Communicating Your Distinctive Competency

October 6, 2008 · by Sharon Berman

Few firms are truly unique in their competencies or capabilities. However, if you are able to define and then communicate what makes your organization distinctive, you’ve already gone a long way in delineating you firm and demonstrating your worth.

Few firms are truly unique in their competencies or capabilities. However, if you are able to define and then communicate what makes your organization distinctive, you’ve already gone a long way in delineating you firm and demonstrating your worth.

What is your firm’s distinctive competency, and how do you communicate it? A distinctive competency is often defined as a unique competency or capability that your competitors do not share, a distinction that separates you from the pack. The problem with that definition is that the word unique means no one else has that particular competency. In reality, firms that have truly unique competencies are few and far between.

Rather than focusing on unique, let’s focus on distinctive, which Cambridge Dictionaries Online describes as something that is easy to recognize because it is different from other things. In truth, most likely you have competitors with distinctive competencies not too different from yours. What makes you different from others, then, is whether you communicate your competency, how you communicate that distinctive competency, and how consistently you communicate it.

Be Strategic

Let’s presume that you’ve done your market research and analyzed your firm to identify your distinctive competency. Perhaps it’s sustainable design, whether for office buildings, condominiums, or malls. There are probably at least a couple of other firms in your marketplace that claim to be experts in sustainable design.

Your opportunity to differentiate your firm lies in strategically communicating your competency, starting with a plan.

1. Take the helm. Communicating your distinctive competency is not something you can simply throw over the fence to the marketing department or advertising agency. While these stakeholders should be integrally involved, so should every other department. The communication of your distinctive competency has to permeate the business.

2. Focus on your market. Determine what that distinctive competency means to your clients. Why should they care? What can they expect in terms of your product or service? Remember, it’s about them, it’s not about you.

3. Set specific objectives. What do you want to get out of communicating your distinctive competency? Make your objectives as specific as possible; for instance, don’t just say, “More business,” but “Ten percent more business from builders in the Northeast.” Also establish a time frame for achieving the objectives.

4. Be a champion. While all of the firm’s departments may be responsible for the hands-on implementation of your plan, the communication of your distinctive competency has to be championed by a senior executive who imparts his or her imprimatur.

5. Think in multiple dimensions. Your plan may not be linear, requiring that you work on several tracks concurrently. For example, you may be redesigning your Web site while educating front-line business development people about how to communicate a variety of messages concerning your distinctive competency.

Facilitate Communication

When firms think about communicating their distinctive competencies, they often consider a new look or graphic identity first — logo, letterhead, and the like. But unless your current look is very dated and stale, throwing out your existing materials and starting over can wait. Even if you have the budget to do it immediately, make sure you have other areas in order first.

The first priority is identifying your target audience. Do some simple market segmentation as appropriate for your specialty (for example, former clients, prospective clients, clients in health care, real estate developers, vendors, referral sources, subcontractors, and internal markets).

The next action to consider is how to communicate with your audience. Is your database or contact management system flexible and easy to use? Are the contacts up to date? Even in large, sophisticated firms, contact databases are often cumbersome and so out of date that frustrated staff simply gives up. When that happens, nothing gets out the door. It does you no good to have beautiful marketing material, an elegant Web site, and your name in the front-page news if you can’t share these things with your markets. Get your contact management system in working order first, which can be a major project in itself. If you have information on your contacts’ communication preferences (snail mail, e-mail, podcasts, etc.), then categorize them accordingly.

In addition to the contacts in your database, you can also communicate your distinctive competency to various public audiences. A good way to accomplish this is to incorporate references to your distinctive competency into press releases that are sent to the media concerning newsworthy events at your firm such as a design award, a big contract that puts you at the forefront of a new design trend, or completion of a prominent project.

Develop Communication Points

Knowing your distinctive competency is one thing. Knowing how to describe it is quite another. The challenge is to compress everything it represents into a few succinct words that grab people’s attention. Distill its essence down to three to five bullet points that will be incorporated into all communications. Work with your marketing department or outside consulting firm to hone the messages so they have impact and are easily understood. Again, remember that your audience has to care about your communication points. It’s less about you than about what you can do for your markets.

Note that developing communication points is not the same as the creative process of coining a tag line or writing advertising copy. It means defining your messages and selecting the rights words that consistently reinforce them.

Once you’re comfortable with the communication points, distribute them to your business development team or salespeople as well as any outside marketing or consulting firm that was not involved in developing the final product but needs to know about it.

