How to Write an Effective Marketing Communications Brief
In my previous post I covered how to make sure you are supplied with a…
In my previous article I covered the general principles of how to write an effective marketing communications brief, but here I want to dig a little deeper to examine exactly what needs to go into a good brief. Please bear with me since this article is a little longer than usual – but I wanted to make sure that everything was covered.
The following twenty-five section headings are intended to help clarify your thinking, ensuring you have considered all the key aspects relevant to the creative agency. Rather than being a ‘mental straitjacket’, you should view the following list of section headings as a starting point, and agree with your agency how you can customise the structure that follows to best suit your joint needs. Although this may be more section headings than you are used to, the additional headings should help you to ensure that you give sufficient consideration to all aspects that will be of use to the agency creative team.
Keep this section relevant and concise, with any supporting information going in the appendix.
What is the problem that your product or service will solve? Is it a real problem that is clearly relevant to your target audience
3. What is your proposed solution to your prospect’s problem?
Bear in mind the importance of being single-minded – focusing on the key benefit (as opposed to product feature) that will solve their problem. And ask yourself – does your product or service really solve your prospective customer’s problem?
It may be the case that your product provides additional secondary benefits. However, secondary benefits can only be communicated where they do not detract focus from the single-minded proposition. Moreover, they are only relevant in media where there is sufficient space available (ie not in posters, billboards, banner ads, tweets and text messages).
If your product offers relevant secondary benefits, these should be ranked in priority order, so the agency knows which ones to incorporate first. Everyone should be clear that the secondary benefits will only be included where there is sufficient space and where they do not fight with the campaign proposition – ie that their inclusion is not mandatory. As per the primary benefit, always describe the solution in terms of what it can do for your prospect, as opposed to just providing a list of features.
A single-minded business objective will provide focus for the agency. Having several different primary objectives dilutes focus and can often cause conflict with other objectives. The relative success or failure of the campaign should only be judged in relation to the single primary objective. The business objective given must be specific to the campaign: as opposed to vague annual or quarterly business objectives. (You may choose to show corporate objectives and strategic marketing objectives in the appendix however, if you feel they provide useful context to the agency as to what underpins the campaign objective).
A common pitfall is an objective that is not ‘SMART’. In particular it must be specific and quantifiable (from what, to what, by when?) and realistic, given the budget available. Bear in mind that if you use a general objective such as sales uplift, it must be directly attributable to the campaign activity itself in order to be meaningful.
The single-minded campaign objective often falls into one of the following categories:
Direct response marketing campaigns often stipulate the required profit margin, ie how much you can afford to pay for each additional sale or enquiry.
Supplementary objectives may be included – but they must be prioritised and should not conflict with the primary objective. Everyone should be aware that these secondary objectives are ‘nice to haves’ – the failure to achieve them will not deem the campaign to be a failure, so long as the primary objective is achieved.
For example, additional secondary campaign objectives may include:
You need to define which ‘Key Performance Indicators’ (‘KPIs’) will be used to measure campaign performance. What is the pre-campaign baseline measure, ie the ‘control’ against which the performance of the campaign will be compared?
You should clarify who will measure and when (particularly important if agency remuneration includes a performance-related element).
Be precise: never submit a brief stating: “To be agreed later”. The brief should clearly specify the split between the creative and the media. How can the creative and media agencies start weighing up options if they don’t know how much they have available to spend?
The campaign budget must be realistic. Ensure you have sense-checked it against what was spent before on similar recent campaigns, and what was actually achieved. One approach is to seek the agency’s recommendations for what to spend, in order to achieve the campaign objective. Of course, it helps if you have a long-term, close relationship with the agency (as well as a ‘payment by results’ element of agency remuneration) to prevent overspending in a particular area.
Whilst not an ideal way of working (see previous section on media-neutrality), if separate budgets are tied to distinct media-types (for example, one team owns the digital marketing budget, another owns the direct marketing budget) then you should make this clear on the brief. There is no point in the agency suggesting the entire budget go into digital if part of the budget is being funded by the team that looks after direct mail!
For direct response activity, the budget is often a factor of how much you are prepared to pay in order to obtain an enquiry or a new customer.
