The Why and How On Developing A Powerful Communication Brief (Part I)

Submitted by Kip on Mon, 10/11/2010

This is Part I of a two-part blog that explains what a communication brief is, why it’s important and what it contains. I’d like to thank Norm Levy from P&G for teaching me these principles when I was in brand management as well as his continuing teaching of these ideas at the U.S. Marketing Communication College.

If you’re a Spiderman fan, you may recall the moral of the second film was “With great power comes great responsibility.” The same can be said for creating and implementing a marketing message: with great brands comes great responsibility (since great brands are not an accident or freak of nature….they are the result of a lot of hard work and careful planning).

The Marketer’s Challenge - With the overwhelming myriad of marketing channel choices a marketer has these days in reaching a target audience, it’s easy to lose focus on what you’re trying to say. In Louisiana, where I grew up, the popular expression was “It’s hard to remember your goal was to drain the swamp when you’re up to your ass in alligators.” It’s no different with your marketing messaging…..if you’re not constantly focused on your strategy, there’s no telling what the execution will turn into.

Just like a roadmap can help keep you on the right track to make sure you reach your destination, a well written communication brief is critical to making sure your team stays on track in delivering your brand’s strategic message.

What’s A Communication Brief And Why Bother? Let’s begin by defining what a “communication brief” is. It’s an agreement document that guides communication across all major contact points. You’d insist on having a thorough blueprint from a trained architect before work began on building your dream house. In a similar spirit, you should ensure you’ve got a well crafted communication brief before you start crafting your marketing messaging for the brand you’re responsible for growing (and spending the considerable time and money that goes along with it).

What are the advantages of going to the trouble of writing and utilizing a communication brief? The biggest advantage is you will dramatically increase your odds of success in trying to break through the 10,000 different messages a typical consumer is exposed to every day. It will help you focus on making sure everyone who’s responsible for creating and delivering your strategic message agrees on what that message is. If you’ve going to evaluate any type of proposed creative, what exactly are you going to use to determine if it’s ready for prime time? A communication brief will help ensure all of your creative efforts are focused on the right target with the right message with the right brand character at the right time.

Other benefits to developing and utilizing a communication brief include:

  • Improving the quality of strategic communication decisions through the application of proven thought structure
  • Promoting cohesive messaging to the identified targets
  • Creating more effective messaging because the strategy is clearer and based upon disciplined consideration of the most relevant information and judgments
  • Increasing the speed of creative development because key players have a clear and common basis for both the creation and evaluation of creative work.

What’s In A Communication Brief? While I’ve seen a variety of formats used over the years, I believe a communication brief needs to contain the following information:

  • Project Description
  • Target Audience Specific
  • Objective Background/Competitive environment
  • Consumer Insights
  • Communication Strategy
    • Benefit
    • Reason to Believe
    • Brand Character
  • Media Channels
  • Measurement
  • Criteria Critical
  • Timing Approvals

Each of these topics represents a series of communication decisions you and your team need to make and stick to over time. While this process will cost you more time to in the beginning the development of a marketing campaign, the payoff in doing this consistently well is dramatic.

The balance of this blog will cover a portion of this list (from project description to consumer insights). Part II will cover what’s in a communication strategy and the balance of what’s in a communication brief (from media channels to approvals.).

Project Description - This is a one-sentence summary of what you’re trying to accomplish. For example, if you were in charge of a political campaign, it would be something like “We shall convince the voters of this state that Bill Jones is the best choice to be their next governor.” For a brand manager, it might be “We will motivate our target users to try our new liquid soap and make it their preferred choice for their bath and shower needs.” Since the communication brief is going to be read and used by everyone working on this project, it’s important to be clear from the start on what you’re focused on.

Target Audience – These are the folks you really want to make sure get and understand your key message. Your “strategic target” are those who might find your strategic benefits relevant and meaningful. In addition, you might also want to highlight your “prime prospects” (a subset of the strategic target who represent the greatest near term opportunity for success). For example, continuing our election example, the “strategic target” would be all registered voters who could vote in an upcoming election. The “prime target” might be newly registered voters who are interested in your candidate’s message.

For a brand manager, you’d want to describe your strategic and prime targets from a demographic, behavioral or psychographic perspective (or a combination of all three).

Specific Objective – How will you and the rest of your team know what success looks like? You better agree on this in advance, not when the history books are being written. Your specific objective needs to be spelt it out so there’s no debate in the future about whether you did what you set out to do.

I’ve worked on too many new brand launches to know that if you skip this step, you’re asking for trouble. What one person thinks is a huge hit is going to be viewed as another as insignificant results. Trust me, that’s not fun (especially when the Trivial Pursuit team is your senior management).

I’ve always liked the acronym “SMART” in defining such an objective, since it’s an easy to remember way to see if you’ve done your homework:

S – specific

M – measurable

A – actionable

R – realistic

T – timely

One of the greatest communication objectives in the world occurred when President Kennedy proclaimed in 1961, “I believe that this Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” It was very specific, measurable, actionable, realistic (at least according to the scientists and engineers at NASA) and timely. And it motivated an entire country to get behind the space program to reach this objective.

Continuing our political example, a specific objective might be something like: “Win a majority of the votes for the governor’s race during the upcoming November general election”. For a brand manager, it might be “Introduce our new liquid bath soap and achieve 80% awareness and 10% trial among our target audience by the end of Year 1.” The important thing is there will be no doubt as to whether you did what you set out to do.

Background/ Competitive Environment - This should include the facts and information that someone needs to know if they’re going to be working with your brand. The challenge in writing this section of this document is to include enough info to get them up to speed without overwhelming them with too many details. Focus on a succinct summary of the facts that are key to getting up to speed on your specific communication challenge.

Consumer Insight - This is often confused with “consumer understanding”. There’s an important difference between the two that you need to keep in mind. Consumer understanding is based on an in-depth study of your target audience. It involves a lot of time, effort and often money. Rob Malcolm, one of my first bosses, called it “crawling around in the numbers”.

And that’s just what it means….really trying to understand what’s going on in your target’s head so you can begin to comprehend how they are going to react to your brand’s message. Consumer insights are based on consumer understanding. Even if you spend enough time and effort, you won’t necessarily get a consumer insight.

That’s because a consumer insight has to come from within you, not from a consumer or a research report. It’s an “a ha!” moment in which you “connect the dots” and, with this insight, you’re able to develop really powerful messages that will resonate with your target.

For example, when P&G was developing the communication brief for Folger’s coffee, there was a lot of work that went into developing consumer understanding on coffee drinking habits. One of the consumer understandings was people drink coffee as part of a daily ritual. The consumer insight was that first cup of coffee in the morning was the most enjoyable. This lead to the “Best Part of Wakin Up” campaign, which has been running for over 30 years and helped catapult Folger’s to coffee category leadership.

In my next blog entry, I’ll explain what goes into a communication strategy and why it’s critical in developing an effective communication brief. Check out the balance of this blog in “The How And Why On Developing A Powerful Communication Brief, Part II.”