talking points

Successful Leaders Stay on Message—Here’s How They Do It.

The term “talking points” gets a bum rap. Often, using talking points is perceived as encouraging “robot-speak” or as a shady technique for dodging tough questions. We can probably blame this bad press on politics (which seems like an especially fashionable thing to do these days).

But rather than running away from talking points altogether, can we instead acknowledge that there are better and worse ways to use them? Yes, some of those ways get (rightly) labeled as lazy, stale, or simply uninformative. Others are absolutely essential for strong communications.

The reality is that we all use talking points in our daily lives. A couple quick examples come to mind: if you have a meeting with your boss, you go in with an idea of the key points you want to express; if you go out to dinner with friends, you generally know what you’ll talk about when they ask, “what’s new?” Whenever we organize our thoughts, whether we realize it or not, we are using talking points.

In IR, we see talking points as an essential tool in any CEOs toolkit. And coming up with these compact bundles of key information is really an art and a science. So let’s talk about what you can expect if you enlist the help of an IR expert to organize your remarks.

What are talking points? Why do they work?

First, let’s dig deeper into the concept of talking points:

1. Talking points are one way of organizing and remembering the main points of a discussion, argument, policy, investment case, etc. Importantly, they can also act as guardrails—defining what you are not talking about can be as important as defining what you are discussing. For example, during a meeting with investors you likely want to stick close to your investment thesis—this is not the time to discuss non-public strategy deliberations.

Raising information that falls outside of your guardrails, i.e., the main objectives of the meeting, press conference, or conference call, not only could confuse your audience, but it also might raise questions that you are not prepared to answer. There’s nothing worse for a CEO than finding herself in the weeds, panicking, and answering tough questions off-the-cuff. Talking points help avoid this nightmare situation.

2. Talking points are intended to be the broad strokes of a message. By knowing these broad strokes, you can fill in the rest of the picture with confidence. Here are a few good suggestions for going deeper too. Without an outline, additional details—stories—can just sound like disconnected messages. Have you ever had a friend tell a long rambling story? That’s indicative of a lack of talking points.

Talking points give presenters and the audience something to go back to. While it’s great for the report or presentation to be conversational, within those guardrails we talked about of course, the most compelling communications also have a clear organizational structure. Try to stick to three main themes that tie everything together.

3. Along those same lines—talking points allow you to get to the point quickly. For example, many of the investors I’ve spoken with have ZERO patience for long-winded answers. Investors are busy people, they want you to cut to the chase. Get to the point, give your support for the point, and move on.

It can be disheartening when we stop to consider how much the Internet has influenced us to have short attention spans. (Believe me! Those of us in communications fields are constantly shaking our heads at this trend.) But you aren’t going to stem the tide during this one meeting. It’s best to go with the flow here and give investors short, sweet points they can use.

The big picture: talking points enable better conversation. With your key messages top of mind, you can have a better discussion because you know the extent of your message/topic and you can easily transition between “color commentary” and specific data to be communicated

What talking points aren’t.

Talking points are not meant to be taken as the full message and recited verbatim (although there’s usually someone who does this every week on the Sunday morning talk shows). This behavior:

  • (a) sends the message that the speaker has no idea what they are talking about and can’t articulate an original thought;
  • (b) makes the message sound completely inauthentic to the listener; and
  • (c) doesn’t encourage engaging conversation… it’s just a one way spewing of information. And that’s just boring.

The right IR expert will coach you on how to expand upon the talking points in ways that feel authentic to you. Ideally, CEOs and any other leadership tasked with talking to the public will be involved throughout the process of distilling information down into crucial talking points.

Surely, we communications experts and those whom we advise can do better than the talking heads trying to keep up with the 24/7 news cycle. Investors deserve better when they are making educated decisions about where to add value to the market.

Finding the best talking points to keep your investors informed and give you the scaffolding to build your complete message is at least as much art as it is science. At Audacia we love to organize and package thoughts into authentic messages that resonate. If you love to talk about all things corporate communications, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s talk!

Photo credit: andreypopov / 123RF Stock Photo

 

mid-year earnings reports

Breaking Down Mid-Year Earnings Reports—What Investors and Analysts Expect

We have just crossed the mid-year point in the world of stocks, bonds, and financial markets. Q2 is officially in the bag! That means most firms are busily preparing and reporting their mid-year earnings reports (10-Qs), while many investors are anxiously waiting with bated breath.

Because 71% of publicly traded companies follow a calendar fiscal year (outliers include Apple and the US Federal Government (YE Sept 30), FedEx (YE May 31), and Microsoft (YE June 30)), investors and analysts look extra closely at earnings reports this time of year. And for good reason—mid-year earnings reports can be the key to assessing a company’s full year outlook.

So, let’s talk about what you should keep in mind as you check out your peers’ mid-year earnings reports and prepare your own.

Mid-year Earnings Reports and Expectations

Earnings reports have everything to do with expectations—measuring a firm’s performance against past expectations, setting expectations for a firm’s future performance, and most importantly, defining a firm’s position relative to market expectations.

The skill with which you communicate these specifics can affect analysts’ valuation of a firm, which in turn affects investor perceptions.

As Gerald Loeb (founding partner of E.F. Hutton & Co., a Wall Street trader and brokerage firm) put it so well, “stocks are bought on expectations, not facts.” This is true. But, as we also know, expectations depend on facts. So let’s look at the facts that are most relevant.

(Not) Just the Facts

What’s essential to communicating mid-year earnings reports is to paint the best possible picture, given the available facts. But what does painting the best possible picture mean in this context? It means evaluating Q1 and Q2 against the major milestones laid out in your 2016 strategic plan and making the best case, true to your numbers, for seeing continued momentum in Q3, Q4, and beyond.

At midyear, generally speaking, analysts and investors are looking at three main indicators:

1. Is the company on track to make full-year guidance?

Often at mid-year companies will have enough insight into their full year outlook to raise or lower guidance (projections for future earnings). Although companies are not required to provide guidance, it is common practice and can be a powerful tool for setting expectations. But the decision about whether to give guidance and how much is an individual one.

