September 21, 2010
Column | outbound

Could ad campaign be answer to logistics' PR woes?

When it comes to raising awareness of logistics, a single private-sector company may finally succeed where some of the brightest minds in the business have failed.

By Mitch Mac Donald

Someday, we may look back at September 2010 as a turning point for the logistics profession—at least where public perception is concerned. And if that happens, it will all be due to, of all things, an advertising campaign.

For the logistics profession, any change in public perception would be a change for the better. Logistics has long had a public awareness problem, with a profile so low it might be better termed subterranean. And the problem's not just with the general public; for years, logistics was largely ignored by the business community as well. That began to change in the late 1980s, when some of the field's leading thinkers advanced the then-shocking notion that logistics wasn't just a cost center, a necessary evil, and shouldn't be treated as such. Used strategically, they argued, it had the potential to drive sales growth and provide a competitive advantage.

One of the proponents of this revolutionary idea was Jim Morehouse, a consultant at A.T. Kearney. Morehouse argued that there was a lot to be learned from the approach industry leaders (think Wal-Mart) were taking to logistics. At a time when most of their peers were managing warehousing, transportation, and distribution as separate functions, the leaders were integrating these activities under the "logistics" umbrella—in the process, creating the kind of hyper-efficient supply chain that sends competitors fleeing.

Although many recognized the wisdom in this thinking and fell in step, there were holdouts as well. And there are holdouts to this day. They're easy to recognize: For instance, they're the ones who still measure operational performance with outdated metrics like transportation cost and warehouse "uptime/downtime," apparently unaware of the potentially disastrous effects of optimizing one function at the expense of another. But they're not likely to be around much longer. In today's competitive marketplace, they don't stand a chance against more forward-thinking rivals who know that the true measures of logistics performance are customer satisfaction and revenue growth.

Aside from those throwbacks, however, it's clear that most people working in logistics today understand the value of what they do. And in many cases, their employers do as well. Over the years, more and more C-level executives have come to understand the critical role logistics plays in corporate success.

But public perception still lags far behind. Although logistics is now a bigger business than higher-profile fields like construction, it remains largely invisible to the public. That's long been a source of frustration to industry leaders, who worry that as long as the logistics community remains under radar, it will never hold much sway with lawmakers.

Those concerns prompted literally hundreds of folks, including yours truly, to participate in think tanks, focus groups, and other initiatives aimed at raising the profession's profile during the past decade. But their efforts have met with limited success. Stop someone on the street today and ask him or her to define "logistics," and you'll likely be greeted with a blank stare.

Well, perhaps that is about to change. It appears that a single private-sector company may finally succeed where some of the brightest minds in the business have failed.

In mid-September, United Parcel Service rolled out a multi-million dollar advertising campaign with the theme "We ♥ Logistics." The intent, of course, is to tout Big Brown's capabilities. But the profession's public image could get a shot in the arm as well. What the campaign does, in effect, is spell out the same message the profession has long struggled to deliver to the world: that logistics can drive growth and help companies gain competitive advantage in the global marketplace.

More to the point perhaps, UPS is taking that message to a mainstream audience.

Sometimes breakthroughs come from the most surprising places.

More articles by Mitch Mac Donald

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