Integrated Marketing Communication

With customers facing serious information overload and with more and more choices being made available to them, it is only natural for companies to seek out a better and more comprehensive communication strategy to reach their target market. In order to reach the most number of people in a highly effective manner without placing serious financial burden on company's resources, many marketing experts now combine the power of more than one communication channel to effectively reach their audience and this is known as Integrated Marketing communications strategy.

History of IMC:

IMC as a major concept went through many stages of growth and as it gained greater acceptance, its definition also evolved from a rudimentary view to a more technically sound description. According to the American Association of Advertising Agencies in 1989, IMC was

concept of marketing communications planning that recognizes the added values of a comprehensive plan that evaluates the strategic roles of a variety of communication disciplines-general advertising, direct response, sales promotion, and public relations -- and combines these disciplines to provide clarity, consistency, and maximum communication impact. (Schultz, 1993, p. 17)

Three years later however, the concept had become a more widely used strategy and hence a more customer-driven definition was developed. It only focused on the available sources of information and advertising channels but also incorporated the concept of brand loyalty. This new definition stated:

The process of managing all sources of information about products/services to which a customer or prospect is exposed which behaviorally moves the customer toward a sale and maintains customer loyalty. (Duncan & Caywood, 1996, p. 18)

One year after than in 1992, Duncan broadened the definition when wrote that IMC was the "strategic coordination of all messages and media used by an organization to collectively influence its perceived brand value. (Duncan & Caywood, 1996, p. 18)

In 1993, Schultz who had presented his definition two years earlier refined it even further and in a much more comprehensive and persuasive definition, he also included the selected audiences that were the main target of IMC strategy:

IMC is the process of developing and implementing various forms of persuasive communications programs with customers and prospects over time. The goal of IMC is to influence or directly affect the behavior of the selected communications audiences. IMC considers all sources of brand or company contacts which a customer or prospect has with the product or service as potential delivery channels for future messages. Further, IMC makes use of all forms of communication which are relevant to the customer and prospects, and to which they might be receptive. In sum, the IMC process starts with the customer or prospect and then works back to determine and define the forms and methods through which persuasive communications programs should be developed. (Schultz, 1993, p. 17)

Interestingly the very next year in 1994, Duncan also revised his earlier definition and this time his refined version included the common stakeholders as well:

[IMC is] the process of strategically controlling or influencing all messages and encouraging purposeful dialogue to create and nourish profitable relationships with customers and other stockholders, (p. 18)

Gronstedt proposed a definition from the public relations viewpoint, with emphases on stockholders and different types of communications tools:

Integrated communications uses an appropriate combination of sending, receiving, and interactive tools drawn from a wide range of communication disciplines to create and maintain mutually beneficial relations between the organization and its key stockholders, including the customers. (Gronstedt, 1996, p. 292)

WHY IS IMC IMPORTANT?

Anyone who understands the complicated marketing experience of today's rapidly changing world knows why it has become increasingly important to have more than a few channels of communication. In old days with fewer sources of information available to the public, companies would either use television or newspapers for advertising and could very effectively reach their audience. But that is no longer the scenario. For one audiences are now more in touch with the latest technology like social networking sites and the Internet in general than they had ever been before and secondly, they have information sources so varied that it is impossible to get their attention without creating a more powerful and more consistent message that would truly appeal to the new audience. Companies now really need to fight for audience's attention and for this reason, it is important to make sure of an integrated communication strategy that would combine the power of the Internet with more traditional sources.

From mass marketing, companies made a quick shift to customer-centered marketing approach and that has given rise to an increased interest in understanding the strategic ramifications of an integrated marketing approach. It is no longer possible to reach the target audience by using the old mass marketing method where selling to everyone at the same time was the main idea. Things have changed dramatically and that has been primarily due to the exponential growth of "new electronic media" which has forever alerted the way marketing was done. (Bezjian-Avery et al., 1998; Hoffman and Novak, 1996).

First it was the World Wide Web that alone was impressive in its power to reach the audience and to provide customers with information on the chosen products and services. But then with the advent of social networking sites, advertising and marketing took a new turn. Even though it may be a relatively new phenomenon but which had taken the world by storm and have provided marketers with even greater challenges and better opportunities as well.

COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE MARKETING

Competitive advantage refers to that only feature of a company that gives it significant edge over the competitor. With information overload, having a competitive advantage strategy has now become even more critical since this is what helps a customer make his decision in favor of a product or service. In other words, it answers the million dollar question: "why should I buy from you?" Cole Emhkse defines competitive advantage as, "an advantage gained over competitors by offering customers greater value, either through lower prices or by providing additional benefits and service that justify similar, or possibly higher, prices. For growers and producers involved in niche marketing, finding and nurturing a competitive advantage can mean increased profit and a venture that is sustainable and successful over the long-term."

In order to develop a strategy around competitive advantage, it is important for a firm to discover its unique strengths against the competition and to connect them to the needs and demands of the customer. While competitive advantage tends to work in company's favor, it can be absolutely useless if it's not relevant to customer's needs. Barone and DeCarlo (2003) thus explain:

"Building sustainable competitive advantages revolve around differentiating a product from the competition along attributes that are important and relevant to customers."

Michael Porter was one of the pioneers in the field of competitive advantage strategy. In his book, Competitive advantage of Nations, he first explained how nations can get an edge over their rivals in much the same way as individual companies do. Porter was among the first few to see the long-term effects of information technology. Back in 1985, he argued that information technology played a vital role in altering competitive advantage strategies in today's world. He identifies three ways in which information technology has changed the competitive advantage scenario:

"First, advances in information technology are changing the industry structure. Second, information technology is an increasingly important lever that companies can use to create competitive advantage…Finally the information revolution is spawning completely new businesses." (Porter, 1985, p.7)

There have been several theories regarding what helps in creating competitive advantage. Some believe lower costs can translate into lower prices which place a company ahead of its rivals on customer's mind. Others have believed in greater product differentiation and enhancing value offered to the customer. The bottom line has however been the same throughout i.e. companies must seek sustainable competitive advantage. In other words, to have an edge for a limited period should not be the aim of any company. It must always strive to create advantage that can be sustained over a long period of time.

Barney (1991) offered a formal early definition of sustainable competitive advantage when he said: "A firm is said to have a sustained competitive advantage when it is implementing a value creating strategy not simultaneously being implemented by any current or potential competitors and when these other firms are unable to duplicate the benefits of this strategy" (p. 102).

Competitive advantage strategy is however not the main aim of any company. Once it is develop, the main objective is to successfully execute it and that is when marketing comes in. A competitive advantage strategy needs to be executed with the help of a well developed marketing plan that would communicate company's advantage to potential customers.

In today's world, we cannot overlook the role played by the Internet and other modern media for transmission and execute of marketing strategy. Once a competitive advantage has been create, we must understand…