Taking the Stand: Companies Are Reassessing the Role of Exhibitions in Marketing, and Grabbing the Chance to Prove Their Worth in Promoting a Consistent Corporate Image

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TAKING THE STAND

Just where do exhibitions fit into the marketing mix? It is a question occupying many of the major 80s exhibitors. Indeed, in a time of tightened budgets, face-to-face activity (the industry description for direct communication with customers) and its importance as a marketing tool is coming in for some hard reassessment and careful evaluation.

Yet this state of affairs is not causing doom and gloom in the exhibition business - it has had quite the reverse effect, in fact. Apparently companies welcome the opportunity to demonstrate the commercial effectiveness of this activity and its use as an active element in promoting a consistent corporate image.

British Telecom (BT) has been actively considering its exhibition strategy for the past five years. Its philosophy is to build a consistent image but in fewer forums and deliver it to a more highly concentrated target audience.

Imagination, a leading face-to-face consultancy, has worked with BT since it first began to reassess its entire communications process. The original aim, according to Imagination director Richard Zucker, was to create a look that supported the BT brand - something that could be adapted across all BT exhibition activity and also worked within its permanent facilities.

"We had to create an image that could span the very wide diversity of BT's products and services," says Zucker. To meet this brief, Imagination devised components that can be used at any size of exhibition but which, at the same time, consistently relate to what Zucker describes as "BT's public face".

Internally, BT views its exhibition strategy as just one element of a whole communications mix. "We are defining requirements more," says BT marketing manager Bill Murray. "Any show has to be justified against marketing objectives and not attended purely for historical reasons," he adds.

Murray is looking for more than straight lead-generation from exhibitions. "We are using them as a foundation for a relationship," he says. "Our aim is to increase the level of dialogue with senior customers."

To this end BT, with Imagination and other agencies, has developed a comprehensive policy for major shows including increased staff training and a tailored approach to stand visitors, supported by workshops and seminars.

It is a policy that seems to be working. At the recent Communications 90 exhibition, not only were sales leads up by 120% compared with two years ago, but more importantly from Murray's viewpoint, the length of time visitors spent on the BT stand also dramatically increased. "If you talk to the right person with the right message, an exhibition can be an effective niche marketing tool," he says.

Imagination works on a retained fee basis with BT - still fairly unusual in the exhibition world but one that allows the agency to work progressively with the client and with all its other marketing service agencies. "It ensures that every piece of communication from BT, be it direct mail, video, advertising or an exhibition, looks and sounds the same," says Zucker.

The necessity of pitching competitively for jobs on a one-off basis has always been an industry gripe but Nick de Bois, managing director of Rapier Design, believes that the tide is now turning. "As clients come to recognise the role the exhibition can play, so they are beginning to look to their agencies for long-term relationships. It makes sense in terms of consistency and is better value for money."

The exhibition does seem to be a latecomer to the marketing ball. "It has been left in isolation for too long. Yet it can be a key element in a marketing strategy," claims de Bois.

Rapier recently worked with BSB in coordinating a planned programmed of activity combining video, presentations, interactive video and exhibitions as part of an overall marketing push. "The client recognised that an exhibition could be used as a tactical tool," says de Bois. …