Cair Lerion Blog #14: An Interview with William Larson

In our latest conversation with marketing and communications leaders in the heavy industrial space, Jonathan Rowland spoke to William Larson, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at CalPortland, a producer and supplier of heavy building materials to the western US and Canada.

You’ve had a long and successful career. Can you give us the highlights?

I began my career as a district director responsible for labour relations, government affairs and media relations at Associated General Contractors (AGC) of California, a trade association for general engineering/buildings contractors.

After five years, I joined US-owned cement manufacturer, Southdown, to lead its contract sales team. The company was purchased by CEMEX in 2000 and I led the marketing and communications programme in the western US as Vice President Marketing/Communications.

After 22 years, I retired from the CEMEX in 2008 and was subsequently recruited by CalPortland to lead the company’s corporate marketing and communications programme. I will have completed thirteen years as its Vice President of Marketing and Communications on my scheduled retirement in January 2021.

Over this time, you must have worked with editors and journalists of all stripes. What are your time-tested strategies for getting the message out?

In my early days of corporate marketing, getting the message out simply meant purchasing advertising space in a newspaper, magazine, or other mass media outlet. Today’s media environment is completely different – and must be managed with finesse and transparency.

Real-time reporting, full accountability, and strategic use of social media is now at the core of successful marketing and communications campaigns. Shotgun marketing does not work. Laser-focused messaging that targets readers, consumers, or carefully selected recipients, whose opinions count, is now the order of the day. This paradigm shift has led to a multitude of creative ways to interact with a company’s audience.

Shotgun marketing does not work. Laser-focused messaging that targets readers, consumers, or carefully selected recipients, whose opinions count, is now the order of the day – William Larson.

The digital world allows us to reach specific people based on their relationship with our brand, company, industry, or region. Our job is to ensure the target audience receives the message we want them to hear. But our messages must also resonate with and address our audience’s concerns. I use these “Three Ks” for message development: Keep it Real and Honest; Keep it Timely and Up to date; Keep it Consistent with the Company’s Style, Vision, and Values.

Do you have any top tips for creating engaging content on technical subjects?

Conveying technical information is the most difficult part of corporate communications: some readers are happy with catalogues or specification sheets – but many simply won’t read or listen to dense and highly-technical content. Which defeats the whole purpose of the communications endeavour! A message not read is a lost opportunity. The genius of effective communications is to make the complex simple to grasp, without insulting the intelligence of your reader. Simple language, creative analogies, real-life examples, images or videos can help the reader to learn and to remember.

How do you see the balance shifting between traditional print and online media?

Balancing the right mix of print and digital media is all about my readers or target audiences. I think about who my target audiences are, where they go to get their information, and what they look for in messages. Once I feel comfortable that I have figured that out, I develop my strategy and determine the best options for outreach, the frequency of messaging, and the impact I want to achieve. This helps to determine how best to reach my readers or target customers, using an appropriate mix of print and digital content that gets the most visibility in the right places. I look for the ability to create the greatest number of impressions, over a variety of media, to provide the greatest ROI.

What opportunities (and challenges) have new media forms created for companies in the heavy industrial space?

Continued growth and innovation in social media create opportunities for companies to bring their brands closer to their customers. For social marketers and communicators, a successful strategy involves tapping into audiences with compelling content that grabs attention over multiple channels.

I believe that heavy industry is currently breaking new ground in social media channels that, even a year ago, was not thought possible. But this requires companies rethink marketing strategies away from promoting products and services, instead addressing the concerns of their customers. Changing consumer demands, concerns about climate change, the need for greater resiliency in the built environment, keeping costs down, safety and wellbeing – these are the real issues that keep corporate buyers awake at night.

Corporate communicators also need to listen to other voices to address these concerns and to package messages that resonate on a level of trust and confidence. Transparency, honesty, and community awareness are vital for success – and these attributes must transcend sales pitches that are patently false (or at least significantly skewed).

These “Three Ks” help ensure content resonates with and addresses the concerns of an audience: Keep it Real and Honest; Keep it Timely and Up to Date; Keep it Consistent with the Company’s Style, Vision, and Values – William Larson

Today, industrial companies need to focus on channels that not only introduce their products and services to viable prospects, but that also generate interest and enable two-way communication. I have found LinkedIn to be an excellent social media platform to reach professionals in the heavy construction industry: architects, engineers, and ENGOs seem to have grabbed onto it with vigour for business-focused connections. Finding and focusing on the channel that brings you greatest reward is vital.

Various tools, such as search engine optimisation (SEO), and pay per click (PPC) SEM, allow communicators to optimise their exposure and to grow their outreach. Blogs also can be a very effective content marketing and communication tool. The world is currently embroiled in the COVID-19 pandemic and we are seeing webinars and internet-based events replacing long standing trade shows and conferences. To succeed in today’s marketplace, your company needs to have a strong online presence across a variety of channels, utilising methods such as those noted above, as well as social media content, and email, to generate greater brand awareness and credibility.

What advice would you give to PR/marketers starting out on their careers?

Interesting question! My perception is that technology is causing corporate reputation (PR) and brand marketing to merge. Communications needs to be a full partner with marketing and must go beyond just building the company’s credibility. Marketing executives must now deal with uncontrolled public tweeting and posting of reviews about their company. Marketers, editors and PR professionals all have a similar goal, but their methods of message development are somewhat different. More and more, PR professionals need to include social media skills, blogging, website and graphics skills in their quivers to compete in the workplace. I think you will see that communication professionals become joined at the hip with marketers. But honesty and transparency must take precedence over advertising hype.

If you could recommend one business book, what would it be?

Made To Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath, is a favourite read of mine. Although it is not really a PR guide, it is a great read that has instilled an easy to remember acronym in my mind: SUCCES – Simplicity, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotions, and Stories. The book illustrates how some ideas thrive, while other ideas simply fade away in people’s minds. I’ve successfully implemented the principles of “sticky ideas” to create content that is more likely to succeed and be remembered.

You’re now easing into retirement. Looking back, what have been your career highlights?

There are many memorable highlights, but the real highlights of my career are the many amazing people I have had the pleasure of working with, collaborating with, and that I have met along the trail. Communication is a cornucopia of enrichment. Having the opportunity to work on a global scale in my two most recent positions has been a gift that I would have never imagined when I began my career. People have always inspired me to reach a little farther into the unknown. Being forced to grow within the challenging landscape of the heavy construction industry, which includes climate change and all that it encompasses, has been a healthy catalyst for personal growth as a communicator.

Based near Los Angeles, California, William (Bill) Larson is Vice President of Marketing and Communications at CalPortland. A graduate of INSEAD, Stanford University Graduate School of Business, and Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Bill has more than 35 years’ experience in corporate communications and marketing within the heavy industrial sector.  

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