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Message Makeover: How a Communications Audit Can Make Your Clients Look Like They Sound and Act Like They Mean It

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By Eric Swartz, TaglineGuru

If you’re in the business of message development, your mission is to discover who your clients are, what makes them special, and why the world should care.

Piece of cake, right?

Sure, but that’s only the half of it. Your next step is to craft a compelling message, align it to your client’s stakeholders, integrate it across all relevant media and marketing channels, and package it for maximum impact and appeal.

Tall order?

Not really. It doesn’t matter whether your client is a major brand like the Pillsbury Doughboy, or a no-name neophyte who can’t register a blip on the proverbial radar screen. In either case, your job remains the same: to create a message that will resonate, find traction, and cause a stir.

Armed with a strong vision and a consistent brand message, your client will be better prepared to compete aggressively in the marketplace and properly positioned to occupy a more prominent place in the customer’s mind.

In a war of words and perceptions, the question is: what do you need to know to give your client, or even yourself, a successful message makeover?

Laying The Groundwork.

In my early days as a communications consultant, I used to ask my clients a litany of questions. My philosophy was simple: the more I learned, the greater confidence I had in my recommendations. Although I haven’t strayed far from my original mission, there’s a methodology to my madness. Today, I ask fewer, but more probing, questions, and follow these simple rules:

If a question doesn’t yield insights into your client’s branding, positioning, and competitive advantage, don’t bother to ask it.

Find the “right” people to interview and direct your questions accordingly.

Get top-down buy-in before initiating the interview process, and build broad consensus before submitting your recommendations.

The reality is, you can spend hours and hours with your clients and learn absolutely nothing of value because they’ve told you absolutely nothing of value.

It’s like throwing raw meat to a vegetarian.

Who you interview is just as important as the questions you ask. Find out what your audit participants do functionally and strategically, how long they’ve been doing it, and how much of a stake they have in their organization.

Make sure your clients take ownership of this process. Without their wholehearted support, there’s a strong likelihood your carefully crafted messaging will be relegated to a dusty shelf. Simply remind them what a valuable role they play in shaping the ultimate message and ensuring a successful outcome.

The process of extracting priceless gems of information is what I call a “communications audit.” It can also be called a marketing audit, a marcom audit, or a brand audit. It’s all the same thing. Actually, obtaining information or facts is fairly straightforward. Opinions and attitudes are more elusive to pin down.

What Is A Communications Audit?

A communications audit is a strategic tool designed to help organizations achieve consensus regarding their primary positioning and messaging, and, in so doing, fulfill their vision and build stronger stakeholder relationships.

The concept of an audit is based on the principle that all communications should be consistently aligned with an organization’s values and objectives, its market opportunities, and its customers’ needs.

The purpose of an audit is to convert market positioning into tangible messages that reveal who your clients are, the problems they solve, and why their customers need them now. It’s also designed to set them apart from the pack and redefine the competition to their best advantage.

The audit should focus on the message itself, not on the channel that delivers it. In this sense, it should be viewed as a blueprint for creating excellence in communications, and a critical benchmark for evaluating the effectiveness of an ongoing communications program.

Conducting An Audit.

The audit questionnaire may be administered in-person or by telephone, or completed electronically by your designated participants. I find the face-to-face interview to be the most effective way to elicit thoughtful responses. As long as you keep your line of questioning friendly and conversational, your informants will be relaxed and receptive.

Make sure the person you interview has a clear understanding of your objectives and is not disturbed by incoming phone calls. A quiet conference room is preferable to an office where deadlines are a constant reminder. Finally, let your audit participants know ahead of time how long the interview will take so they can block out the necessary time.

For reasons that are quite clear, I recommend that you interview people individually. Long ago, I consented to conduct a group audit with a company president and two of his direct reports. Afraid to go out on a limb, the reporting VPs merely echoed the sentiments of their boss. To say the least, the results were monolithic, not prolific.

By the way, if you conduct your audit electronically, be prepared to experience delays. As supportive as your clients claim to be, they will often wait until the last minute, give you sketchy and unsatisfying answers, and create additional follow-up work for you. Although this is a worst-case scenario, it happens more often than I’d like to admit.

Finally, to save time and distribute the burden, encourage your participants to take the lead on certain questions relative to their own expertise. For greater control, assign them specific questions to answer.

Who To Interview.

The audit should be completed by at least three, but no more than five, people in an organization, with as little overlap as possible in role or job function. Possible interviewees include the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Chief Operating Officer (COO), Chief Information Officer (CIO), Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO), or Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), plus the Heads of Sales, Business Development, or Competitive Intelligence.