Factors to consider when it comes to guidance:

  • Primary Liability: Several provisions in the federal securities laws can create liability for forward-looking statements. For example, Section 11 and 12 of the Securities Act of 1933 impose liability on issuers, their officers and directors, and underwriters for misstatements or omissions of material facts. Because of the potential legal issues here, it’s important for those giving guidance to speak carefully, completely, and deliberately.
  • Safe Harbors: The Private Securities Litigation Reform Act (PSLRA) of 1995 enacted safe harbor provisions for forward-looking statements that are identified as such and accompanied by “meaningful cautionary statements” that could cause actual earnings to differ from guidance. However, PSLRA safe harbor provisions do not apply to IPOs or enforcement proceedings brought by the SEC.
  • Regulation FD: The prohibition on selective disclosure of material nonpublic information should also be taken into account in any discussion about whether to provide or update guidance. Guiding analysts about future earnings is permissible under Regulation FD, as long as the general public is informed at the same time.

This article from a Harvard Law School forum offers a more detailed overview of what public companies should know about giving guidance. Keep in mind, though, that there’s no substitute for consulting the pros when it comes to navigating the choppy waters of when to provide guidance and when to raise or lower these expectations.

2. What progress has the firm made against strategic initiatives?

If you are presenting mid-year earnings reports during a call with investors, it’s always a good idea to start with an overview of past strategic initiatives and whatever progress you have made toward your goals, e.g., entering a new market, cost takeout, R&D, integration of a recent acquisition, etc.

In going over the details of your progress, be as specific and transparent as possible. Analysts and investors like to hear specific examples backing-up statistical claims. So if you claim, for instance, that revenues for a certain sector grew 6% in Q2, be sure to talk about what exactly impacted earnings. Did a new licensing deal pan out? Was a particular marketing approach successful? Did you hire a fresh, young whiz kid who is setting the world on fire?

Point out opportunities for capitalizing on the momentum you’re building and places where it would be prudent to pull back temporarily or long-term. Be candid about any milestones or strategic initiatives that were less than successful too. As a favorite former boss used to say, “Don’t take it on the chin.” Rather, put the challenges in context and talk about what you’re doing to correct course or why you expect industry trends to shift. Not every initiative works. Real talk from your executives can go a long way in building trust over time.

Don’t forget to include non-financial achievements here as well. If you landed any new business deals, signed any new clients, launched a new R&D initiative, made progress on building your management team or on other recruitment efforts, this is all relevant information for assessing your firm’s progress. Remember to drive your points home by reiterating your key takeaways at the end of this section.

3. Is this company’s narrative consistent with what we know about the industry and the company’s strategy?

Industry commentary is one of the most complicated pieces of any mid-year earnings report. Any inconsistency between your comments about industry trends, e.g., predictions about shortages and surpluses of raw materials, and your peer companies’ comments are instant red flags for analysts and investors.

Outlier comments will be pressed during Q&A. This could be a good thing, if used strategically. Taking a novel view of your market or industry could indicate a key differentiator in market approach, which could be indicative of future earnings outperforming guidance (investors are always looking to capture alpha!). So, it literally pays to be prepared.

However, if your commentary goes against conventional wisdom or contradicts previously discussed strategic goals (i.e., your investment case), it will get more questions and be met with skepticism—guaranteed. When you know you are saying something that analysts and investors will find surprising, make sure you can succinctly lay out your case. Companies that can carve out a unique perspective (aligned to overall strategy) and back it up with data and performance, will generally see the the market appreciate those moves.

All the above barely scratches the surface and there is a lot more that could be said about each of these indicators. But, of course, the most valuable recommendations for preparing mid-year earnings reports are those specific to your firm’s needs and your industry’s trends.

So, if your investor relations strategy is in need of a touch-up, the experts at Audacia would love to help you paint the best possible picture. Contact us today to set up a consultation.

Photo Credit: Dmitriy Shironosov

 

corporate finance

6 Easy Ways to Empower Everyone on Your Team to Talk About Corporate Finance

We’ve discussed the issue of silo’d departments on the blog before. Most recently, we talked about tearing down the wall that divides sales and marketing. Another area where I see walls being built is around corporate finance. Smart executives know how important it is for all departments to stay on top of finances, but they often run up against resistance.

Frankly, that’s a shame. Effective financial communications are critical even when not speaking to shareholders or other investors. So, whether it’s because of a turf war, lack of discipline, or just plain uncertainty, it pays to remove these obstacles and make sure every key employee has a relative handle on corporate finance.

But “I Don’t Do Numbers”

I’ve heard a lot of otherwise talented marketers and corporate communicators say, “I’m a marketer/writer/communicator, I don’t do numbers.” This statement is frustrating to hear Every. Single. Time.

Here’s why:

1. Whether you work for a start-up, non-profit, government agency, or blue-chip titan of Wall Street, finances matter. If any part of your job involves convincing investors to risk their cold hard cash, you obviously better have those numbers on the tip of your tongue (or at least on the top of your mind).

But even beyond the typical financial stakeholders, media, employees, and customers all view companies through a financial lens. They are thinking: How stable are they? Are they hiring? Are they expanding their footprint in our area? Beyond our area? Understanding this perspective is crucial if you’re going to create a message that resonates with your audience.

2. If you can’t speak confidently about your organization’s business model, you’re missing an opportunity to add long-term value to your employer. Executives understand this point well. This is likely one big reason they have landed the positions they hold. And as a leader charged with mentoring others in the organization, you can’t stress this piece of corporate communications enough.

Organizations NEED communicators “at the table,” but if you can’t speak the language of business (finance) then you won’t be of value at that table. Regardless of what you take to be your primary role in the organization, if you want to rise in the ranks, you need to be on the lookout for places where you can “punch above your weight.” Being able to talk corporate finance is a huge advantage.

3. Financials are the proof points to your broader corporate message. In this context, financials can be revenue, market cap, overhead expenses, membership growth, etc. It is difficult to see how a marketer who doesn’t understand this point could truly understand marketing. Any marketing message that is divorced from a company’s finances risks falling flat, or worse, overpromising and under delivering can be a death knell for sales.

Empower Staff to Be Comfortable Communicating Financials

While it’s easy to say that every key employee should be able to speak about corporate finance, it’s a lot harder to make this goal a reality. How do you empower those within your organization to become comfortable with and effective at communicating financials?

