Over 100,000 merchant vessels carry 90% of the world’s trade, yet the shipping sector rarely gets good press. Actually, it rarely gets any press, unless something goes terribly wrong. The industry bemoans this negative coverage, but rarely does anything about it – collectively or as individual companies.
Since the global financial crisis struck there has been very little positive shipping news to talk about. Bad debts, overcapacity, high fuel costs, and casualties have dominated the trade and mainstream media headlines. However, if companies want to change the way they are perceived by the public, their peers, and the media, they need to treat their brands as assets.
Most businesses see innate value in their brands. Indeed, a successful brand can actually be worth more than the sum of its commercial parts. Companies are bought out just for the value of their name. The strength of a brand is reflected in stronger share prices, the ability to attract the best people, easier access to finance, and greater success in bidding for work. Brands do have value, to the extent that they can now be insured.
A handful of companies in the shipping sector ‘get’ the concept and see the value in a strong brand. Maersk and DNV are two that stand out. It is worth, in particular, looking at how Maersk projects its company image through advertising campaigns and their commentary to the media. A friend once commented that Maersk faced the same operational issues as any other shipping company (he used different language), but were treated differently. That is the power of a successful brand.
First and foremost a brand is not just a logo. A brand is the story of a company, its promises to its stakeholders and clients, and a statement about the direction it wants to move in. Maersk and DNV brand themselves as complete corporate entities and give the impression they have a brand strategy. They have a vision of how they want the world to see their companies – as the best in the business.
When shipping companies talk about marketing it often goes along the lines of: ‘We do crisis management training all the time’. It seems that, understandably, shipping companies’ attention is focused on preparing for the worst-case scenario. This is because when things go wrong, they go very wrong – and few other non-shipping companies are exposed to such risks.
As a result, marketing and brand development focus on trying not to be noticed. This makes it difficult, culturally, to stand up and promote a brand. The downside of this approach is that the best operators are seen as being no different from the worst, and the financially sound companies are assumed to have the same issues as the struggling.
When a crisis does occur, the media assumes the worst – and who can blame them when there are no positives in the background story.
If the shipping industry wants good press, a wider range of companies need to start building reputational capital. In practical terms this will mean developing marketing, branding, and communications strategies; implementing them effectively; and becoming proactive in terms of dealing with the trade and mainstream media. The ‘crisis management’ aspects of marketing need to be respected – but also built on.
Many lessons can be taken from other industries to promote the shipping sector as a vital cog in international trade. For those companies who stay the course and strive to be seen as leaders in the sector, success will come faster now than at almost any other time.