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Marketing a Port: Complexity and Transformation

There was a time when ports didn’t have to work very hard to be great. By virtue of their connection to any particular hinterland, they were important and successful. They were mostly insulated from any real rivalry, and could rely on the luck of geography, weather and population to determine their own success. Ports were like the general store, gradually awoken from a centuries-old siesta when the town next door suddenly got a lot closer, with its own general store and, dammit, customers had a real choice.

What happened? Unlike other industries (like hotels, taxis and phones), the disruption and evolution of port business was more gradual. Consider: 

  • The Lego blocks stacked on massive ships didn’t exist prior to 1956. This was a great leap forward, moving us from shipping practices that had been roughly the same for 400 years to a Ford-assembly-line breakthrough in just a few decades. Today, about 90% of the world’s trade by volume is conducted via shipping line and containerized cargo. This is a staggering transformation for something so big, so important, and so connected to massive infrastructure.
     
  • The rise of computing has meant the rise of actionable data which has meant the rise of everything else, with logistics planning near the top of the disruption list. Weather, traffic, ocean currents, supply chain efficiencies – all are understood today more than they have ever been in human history. A mover of cargo can make a more informed choice than he could even 10 years ago, putting information (and thus power) in the hands of movers instead of in the hands of a port authorities.
     
  • Ships have gotten bigger – a lot bigger. The newest of which can hold 18,000 TEUs, when just a decade ago this number was at 10,000. And with this growth we’ve seen ports have to adjust their infrastructure to make changes, lest their next closest port neighbour take some of their top customers.

Add to this: Ports are community hubs and nostalgic hotbeds. They welcome cruise ships bearing human cargo just as much as break bulk. They are tourist destinations, large landholders, and important employers. How do we make sense of all this? How can a port position itself amidst this change and complexity?
 

While there is no definitive or easy answer, it is a challenge we love, and we’ve been served well by these principles:

Cargo movers and logisticians sweat the details. True to form, we’ve found that the target audience is hell bent on the details of the value proposition, and the port’s ability to deliver. A marketing message that doesn’t get to the point, fast, is dismissed.

Diversity of audience means diversity of message and delivery. A port serves so many audiences, all important, all vocal, and all meaningfully connected to the place. More than most organizations, a port has to carefully plot the interests and needs of each audience, and use the right channels, directed to the right audience, at the right time. Cargo owners don’t care about the vibrancy of the latest seaport festival.

Disruption makes customer service and customer experience so important. This is true across all industries, and often the only counter is to develop a deep understanding of who you are talking to and what they care about, putting their needs and a frictionless customer journey at the top of the priority list. Choice is power, and when a shipper has many options, the best experience and delivery on the value proposition can win the day.

When your target audience can get immediate data, international shipping routes and calculators all on a mobile device in their pocket, you better be able to articulate your value proposition and deliver on the experience. Because if you don’t, someone else will.
 

Kevin McCann is a Port Nerd and Partner at NATIONAL Public Relations. He works with the Port of Halifax as a strategist and adviser, and has been a presenter at the American Association of Port Authorities Conference and Halifax’s Port Days.