1. If your company is publicly-traded, encourage your employees to read your 10-K, 10-Q, annual report, and proxy statements. You could also ask the finance director to do a short presentation or Q&A for all department heads.

2. Encourage leaders in marketing, sales, and other departments to take your IR lead out for coffee (bonus points if they do the same for your financial planning and analysis (FP&A) lead!). There’s no substitute for hearing about the state of an organization’s financials from the experts themselves. They can provide powerful insights and help in understanding the business model.

3. One great way to help get everyone up to speed is to read and talk about your industry publications (including the WSJ and FT if possible). It’s not important for everyone to read them cover to cover (or top to bottom online), but these articles will provide a general understanding of the impact of market movements on your industry. You could, for example, start a weekly meeting with a discussion of an important shift in the market and its impact on your business.

4. Actively follow your competitors and talk about what they’re doing well and where you have the upperhand. Encourage team members to listen to how peers speak about their business in the press, at events, in their writing, and in their financial filings.

5. Keep learning! This goes for everyone involved with your organization. There are some great FREE corporate finance courses out there (e.g., Finance for Non-Finance Professionals created by Rice University professors and offered through Coursera). Also, professional organizations (e.g., PRSA, IABC, NIRI) have opportunities to gain additional business savvy. Consider incentives for employees who put in the extra effort to gain skills in corporate finance.

6. Hire Audacia (joking… kinda). But seriously, sometimes bringing in communications professionals with an actual background in finance can make all the difference. Corporate finance is our world, let us introduce it to your team. Or, better yet, before you go through the trouble of trying absolutely everything, why not sit down for a consultation and let us steer you in the right direction?

Photo credit: pressmaster / 123RF Stock Photo

sales and marketing

Tear Down This Wall! 3 Effective Ways to Bridge the Gap Between Sales and Marketing.

For as long as there has been a separation between sales and marketing, there has been hand-wringing over successfully transitioning leads from marketing to sales. Especially when things are not going well, the hand-wringing is quickly followed by finger-pointing (and sometimes other not-so-nice gestures).

It doesn’t have to be this way! Sales and Marketing are both more effective when they work together. But while it’s easy to see how the two should work together, it’s far from easy to make this the reality. Let’s discuss some of the more common obstacles and powerful ways to bridge the divide.

My Experience

Having been on both sides of this fence during my career, I understand all too well the obstacles that prevent an integrated approach. But I have also learned along the way that we’re more likely to see success when everyone concentrates on sidestepping the major pitfalls to cooperation.

I started my career embedded with a B2G sales team and I still believe it was the best place for me to get my feet wet because:

1. Selling to government agencies forced me to think externally.

Coming from the private sector, I really had to work to understand our customers’ needs. Because market dynamics among private businesses are so different from market dynamics among government agencies, there was a steep learning curve. I spent a lot of time researching the industry, so that I could understand my customers better.

2. It taught me that the sales process doesn’t happen overnight.

When you first learn the ropes in sales, there’s a lot of talk about human psychology. The “tricks of the trade” are all about learning the right techniques to help you push all the right emotional buttons and close the deal. There’s also a lot of mystique built up around sales phenoms who can “sell sand in the desert” or whatever your preferred euphemism.

I quickly learned to set aside a lot of this conventional wisdom. I learned that sales is more about trust than trickery and that this holds true whether you are selling an aircraft, business software, or laundry detergent. Building trust-based relationships in B2G, B2C, or B2B requires cultivation.

3. I learned that being effective in business takes a team.

Cliche, but true. Not only did our sales team need to cooperate, but we also needed support from finance, pricing, contracts, operations/delivery, and communications/marketing. A successful customer approach requires more than the right technical solution. It also has to be priced correctly, with a mutually beneficial contract, and a solid plan for customer implementation.

Obstacles to Sales and Marketing Integration

Since those early years, I’ve talked with so many colleagues and clients who struggle with implementing an integrated approach to sales and marketing. I’ve noticed a few common patterns as well as a few common solutions.

My observations from the trenches and a few thoughts on what worked to overcome these common obstacles:

1. Silo’d departments.

Sales and marketing too often run on parallel paths. While there may be the occasional shout out across the cavern to make sure the language is consistent, most of the time, corporate marketing messages and tactics seem a world away from the needs of the sales team.

What helps: Share plans and ask for feedback.

While in sales, I spent a lot of time frustrated that my marketing team “didn’t get” what we needed to really sell. The truth was we hadn’t shared what we needed and they hadn’t asked what we were trying to accomplish. We assumed someone else had shared our goals or that they would instinctively know what we needed. They asked specific questions about markets for advertising placements or trade show investments, but not about bigger goals.

Later, when I was leading a marketing team, I spent a lot of time sharing our marketing plan for the year, asking for feedback, and asking “why” to get to the business goals we were trying to accomplish. For example, I would ask, “Why are we going to ABC trade show?” If the answer was, “because that’s what we’ve always done,” that was a red flag to me.

By the way, my team reduced trade show costs by over 30% and improved individual event ROI in 15 months, just by asking this question about every show.

2. Lack of shared goals at the working level.

Generally speaking, leaders have common incentives based on their shared understanding of business success. Generally speaking, leaders do a good job of communicating sales goals too. It’s fairly clear: orders, sales, profit. But communications can break down at the level of aligning marketing and sales to help everyone meet their goals.

What helps: Finding and communicating shared goals.

As a marketing leader, I would sit with our sales team(s) to understand their goals and align my operations and goals to support them. Then, I would communicate those goals to my team. I would also try to draw clear lines from the company’s mission and corporate-wide goals to each individual’s role.

Knowing the tactical goals made it easier to help each other. These goals go beyond sales and marketing alignment to internally communicating key metrics to help keep things real. In addition to keeping everyone on the same page and holding them accountable for their roles, sharing metrics that are reflective of goals, provides an effective way to share progress throughout the year.

3. Lack of trust.

This one is a bit soft and squishy, but those trust-based relationships (see above) are just as important to internal communications as they are to external communications. Marketers often view salespeople as “cowboys” shooting from the hip. Salespeople often view marketers as stuffy “PowerPoint junkies,” who can’t have a conversation without pointing to a chart.