Encapsulate Communication Points

Now it is time to address your graphic identity. Your logo needs to encapsulate your communication points and communicate them graphically. A logo can be a text logo, that is, your company name in a specific typeface, which is a communication in and of itself. The font you choose communicates a certain message, as does the color. For example, your logo in Times New Roman conveys a staid message while a cursive or custom-developed font conveys a progressive image.

In addition to the company name, logos often include a graphic icon. In fact, an icon — such as the Nike Swoosh — is what people think of first when they hear logo. Again, the challenge with an icon is to encapsulate your communication points, this time graphically. With or without an icon, your logo will consistently reinforce the message of how you are distinct and provide a strong foundation on which to build your marketing programs.

Tag lines are one of the most challenging marketing pieces to develop. They look deceptively simple because they are so short. Professionals expect to sit down and just whip one up. That’s why you see so many generic tag lines that say things like “a commitment to excellence.” So much for distinctiveness!

Like logos, tag lines should encapsulate your communication points in an attention-getting and memorable manner, which takes much thought and creativity. Unfortunately, tag lines have acquired somewhat of a bad rap among professionals because they are associated with slogans and jingles. That’s why you need to make sure your tagline is solid and has both impact and staying power, so you can live with it for a while. To get an elegant product, it may be best to engage a professional to develop the right tag line.

Maximize Distribution Channels

When it comes to defining your markets, don’t overlook your internal market — your management and employees, all of whom have a role to play in delivering on your distinctive competency. In fact, zeroing in on your distinctive competency is an opportunity to engage employees and acknowledge their importance to your firm’s success. Since you need to be able to count on them to impart your messages to others, they need to know how and why you decided on these particular communication points and how they relate to the distinctive competency. A planned, company-wide rollout is the most effective way to get everyone on board. Depending on your location and business model, an all-hands-on meeting with streaming video at satellite locations may be appropriate.

Whether it’s internal or external communication, messages have greater impact when they are reinforced through different channels. For example, if you have delivered an in-house presentation, reinforce it by broadcasting e-mails to employees, perhaps followed by a hard-copy internal memo or newsletter. People absorb material differently from various sources, and one channel reinforces another.

The same thing goes for external communication. For example, if you’ve fallen in love with e-mail because you save on postage, you’re overlooking the audience that responds to the tactile aspect of a direct mail piece or newsletter.

Another venue for communicating your distinctive competency and any new firm identity created around it is a podcast. It can be a simple interview with your firm’s president or another executive discussing why the logo was changed, how the new logo reflects the distinctive competency, and what this means for clients. Make the podcast available on your Web site, referring to it prominently on the home page, send a link in an e-mail blast, or list the link in a print newsletter.

Consistency Builds Momentum

Consistency is the hallmark of any effective marketing program. All the elements of your communication — from the logo to your employees’ interaction with clients and prospects — must be consistent. Keep in mind that there are really no new marketing tactics. What makes them successful is effective, consistent execution.

In a nutshell, the firm identity systems you have built around your distinctive competency, if used consistently by everyone at your firm, are unifying and convey power. They say, “We are different. We know who we are and where we are going. You can count on us.”

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Checklist for Competitive Advantage

• Is your distinctive competency real? Does it have substance and does it represent promises on which you can deliver consistently?

• Are the communication points you have developed around your competency consistently used across all marketing vehicles? This is not where you develop “creative.” Don’t get caught up in trying to dream up ad copy. Just get the points down simply and clearly.

• Do you have a management champion? If you’re the executive who is championing the communication of your competency, great. If not, it’s critical that you have high-level commitment and support.

• Have you enlisted firm-wide buy-in and engagement? Every department should know and understand the distinctive competency and communicate it in its work and in its interaction with the public.

• Are you consistently communicating your message? Don’t stop at creating a corporate identity that encapsulates your competency. Have your graphics department or agency develop design standards so that logo use is consistent in all offices and for all materials. Further, the message your logo carries needs to be communicated consistently through all channels.

• Are you using more than one channel to communicate the message? E-mail alone will reach one audience but miss others who don’t respond to electronic communication. Mixing channels further reinforces your message. For example, if clients scan your e-mail then receive a newsletter or a hard-copy invitation to your kick-off reception, your message is more likely to stick.

• Do you have an implementation plan with objectives, strategies, and tactics? Does it have short- and long-term timetables? A budget and division of responsibilities? As you roll out your plan, make sure to include both external and internal markets.

• Have you engaged your marketing department or outside agency or consultant in the development of the “creative” (tag lines, Web site, marketing materials, etc.) from the inception of strategy?

• Have you built in systems to measure the results of your marketing communications? Don’t just track new clients, but capture all leads generated.

• Patience and perseverance are the keys to communicating your competency and making an impact.

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