Learn about integrated marketing communications and improve your product promotion

Integrated marketing communications

When you’ve tried a variety of marketing strategies, but the results are inconsistent or lackluster, it might be time to look at your communications on a higher level.

Integrated marketing communications (IMC) is a foundational concept in marketing, and it’s particularly useful for a multichannel marketing strategy. Whether you’re new to marketing or revitalizing your current efforts, implementing IMC practices can help you provide a consistent marketing message and better reach your target audience.

In this guide to integrated marketing communications, you’ll learn:

What is integrated marketing communications (IMC)?

Integrated marketing communications (IMC) is both a theory and a set of business practices that facilitate consistent messaging across channels and produce a unified brand experience for customers. This foundational marketing concept applies not only to advertising but to all forms of a business’s communication. Integrated marketing focuses on creating a consistent and positive experience for customers every time they encounter or interact with a brand.

The evolution of integrated marketing communications

The concept of integrated marketing communications has been around since the late 1980s, when modern forms of communication were becoming more dynamic. With the data-tracking ability of computers, it became possible for marketers to understand purchasing behavior and track campaigns.

This new insight into customer tastes and habits meant that marketing transformed from a one-way announcement to a two-way conversation. And with more channels of communication came multiple ways to interact with consumers. Where advertising was once a distinct and separate department, all forms of business communication began to have marketing relevance.

Since then, integrated marketing has been a field of academic research and a strategic approach to improving marketing operations with consistent and multichannel customer experiences that lead to greater brand recognition, trust, and loyalty. It has become even more important in the age of social media and mobile phones, when consumers interact with brands they care about on a daily basis.

Marketing these days is about the customer, not the business, which means that not only do communications need to be coordinated and consistent — they also need to be targeted and customized. For that reason, integrated marketing is more than consistent branding.

The benefits of integrated marketing communications

In today's marketing arena, an integrated strategy can give you a big advantage. Whether you have a strategy or not, you are likely using multiple channels — and if not, your competitors are. Companies that focus on omnichannel customer engagement grow faster than those who don’t.

The benefits of integrated marketing include:

  1. Memorability — The messages you deliver across channels are more effective when they are unified. The number of ads we see per day in 2022 is up to 10,000, so we’re more likely to remember the ones that make a consistent impression and appear on multiple platforms.

  2. Efficiency — With an integration plan, you can repurpose content and streamline production and distribution schedules. Internal assets and communications can also be streamlined. You can attach campaigns more purposefully to larger business objectives instead of relying on scattered and duplicated projects across departments with incompatible metrics.

  3. Loyalty — An important component of integrated marketing is understanding and responding to customers. People like to know what to expect. Customers keep coming back to a brand that provides a reliable positive experience at every encounter.

Integrating marketing works in tandem with public relations, corporate communications, media relations, and other common outlets for marketing messaging. It’s impossible to ignore these other forms of communication and the many ways that consumers might encounter a brand.

After all, consumer expectations have been shaped by the multiple channels they use on a daily basis. Customers learn in new ways and do their own research. They want to interact with brands in different ways and find content that is relevant to their unique needs and tastes. It can be a huge challenge for companies to manage this customer data and respond to it efficiently. With a game plan in place, your company can show up on the field the way it needs to.

Approaches to integrated marketing communications

There are various ideas about what IMC means and how it can be implemented. This list of common approaches should give you an idea of the different ways it can apply:

Consumer-oriented

This approach starts by seeking to understand consumers. Before creating content or messaging, the marketing team does research. They identify the target audience and use internal data or other tools to find out what customers need and value. The findings determine the shape of an integrated marketing communications plan.

Outsourced

One option is to hire an external team to carry out research, analytics, and content creation. They can look at what your company is trying to accomplish, how well it’s performing, and what it will take to integrate marketing communications. Then they can implement the strategy.

Horizontal

A horizontal approach is a federation of departments working together on one initiative. Management might promote an initiative across departments, including sales, PR, and corporate communications, or they can create a team and assign a leader to the project. The process can form a workflow from planning to implementation to evaluation.

Vertical

This top-down approach is not as focused on customers. A company might have a set-in-stone mission and message to convey. Starting at the C-suite, leaders can nurture excitement about new initiatives or products to employees, who then share this messaging more broadly or direct the implementation of an IMC plan.

Cross-functional

An approach growing in popularity in the digital age is to start by planning multiple touchpoints for consumers, online and in person, to create an interactive and engaging customer service experience.

Examples of integrated marketing communications

Nike

As part of a 2017 strategy to increase direct sales, Nike integrated its app and store communications. This example of integrated marketing started with careful thought about how and why customers use both channels.

Nike integrated marketing communications

The company’s innovative Nike Live stores were designed in tandem with its app. These stores are customized according to data on local customer preferences and behavior. The unique character of the store — its design and products — in Long Beach, California, matches its customer base just as the store in Japan matches the customer base there. Data from users in the area help predict sales, and customers get a seamless experience moving from digital to retail sales. The app even lets customers request fitting rooms and check out on their phones.

“The way we look at digital and in-store is not channel-by-channel, or one channel helping the other. Instead, we architected the entire notion of why someone with a phone in their pocket would walk into a store.”