If your client is a start-up or flat organization that runs a tight ship and has fewer than a hundred employees, make sure its CEO is included in the mix. You don’t want to find yourself one enchilada short of a combination plate. It’s also advisable to leverage the expertise of influential evangelists, opinion leaders, or gold-collar workers. Although they may lack a fancy title, their knowledge is broad and they can really deliver the goods.

One final note: encourage your audit participants to maintain a fair and forthright perspective with regard to their organization’s strengths, weaknesses, and competitive assets. An audit is only as good as the judgment that informs it.

The Audit Report.

The final deliverable of a communications audit is a written report that outlines your client’s brand positioning and messaging, and frames it within a competitive context. The goals of the report are to:

  • Condense and integrate all responses so your client speaks with one clear and single voice.
  • Flesh out your client’s positioning, value proposition, and competitive advantage.
  • Articulate your client’s overarching brand promise, character, affinity, and personality.
  • Spell out your client’s core message in detail.

An audit can be easily modified and updated. As a strategic benchmark, it will become increasingly more valuable as your client’s business plan evolves, and the competitive environment begins to shift. The final document should be reviewed carefully by your participants to ensure it is clear and consistent, and free of conflict or controversy. Ultimately, the goal is to get everyone on the same page.

The audit is an ideal platform for initiating branding activity (e.g., logo, naming, tagline, etc.) and implementing specific changes to message hierarchy, alignment, integration, and packaging. The report should provide the language and direction that an internal marketing department or outside agency would need to create and launch a new marketing, advertising, or promotional campaign.

The Audit Questionnaire.

For purposes of discussion, I have divided the audit questionnaire into eight sections, the whole of which is designed to reveal the nature of all branding and competitive positioning. Within each section are specific questions to ask your clients. Since I have culled these best-of-breed questions from numerous sources over the years, I wish to thank the many branding, positioning, and communications strategists from whom I have borrowed liberally.

The eight sections of the questionnaire are:

Vision What is your purpose?
Values What do you stand for?
Concept What business are you in?
Differentiation How are you unique?
Promise What solution do you sell?
Benefit What are your core strengths and advantages?
Motivation What compels people to buy and use your products?
Expression What distinguishes the way you sell/provide service?


One cannot underestimate the importance of having a strong vision. It defines the very purpose of your organization. It is a reflection of your culture and belief system, and serves as a barometer of the values shared by your stakeholders. A bold vision stands alone -- independent of external factors such as market share, profit, or competitive climate. Inextricably woven into your brand message, a vision is the golden thread that connects your organization’s past to its future.

  • Why does your organization exist? What is its essential purpose?
  • What motivates and inspires your employees to work for, and remain loyal to, your organization?
  • What is your organization striving to become?
  • What is the most important, long-term goal that engages and challenges your entire team?

Your values form the unshakable foundation of your vision. Determine which ones are revered and shared within your organization. Remember, they’re not core values if you decide to drop them because they cost too much or put you at a competitive disadvantage. Values are universal and timeless, and create a strong affinity with those who believe in your organization. Values, and the standards they uphold, provide insight into your organization’s brand character.

  • What are the fundamental beliefs and principles that stand the test of time and guide your organization’s behavior?

The concept that underlies a business enterprise is rarely explored and seldom explained to laypeople. Find out more about the industry space in which your client operates, and the niche they claim to fill. By knowing what make them tick and what drives them to succeed, you’ll have a greater understanding of their sense of place and destiny in the grand scheme of things.

  • What business are you in?
  • What is the business concept or rationale behind your enterprise? Why is this important?
  • What is your overriding mission?
  • Why do you think you’re a player in the business you’re in?

If you can’t point to the “one” thing that separates you from the pack, your message will never assume a position of relative importance inside your customer’s already crowded and confused mind. Differentiation cannot be based on self-discovery alone. It’s contingent on how your customers perceive you in relation to your competitors, and how your competitors position themselves in relation to you. While triangulation of these perceptions is complex, it supplies the richest data for building a powerful brand message and a solid market position.

  • What is the one thing that makes your organization unique?
  • How do you separate yourself from the pack?
  • What words or attributes would you use to describe your organization? Rank them in order of importance.
  • In which category are you first, or would like to be first?
  • If you could own one exclusive word in your customer’s mind, what would it be?
  • What words or attributes do your customers use to describe your organization? Rank them in order of importance.
  • What words or attributes do your competitors use to define your organization? Which ones have the most sticking power?
  • Are there any misconceptions you’d like to see changed?
  • Who are your main competitors? Rank them in order of market importance/influence.
  • What are their respective core strengths?
  • What words or attributes do you think your competitors own in the prospect’s mind?
  • Are your competitors positioning themselves in a particular way? What claims are they making?

