messaging, content, and tonality of communication. Do the majority of companies in the marine industry do this?
To be true to, and deliver the brand, organisations need to ensure that its values are represented and articulated in the fabric of their companies. Internally, what is actually required is a form of change management and training, turning values into behaviours that help to create culture, and define interaction with each other, as well as their customers and partners; the way that they hold themselves and their attitudes must represent the brand, both overtly and subliminally. But how many organisations have invested in sales training or internal workshops to drive this?
The same goes for how they communicate externally, on a global basis. There is universal excitement for how technology has paved the way for innovation through social and digital means in how we communicate; harnessing its power to create both unprecedented personal experiences, as well as widely proliferated global communications and engagement with people and organisations that they could only dream of reaching 25 years ago. There is unbridled advocacy for content-driven marketing propositions that is viewed as ‘the new’ means of engagement.
But the reality is that social and digital – while hugely important – are still channels through which to communicate. Like the media. Like speaking at a conference. Even like sitting down in an ‘old fashioned’ way, face-to-face, looking into the whites of someone’s eyes. For those that eulogise about content marketing, it’s been in existence since 1887 when John Deere launched The Furrow, a publication that doesn’t sell John Deere products, or even mention the company, but speaks to the challenges, passions and aspirations of those that cultivate, harvest, transform, enrich and build upon the land.
What is at the core of all this? A real understanding of brand, values, insights into truly knowing the most important people to your business, and being able to articulate this with carefully crafted messages – across multiple channels – that have impact and resonate. Without this, communications and your brand becomes less meaningful, just another horse in the commercial race, less successful and certainly not as valuable.
How many companies in the marine industry deliver against and understand the true power of brand? In an increasingly competitive and transformative industry, those that do will surely reap the rewards.
By Nick Blythe, Executive Director
Read more about brand in shipping in the round-up from our London International Shipping Week debate with Richard Meade editor of Lloyd’s List editor, Faz Peermohamed, partner and global head of shipping at Ince & Co, Yvonne Harley, head of communications at V.Group and Klavs Valskov, brand director at General Electric and former chief communications officer for Maersk Line