Amie Pascoe, director at PR firm BLUE Communications, reports from a recent breakfast debate on maritime and brand building.
Are organisations in the shipping industry exploiting the power of brand? This was the question posed by global marine and energy PR consultancy BLUE at its breakfast debate during London International Shipping Week 2017. As the industry becomes increasingly commoditised – in part driven by access to more choice 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?
“As the shipping industry has become increasingly competitive, there has been a desire by companies to become more visible and increase their profile, but do they really understand what brand is?”, asked panelist Nick Blythe, executive director, BLUE, who argued that many in shipping still misunderstand its value. “It’s the DNA of an organisation and your central point of differentiation, not just a logo.”
Despite suggestions from the floor that shipping is in many ways in the Stone Age when it comes to brand, Lloyd’s List editor, Richard Meade took a more measured approach, suggesting that due to its inherently fragmented nature, there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer. He referenced “the good, the bland and the ugly” and pointed out that many organisations in the marine industry do engage in the process of brand building, but may call it something else.
When debating the question of size, Faz Peermohamed, partner, global head of shipping, Ince & Co, remarked that a commitment to brand is not linked to scale. “Ardmore Shipping is a great example of an organisation that has stayed true to its brand from the very beginning,” he said.
Brands are not built just for communications purposes. They should define the experience and engagement that an organisation has with all its key stakeholders, from customers to shareholders, employees to partners. Brand should also provide a barometer for defining your business strategy and for day-to-day commercial decision-making. As soon as an organisation does not act in line with the brand and the values on which it is built, it is diluted and ultimately risks failure, creating confusion and dissatisfaction amongst stakeholders.
“Brand only has a value when it’s strategic”, explained Klavs Valskov, brand director at General Electric, and former chief communications officer for Maersk Line. “It comes down to the experience you want to create. The true power of brand relies on an aligned and consistent experience.” Valskov also asserted that if you want to accurately measure how you’re affecting behaviour, it requires an investment in market research and speaking to people.
Attempting to clear up any confusion around reputation, Blythe explained: “Reputation is what people say about your organisation when you are not in the room. It’s the perception of others, defined by both your direct and indirect engagement with them. Utopia is when your brand and your reputation align.”
The multi-faceted nature of communications isn’t always understood in shipping. And Blythe reminded the audience that: “It’s not just about media relations!” He also pointed out that public relations isn’t a regulated industry so anyone can set up as a practitioner, which poses risks for shipping. The role of the communications professional should be considered akin to a lawyer or an accountant. In the context of providing responsible solutions, Yvonne Harley, head of communications, V.Group remarked: “If your communications advisor isn’t saying no a lot of the time, and challenging you, then, quite frankly, they’re not doing their job. We’re not here to make you feel better – we’re here to drive the business.”
Put in simple terms, 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 straightforward concept. But one which can make your organisation more successful. In shipping, companies need to move from seeing brand building and reputation management as a cost centre, to a fundamental driver of growth.