Exhibiting Talent

Companies planning exhibitions must treat them in the same way as advertising or direct marketing campaigns – and ensure they are integral to overall strategy. Evan Ivey, an experienced show organiser, explains

The good thing about choosing marketing, rather than sales, for a career is that you end up being responsible for developing exhibitions rather than having to man them. And since there are more ways to cock up an exhibition than you can wave a stick at, this is one fact for which I’m eternally grateful.

What I will set out here is not a list of handy hints – the dos and don’ts of exhibiting. This is a plea to integrate. To take a strategic view. To treat exhibitions with the same careful market planning that we take for granted with advertising and direct marketing campaigns.

When strategically planning your presence, start with the basic facts of life. Exhibitions provide a unique opportunity for your customers, existing and potential, to come face to face with you, your products and your brand in an environment you control. It is a vital and valuable “brand moment”.

So don’t think of your stand, or your presence at any show, as a one-off event. Exhibitions are a part of the communications mix, their role needs to be defined and that depends on what you are trying to achieve – not just at that show, but with your marketing plans for the year.

The choice of exhibition, its theme, the displays and even the conduct of the stand personnel should be driven by the marketing objectives. If you don’t approach it this way round you’ll end up going to events and then trying to make them work for you, rather than having a clear view of why you are there and what will constitute a success. It’s about strategic planning.

And I did say “choice of exhibition”. You don’t have to be at a show just because your competitors are, or because you always go. But it is only when you see exhibitions as one part of the mix that you can make a judgment about whether the spend is worthwhile or could be more wisely invested.

The marketing strategy should also provide specific objectives for the exhibition itself. It sounds obvious but you only have to walk round a few industry events to wonder whether some people get even this far. While it’s likely the aims will be sales-related there can be many nuances: from targeting key customers to introducing services to a new market; from launching a new range for a new target age group to demonstrating how existing products can be tailored or combined to provide bespoke solutions.

Such objectives are less to do with selling and more to do with marketing. In the examples given above what you’ll achieve is the gradual re-education of key audiences to your brand strengths – a marketing goal, not a quick kill.

This process is one that we describe as identifying the exhibition’s “single-minded purpose”. Every stand should have one in much the same way as advertising has a single-minded proposition.

What you find is that being clear about a specific marketing aim means that the focus is on achieving it. This is when exhibitions work. It’s tempting to kill two or more birds with one stone or to be all things to all men. But it’s an approach that’s likely to fail.

Having set clear objectives derived from an understanding of the role for a given exhibition, the next stage is consider the stand itself.

A stand is there to express the brand visibly, display the products and facilitate access to those products. Content has to come before design. What are you trying to say and how do you want to say it? What are you showing and how do you show it? Are customers expected to be able to use the products or just look at them? And how do you “show” a service? Once these issues, based on the original strategy, are resolved, the stand can be conceived.

Taking this sort of strategic approach should not preclude stunning design, but it is not the be all and end all either. Communicat ing clearly is the point, not fulfil ling some design student’s fantasy.

The problem with designers is they think in design terms, and if they get to call the shots, you’re doomed. And they often do – simply because we depend on them for structural and material guidance.

If you give them an open brief to “do something wonderful” you’ll soon find them telling you that it’s not the stand that is important, but the space between the stands that matters.

The watchword, as far as stand design goes, is to develop the design for effectiveness, not just effect. Effective design is based on a number of factors: the first is the need to physically identify with the product or service. Although good design will inherently attract people, the stand’s primary function is to say “this is us, this is what we stand for and here we are”. After all, you’ve got to attract the right people, which might mean excluding some.

Another significant factor is message presentation. If a single-minded purpose has been established then the stand theme and any copy panels should articulate it. In business and trade shows the message is often complex and the design may need to allow appropriate access: to product, to information, to people. If intimate discussion with customer VIPs is essential, this element of design may overshadow all other aspects.

Everybody wants customers to visit their stand. But it is customers or prospects that one wants, not leaflet hunters. Which is why quality rather then quantity should be the guiding principle. It’s like buying media space. You won’t be happy with 1 million readers seeing your ad, if they are not in your target market.

Attracting customers should be done before the event and be properly planned within the terms of the objectives.

In business and trade shows, for example, personal invitations form a key element of pre-exhibition planning. This is obvious – but sometimes overlooked. Inviting potential customers should be treated as a direct mailing campaign, fully integrated with the exhibition, while the marketing task set for this should reinforce messages and themes.

Often, the problem is that the space and construction costs are so large that there is little left for effective communication with the target market beforehand. But any investment is worthwhile. The visible costs may be high, but so are the invisible costs of exhibiting – primarily management and salesforce time.

The opportunity cost of this time should be carefully considered when planning events. If it were, we might actually see companies deciding to exhibit less and spend their money more wisely elsewhere rather than skimping on the communications details – but that’s another story.

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