What helps: Getting away from your office/cubicle/desk.

I’ve found that regularly attending already scheduled staff meetings is a great way for both sales and marketing to hear about the “real” work, as well as get a better sense for how to support, engage, and share fresh perspectives. It’s always useful to hear a fresh take on the market, your competition, or other issues facing your industry.

It’s human nature. The more you hear from others about their reasoning and approach to a particular challenge, the more you will begin to trust their judgment. Trust is key to figuring out how to work together.

So, invite a coworker in another department to Get coffee… Go to lunch… Go for a walk. And ask what they’re up to, what their biggest challenges are, and how you might be able to help.

With sales and marketing on the same page, you will see the hand-wringing and the finger-pointing put to rest. It’s challenging to find an integrated approach that works, but the results speak for themselves.

We have the experience, the patience, and the audacity to break down unnecessary barriers to business success at Audacia. If your sales and marketing teams could use some fine-tuning, give us a call. We’re always game to Get coffee… Go to lunch… Or Go for a walk!

 

Photo credit: rido / 123RF Stock Photo

communications plan

Does Your Message Actually Connect With Your Audience? — Finding the Right Communications Plan.

Wouldn’t it be nice if a communications plan were as simple as making sure that you have all of the relevant information organized in a way that makes sense? Unfortunately, finding the right package for this information is also important and can be more difficult. Developing an effective message is essential to getting the word out, especially when the information you’re putting out is highly technical or complex.

While there is definitely a time and place for technical information, we can be conditioned to hide behind complexity, rather than thinking more about our audience to clearly and concisely communicate our message. Although it takes some extra effort to determine what will resonate with our customers, investors, board members, regulatory officials, media, etc., the time we put in is well worth it.

Each Industry Has Its Own Language

When I started my career in the Aerospace and Defense industry, I literally worked with rocket scientists, PhD scientists, mathematicians, and other brilliant co-workers. Talk about intimidating! While I do have a few extra letters of my own behind my name, learning how to best communicate with these folks was challenging to say the least.

What made it especially difficult was not as much about the intimidation (I believe in the value of my work!), as it was about figuring out the industry’s language—you know, that jargon that pervades every industry?

I quickly learned how to call a post-meeting review a “hot wash.” I realized that people in A&D often speak using more acronyms than words. But some of the other lessons were learned the hard way.

I distinctly remember sitting in a new employee orientation receiving a detailed overview about my new firm’s products and services and feeling (a) overwhelmed by the amount of technical information, (b) lost in the lingo, and (c) utterly bored to tears.

I knew one thing for sure: If I was bored by our presentation, our customers would be positively comatose, that is, whenever they weren’t frustrated by trying to understand our offerings and why it mattered. This was the first time I realized that a communications plan could make a huge difference.

Don’t Blame Your Audience for Your Failure to Communicate

Now, be careful not to misunderstand the above lesson. Customers (or whoever our audience happens to be) need to clearly understand the technical specifications, features, and benefits of a solution. However, when we hide behind the technical lingo in lieu of focusing on determining the messages that resonate with our customers, that is when communications break down. We then blame the customers for not choosing our product or service saying, “they just don’t get it.” We can do better.

Instead of playing the blame game, wouldn’t it be better if we designed our communications plan around our audiences and took the time to figure out how translate technical language into a message that even those outside of our industries can relate to?

Here are some ideas for communicating highly complex information:

1. Start with the outcome.

What is the problem that you are solving? How do you help achieve your audience’s goals? In marketing strategy, experts refer to this in terms of “pain points.” The most important reason to start with the outcome when developing a communications plan is that it automatically puts you in an empathetic mindset. Thinking from your buyer’s or investor’s or board member’s perspective makes it more likely that the message you craft will resonate with your audience. My gut check here is: “Would my grandfather understand what we do?”

2. Avoid too much jargon.

A New York University study found that statements written plainly were viewed as more truthful than those that used jargon-y language. The reason? It’s easier for a reader to visualize an outcome expressed in concrete terms and apply it to their situation. Jargon-y language requires abstract thinking and separates the reader from the message.

Even if your audience is well steeped in the language of your industry, jargon is not usually the best way to articulate technical or complex information. Different experts interpret jargon differently based on their backgrounds and how long they’ve been involved in this world. So, if you want to avoid misunderstanding, it’s important to use precise language.

3. Use smart visuals.

While some industries tend to overuse visuals, others seem to forget entirely that they are a valid communications tool. However, a well-placed visual in your presentation will do wonders to make sure your team or investors are on the same page.

Now, it’s important to keep in mind that just as you need to consider what resonates with the verbiage you use, you also need to consider what resonates with the visuals you use. That means, NOT an overly complex, flow chart with super small font. Have you noticed the avalanche of infographics all over the web and in business presentations lately? It’s because a strong picture provides a concrete way to help your audience relate to and remember your message.

According to the Social Science Research Network, 65% of people are visual learners. So, take a page from your favorite professor in college and spend some time thinking about the best ways to show, rather than tell about the relationships present in your information.

4. Tell a story.

Storytelling resonates on an emotional level with your audience—making your brand more relatable and memorable. So, no matter how technical or complex the information, putting it into a narrative form will help you communicate.

In a previous blog post, we talked about ways to add storytelling elements to your communications plan. Even if storytelling is not “standard” in your industry, you can use elements of a story to get your point across. Just remember that however you present your narrative, it should relate to the outcome that you are solving for (see #1).

 

If you follow the above 4 tips, your communications plan will be effective, without being overwhelming, too jargon-y, or too boring. Find the right way to organize the information and to convey it in a way that your audience will appreciate and you will no longer be tempted to hide behind complexity.

Audacia Strategies knows how to help you find the message that best resonates with your audience. With our experts working with you, you’ll move from thinking “they just don’t get it” to “they couldn’t be more engaged.” Let’s do this!

Photo credit: pressmaster / 123RF Stock Photo

iconic brand strategy

Don’t Launch Your New Brand Until You Read This!—Everything You Need to Create Your Iconic Brand Strategy

Picture this:

The light bulb suddenly goes off and you have an amazing idea for your next iconic brand strategy. You’re so excited! There are logos and taglines and websites, oh my! There is social media marketing to consider. You have all of your ducks in a row…or at least, you think you do.

You launch your new baby out into the world and prepare for it to become iconic. And, maybe it will be. But it’s probably going to take a lot of behind-the-scenes work to make that happen. There is a good reason seasoned entrepreneurs often say, “It only took me 10 years to become an overnight success.”

The problem is that it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of creating something new and to forget that becoming an iconic brand requires a lot more than a great logo, tagline, and website. All of that shiny stuff is really just window-dressing. The research, positioning, and messaging are the real nuts and bolts behind an iconic brand strategy.

So how do find the discipline to lay the groundwork for success before you let yourself get swept up in the more glamorous side of launching your new brand?

First, it’s important to keep in mind that just because you need to do the hard groundwork, that doesn’t mean you can’t also reward yourself by working on the fun stuff, like planning the huge launch party you’re going to throw when you’re ready to announce.

As you read through the below list, it’s natural to feel a bit overwhelmed. But rest assured that if you take your time and insist on being intentional as you work through this process, you will be overwhelmed (in a good way!) by the end result.

Key Considerations for Launching Your Next Iconic Brand Strategy:

1. Start with the basics: Is there a market? AKA look both ways before you cross that street.

Whether you are creating a brand strategy for a new product or for an extension of an existing product line, it’s important to do some serious research into the potential market that you will want to tap into. There are three important areas to consider here.

A. Market/situational awareness:

Research the current tools, technologies, services, and work-arounds. Positioning your brand in the market requires extensive understanding of what else is available. You will be looking to gain a share of these markets.

Ask the following questions about existing brands and peers:

  • What works/doesn’t work?
  • What’s the broader discussion? Are companies/thought leaders talking about this capability?
  • Where is the solution on the technology cycle (cutting edge vs. mature)?
  • Is there pending legislation or regulation that may shift the market dynamics?

B. Market segmentation and prioritization:

Once you have a handle on what the market looks like, dig deeper. Get as specific as you can about what your real target market looks like. Segment different target groups in the way that makes the most sense for your brand. Prioritize, i.e., figure out which of these groups to target first, second, third, and when. Finally, determine each segment’s pain points and specific challenges.

Ask yourself:

  • Who is my specific target market? How do the buy? When? Why?
  • Where are these customers? Consider industry, customer size, geography, innovation requirements, you get the idea.
  • What are the customer pain points our product solves?

C. Competitive analysis

The last piece in the market puzzle of your iconic brand strategy is doing a thorough competitive analysis. This will help determine how to position your brand both in terms of the current market landscape and projecting into the future potential shifts.

Ask the following about your competition:

  • Who are they?
  • Where are they (physical locations, virtual locations, operational status)?
  • How big are they?
  • Market share (try to get at least a notional sense)?

2. Now, go deep inside your business. How will your new brand change your operations?

Depending on how much of a transformation you plan to make as you build your iconic brand strategy, this will take a good mix of pragmatism, creativity, and a bit of speculation. It helps to bring in your team to get a full picture of potential business impacts.

As an example, you might consider if you need to make changes to your business structure.

  • How will you need to structure your current business to accommodate the new brand?
  • Or is this really a new business/company? A spin-off? A joint venture? A product extension?

3. Prepare your brand messaging–this is huge!

Messaging can be the difference between launching a successful brand and launching an iconic brand. It’s the difference between a basically reliable casual shoe and a Nike. Try to figure out what unique value your brand offers and more importantly, how to get the word out. This may take some trial and error. Above all, make sure your messaging reflects your brand promise.

Here consider:

A. Value Proposition

  • Why us?
  • Why now?
  • What problem do we solve?
  • What pains do we alleviate?

B. Brand promise

  • What are you offering your buyers? Why is it important? What does your brand stand for and why?

C. Positioning Statements

  • How do our priority market segments prefer to receive information?
  • What is the tone they prefer?
  • How can we signal social proof?

D. Message Architecture

Think of message architecture as scaffolding for all of your marketing content. Your message architecture or framework will support and shape all the content you produce going forward. When marketers and communications pros talk about messaging, they are talking about the general impression they want customers to take away from the content itself.

When it comes to designing the message architecture, a good rule of thumb is to keep it simple. This article from some content experts is a good place to start and it offers a number of useful examples.

E. Elevator pitch – you have 15 seconds in an elevator with your dream client – what do you say?

Every new brand needs a catchy elevator pitch. This should be easy once you’ve done all of the research and analysis above.

4. Brand Identity — most people skip directly to this step, but putting in the upfront work is critical to developing an iconic brand strategy.

This goes beyond the broader messaging to even less tangible elements. Your brand’s identity is really the public perception of the brand. A lot more than words on your website goes into your brand identity. Unfortunately, some of this is out of your control, but you can learn to influence this if you really study corporate communications or find someone else who has done so.

Here the following are crucial:

A. Is this a stand-alone solution or does is it part of a family/suite of products/solutions?

B. Reflect on your market research and align to your aspirational positioning.

C. Consider whether you need/want a tagline — a tagline can be a powerful brand discriminator and shorthand for what’s unique about your brand.

D. Don’t forget to reserve your URLs!

5. Launch Strategy — get ready to be big!

Yay! Now that you’ve put in the real grunt work, you can start to plan the launch strategy for your new brand. I offered some good tips here in a recent blog post. And just imagine how much confidence you’ll have gained once you’ve completed the list above.

I know that this all sounds like a ton of work and it is! But this is your baby. What could be more rewarding and satisfying than watching your idea grow from a thought bubble into a household name?

New brands are exciting and can be overwhelming. We get it. Audacia Strategies has been there. Let us be your guide through launching your next iconic brand.

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investor relations’ relevance

From Niche to Necessity: 3 Tips for Increasing Investor Relations’ Relevance in Your Firm

Today’s, investor relations pros do a lot more than just talk to the Street. We serve as a critical conduit for information between the Street and internal business channels AND as a connector of information within companies. Everywhere we look, investor relations’ relevance is rising.

It’s more important than ever for organizations to find IR experts who can wear multiple hats and deliver value across the organization. Let’s discuss the drivers of change and how modern investor relations pros are adding value.

Drivers of Change in Investor Relations’ Relevance

While there has always been (and still remains) a bit of a mystique around investor relations experts, that mystique is beginning to fade and make way for more of an MVP role in companies.

Historically, IR as a function was considered mainly for big companies and primarily to communicate with investors about big events that could affect a company’s stock valuation. As a result, traditionally, investor relations’ relevance was seen as more of a back-office function, which involved responding to queries from private investors about non-receipt of dividends, annual reports, share certificates, or legal cases about ownership of shares. Institutional investors interested in contacting the company would meet directly with the CFO or CEO.

But times have changed. The demands from both the sell side and the buy side have intensified because of less reliance on expert networks, increased regulations, the pace of communications, and technological advancements. Additionally, increasing numbers of startups, especially in the software sector, has led to increased investment opportunities.

3 Ways Successful IR Professionals Provide Value:

What used to be purely a communications and public relations role has quickly evolved into a specialized blend of key front-office responsibilities. Today’s Investor Relations Officers (IROs) are responsible for conducting competitive analyses; supporting corporate portfolio-shaping activities (AKA M&A, divestitures, etc.); ensuring regulatory compliance; engaging in corporate sustainability efforts; and acting as in-house market structure experts.

Let’s look at just a few of the ways IR adds value:

1. Playing a more direct role in business strategy formation.

According to the most recent Korn-Ferry survey, 67% of Fortune 500 executives rate having a strategic mindset as the most important leadership characteristic for CCOs. But we didn’t need a survey to tell us that IR professionals are taking on more leadership roles within companies.

Taking the lead on communicating and positioning naturally means deeper knowledge of business operations—such as budgets and forecasts, financial planning and analyses, IT systems, risk assessments, and other facets of the enterprise.

2. Dissecting the financial analysis of peer companies.

Successful IR professionals not only have a deep understanding their own firm’s business operations, but they also research the finances of their peers. Modern IR pros are especially well-situated to do this work because they increasingly come from finance or analyst backgrounds and 72% have worked for three to six companies over the course of their careers. Companies are smart to use this institutional knowledge to their advantage.

3. Communicating the company’s position in highly tailored ways.

Yes, communications is still a big part of the work that IR professionals do. But even this traditional role has evolved. Communicating with stakeholders is more complicated than ever. As investor populations become increasingly diverse, there are more complicated market forces to take into account. It makes perfect sense that IR experts rely upon their comprehensive understanding of the company when communicating with investors and other stakeholders.

Lessons and Recommendations:

So what does all of this change mean for individual IR pros and their corporate partners?

First and foremost, valuable information needs to be shared. The relationship with the Street means that IR pros get a candid (often unfiltered) view of the company, the market and the competitive environment. Investor relations’ relevance has grown largely because sharing this information with the rest of the company is easier than ever.

This information needs to be shared:

1. With the C-suite for situational awareness, strategy development, market approach, messaging, and as fodder for future investor meetings. Obviously. Depending on how your C-suite likes to receive info, this may take the form of a quick email or text or conversation; an end-of-day update from a conference; or a weekly/monthly update on the state of the firm’s communications and/or market movement.

2. With the broader leadership team – trends in investor/analyst comments must be shared with the extended team. This is valuable information about our market and competitive environment. It also provides real-time feedback on strategy… are we hitting our milestones (and communicating that we do so)? What do investors like about our competitors? What do they see as our key discriminator? (Sometimes that’s different than what we might think!) What are they watching in the industry? What do they ask about most? (Think: interest rates, low barriers to entry, regulations, pricing pressure, etc.).

The key is to offer trends in feedback combined with insight about your company’s competitive positioning, trading dynamics, and market conditions. The goal is to provide unique insight that business leaders can use as they assess their operations, competitive strategy, and markets. Often, this takes the form of a weekly/monthly or even quarterly updates as part of your quarterly business review process.

3. With employees – this is both outside in AND inside out. As important as it is to spend time with investors, analysts and other financial stakeholders it’s equally important to spend time learning more about your company.

Personally, I have found it incredibly helpful to make it a point to visit distributed corporate locations regularly. This serves two functions. First, it gives me the opportunity to get a better understanding of the operations of the business, check out a manufacturing line, spend time with the local sales team, get a demonstration of the latest R&D projects, etc. All of this is important to being able to discuss the depth and breadth of our business initiatives.

Second, I recommend returning the hospitality by holding an open discussion about how your company is traded and viewed by Wall Street. Discuss what it means to be a “deep value” or “growth” stock. Discuss what your institutional holders look like and why. Discuss your peers institutional profile and any similarities/differences. And, share some of those key trends in Street feedback.

Among distributed sites/field sites there sometimes is a perception that HQ roles are disconnected from the realities of the business operations. By sharing the Street perspective, you can make a more direct connection to an employee’s day-to-day work and the company’s performance and public perception.

Conclusion

Increasing regulatory, technological, and investor demands have profoundly altered investor relations’ relevance. What was once primarily a communications function has been transformed into a leadership position requiring economics, finance, and business operations expertise.

The evolution in investor relations’ relevance provides an opportunity to share critical market feedback more broadly and strengthen the connection between internal and external operations. It’s also an optimal moment to engage partner firms that are prepared to embrace the expertise of their IR professionals and showcase it as a differentiating factor.

Audacia Strategies has been evolving right alongside this new era in IR. Isn’t it time that we talk with you about your investor relations goals?

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authentic leadership

Authentic Leadership: Save the “Game Face” for the Squash Court

One of the best-kept secrets in the corporate communications world is that you can’t teach great leadership—not really. But you can coach leaders to be more authentic and authentic leadership is one of the hallmarks of being great.

Part of the reason you can’t teach leaders to be great, is that there is a big difference between communicating and “messaging.” Yes, I can help a new CEO walk her company through a complicated reorg with beautifully timed and carefully worded messages. But it’s not all about the message.  

It’s the way you deliver the message that makes the difference between communicating and “messaging.” And delivery falls into the category of authentic leadership. So, let’s get real.

Authenticity: The Magic

Authentic. Authenticity. Such an important part of communicating and it pains me to see it recently hijacked to become one of the most overused “woo woo” terms. It’s right up there next to “organic” (and no, I’m not talking about the organic tomato variety).  