What are your competitors’ core weaknesses? In what ways are they vulnerable?

If you’re a successful organization, you have an overarching brand promise that your customers can take to the bank. Why? Because they know exactly what to expect every time they interact with you. Fulfilling your brand promise means achieving consistency, solving problems, and delivering satisfaction.

  • What solution do you sell?
  • What problem do you solve?
  • What do you promise and deliver on?

How do you stack up in the marketplace? What’s your true advantage over Brand X and Company Y? Can you explain the value of your organization or service? When all is said and done, your marketing message needs to be informed by a powerful customer end-benefit, and fueled by a competitive advantage that can cut through the clutter.

  • What are your organization’s core strengths and advantages? Rank them in order of importance.
  • How do you define quality?
  • What are the benefits of doing business with your organization? Which benefit is most important? Why?
  • What are the benefits of your service? Which benefit is most important? Why?
  • Are any of these benefits unique to your organization and service?
  • Do you stress any attributes or benefits that your competitors do not?
  • What are your company’s core weaknesses? What are you doing to address or overcome them?

How well do you know the motivations, intentions, needs, and emotions of the people who purchase and use your service? Do you have a strategy for connecting with them on a deeper level? What are you saying to attract their attention, arouse their interest, and inspire them to take action? Successful brand messages are codified with symbols or signals whose meanings are understood on a tacit level. When you’re speaking in “code,” your message stands an excellent chance of hitting the right buttons.

  • Who “purchases” your service? Describe them.
  • What motivates them to buy your service?
  • What are their main concerns or hot buttons?
  • What are their main objections to your service?
  • Who doesn’t buy your service, and why?
  • Are there other gatekeepers and influencers in the decision making process? Describe them.
  • What are their main concerns and hot buttons?
  • Who are the “users” of your service? Describe them.
  • What are your users’ main concerns or hot buttons?
  • What motivates them to use your service?
  • How does your service help users do their job faster, easier, and more cost-effectively?
  • What are users absolutely tired of or frustrated by? Why do they need your service now?
  • Is there a need or problem users don’t even realize they have?
  • What are your users’ main objections to your service?
  • Who doesn’t use your service, and why? Describe them.

You brand is expressed in many ways, but none quite as important as how you treat your customers. Since your sales and customer service groups are on the frontline, they’re important ambassadors of your brand. Is their message aligned with your organization’s vision and values? Do their pledges, policies, and procedures accurately reflect your brand character and personality? Once you’re satisfied with how your customers experience your brand, proceed with confidence to brand the experience.

  • What is your strategy for retaining customers?
  • What is your strategy for rewarding loyal customers?
  • What is your customer service philosophy?
  • What is your customer pledge or guarantee?
  • How do you define superior service?
  • How do you evaluate and measure customer satisfaction?


The communications audit has proven to be a useful tool for strengthening an organization’s brand and market position. As a platform for amplifying important marketing messages, the audit is extremely flexible and modular, easy to revise, and a convenient reference point for both consultant and client.

Naturally, there are other important questions to ask besides the fifty or so on which I’ve focused. Whether you conduct an extensive or abbreviated audit, you’ll obtain the best results by establishing a close rapport with your informants and retorting occasionally with that tried-and-true question, “why is that?”

Each client is unique. Some are informative and articulate; others need a lot of prodding. Before you rush to do an audit, size up your subjects to find out whether they’re game for this sort of thing.

The biggest challenge you face is whether your clients will embrace and implement your audit’s findings and recommendations. I believe they will if you can pass the “rigor and vigor” test. Use a rigorous framework for mining the data and crafting the message, and use a vigorous approach for resolving conflict and building consensus.

In most instances, you’ll be enhancing a brand, shifting a position, and tweaking a message. If you’re really lucky, you’ll run into a client who wants you to bake something from scratch. Either way, you can count yourself successful when your clients are living up to their brand promise, competing on a higher level, and acting like they’re the best thing since sliced bread.

©2004 Eric Stephen Swartz. All rights reserved.

This article first appeared in the November 2004 issue of The Business To Business Marketer, published by the Business Marketing Association. It also appeared in the January 2005 issue of Sound Bytes, published by High Tech Connect.