Can Brands Keep Their Promise In A Digital World?

To speculate on the future of brand advertising is certainly beyond the scope of this column, but I got myself into this mess. I opened the can of worms two weeks ago in the Search Insider by warning that we could be running the search funnel dry. Ryan DeShazer, from HSR, called me on it and asked me what will replace traditional brand building in our new digital environment. Last week, I began the journey by talking about two different types of brands: Brand Promises and Brand Religions. Today, I'd like to paint a hypothetical scenario of where awareness marketing might go for those brands  that are implicit promises. Next week I'll tackle religions.

Timing is everything
One of the challenges of brand advertising has always been the disconnect between the times in our lives when we're thinking about a product and the opportunity for a brand exposure. How do you deliver a brand message at just the right time?  The goal of situational targeting became advertising's Holy Grail. A few channels, such as in-store promotions and well-placed coupons, at least got marketers closer to being in the right place at the right time, but did little to build brand at this critical time. A significant discount might prompt a consumer to try an unfamiliar brand, but the new brand was always fighting the well worn groove of consumer habits. Trying a new product once doesn't guarantee you'll ever try it again (reading list suggestion: "Habit, the 95% of Behavior that Marketers Ignore." )



The disconnect between the purchasing situation and the need to establish brands mentally (literally burn them into our brains) meant marketers played both ends against the middle. They used TV and other branding mediums to build awareness. Then they used direct-response tactics to tip the balance toward purchase when the situation was right. But in between was a huge gap that has swallowed billions of advertising dollars. The challenge facing digital marketing is how to bridge the gap.

Don't Take Our Word for It
The answer to bridging the gap for a brand that promises quality lies in a few converging areas: the online social graph and mobile computing. Both areas are in their infancy, but they hold the promise of solving the Brand Promise marketer's dilemma.

If a brand is a promise of quality, we want to hear confirmation of that by someone other than the brand. A brand's advertising might make us willing to consider them, but we want confirmation of the promise of quality from an objective third party. The Web has made it much easier to access the opinions of others. And, through platforms like Facebook and Twitter, we are now able to "crowdsource" -- reach out to our trusted circle of family, friends and acquaintances and quickly poll them for their opinions. But this is still a fragmented, multi-step process that requires a lot of time and cognitive effort on our part. What happens when we weave the pieces together into a smooth continuum?

Keeping Marketing in Hand
Mobile has the ability to do that, because it provides us with a constant online connection. Consider the implications. As we store more of our "LifeBits"  (check out Aaron Goldman's columns  on this fascinating project) online and rely more and more on digital assistance to make our lives easier, the odds of determining our intent by  where we are and what we're interacting with in our own "Web" improve dramatically. Our online persona becomes an accurate reflection of our mental one.  With mobile devices, our digital and physical locations merge and through technologies like MOBVIS, we can even parse our surrounding visually. All this combines to give the marketer very clear signals of what we might be thinking about at any given time.

Now, advertising can be delivered with pinpoint accuracy: think of it as behavioral targeting on steroids. Not only that, it can be the first step in a continuum: we get a targeted and relevant messaging, with the ability to seamlessly pull back objective reviews and opinions on any given product, location or service. Going one step further with just one click, we can reach out through multiple social networks to see if any of our circle of acquaintances has an opinion on the purchase we're considering. If brands are a promise, this allows us to vet the promise instantly. If all checks out, we quickly check for best prices and possible alternatives within the geographic (or online) parameters we set.

In this scenario, the nature of brand-building for the brand promise product changes dramatically. We rely less on manufacturer's messaging and more on how the brand resonates through the digital landscape. Brand preference becomes more of a spur-of-the-moment decision. Of course, the brands will still try to stake the high ground in our mental terrain through traditional awareness-building, but I suspect it will become increasingly more difficult to do so. Ultimately, brands will try to move their position from one of a promise of quality (a promise easily checked online) to a religion, where faith can play the spoiler.

4 comments about "Can Brands Keep Their Promise In A Digital World?".
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  1. Peter Schankowitz from Joe Digital, Inc., February 26, 2009 at 12:13 p.m.

    I could not agree more. It is, and always has been about the dilemma of getting a brand message to the consumer when they are in need or, at least, want of a product or service. The fragmentation of the audience in the digital landscape is making this issue a giant sore thumb for those of us attempting to get brands to understand the need to get to the audience when, where, and how they want to consume. There is no longer any reasonable debate over the fact that it is no longer a market of many, but rather, many markets of one. Brands have to get to the consumers ON THEIR TERMS. Scary? Yes. But also an opportunity to turn brand expsoure into a conversion that impacts business immediately, but also for the long term. As we always say, get to them at their time of want or need and you may just find yourself with a brand amabassador for life. A smart approach to making brand spend the gift that keeps on giving. Excellent post.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, February 26, 2009 at 1:01 p.m.

    One thing you totally forgot...PRICE. Yes, a coupon can encourage a purchase. However, even with a coupon, another product with the same function is much less expensive. Goodbye purchase. When a product is purchased with and coupon and well received, additional purchases without the coupon makes it way too overprice. Goodbye more purchases.

    The ROI is based on more immediate gratification. Are people making their decision purchasing on larger items such as needed appliances just when they need them or is product information being fed to them over time as in name recognition and quality perception have influence in their purchase as well as price? AKA image advertising and PR.

    It appears the above 2 seems to be forgotten in many articles and in practice. Of course, campaign inclusions of customer service, creative, timing factors, quality/uses of product and media (plus more) with various measurement considerations cannot be remiss. So when you speak of promise to religion, there is a host of inclusions measurements that must be in the mix.

  3. Paul Roberts from Roberts & Co, February 26, 2009 at 5:27 p.m.

    Brand is certainly the "buzz" and the "holy grail" objective of every effective marketeer. But I always wonder, "can EVERY product be turned into an instantly recogizable "brand", with a built in "promise" and set of expectations and imagery." Or are we all chasing something that takes 50 years or more to build?

    Are Coke and Harley-Davidson "brands" because of some genius manipulation, or because they've been around for a hundred years?

  4. Robert Mayer from Just Good Songs Inc., March 2, 2009 at 6:01 p.m.

    There are 2 issues that further inform this debate. One is the implied assumption in the article that self-discovery now depends on an infinite number of social connections that pre-affirm our selection of a brand. Rather we should be seeking to preserve and encourage individuality and an adventurous nature as consumers select and manage their lifestyle choices.

    The second issue is the complete ignoring of creativity as both a stimulator of choice and an arbiter of brand selection. With a quality product, great creativity can make the difference between so-so performance and outstanding brand leverage.

    The danger of over reliance on digital networks is a creeping loss of personality and decision-making skill.

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