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What is a Marketing Supply Chain

Whether you have an event in Nashville, Nantucket, or Naples, marketers today are increasingly challenged with the task of providing marketing to their teams. The increasing number of events (large or small) and the materials (swag, print, signage, etc.) needed to support events in today’s global environment highlights the importance of having an effective marketing supply chain.

So, how does a marketer get materials to the field in a timely manner under these conditions? I’d recommend finding a partner that already has an effective platform and business model, what I refer to as a “Marketing Supply Chain (MSC).” 

Think of this supply chain like you would a company that outsources manufacturing of its product. If you research the evolution of the manufacturing supply chain—commonly referred to as contract manufacturing—you will find that prior to the 1970s, most businesses built their own production facilities. 

That changed when it became apparent that it was much more efficient to find a partner for the production of their product. A marketer’s objectives are to drive revenue and grow market share. Getting materials to the field is critical to support that goal. Businesses that have a strong marketing supply chain in place have a competitive advantage, so it’s important to evaluate your process.   

Paper cutouts of people holding hands in a circle

Let’s Talk About It

The Marketing Supply Chain refers to the creation, production, and distribution of the materials needed to support field marketing and sales. An MSC has three main elements: a branded front end or ordering portal, professional project management teams, and a distribution center.

Ultimately, all three must work together, and ideally, should be the same vendor or partner. There is too much at stake regarding the timing and execution of production to rely on two or three different partners—a chain that can be exhausting to manage. 

An optimized supply chain should speed time to the field and increase your return on the marketing spend. It is not easy to find a supplier that has mastered all three elements of the supply chain, so you have to do your homework.

Here are the elements you should consider when finding an MSC partner

A branded ordering portal

This is where all your materials are accessible to the users in the field. The user interface should be intuitive and logical, which enables users to easily find what they are looking for. Your portal should have a number of instrumental features, such as user profiles, budgeting, multiple divisions, inventory management tools, special shipping instructions, return labels, and more. 

Professional project management 

Project managers who handle the production of branded swag, printed material, signage and the assembly of kitted materials should have years of experience in these specific fields. This element of the supply chain contains the most production variables and specific details where things can go astray. It is critical for your vendor to have professional project managers. There is nothing more frustrating—and costly—than not having materials when you need them.  

A distribution center 

This is where your marketing materials are stored and available to be shipped to your users. It is also where materials from the field are returned and checked for quality. While there are many specifics to look for in a distribution center, you must ensure your partner has the ability to process and ship orders in the same day. They must also have an accurate, robust inventory management system. 

The management of your inventory is crucial. Remember, visibility to what is being used versus what is sitting on a shelf for months at a time is vital. This allows marketers to make better decisions and maximizes the ROI of their budget. 

A person turning a dial

Getting Married?

Over the years, I have often used the analogy of “getting married” when a company chooses which vendor to use. Like choosing a partner in a marriage, your relationship with your vendor is a critical component of your success. 

It takes a substantial effort to gather an internal team and construct the business rules to create your MSC. It is a significant investment of time and money, so if your vendor does not meet your needs, your whole organization will suffer. Try to choose well.

If you choose wrong and get a divorce, so to speak, it is equally time consuming and painful. You don’t really want to spend your energy dealing with moving your supply chain. So drill down and do the due diligence needed. 

What will you want to learn from your discovery process? Let’s take a look. There are numerous items to consider and a healthy process means developing a list of questions to ask when interviewing your potential supply chain partners.

The more questions you ask, the better your likelihood for success. (See sidebar, “Do You Need a Marketing Supply Chain?”). Since we launched our Marketing Supply Chain model eight years ago, I have had a front row seat as to how this process unfolds. Prospects typically bring two to four colleagues to these interviews and ask reasonable questions of our capabilities. 

In one extreme case, a prospect brought 16 team members, everyone from field marketing, brand, sales, HR and other departments. They all had specific needs that were not being met by their current supplier.

While it was an impressive vetting process, I am happy to say we have solutions in place for each of their questions. Consequently, they hired us and proceeded directly to our onboarding process, which I will discuss later. The pain they were experiencing, some of which was acute, is gone. They are no longer tolerating an ineffective supply chain; they are marketing, selling and driving revenue. 

Do you need a MSC?

If you are uncertain about your company’s need to outsource your supply chain, consider the level of pain in your current model—the design, creation, as well as the production and distribution of your branded materials.

  • Do you have materials available to your users?
  • Is the ideation/creative process effective? 
  • Are your brand guidelines met consistently?
  • Are materials easily accessible?
  • Is it difficult to get products to the field in a timely manner?
  • Are critical ship dates delayed or not met?
  • Do you frequently have material stuck in customs?
  • Do you have access to data regarding inventory and item usage?
  • Are your team members frequently frustrated with your supply chain?

Users, SKUs & Business Rules

Once you have established the need for outsourcing your Marketing Supply Chain and chosen a vendor you believe in, the investment begins. Like all investments, there is a certain amount of time needed to achieve the best return.

This is the stage we refer to as onboarding. The onboarding phase is that period when a company must determine the business rules for their marketing supply chain, which will include the branded portal and available materials.

The look and feel needs to be user friendly. Your items must be organized in an intuitive manner. Your features and order options for checkout are all important. Additionally, you will need to identify the business rules you want your users to operate within. Rules include order quantities available to different users, budgets, shipping options and return guidelines for materials. 

There literally can be hundreds of decisions to make as you determine your supply chain functionality and objectives. It can feel a bit daunting, but if you are working with a partner that has identified and simplified this process, it is not as intimidating as it may sound.

Finding your way

  • Nearly 65% of senior marketers have never done a comprehensive analysis of how well their supply chain is managed, with most admitting their suppliers are poorly integrated.
  • Only 26% track obsolescence on marketing and event management consumables, yet they acknowledge that doing so would reap a tremendous benefit to their ROI.
  • 89% of companies indicate they are not generating economies or efficiencies in their marketing supply chain.
  • 48% of marketers acknowledge that marketing supply chain management is an evolving functional area that needs more attention.

Source: CMO Council

Launch Date—Set the Stage

One of the most rewarding moments of building your supply chain is the day you launch and provide accessibility for your key marketing materials. At this point, you have done an extensive amount of work to qualify suppliers, create your site, order materials and test the process. It is an accomplishment worthy of celebration. 

You have built a process that should increase the effectiveness of your teams—one that creates a new sense of enthusiasm within those teams. I have seen sites launched with only four or five users and sites launched with hundreds of users on Day 1. 

You may want to plan an event to introduce your marketing supply chain. I have seen some of our clients do great internal marketing around the launch of a marketing supply chain. Documenting the process of ordering, the business rules, and benefits of the supply chain help your users get started. 

It should be an exciting experience, so share it. 

Eric Stern is the President and CEO of Almaden, a leading company in the development of the Marketing Supply Chain as a business model. Eric has over forty years of experience in building customer solutions for the efficient production and distribution of products and marketing materials across all industries. Headquartered in Silicon Valley, Almaden is consistently innovating to support the requirements of the world’s fastest growing and demanding companies.