The No BS Guide to Integrated Marketing Communications

Defining a big, lengthy term—integrated marketing communications. What is it? What does it mean? How does it work? Tune in to find out.

I originally tackled the topic of integrated marketing communications (IMC) several years ago here.

That was before we at Top Hat created the Full Picture Narrative to explain what we do, how we do it and why it matters for a business truly looking to transform communications.

The Problem with How IMC is Typically Defined

Quite frankly, the way IMC is defined for the most part is incredibly confusing. It tends to be “textbook” and not in a way that actually helps the reader understand it.

Due to this, people walk away bitter and confused, immediately pursuing incredibly specific methods that actually make sense like advertising, marketing or public relations.


Really, I don’t blame them. Even as an IMC professional, I find myself quite confused by the textbook definition, which I won’t even share because I don’t to be another person promoting confusion.

Explaining IMC really takes a story. IMC isn’t one consolidated idea—it’s a combination of an incredible and never-ending vault of ideas and practices.

So, go refill your coffee cup and get ready. We’re about to go on a journey.

Redefining “Communications” Itself

Before we dive into the Full Picture, let’s define communications itself. It might seem like an unnecessary review, but it’ll help everything make sense if we can get exactly on the same page.

I think we take the word and practice of “communications” for granted. The word has become a lost in a sea of jargon and methodology.

In truth, it’s as simple as this:


Everything we can see, hear, smell, taste and touch is a medium of communication. Thus, the job of a communications professional is to intentionally influence every one of those senses in a strategic way.

At its core—and putting all disciplinary terms (advertising, marketing, PR)—aside that’s what it’s all about. As an organization looking to communicate, that is context you are working within at the highest level.

IMC = Seeing and Intentionally Utilizing the “Full Picture”

So back to professional land where things have to make sense for the bottom line.

Here’s what I know to be true—the most successful organizations are doing a lot of things right. We all oggle at that corporation, that campaign or that lifestyle brand. They’re exactly what we want our businesses to be, but how do we even begin to emulate such outrageous success?

If we boil it down, however, the Full Picture of their amazing communications-across-all-platforms success is this:

  1. They Understand Their Ideal Customers
  2. They’ve Built Compelling Brands
  3. They’ve Established Digital Destinations
  4. They’ve Researched and Developed Fully Integrated Marketing Communications Strategies
  5. They’re Executing a Strategy Consistently


So, IMC is not only understanding the Full Picture, it’s helping organizations master each and every arena with a fully integrated effort.

What that means is that everything is accounted for strategically. From the IMC viewpoint, we won’t miss anything because we see every area from market research, to branding, to website design, to strategy, to the actual execution of a communications campaign.

The final result? A consistent, well-researched and meaningful effort focused on tangible, measurable goals. It’s not biased by any nuanced discipline—it commands whatever discipline is necessary and justified by research to carry out the Full Picture for an organization.

Dissecting the Full Picture

Let’s take a closer look at every area of the Full Picture.

1.) They Understand Their Ideal Customers

Here’s the awful truth—you’re not the organization for everybody in this world.

Every organization has three-to-four ideal customer types that they work best with. Sure, some businesses are an exception, but for the small-to-mid-sized business this is the truth and the way it is.

The most successful organizations embrace this, they seek to uncover those ideal customers and they put this information at the core of everything they do.

Commonly Known Methods that Identify and Research Ideal Customers:

  • Market Research
  • Business Planning and Intrinsic Analysis

2.) They’ve Built Compelling Brands

OK—ideal customers identified, what’s next? The brand.

I could spend a nearly unlimited amount of time talking about why this is so important and what it includes. Our world, and just about everyone in it, however, understands why a brand is important.

What a Brand Truly Is

A brand is the true character of an organization that emanates from the core to all reaches of communication. It’s the Narrative of:

  • Who they are
  • Who they work with
  • What they do
  • How they do it
  • Where they’re going

Brands Should Influence Six Senses

A brand isn’t just a visual and written identity. It isn’t just a spiffy logo or witty tagline—it goes far, far deeper than that. The discipline of branding should intentionally influence every arena of communications including:

The Brand Influences Everything An Organization Does (whether they know it or not)

Branding isn’t just a department. Isn’t just a vertical. It’s an internal core operating system that dictates how the organization communicates everything. It is the true compass of communication.

A defined brand should have intentional control on anything from the way your office looks, to the way customer service handles calls, to how the sales team positions you, to how the communications team designs ads and copy.

The greatest brands think through every area. They also allow the practice of branding to touch every department and every asset.

This concept directly influences all things moving forward from the website, to the communications strategy, to the way communications is carried out in campaign form.

Commonly Known Brand Building Practices:

3.) They’ve Established Digital Destinations (Compelling Websites)

It can’t be denied any longer—your website matters.

Just how much it matters for each business can vary greatly. Service- and solution-based businesses live and die based on the quality of their website. If the website doesn’t clearly communicate who they are, what they do and who it’s for, well, then they just lost a hard-earned lead that they might’ve spent hundreds for via AdWords or many thousands for with a billboard.

Everything comes back to the website. In today’s day and age, everything will always come back to the website. It’s the hub for literally every communications method implemented whether advertising, marketing or public relations.


Commonly Known Website Building Practices:

4.) They’ve Researched and Developed Fully Integrated Marketing Communications Strategies

A fully integrated marketing communications strategy starts with your ideal customers.

