Is your organization listening or talking to anyone?

I attended a fascinating event this week in Riyadh (that’s not something I often say). The Saudi Brand and Communication Summit offered attendees a chance to discuss and share their own communications and marketing experiences. While there do seem to be companies out there who listen to their marcomms staff, the feeling I got was that companies need to do much more if they want to reach out both to their customers and employees.

A number of presentations were excellent. Possibly most impressive was Colin Hensley, Former General Manager of Corporate Affairs & Planning, Toyota Motor Europe, who talked about his experience of the recall crisis that affected Toyota last year. Equally impressive were Piers Schreiber, Vice President, Corporate Communications & Public Affairs of the Jumeirah Group who was discussing how to position a luxury brand across multiple markets, and Olaf Brinkmann, Group Communications Executive Manager at Saudi-based electrical manufacturer alfanar when talking on business to business comms. The irrepressible Saudi-based marketing consultant Said Aghil Baaghil shared his views of what Saudi companies think of marketing (this man certainly holds no punches when he describes the lack of understanding among Saudi business owners towards marketing as a discipline).

Each and every one of the speakers stressed on the basics, namely that a brand isn’t just a slogan or a logo. A brand is your company’s vision which has to be lived by every single employee in the firm. While the speakers were probably preaching to the converted what was striking was how all of them mentioned the same challenges: getting management on board; explaining to executives the benefits of effective communications; trying to find local talent.

Having worked in marcomms for a fair few years in the Kingdom I can relate to their frustrations. All too often companies, even multinationals, simply go out and sell. They’re rarely interested in educating customers, to create pull marketing that’ll result in the customer approaching them. Even on an individual basis, executives are unwilling to talk externally to the media. I was once told (only recently, I may add) that we don’t want to attract too much attention, it may get us noticed by the wrong people. It can be even more frustrating working with marcomms people outside of Saudi, who don’t understand the difficulties we go through in getting anything done over here.

Communications and marketing can and do do wonders for a company’s perception, positioning and profits. Some of the examples shared by the speakers were remarkable. Jason Ong, Area Director, Middle East & Africa at the Singapore Tourism Board explained that visitor numbers to Singapore increased by approximately fifty percent following the roll-out of their last marketing campaign. While it’s always a struggle to quantify return on investment for marcomms activities, a brand that sells products such as Apple, Nike, or Nokia is priceless.

As communicators the main problem we face is understanding. Why spend money on marketing or communications, I was often asked when I was on the agency. It’s simple. My job is to sell your firm, both internally and externally. As individuals we aim to make positive impressions on those we meet. We should do the same as companies. Communications and marketing are not wishy-washy undefined disciplines. They’re roles that are essential to the well-being and growth of any company.

I’m looking forward to next year’s Saudi Brand and Communications Summit in Riyadh. Why? Partly because of the insights of the speakers. Also because I enjoyed networking at the event. I’ll be most interested in hearing if we’re making any progress in getting our management to understand why marketing and communications are so important. Fingers crossed we’ll make headway here, but as cynical as I am I’m not holding my breath for any epiphanies between now and then.

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