You should outline all key milestones, such as work in progress presentation dates, and ‘hard’ deadlines such as the delivery of all campaign collateral and the campaign launch and end dates.
Describe what the product does (features) alongside the resulting benefits to the prospect. The ‘business brief’ should provide the input for the necessary product detail and specifications.
It’s useful to address the following areas (trying not to use any internal jargon):
You need to be totally honest about their strengths and weaknesses – don’t fall into the trap of downplaying their strengths. You should consider including examples of how they currently advertise (obtained from your pre-brief preparation) in the appendix, together with any indication of how it has performed for them.
The ‘brand value proposition’ (or ‘brand idea’) is the core promise the brand makes to the prospect. It should not change from one campaign to the next, and should already be in existence. Include the brand positioning sentence in your brief if you have one.
From a strategic perspective, the campaign should reinforce this core brand promise, in addition to achieving the tactical campaign objective outlined in the ‘objectives’ section of the brief.
It’s helpful if you are able to supply the agency with a ‘brand book’ explaining the brand values, the brand positioning (from the prospect’s point of view) and the longer-term aspired for positioning if this is different. It’s also useful to visually map out where the brand sits in the market, for example in terms of price/ perceived image, etc relative to the competition.
The Marketing Planning Manager (or alternatively the Marketing Research Manager if you don’t have a client-side Planning Manager) should be able to help with this section. They should be able to provide relevant customer research, in terms of both syndicated research and research individually commissioned by your company.
When writing this section, you should bear in mind that each campaign should be aimed at one target audience, with broadly similar characteristics and needs. If you want to talk to different customer groups with significantly different needs, then you also need a different brief with a different customer proposition. Each customer proposition is focused on addressing very specific customer needs.
You should write about the prospect as an individual, as opposed to talking about your audience as a general entity or a demographic profile. Describe a typical prospect as if you were describing a friend: where would they live, what do they do for a living, for fun, how do they sound, what do they look like? What are their hopes and fears? Try to see them in your mind’s eye and hear how they talk. Bring it alive: paint a vivid ‘pen portrait’ so you begin to feel like you know this person. It’s often helpful to create a set of different pen portraits for each type of key prospect – give the person a name and show an image of them. You could even consider getting people to role-play the key prospects in order to really bring them alive.
It’s particularly important that you emphasise in this section how your target audience currently feel about the product category, and what part it currently plays in their lives. Is it important to them or only of minor significance? Have they bought your particular product before – if so how frequently?
Prioritise the types of people you wish to focus on for this campaign. It often pays to split your campaign audience into two groups: the ‘prime’ prospects who are the ‘bulls-eye’ target group for your product (ie the most likely to respond) and the ‘secondary’ prospects who may be persuaded to buy. Your main focus should of course be on the ‘prime’ prospect, but do not leave out your ‘secondary’ prospects. They both comprise your campaign target audience, having broadly similar characteristics and needs, but will differ slightly – for example in terms of product usage.
Once you have defined exactly who it is you are talking to, the next requirement is to dig deeper to find out more about this group of people and how they relate to your product and product category– this is the role of customer insight. The insight gathering process should ultimately lead to one key consumer insight that will unlock the customer proposition. Bear in mind that the gathering of new insight should usually be assigned to the agency as part of the research process. However it is useful if this section of the client brief contains an overview of existing insight gained from previous research – ie. research that was conducted according to robust research methods and subjected to rigorous analysis. Be on your guard against pressure to use vague generalisations and opinion as a substitute for true insight. This can be especially prevalent in established marketing communications teams where an element of ‘group-think’ has begun to set in.
Customer insight can emerge from the following areas: psychological factors, lifestyle factors, attitudinal factors, product usage (behavioural) factors, generational factors, media habits and the nature of the purchasing decision. If you don’t have any existing insight into your target audience, then just leave this section blank rather than make something up.
You should link the prospect’s problem from the first section to the psychological/ attitudinal factors mentioned in the section above.
It helps to write this section in the first person, for example: “It would be great if…”, “My life would be easier if…”, “I’m struggling to…”, “It’s difficult for me to…”
Do they have any positive attitudes that need to be reinforced? Conversely, what are the objections or misgivings to your solution that need to be overcome?
