Home Marketing Innovation Resources Blog What Is Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) and Why Does It Matter?

What Is Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) and Why Does It Matter?

Jan 09, 2024
A group of Medill students conduct a product lifecycle work session on the white board

Our daily lives are cluttered with marketing messages. Currently, U.S. adults spend an average of 7.5 to 8 hours daily on connected devices, including mobile, desktop/laptop computers, smart TVs and other devices such as gaming consoles.1

We are exposed to ads all day long, through our connected devices or more traditional advertising media such as billboards, displays and flyers. Estimates of the number of advertising messages anyone sees in a day range from just under a hundred to several thousand. But as a writer for The Drum pointed out, a far more important number is how many marketing communications actually get through to us, either subliminally or consciously.2

Integrated marketing communications, or IMC, is a strategic approach to marketing communications that evolved alongside the beginnings of modern digital marketing. The IMC framework, as developed at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, is grounded in consumer behavior and psychology and leverages the full power of current marketing technologies.

Medill IMC provides a powerful framework that helps businesses and nonprofit organizations align their marketing efforts across multiple channels to break through clutter and achieve strategic objectives, including topline revenue and market share growth, brand recognition and customer loyalty. Read more about some key components of IMC strategy, and what might be in store for you in a high-impact marketing career today.

Direct Marketing and Integrated Marketing Communication

Toward the end of the 20th Century, widely available and increasingly powerful computers gave rise to direct marketing. In parallel with the dynamic evolution of integrated marketing communications, this development laid the groundwork for the current era of omnichannel marketing.

Direct marketing relies on databases containing customer information to craft highly personalized messages to elicit a direct response from the recipient. The response could include making a purchase, requesting information or measurably engaging with the brand. Companies learned to align their communications with the preferences and behaviors of their target audience through the strategic use of data insights gleaned from customer interactions and other sources.

Don Schultz, a pioneering Medill professor, led a team that studied the best ways to leverage these newly available insights and published Integrated Marketing Communications: Putting It Together and Making It Work, the first IMC textbook, in 1993. The Medill IMC framework, which easily flexes to encompass new technologies, including AI, is based on these key concepts:

  • The focus of marketing communications is on the customer, not the product or service.
  • Data is the key to understanding customers. It can show you how to reach them with the right messages in the right marketing channels at the right time.
  • A strong brand creates business value.
  • The brand is a living entity, co-created by the business and its customers.
  • Everything the business does serves to build or erode its brand equity.

Read more about the development of the IMC principles.

The fusion of IMC and database marketing not only facilitated the synchronization of messaging across various channels but also empowered brands to engage consumers on a more personal and meaningful level. Today's omnichannel marketing strategies owe their effectiveness to this historical synergy, where database marketing played a pivotal role in elevating the relevance of marketing messages.

A Multi-Channel Approach

A key first step in understanding integrated marketing communications is clarifying exactly what is being integrated. Marketing communications in the 21st Century is defined by the burgeoning array of media platforms across which engagement is possible, and an integrated marketing approach seeks to create a consistent experience for consumers across all channels.

Marketing campaigns can include a web presence, social media, email marketing campaigns, digital advertising, out-of-home ads and experiences, television commercials, and other platforms where opportunities occur, including games and the metaverse. Through repeated engagements across marketing channels, an integrated marketing campaign seeks to build equity within the consumer’s psyche with positive feelings of familiarity and trust for the brand.

Unify Business Communication Strategies to Amplify Brand Equity and Trust

Public relations, sales, customer service and internal and financial communications also help build brand equity and trust. While these areas may be outside the scope of the marketing plan, leadership needs to recognize their influence on brand equity. Ideally, leaders across departments will coordinate communication strategies to support the brand.

Strive for Consistency Across Marketing Channels

One key to achieving a truly integrated marketing campaign across different marketing channels and various tools is meticulous attention to creating a consistent, cohesive brand identity. This means ensuring all assets are aligned in terms of their visual design and content strategy.

Clearly articulated brand guidelines are key to creating successful cross-platform integration. These include typeface, colors, editorial guidelines like punctuation and capitalization rules, repeated use of stock photos or models, recurring taglines, consistent design layouts, or anything else that might signal to a viewer that the message they are receiving in one location is related to one they've encountered in another.

The “communications” element of integrated marketing communications can be understood as the strategic alignment of content at each point of contact to deliver the right message in the right way. The best integrated marketing campaigns will communicate a cohesive and compelling story across a wide set of engagements, a narrative that can educate, persuade and shape affinity. Learn more about how to build a strong brand identity and how that can drive business value.

Data-Driven Strategy

Because it occurs across many digital platforms, an integrated marketing communication strategy can generate copious amounts of user data to guide adjustments to current and future marketing activations. Whether by impressions and clicks on social media, email opens, page views on a product's website or form fills on a landing page, users leave many digital traces of their engagement with an integrated marketing campaign.

The savviest marketers will collect all the data they can from their customer interactions to guide their IMC strategy. They can use email data collected in a customer relationship management program like Marketo or Salesforce to optimize subject lines, increase opens and drive more clicks through astute link placements. Data from Google Analytics and other measurement tools, such as heat maps, can help them optimize online experiences.

Customer data platforms can help marketers combine data from different marketing channels to ensure that the right ads with the right messages are targeted at the right users on the right channels. Social platforms let them closely monitor engagement and customer sentiment to gauge the impact of their campaigns and the brand affinity they are building.

Navigating the Changing Marketing Communications Data Landscape

The adoption of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) laws in recent years have heightened the importance of collecting first-party data in marketing interactions. The phasing out of third-party cookies and restrictions on tracking technologies have compelled marketers to explore alternative methods for targeted advertising, including contextual targeting and greater reliance on first-party data. These developments make the ability to gather, use, protect and remove customer data as needed a more important consideration for choosing communication tools and services to support a marketing plan.

A Blockbuster Integrated Marketing Communications Example

The Barbie movie released in July 2023 is a stellar example of a seamlessly executed integrated marketing campaign. Boasting a global box office gross of $1.36 billion within two months, the film, directed by Greta Gerwig, is the 15th-largest global release in history and the highest-grossing worldwide release for Warner Brothers.3 The film's impact extended beyond the box office, propelling Barbie's cultural relevance. Mentions of #Barbie increased 80% on YouTube and 191% on TikTok, where #Barbie posts have accumulated more than 9 billion views.4

Mattel, the parent company of Barbie, witnessed a significant transformation in its financial outlook, with the Barbie brand playing a pivotal role in its resurgence. The movie helped turn around a slump in Mattel's fortunes that began back in 20135 and Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz gave a nod to the movie in his remarks with the company's third quarter 2023 financial report. "Consumer demand for our product increased in the quarter, and we continued to outpace the industry. Our results benefited from the success of the Barbie movie, which became a global cultural phenomenon and marked a key milestone for Mattel,” he said.6

The Barbie film's integrated marketing approach included clever use of traditional movie marketing tools. It also extended well beyond, encompassing cross-platform promotions and brand collaborations, with activations in the metaverse and the real world, and coverage on reality TV. Between Warner Brothers and Mattel, there were more than 100 brand partnerships adding to the widespread and enduring buzz around the Barbie brand.7 The success of the Barbie movie underscores the potential of integrated marketing communications to generate a lasting impact, not only at the box office but also on brand awareness and cultural relevance.

The comprehensive marketing strategy, spanning various channels and partnerships, highlights the importance of aligning messaging and experiences across platforms to build equity and trust with the audience. This case study serves as a testament to the effectiveness of a well-coordinated and innovative integrated marketing campaign in driving both cultural relevance and financial success.

A Focus on Building Relationships

Integrated marketing communications is about building successful relationships, both within the marketing organization and outside of it. Campaign creation is a collaborative process requiring diverse team members to operate in unison. To succeed, the creative team, brand managers and other marketing team members must share a strategic vision with cross-functional teams throughout the organization.

Internal relationships are the linchpin of effective marketing organizations, and customer relationships are accurate indicators of campaign success. When a digital ad pops up on a consumer's browser, or a clever email subject line appears in their inbox and the consumer instantly recognizes the brand and welcomes the message, credit can often be attributed to a successfully integrated multichannel campaign.

Master the Art and Science of Integrated Marketing Communications at Medill

The IMC Professional master's program from Northwestern University's Medill School is your pathway as a working marketer toward a leadership role. Learn more about Medill’s faculty of innovators and successful marketing executives, and discover the valuable skills you will learn in a high-impact curriculum that can only be delivered by the school that invented IMC.