Optimize My Brand

Strategy, tactics, ideas and tips from Creative Company.

Kill the RFP, look for brand expertise

How do you find true brand expertise?

You’re ready to review your marketing program. Perhaps it’s time to restage your brand to reach new markets. Or  your marketing isn’t delivering response any more. Or new leadership wants a fresh look at the brand.

Whatever the reason, you need a consultant or a firm, someone with true brand expertise, who will work with your staff to produce an outstanding result everyone will be proud of. Right?

brand expertise can eliminate ending up with a camelOne approach is to develop a Request for Proposal or RFP

RFPs are common in government work, where there are many layers and procedures to follow based on purchasing and procurement rules and contract requirements.

It’s also a frequent (and industry recommended) approach in higher education. When a college or university is looking for a partner to assess where they are and create a more cohesive look or a fresh approach to student recruitment. (Which is marketing, of course.)

Other organizations, usually those with committees or boards to review the potential firm, will use an RFP to cast a wide net to have as many choices as possible.

My response … a camel is a horse designed by a committee. And an RFP will probably give you a camel when you wanted a horse. 

An RFP often includes unrelated requests and vague ideas that don’t make sense when they’re all added together. Then the final decision is frequently made by a group of people with opionins, but not the knowledge or experience to evaluate effectively.

There’s risk when buying brand expertise

After all, an RFP is written because the needed skills are not available in-house. Without those marketing, branding or strategic thinking skills, how do you evaluate the unknown?

Looking for brand expertise is a far cry from asking for a proposal for a new piece of equipment. With equipment, specific features can be compared and bottom line prices evaluated.

But with “soft” skills including creativity, strategic thinking and brand expertise, it’s not possible to tally and compare the same way.

In the words of one agency management consultant,

“There are two paths to mitigating this risk: one can be summarized as ‘do your homework’ and the other as ‘spread the risk.’ Too many clients choose to spread the risk by sending ill-considered RFPs to multiple firms. The average RFP process incites a whole bunch of people to throw a whole bunch of hours at guessing at a problem in hopes that they’ll ultimately be the ones hired to solve the problem.”

First, consider what you’re asking

The firms responding are usually making their “best guess” at what the organization is looking for, without the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of objectives, issues, current strategies, current situation, audiences, parameters or team skills.

RFPs may ask many detailed, but probably inconsequential, questions. Or they ask for a free strategy, framed as “how would you approach the scope of work?”

For the firm responding, writing the response is a time-consuming process and ultimately a shot in the dark. And it takes attention away from existing clients. For a small firm, without staff dedicated to the process, it can be a real time suck. Good firms, those that possess the brand expertise being sought, may not bother to respond because it’s a costly gamble.

Those who respond are guessing

Even an educated guess is still a guess. Good strategy and design require homework and collaborative decisions between the client and the brand expert. A long-lasting strategy and high-impact brand program evolve as the brand consultant gains a deeper understanding of the client’s perspective, the target audiences and the program goals. No firm can provide a realistic and effective solution without that process.

Then there’s the issue of pricing. Before you build a plan, how can you provide a price? We have seen RFPs that have stated, “We produce 12 publications each year. Please give us your budget for creative development.” No needed details such as frequency, size, number of pages, timing, content, details.

Seriously? That’s like asking, “How much do you charge to build a house?” Without some kind of blueprint or detailed scope of work, it’s impossible to define the budget.

Those making the request don’t have the expertise to evaluate

Cue another bunch of people who have to read and evaluate the responses, meet and discuss, and choose those who make the cut. (More committee decisions and more time invested.)

It’s very difficult to measure responses objectively, particularly in a group. As a result, decisions are made on statistical, measurable components such as pricing. Not the best criteria to achieve the results you expect.

Better-organized and intentional companies do the advance work to make the RFP meaningful. Yet too many neglect the needed thinking and strategic perspective. Instead they shift the burden to numerous firms by distributing poorly-constructed RFPs far and wide, hoping to get lucky. Not a good way to find the brand expertise that’s needed.

Bottom line: An RFP is a time-consuming, expensive process that usually doesn’t meet the objective.

So how do you find brand expertise?

Create a one page summary as a guide

Start by putting more work in up front. On one page (only one page, not ten) clearly describe the outcome that will mean the program is successful. What are the measures of success? List the criteria for the provider, what the deal-breakers are and factors used for the final evaluation.

You’re looking for marketing, design or brand expertise. How can that be demonstrated? Then issue a brief request for an expression of interest to a small selection of firms. (RFQ or Request for Qualifications)

Rather than creating an RFP that is a mini-contract, have a conversation that could lead to a contract. Simpler, smoother and far more effective for both parties. The document you draft should serve as a guide for you, the buyer, rather than a lengthy action list for the respondent.

brand expertise delivers a winner not a camel

Wouldn’t you rather end up with a horse that wins the show instead of a camel? Get the brand expertise you seek.

Choose those who fit what you’re looking for

Next, talk to peers in your industry or other recognized experts. Who do they recommend? How have those firms performed? Ask for referrals from organizations you admire, who have achieved the kind of results you want to achieve.

Then of course, there’s Google to broaden your search. Do your homework to define your criteria, then find a handful of firms who meet the criteria and invite them for a conversation. With a bit of strategic thinking, you’ll be able to choose a winner.

Please … don’t ask for free ideas. (Which would be guesses anyway.) Ask questions that will reveal thinking, approach, methodology. Don’t insist on experience in your industry or category. Often a fresh perspective will provide a better solution to meet the objectives.

Pay attention to the people and how they interact with you. Do you admire their work? Do you trust them? Are they good listeners? Look at case studies. Ask about the results created and the approach they took.

If you’re still not sure

Before you turn over a large program or budget, you may want to test the water first.

Offer to contract with one, two or three firms on an initial project. Use that project to evaluate both the work and the working relationship. How do they communicate about everything from strategy to billing? How does the process flow? What are the results they created from that project? Pay them for their work and evaluate when the project is done.

We had one client choose their agency this way. They … and we … were happy with the result. We were paid for good work, we got the account and they implemented an effective program.

Another option is to work with the chosen firm on an initial development phase first, without committing to a full program. We have offered this first phase strategy development as an introduction and a way to get to know the client. For an organization unfamiliar with hiring brand expertise, this is a good approach without a long-term commitment.

Bottom line … do your homework. Talk to a few firms that fit your criteria. Establish a relationship. Don’t rely on a sales spiel. And try them out if you need to. Everyone will be happier. You’ll have a brand expert you can count on to perform.

A brand audit can be a good starting place

A brand audit will establish a baseline, provide an objective evaluation of where you are now, so it’s easier to frame where you would like to be. Download our brand audit overview below, or visit our website to learn more about a brand audit and marketing blueprint.

About the author

Jennifer Larsen Morrow

Jennifer's four decades of work in the industry, starting as a designer and adding marketing, copywriting and digital marketing, has generated response for clients since 1978.

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