What does authentic even mean? Quick. Take 15 seconds to think about what it looks, sounds, and feels like when you engage in an “authentic” conversation. Step outside of the corporate context for a moment. Maybe you see yourself chatting casually with friends; watching a captivating TV or political or entertainment personality; reading a really inspiring OpEd; or listening to someone tell an important story. What makes that discussion—regardless of the venue or channel—feel “authentic?”

Off the top of my head (no thesaurus.com today!)—when I think of authentic leadership, I think: Real. Genuine. Not fake. True. Natural. Honest. Direct. Candid. Connected.

Authenticity: Unlocking the Magic

That feeling that we just identified? The “realness” that makes you sit up and engage? That’s the magic in true communication—the kind that builds relationships, awareness, and interest. It can’t be created or manufactured, but it can be uncovered, enabled, and encouraged.

If authentic leadership is what we’re after, let’s discuss how to encourage and enable real, engaging conversations in the boardroom, on earnings calls, and even in blog posts.

1. Who is your executive, really? Unlocking authenticity requires a bit of soul searching and a lot of honesty. What is your executive’s style? Introverted? Extroverted? Detail-oriented? Big-picture? Funny? Sarcastic? Dry? Often the tone of the organization takes on a bit of the personality of its key spokesperson or executive. (See: Apple and Steve Jobs).

Rather than asking your executive what tone she prefers, do a bit of homework here. As you observe your executive interacting with investors in meetings, pay close attention to her tone of voice and watch how she engages with the discussion. Often, smaller-group discussions and meetings provide keen insight into how an executive prefers to interact.

2. Encourage your executive to be “real.” You’ve done the research and you have a good sense for how your executives prefer to engage. Now take that style and use it to your advantage. Often we feel like we have to put on our “game face.” While getting psyched for an event is great, putting up a facade or a false persona isn’t.We can all tell when someone is faking it, right? (See: Founder and former Lululemon Chair, Chip Wilson’s infamous apology).

Got a detail-oriented executive? Make sure that your quarterly earnings call script reflects her passion for the details of your firm’s technology or business model. Got a wisecracking executive? Embrace it and give her a few opportunities to release some (appropriate!) humor in their public engagements. Which leads us to…

3. Know your bumpers. One plea for caution here: Keeping it real doesn’t mean anything goes. You will want to give guidance on where the boundaries are. Discuss how many details are too many. Offer concrete examples as a guide to using humor effectively. Consider what challenging questions might come up and where the law requires a more matter-of-fact approach.

This is where professional media training can be really helpful. I strongly recommend that ANYONE who communicates externally (or heck, even internally) goes through media training and has the experience of presenting—both formally and informally—on-camera. Then sit down together to watch the replay and debrief. This is critical to understanding how our communications “quirks” and nervous habits can interrupt the connection with our audience and interfere with communication.

4. Give as good as you get. Keep in mind that communicating is a two-way street. It’s just as important to listen as it is to speak. And, it sounds simple because it is. Everyone wants to be heard. I remember watching in horror during a meeting with one of our largest investors when my CEO couldn’t stop “messaging” and just listen to the investor’s feedback. No amount of redirection could help. We lost that large investor within the month.

We can’t simply be in “outbound” mode all the time. We have to receive information to learn. You know those executives who have an innate pulse of their organization? And those who build teams that will follow them to the end of the earth? It doesn’t happen by accident. These authentic leaders demonstrate respect through listening and meaningful engagement.

So, if you want to help your executives give as good as they get, encourage active listening, i.e., fully concentrating and engaging. You’ll be amazed at how much this can help. The Center for Creative Leadership provides some excellent tips for building these skills in executives too.

5. Be consistent. It’s tempting for all of us to fall into the trap of “putting on our game face” for a big meeting, presentation, or conversation. However, if our “game face” is not consistent with our personality and the characteristics discussed above, it can come across as confusingly inconsistent at best and downright untrustworthy at worst.

Again, your observations of your executive come into play here. If you notice that your executive has certain triggers where she tends to put up walls or get a little defensive, point it out and train her to anticipate those triggers. Authentic leadership is as much about knowing yourself as it is about listening and reading others.

Authenticity: Back to Basics

We all interact with people in corporate jobs who put up walls (and I don’t mean along the border) and treat their work interactions as completely foreign from their non-work interactions. Let this post be a little reminder to get back to the core of all communications: connecting, engaging, and building relationships.

At its foundation, authentic leadership is all about finding subtle ways to be ourselves within the boundaries of our industries. Not sure what that looks like for your c-suite? Contact Audacia and we’ll help you figure how to keep it real!

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communications strategy

100 Days: Time to Take a Hard Look at Your Communications Strategy

There is always a lot of discussion in the media and around office water coolers about the first 100 days of a president’s term. What’s been accomplished? What’s on deck? Truly, a lot can be accomplished in 100 days whether you are starting a new job, launching a new campaign, building a business, or leading the free world.

The president is the CEO of the nation, so it makes sense to evaluate the leadership landscape at this point. While it’s unrealistic to think that the first 100 days hold the key to an executive’s tenure…it certainly sets the tone.

For any executive, the 100-day mark is a good opportunity to come up for air and assess how focused tactics are addressing your broader communications strategy. It’s also a good time to (re)address how you talk about your strategy publicly.

As you look back on the first 100 days of 2017, consider where your organization is headed, what is working, and where you might need a course adjustment.

The Big Picture

It’s important in business (and in life) to take a step back to think about the big picture from time to time. Understandably, a long term communications strategy can get lost dealing with the day-to-day challenges and adjusting tactics to fulfill immediate expectations. So, be sure to remind yourself to take a step back, re-evaluate, assess metrics, and relaunch.

When it comes to your larger communications strategy, considering these big picture items will help you manage expectations both with your team and your stakeholders. Consider how you talk about your goals, expectations, and the steps to success. If you feel out of your depth, it may make sense to find a corporate communications partner to walk you through this process.

Recognize When it’s Time to Pull Up

Recently, I met with the executives of a newly launched business. The experience was a great reminder of the importance of keeping the big picture on the radar. We spent the first 30 minutes of the meeting discussing business challenges; how they were addressing those challenges; and how to grow revenue while maintaining—or growing—profit margins.