By Understanding Ideal Customers, All the Answers Lay Before Us

By understanding the ideal customers, you shouldn’t have any questions about where you should be communicating. Too often, organizations cling to one platform or another. They try playing to trends without actually knowing who those ideal customers are or where they’re hanging out.

Too Often, Strategies Are Biased by One Specific Discipline Rather Than What’s Best

This is where things get diluted. Advertising professionals have a particular way of putting together strategies. Same with marketing professionals and public relations professionals. No offense to those practicing exclusively in any of those areas, but things are biased when you view the world that way.

The best strategies, however, are utilizing whatever methods are appropriate to reach ideal customers, not just what sounds good to your “discipline.” Without understanding ideal customers it’s impossible to know what combination is right. For some it could be 25% advertising, 25% marketing and 50% public relations. For another, it could be no advertising and all public relations and marketing.

A solid and truly effective strategy will devise ways, messaging and methods to reach ideal customers where they can be reached.

Here’s An Example of Strategy in Action without Bias

What if your ideal customer is a 68-year-old male living in a suburb area. What if the 68-year-old listens to a particular radio show every day. What if the radio show host plugs a product and what if that product suddenly gets purchased by that 68-year-old male?


If this is one of your ideal customers, are you going to try to reach them with Facebook?

Probably not because they most likely aren’t on Facebook. With this kind of insight, you’re going to devise ways to get that product plugged on the radio show by the radio host because you know that’s how that prospect can be reached.

I didn’t mention anything about advertising, marketing or public relations just then, did I? No, I just cited who the ideal customer is and where specifically they can be communicated to.

Once we have that, we can begin to evaluate how to make this happen from the ad copy to how we’ll get it into the hands of the radio host, which yes, would be advertising at this point.

Commonly Known Strategy Building Practices:

  • Communications Planning
  • Strategic Business Communications Planning
  • The GamePlan

5.) They’re Executing a Strategy Consistently

OK—so what good is a strategy if it sits there?

Well, you could use that stack of papers as a coaster. Oh! Or maybe a centerpiece on the coffee table. Maybe even as firewood.


Unless you put the strategy to use, it’s useless. The most successful organizations in the world today have a strategy and they’re implementing them.

What’s most important here is that execution is an intentional act. It’s not just tucking and running. With it, you’re measuring and adjusting the strategy as you go along. It needs to be very much agile.

Again, This is Where Things Get Diluted

Within the execution arena of communications is where so many communications-related arguments occur. This is where you hear, “You need X.” Or, “You need Y.” X or Y could be advertising, marketing or public relations.

There really is no argument that needs to happen. Understand your ideal customers and develop a strategy and then you will have an unbiased plan of attack.

Some Organizations Have No Plan

Even more dangerous is an organization without a plan. I’m telling you, the most successful organizations do have a plan.

When you don’t have a plan, you’re trying whatever feels, looks or sounds good rather than what will actually impact the bottom line. At the end of the day, it’s about results. If you aren’t getting those, then guess what? You’re failing.

Common Forms of Execution:

  • Advertising
    • Digital
    • Traditional
  • Marketing
    • Digital
    • Traditional
    • Guerilla
  • Public Relations

IMC Unifies Everything into An Incredibly Powerful Marketing Communications Force

As you can see, the Full Picture is powerful. Every organization needs every area of the Full Picture.

IMC when done properly, is unifying all of those arenas into a consistent and integrated effort. It unites market research, branding, website design and develop, strategy and (the proper means of) execution into singular force originating from a centralized location.

Ask Yourself, How Can Any of These Areas Be Successful on Their Own?

There’s a bigger question at stake. How can any of these areas be successful on its own?

Can an on-point brand be created without understanding the audience it’s being created for?

Can a successful brand exist without an equally as successful website in today’s business landscape?

Is any form of marketing communications execution effective without an audience-centric strategy, great brand and compelling website?

Who I’m Calling Out Here

With everything noted above being said, let me clarify who I’m calling out with this.

Not the Specialists Who Acknowledge There’s a Bigger Picture Than Them

I’m not calling out professionals who have chosen to focus on specific areas—whether branding, advertising, marketing or public relations. That’s the choice of the professional or the agency.

Those who focus do what they do really well. But, the really good ones acknowledge that there’s more than just what they do. A relevant branding agency doesn’t pretend like branding is the end-all be all. That might sound weird because most branding agencies we know don’t pretend like they’re the all-in-one solution.

Branding is a milestone in the journey, and a core operating system for a company. But a brand at rest will stay at rest unless acted upon by a communications force. Most of us recognize this.

Calling Out Those Who Claim What They Do Specifically is All That Works

But what about that advertising agency who shuns any and all forms of marketing or public relations? What about the marketing agency trash talking marketing and advertising? Or the public relations firm claiming that public relations is the only answer?

There is a lot of this going around right now even in the age of integrated communications. The sad part is that a lot of businesses subscribe into these kinds of philosophies.

That is who needs to wake up. These are the professionals who are deceiving the end-user and muddying the waters.

Start with Ideal Customers and Let the Rest Reveal Itself

The key is to identify your ideal customers. From there, let the rest reveal itself through your research. By knowing your ideal customers like you know your best friends, you won’t worry about advertising, marketing or public relations. You’ll worry about how to reach them without bias.

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