Michael Martin

Global Head of Digital Products, Nike

Nike’s efforts are an example of a consumer-oriented and cross-functional approach to integrated marketing communications because it used both personalization and streamlined messaging across channels. The idea from the beginning was to create a unified experience at every touchpoint, and this lends itself surprisingly well to customization for individual users. The more reliable the messaging, the more appealing individual encounters with it can be.

And it worked. In 2019, over half of Nike’s transactions came from members, and app users averaged 40% higher sales.

Audi

In 2020, Audi launched a new brand identity to market electric vehicles globally. Head of Brand Henrik Wenders says that a company’s success depends on a “clear, holistic strategy and people who are willing to get together and make that vision come true.”

That spirit helped inspire the new slogan “Future is an attitude,” which the automaker is using to unite marketing efforts. One branch of this communications approach is a campaign called “Story of Progress” — a series of video interviews highlighting the experiences of changemakers around the world. In 2022, Audi invited local South African changemakers to share their stories.

Audi integrated marketing communications

The approach that Audi used in this campaign has some elements of both vertical and horizontal marketing approaches. The slogan “Future is an attitude” and the philosophy around it came from the top, so although the decision was probably informed by market research, the outflow of consistent branding across campaigns is an example of a vertical IMC strategy. Global consumers get a clear and consistent experience anytime they encounter communications about Audi’s electric cars.

The “Story of Progress” series also has elements of the horizontal approach because it is a result of internationally coordinated teams. The South African series had to have coherence and consistency with other videos in the campaign.

Either way, it delivers both a tailored and consistent message to global audiences, which is a significant achievement. Audi reports strong numbers despite the challenges of the pandemic and supply chain restraints in the same period.

Cisco

An integrated initiative by Cisco to improve social customer relations earned recognition in 2019. In addition to engaging with customers on different platforms, the program used sophisticated data collection, response automation, and artificial intelligence to understand a mass of input from social channels.

The company’s approach represents a two-way integration of data that allows customer comments to directly and immediately shape marketing communications consistently across platforms. When complaints about harmful product packaging came through, Cisco showed it was listening by posting a video announcing a plan to go greener, tagging those who had given the feedback.

Cisco integrated marketing communications

Cisco used some elements of the outsourcing approach by leveraging third-party tools to understand and integrate customer communications into its larger strategy. The campaign led to a measurable increase in positive sentiment and earned recognition.

Another way that Cisco has used integrated marketing is by working to create a brand identity that is associated with its social responsibility initiatives. In 2016, the company launched a branding campaign called “There’s never been a better time,” which takes an optimistic view of the future.

Cisco IMC ads

A set of customer stories highlights how the tech company’s products are helping them make the world a better place. The communication strategy extends to employees and partners. Although it’s a global campaign, variations of ads are targeted at local sensibilities. It was distributed via TV, print, and social media.

This initiative is an example of horizontal integration that extends beyond marketing and is integral to the overall communication strategy for Cisco. This consistency in messaging across channels, whether connected to products or to corporate initiatives, helps the company create a distinct character and set of values that can earn customer trust and loyalty.

How to implement integrated marketing communications

By integrating your marketing communications, your campaigns will be more effective. To adopt this strategy and execute an integrated campaign, there are a few basic steps you should follow and things to keep in mind:

  1. Establish a visual theme with codified colors, typeface, and graphics.
  2. Use emotion and storytelling to capture attention and increase engagement.
  3. Consider the history and identity of your brand.
  4. Choose a character or quality that can appear consistently through many iterations. (For example, Travelocity’s gnome is easily recognizable across its marketing communication, and The Home Depot appeals to the identity of a “doer.”)
  5. Select the voice and tone that is appropriate for your brand identity, for this campaign, and for different audience segments.
  6. Create landing pages to collect leads.
  7. Determine how you will adapt messaging for different stages of the sales journey.
Integrated marketing communications is one of the most important marketing principles to understand today — as information is more available than ever and communication happens instantaneously across the globe.

Challenges of IMC

As you implement your strategy, you may encounter some obstacles. The largest challenge by far is internal communication and collaboration. This kind of integration is complicated by nature because it involves bringing together different budgets, initiatives, goals, and personalities.

Still, the whole point of IMC is to be deliberate — so establish leadership that can plan and take responsibility rather than let things happen haphazardly. Team members need to be completely invested in a common goal that will provide enough incentive to overcome obstacles and solve disagreements about how to get there.

Another barrier is implementation. Branding documentation needs to be clear and consistently distributed to everyone, including contractors. When it’s time to carry it out, the application might be ambiguous, and efforts could lose focus or fizzle out completely. It’s important to have a detailed plan in place to keep tasks on track and anticipate how they will apply in different contexts.

At the end of the day, the most important thing to keep in mind might be the three pillars of integrated marketing — consistency, clarity, and cohesion. If you’re coordinating efforts across channels with those three objectives, you’re on the right track.

Start your integrated marketing communications journey

IMC is one of the most important marketing principles to understand today, as information is more available than ever and communication happens instantaneously across the globe. This approach to marketing creates a stronger brand identity and more consumer loyalty by focusing simultaneously on delivering consistent messages across channels and listening intently to customers in order to target and tailor that messaging to them.

Handling multiple marketing streams can be overwhelming. Adobe Journey Optimizer can help you manage and refine your omnichannel strategy to get better results from your marketing campaigns and grow customer loyalty.

Check out the overview video for more information, or take the Journey Optimizer interactive tour.