“Why do we need marketing? Everything that matters is in the proposal.”
While possibly an odd question, it isn’t out of line for the way contractors operate. After all, awards are decided by very specific and very transparent evaluation of proposals, and, not once in a debrief has any evaluator ever said the difference was an incredibly impressive display ad on Washington Technology.
But it’s exactly the type of thinking why most federal contractors squander their single most important opportunity to step out of the sea of sameness.
Because in government contracting, marketing isn’t just important. It’s absolutely essential.
And most of us are doing it completely wrong.
Why We Get It Wrong
Perhaps the reluctance to embrace marketing is that most contractors do it wrong and don’t understand how to make marketing most effective when marketing to the core audience of federal contractors. The marketing isn’t full cycle and aligned to the pipeline. It’s insular. It’s more customer-following than demand-generating. It’s focused on the safe and the bland, not the intriguing.
And generally speaking, it has all the variety of a Baskin Robbins that’s out of 30 flavors. Everybody is innovative, everybody is a great partner, and everybody solves the most complex challenges of the federal government. Every company is exactly what you’ve asked for in the proposal, whether we’ve actually done it or not and whether we can even find the client site without Google Maps.
Why? Because we market to say we are what the prop says and what we think the government wants repeated back to it.
But there is nothing more valuable than thinking a level deeper than the bromides, thinking not about just how you answer the mail, but what makes you you.
In federal contracting, market to stand out. Not to fit in.
Why Marketing Matters in Government Contracting
By design, federal contracting is a market designed to create commodity.
The government doesn’t want a single bidder for any services, nor does it explicitly want to disadvantage any competitor. (At least, this is the way the system is designed). As a result, procurements are much longer and more transparent than B2B. Federal contractors all respond to the same RFPs, work with the same labor categories, same general pricing targets and promise to deliver against the same statement of objectives. Contractors talk to the same small handful of people that sit on the evaluation board and we repeat all the post-contact factors.
And this is where marketing matters most. When you get squeezed into commodity and differentiation is all but impossible, distinction matters.
Marketing Is Your Biggest Opportunity Stand Out
“You may have any attributes you like,” the famously rigid Henry Ford might’ve quipped if he marketed contractors rather than made cars, “so long as it’s innovation, partnership, and commitment to mission.”
Because contractor marketing is often so insular and customer-following, we recite the bromides of the government. Innovation is important. Partnership. Mission above all. These are category factors. Things true of everyone in your category. After all, have you ever seen a company position as proud Luddites, terrible partners or only driven by the SOW?
So, no matter how much you spend, all you’re doing is telling the market and your own company that you’re just another contractor.
But in marketing, you can be distinct.
The big tagline. The great brand name. The incredible brand promise. The forward design makes you stand out from the sea of templated design. The customer-focus on what you enable them to do, not the recitation of your biography of more than X years.
In marketing, federal contractors can be distinct, the live musician in a sea of elevator music, even though they’re not differentiated on capability.
Marketing Means You Start Ahead
Because the first question the evaluation board ponders when a prop is reviewed shouldn’t be ‘who?’
Marketing builds an identity, and a feel for your business. If you do it right, it makes you seem larger than you are. It makes you distinct, so your prop gets read with a positive feeling of your company, not the prove-it-to-me approach to an unknown bidder.
At least at the current time, evaluation boards are people, not AI. People can be influenced. The small handful of people who will decide awards may control millions or billions, but they’re influenced into buying major programs just as they are peanut butter. Evaluators, like everyone else, are comfortable with the brands they know. Building that relationship starts with building your brand. (And of course, if your marketing is focused on the RFP, you’re already behind the curve. We’ll get further into how to align your marketing to your pipeline and how to influence perception well to the left of the RFP later).
Be the company they want to award, not the company they have to be talked into.
It Creates an Identity for Your Company
Marketing is the most important expression of how you want your company to be perceived. No one will ever consider your company more exciting and impressive than you do. Your marketing should set the highest bounds of how you want to be thought of.
It’s not just for your customers and your teammates. It’s your current and future employees, those invaluable assets that actually do the work for federal contractors. The same ones you are unlikely to be able to pay much more than anyone else bidding for the experience and qualifications, due to the commoditization of labor in federal contracting. Offer them an opportunity to work in something that’s meaningful in a way that doesn’t sound like everyone else. (And if the phrase, “It’s more than a job, it’s a career,” appears on your website, please stop what you’re doing, delete it, and then return.)
It becomes a clear statement of who you are, what you’re trying to achieve, and how they’ll play a part in incredibly big stories. Most employees, particularly those that want to support the government, want to be a small part of a small story. Marketing is where the big story gets defined.
Because in a sea of sameness and industry lifers, the ability to be distinct is the single greatest opportunity any contractor has.