In addition to your product/ service solution, make sure you also cover how your prospect thinks and feels about your brand before receiving your communication – particularly in relation to your competitors.
You should link the solution from the first section to the insight mentioned in the section above.
Again, write this section in the first person, so it answers the problem voiced in the previous section, for example: “Finally, now I can…”
Spell out how the objections and misgivings mentioned in the previous section can be overcome, as well as answering any related problems that were identified.
This will inform the ‘call to action’ of the communications activity. Keep it short and to the point, for example:
Outline the benefit to your target audience in clear, simple language. The customer proposition should not be ambiguous or overly clever – remember it is not written as a headline. Just make sure that it is single-minded, easy to understand and straightforward to communicate.
You should write the customer proposition from the point of view of the prospect’s life and focus on the customer benefit (as opposed to product benefit). If your product is better, faster or smaller – what is the problem that will be solved by this product superiority?
The following three-sentence structure is a useful method of expressing the customer proposition:
20. The primary support (for the single-minded proposition)
This section outlines the facts (or ‘proof-points’) which back up your single-minded proposition, in order to convince your prospect that the proposition is credible. Your campaign will need to demonstrate that you are able and willing to share the specific detail about exactly how your product is able to confer its particular advantage. For example, something innovative about the design, manufacture or distribution process. Similarly, include positive comments that influential third parties have made about your product, for example:
Avoid including anything in this section that does not directly support the single-minded proposition.
This section is the support for the ‘Secondary benefits’ section of the brief. (As per the earlier section, recall that secondary benefits must not detract focus from the single-minded customer proposition and can only be mentioned in media where there is sufficient space for an extended communication).
Where it is likely that you will be using long-form ‘conviction’ copy (such as in emails, letters, landing pages and direct mail) aimed at highly targeted prospects who you know are already interested in your product, then it is particularly important to include as many relevant secondary benefits as you can.
Use the same priority order you used previously to rank the secondary benefits: in this section provide the ‘proof-points’ that will support each one.
You should mention any offers, discounts or free-gifts in this section. Whilst it is important to include any incentives prominently in the creative, bear in mind that they are still a secondary feature and should not detract focus from the single-minded proposition.
If an offer/ incentive doesn’t currently exist, it is usually worth creating one. If the nature of the incentive is relevant to the prospect, the proposition and the product then it will complement the proposition, further enhancing its appeal.
The tone of voice reflects the product/ brand values and personality. It is based on the position the brand occupies in the mind of the prospect, and the resulting relationship they have with the brand.
The tone of voice can vary depending on your particular campaign proposition, but it should be consistent across all media within a single campaign (helping to ‘tie’ the various campaign elements together). In general you should aim for a natural, conversational tone, but make it clear if distinct customer sub-segments expect to be spoken to in slightly different ways, for example:
Outline anything that must be included in the creative execution, for example:
You should also outline anything that must be avoided, for example any product category clichés you wish to avoid, or if there is an internal policy to not make specific comparisons against competitors.
If there is an existing media plan already in place, then you should outline any executional specifications that need to be adhered to for each medium, for example size, shape, running time, resolution.
You should also clarify any guidelines that need to be followed, for example:
It is important that the following individuals sign-off the client marketing communications brief:
Do get them to physically ‘sign it off’: by doing this they fully commit themselves to the content of the brief and demonstrate their buy-in to what has been written.
The following supplementary information may be useful to the agency. There’s no need to include each of the six sections below: only those that are particularly relevant to the specific communications challenge. Anything that you feel the agency will find useful in cracking the brief. But don’t bog them down in excessive amounts of ‘nice to have’ information which is not pertinent to the task in hand. Remember you are trying to inspire them!
2. Previous campaign activity
3. The purchasing process
4. Brand strategy
5. Examples of brand communications
6. The market context
Phew – we’ve reached the end. I hope this has provided you with some useful pointers as to exactly what you should include in your marketing communications brief. But do remember – the ultimate aim of the brief is to inspire the creative agency, so make sure you word it so as to maintain the flow. As long as the information in your brief is useful, relevant and engaging they will keep reading!
If you’re interested in exploring this area in more detail (together with relevant examples), you might like my recent book ‘Successful Marketing Communications’. If you have any thoughts or comments, do drop me a line below.