Direct response campaigns bring in new customers, move the inventory and are held accountable to hard business KPIs. Branding is about creating awareness, perceptions and attitudes. Direct response results are evident from campaign data itself. However, figuring out the impact of a multimillion-dollar branding campaign can require custom research done by a bunch of Ph.Ds. If this was YOUR money, where would you rather put it?
Counterintuitively, close to 90% of all media spend is in branding - and 84% of branding budgets are spent via traditional channels (Kantar Media Intelligence, January through April 2013). Although televisions are just one of the several glowing rectangles consumers use on a daily basis, it is still the main branding medium.
However, television commercials struggle to draw viewers' attention away from their mobile devices. For many advertisers, online and mobile still squarely equate to "direct." But any digital ad worth its pixels challenges this traditional dichotomy. A flashy video ad for a new coupe concurrently raises brand awareness, prompts consideration and requires only a few clicks to schedule a test drive. In digital media, branding and direct response converge.
So why are marketers slow to embrace digital channels as branding vehicles today? Certainly there is no shortage of evidence to show that branding works online as hundreds of studies have been conducted by the companies such as Dynamic Logic, Marketing Evolution, Insight Express and others. Neither can it be the inherent superiority of the 30-second TV spot over a banner ad, as online video ads offer innovative and engaging formats as well. And with next generation TV sets, digital video content and ads appear on the same screen as traditional programming, right in the heart of a living room.
Until recently, the lack of a "single currency" for TV and online was typically brought up as the main reason why advertisers had been holding back from moving more branding dollars into display and video advertising. That point is becoming moot quickly as companies such as Nielsen, Millward Brown Digital and comScore have developed tools that make online ads accountable in traditional ways - reach, frequency and rating points. However, the online share of branding dollars has yet to pick up.
So, here is an uncomfortable thought: Perhaps digital media is simply too measurable for branding?
Branding is about future return on today's investment. While some measures are necessary to show advertisers that they get their money’s worth - GRPs, brand tracking surveys, and anecdotal memories of a particularly cool ad - its main allure is the promise of greater rewards to come.
Over the years, brand awareness and favourability have become key indicators of success largely because of the measurement gap between exposure to advertising and actual sales. What happened with a consumer after seeing a car commercial and before kicking the tires in the showroom was up for heavy debate. Surveys attempted to fill the gap by capturing and analyzing the changes in consumers' attitudes and intent. The most popular theory explaining this, the hierarchy of advertising effects, went like this: Consumers like the ad, which transfers into awareness and positive attitudes toward the advertised brand, which in turn stimulates purchase intent, which could translate in purchase behavior sometime in the future.
Digital campaign data fills that gap. Meaning, if an advertising message is considered effective, the branding effects would manifest directly through rich-media interactions, site visits and blog posts before conversions generated by the campaign start to occur. The distinction between "direct response" and "branding" campaigns is purely the time it takes to convert: shorter for the former, longer for the later. It is a continuum, not a dichotomy.
Digital removes the excuses to optimize campaigns halfway. When an entire customer journey is visible, the impact of all ads -- branding or otherwise -- on the eventual transactions can be quantified. This brings financial accountability to the area of advertising that was previously exempt. And that is something traditionally minded advertisers may not yet be ready to see.