It was a good tactical conversation. But it wasn’t why I had been invited there. This company was concerned that they were under-valued compared to their peer set. And while all of the tactics to improve operations and financial results were absolutely critical components to addressing the valuation challenge, the team’s strategic goal had gotten lost in their tactical focus.

It was time to pull up. I took them through a process designed to help them assess progress to date; revisit their broader challenge; and address market changes, competitive shifts, and investor perception.

Now was also the right time to take a look at how they had communicated their strategy to investors. Did they know what we were working toward and why? Had we shared critical milestones, success metrics, and off-ramps?

In the first days, months, and even years figuring out what business model to follow and what broad communications strategy will propel an organization forward most effectively is difficult. Sometimes you are so focused on growth and getting the right systems in place that communications takes a backseat.

But having a communications strategy in place, even one that is not perfect, will help you avoid headaches down the road. Suppose you know that you will need to ease back on production during the Q3 or Q4 next year. It will be a lot easier to explain a slow quarter next year if you keep investors in the loop as to your broader strategy starting now.

Keep in mind that strategy shouldn’t be a secret. Secrets = surprises. And surprises are interpreted as risk by investors.

So, as we look back at the last 100 days of 2017. Ask yourself and your team some difficult questions:

1. Have you clearly and publicly articulated your strategy and goals? If the answer is “hmmm… maybe not,” chances are good that your team’s hard work on all those tactical concerns will go unnoticed or unappreciated or unvalued. Or, what’s even worse, the hard work will be viewed as “noise” without an anchor to a broader goal.

2. Have you shared the key success metrics that accompany your strategy? Remember that you have some control over your own evaluation. If there are metrics or milestones that you have accomplished, but which are likely to be overlooked by external analysts, highlight them yourself.

3. How about some of the key tactics that you’ll employ to achieve those goals? Once you have articulated your goals, strategies, and key metrics, anchor the tactics in those goals. Point to, for example, cost reductions, research and development, implementation of new inventory tracking software, etc.

4. How does your broader strategy fit the operating environment? As you execute the tactics of your strategy, your market, and your competitors, your business also changes. Take a moment to pick your head up to assess your operating environment. The strategy you chose to govern the organization when you first launched may not hold up today.

5. What is your strategy to communicate progress against your plan? A steady drumbeat of updates (small and large) lets investors know that you’re chipping away at your strategy. So designate someone to play the role of chief communications officer who will decide when and how to communicate with investors.

Developing a communications strategy can be quite a challenge, especially for new businesses. Our experts have helped teams like yours take a step back, find the right strategy, and execute the plan. Let’s talk about how how we can help you!

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annual report

The Evolution of the Annual Report: From Financial Report to Corporate Persona

Annual reports have evolved over the years from a dry vehicle for conveying information about a company’s financials to a critical tool to communicate corporate strategy. An expertly communicated annual report has the power to influence the way your company is perceived by those who matter most.

There are challenges to unleashing the full potential of the annual report, however. To make corporate financial information more accessible and easily understood, SEC regulations have attempted to standardize the delivery of key operational and financial information.

But there is still plenty of opportunity to effectively leverage this piece as a vehicle for expressing your company’s vision, mission, and values. The annual report is one of the most widely read communications your company will release. So, there are plenty of benefits to rethinking your firm’s customary approach.

Factors that Influence Stakeholders’ Perception of the Annual Report:

1. Content

It is obvious that the content of the report influences how investors and other stakeholders view your firm’s reputation. But what is not so obvious is that how you understand the content is not the same as how your investors interpret the content. An annual report is a great time to practice your corporate storytelling skills.

Of course, investors will zero-in on financial performance, but the way in which this information is presented will affect perceptions. The Letter to Shareholders and the Management Discussion and Analysis sections of the annual report offers an opportunity to share a transparent and honest discussion of market conditions, corporate strategy, and investment priorities.

Being transparent and honest in your communications is not as easy as it sounds. Internal expectations based on previous performance can affect how you view this year’s performance. Corporate strategy and market conditions may be in flux.

For these and other reasons, it can help to bring in external corporate communications experts and marketing specialists to provide a clear-eyed perspective on the annual report message. Just as you use auditors and financial experts to ensure the accuracy of your financial reporting, it can also help to have experts to support your messaging.

The sweet spot for content is delivering an annual report that accurately conveys the facts, gets the message across, and effectively communicates your company’s past performance and future expectations.

2. Design

Design alone won’t save terrible earnings. So, don’t spend a lot of time putting together a slick design hoping to distract stakeholders from the unfortunate truth. Still, your company’s annual report should be consistent with your corporate brand.

The most successful and admired companies find subtle ways to stamp their identity throughout the report. For example, Warby Parker, an online eyeglass company, created an interactive annual report in the form of a calendar with 365 company milestones and figures. Keep in mind that through consistency and authenticity, the annual report can really work together with other corporate communications to manage your firm’s reputation.

3. Delivery

One other factor to consider that has ramifications for how your stakeholders perceive your company is how and when you deliver the report. Of course, timely filing of the annual report is table stakes. But also consider utilizing additional delivery channels including video and interactive infographics.

In addition to the above general guidelines, you may want to revisit these excellent tips about how to make your annual report one of your best assets including:

  • Think of the annual report as your “financial brand” for the year: This way you can repurpose parts of the report into other communications documents, such as facts sheets, the proxy, and the investor deck.
  • Design your annual report to be easily segmented: Make it easier to repurpose stand-alone parts of the annual report for social media, for instance, by making the report easier to separate into parts.

Conclusion

Yes, annual reports serve several purposes. They provide a company’s financial information, amplify a company’s marketing message, and remind shareholders of a company’s strategy. But first and foremost, firms need to think of the annual report as a key tool in their corporate reputation management toolbox.

The annual report is an important vehicle for connecting with investors to give them more than just a financial picture. Annual reports can—and should—also give clear insight into your company’s vision, values, culture, and internal operations.

Ultimately though, the annual report is only one part of a wider corporate communications strategy. We specialize in helping to construct your corporate narrative at Audacia Strategies. There’s no substitute for having a clear picture of what your company stands for and where you are going. Contact us today and let us help you bring everything into focus.

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