When everything from the invitation and registration desk, to the table napkins and menus are in-your-face blue and orange, delegates can have no doubt about the branding of the conference they are attending. All that remains is to ensure that the message of the event is equally strong, so that the two are inextricably linked.
The blue and orange colours represent Kent Thameside Association, which held the last in a series of conferences around Europe at Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London. Kent Thameside was created to embrace two boroughs, Dartford and Gravesham, and is benefiting from a massive regeneration project headed by Whitecliff Properties.
Whitecliff Properties director of marketing Hugo Peel says: “Kent Thameside started as a virtual region and is only now moving into reality.
“Because it is young, and the brand values are still emerging, we have to lean more heavily on the wheel to get it to spin, so we cannot overplay our hand.”
Everything to do with the event emphasised Kent and things Kentish, from the companies that designed and printed conference material, to Kentish Fayre, which produced the meal, including wines from Chapel Down vineyard in Kent. Even the stage lighting moved through various shades of blue and orange, depending on who was speaking.
“The centre’s designers really took up the cudgels,” says Peel. “The set was excellent and the sophisticated lighting equipment allowed a variety of tones reflecting the base colours.”
Commercial director of the QEII centre Gill Price says recognition of the importance of branding has developed enormously: “A conference is a marketing opportunity, a chance to form a partnership with sponsors, and branding has become more important as organisers work to ensure people link the success of the event with the sponsor.”
A conference’s style of branding must be appropriate for its delegates. Price says: “Look at your audience and ascertain what it will find acceptable.”
Brand values must be consistent with how the event is run. Lois Jacobs, European chairman of Caribiner International, says: “It is important to make sure companies define what their brand stands for and communicate that effectively throughout the event. If a company espouses equality but then flies its senior staff to an event by business class and its more junior staff by economy, it is not supporting the brand’s values.”
There is also a persuasive argument for subtly expressed brand values. Marks & Spencer’s sponsorship of the Self Portrait Zone at the Dome is a good example of non-intrusive branding. “A lot of people have speculated about why M&S paid large sums of money for branding that is so subtle,” says Jacobs. “But M&S is happy with that because it reflects the company’s presence in the community.”
M&S wanted to sponsor something community-based and linked its sponsorship of the Self Portrait Zone with Children’s Promise, a charity created by M&S and the New Millennium Experience Company. The company asked the nation to give an hour’s earnings to the charity.
Tracey Nelson, manager of the Millennium Project for M&S, says: “Research showed that 83 per cent of visitors to the zone knew that Marks & Spencer had sponsored it. And we raised £18.5m for the charity.”
Subtlety works for some but generally, hosts and sponsors of conferences do not want to leave delegates in any doubt about their identity or involvement in the event.
Fiona Brown, senior consultant for Pettifor Morrow, has organised the Investing in Biotechnology event for eight years, during which the conference has grown from 100 to 400 delegates. Brown says: “We change the artwork every year but the name stays the same.
“The conference has its own personality and we have built the Investing in Biotechnology brand, which reflects well on sponsors Chase H&Q and International Biotechnology Trust,” she says. “There is no point having low-key branding because we want the message up there in front of participants all the time.
“Delegates attend because the conference attracts people they want to talk to. We have created a strong brand which represents their interests,” adds Brown.
Marketing and strategy director for The Marketing Organisation Jerry Smith expands on this view: “Although the brand is of key importance, it needs to live alongside the message of the conference. There needs to be a common look and feel throughout. Consistency is everything.”
Smith says that many conferences have become brands in their own right, a subsidiary to that of the organising company. This is important where there is a major sponsor. “Where there is so much focus on a sponsor, the organiser’s brand is reduced – so before the event, the host has to ensure that it is recognised by delegates as the conduit.”
He stresses the importance of presenting the brand in a way that is congruous with brand values. But he says: “A flexible approach is also vital. Guidelines on use of brand logos in two-dimensional media such as print, do not always apply to three-dimensional use in conferences. Organisers have to remember every interaction with their target audience is an opportunity to build the brand.”
This does not apply so strongly to internal conferences, where delegates are living the brand daily, and a theme may be more appropriate.
Hertz Europe recently held a conference at Disneyland Paris for European franchisees from 45 countries. Hertz Europe sales administration manager Anne Smith says: “Branding was low-key because the presentation only lasted three hours. We split delegates into groups and gave them the opportunity to ask us questions.”
And was there a conflict of interest between strong, reliable car rental brand values and Mickey Mouse? No. “We chose the venue because of the quality of the facilities and the level of professionalism, combined with the fun of the theme park,” says Smith. “It worked well.”
What’s in a name?
In some cases, brand colours are so strongly associated with a product or service that the name becomes superfluous: the purple of cigarette brand Silk Cut is a case in point.
And the converse also applies. Volkswagen paid £470m for Rolls-Royce and Bentley Motor Cars two years ago. The motor manufacturer has launched two models since, but more important, it is owner of the brand that represents a global yardstick in quality.
Clever branding can also be used to considerable advantage where an image problem has been overcome. Events company Furneaux Stewart was brought in to relaunch the Hay Reward Conference, the annual event of Hay Management Group, best known for employee assessment and reward.
“We discovered that no one had thought through the company branding,” says communications director Nick Swallow. “Reward does not constitute money alone, and we had a complex message to put across because people are looking for a number of items: flexibility, choosing their working hours, a pension, and more.”
The conference was renamed Love or Money, to reflect some of the more intangible elements of reward, and this appeared on everything from invitations and literature to the stage. Furneaux Stewart’s involvement embraced the entire conference, even speech writing.
“We conducted an exit questionnaire,” says Swallow. “The conference had not previously been rated a success. This year, delegates gave relevance of topics 70 per cent, screen and presentation got 4.8 out of five, and the conference was rated 3.8 out of five.
“People got the message and the payout is that Hay is seen as being an expert not just in financial pay motivation, but in the emotional side of employment too.”
“The literature and the name badges were heavily branded and the staging was branded Love or Money, not Hay. Delegates commented on the good balance of the conference and the fact that Hay did not oversell itself. Once you have a captive audience, it is important not to overdo the branding.
“We wanted delegates to understand the issues rather than sell the idea that Hay can change the world.” Which goes to show that a little branding can go a long way.
Mark Elgar, head of sales and marketing for live events company Barsby Prince & Partners, suggests a checklist for branding conferences: