If the January 2019 Federal Shutdown has revealed anything, it’s that the best laid marketing plans may fall to the wayside in the need to react to changing dynamics of the market. A solid marketing plan focused on brand awareness, strategic outreach, and effective communication tools can handle any fluctuations and bumps in the road. A strong brand perception among your customers can ease anxieties, knowing that solutions exist when budgets and timelines are in turmoil.
As part of Market Connections’ ongoing efforts to help its clients, we often tap into the great ideas of other thinkers in the marketplace and try to bring it home for public sector marketers. A recent LinkedIn article by Ironclad Brand Strategy’s Principal, Lindsay Pedersen, got us thinking: What should one do to develop a brand strategy that can weather the ups and downs and layers of uncertainty? According to Ms. Pedersen one should “define the target customer and the competitive frame of reference.”
Over the years, some of our clients have broken into the federal market almost by accident by producing commercial solutions that help address a public sector issue. In these cases, sales teams experienced great success by being the first in, bringing a new technology or solution to bear in a way that hadn’t yet been considered. Thus, enlightened public-sector buyers saw the potential and worked hard within their organizations to justify its value in a traditionally rule-bound, risk-averse setting.
However, as other players came into the market, the “first in” vendor wasn’t connecting like it used to. While they had identified the customer, built some brand awareness and started understanding the competitive frame of reference, what they didn’t have was the right way to talk to the federal buyers. Their potential market had expanded beyond the early adopters and the commercial messaging rooted in bottom line rewards did not resonate in an environment focused on mission, service and public good.
For those clients who have experienced some success and need to break through to the broader federal market (whether new altogether, or bringing new offerings), we suggest THREE key steps, building on Pedersen’s first two:
- Define the target customer: Is the whole federal market right for you and your offering?
Who is your target customer? Are you trying to break through or increase the offerings you provide in the federal market? Would they benefit from the products or services you provide? Does your product offer solutions to their challenges? Do you truly understand their pain points?
For those focused on making the federal market a part of their business strategy, this takes on an additional meaning. Are you targeting the federal market as a whole? Are you focused on a particular product category for the federal market? Are you focused on a type of agency or a specific agency? Whether broad or specific, contractors must consider not only pain points and challenges, but what it means to work with the federal government including mission, processes and timelines. Will your product or service be viable in the federal market? To find out, it’s important to go right to the source.
However, companies looking to break into the federal market may find it difficult to gather this type of information directly. Those looking to break into this market or looking to bring a new offering to federal audiences may want to consider a market opportunity assessment to help them make informed decisions around whether to keep, eliminate, or enhance offerings. This type of study provides a profile of the federal market, specific target audiences and titles that offer the strongest potential for success, market needs within the framework of the offering and characteristics and features of the offering that resonate the strongest in the market.
Once companies have a firm understanding of their federal customer, their unique challenges and mission goals; and having a confirmation that the products and services they offer can benefit this customer, the contract and the mission; the next step is to understand how they are perceived by federal decision-makers, especially in comparison to other contractors in the same space.
- What is the Competitive Frame of Reference: Are you working in an environment with strong incumbents, new players, or a mix of the two (and what do customers think about them?)
As Pedersen points out, the second part of preparing is defining the competitive frame of reference. Who are your top competitors? What differentiates you, your services and products from theirs? What are your competitors’ weaknesses and where are their strengths?
To understand your customer and competition better, Pedersen recommends conducting customer interviews. She points out to small focus groups or interviews conducted over the phone. However, in the federal market, as many of our clients can point out, getting honest feedback from customers, especially if those contractors sit among their clients day in and day out, can prove to be difficult, if not impossible. Working together with a third-party firm may help in getting honest feedback about current customers while also looking into the satisfaction of service of contracts whose incumbents you’d like to unseat.
If clients are interested in winning new contract work, it is key to do this type of contract evaluation prior to when the RFP has been issued. A minimum of 12 to 18 months prior is recommended. Seasoned contractors know that once the RFP or RFI has been released, it is nearly impossible to get any feedback from agency decision-makers.
This type of research can provide key insights that could help shape a proposal based on current or past challenges or even future expectations and help you understand how you can position yourself to differentiate yourself, your products and your messaging from those of your competitors.
- Tailor your message: Are you talking the talk WHILE you walk the walk?
Your offering is viable in the market, and you have insight into the unique challenges of the customer and how you can differentiate from the competition, now is the time to focus on the framework of your messaging.
To ensure the messaging resonates, the best next step is to do some message testing. Whether you are investing in concept, communications, advertising, logo, tagline or name testing, having feedback from your customer/prospect ensures that you are delivering the right tone that addresses their key challenges and pain points.
This is especially true in the federal market. Experienced federal marketers understand that developing messaging for this market is not as simple as taking corporate marketing materials and simply adding a federal agency name in place of other customers. To truly reach and resonate with public sector clients, in addition to understanding their pain points and criteria, those seeking to reach federal audiences must develop marketing materials and assets with the right tone and language formatted for the channels in which they will be most visible. An example of this is seen in how a company addresses how their solution may “support the mission,” a concept less heard of in the corporate/commercial markets.
However, getting the deep insights needed to develop their brand framework as laid out in the three steps mentioned above can be difficult – not only for contractors who are trying to break into the market, but even for trusted vendors who sit next to their federal clients day-to-day. To get these insights, we recommend using a neutral and objective third-party who can uncover honest feedback on messaging and articulate the needs and expectations of federal audiences. By evaluating impact and effectiveness of messaging appeal, credibility, relevance, and usability, contractors can create campaigns with messages that address federal clients’ needs. This will strike a deeper chord with their federal audiences, motivating them to act on that messaging.
This way, contractors seeking strong brand recognition for their company and offerings in the federal market can have solid data to help them make key decisions. They understand their target audience and how that audience will respond to their offerings, how they fit within and differentiate from the competition, and key messages that resonate with their audience to help them stand out from the noise. Having this information will ensure that strategies they put in place in the federal market will be successful and provide a stronger ROI for their investment.
Learn more about Market Connections services to support your brand strategy framework: