The Unbearable Lightness Of Branding

If your day job involves creating, defending or presenting a media plan featuring seven or eight digits in the bottom right cell, chances are you truly believe in branding. And you live in a strange, strange world.

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.

9 comments about "The Unbearable Lightness Of Branding".
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  1. Nick D from ___, August 27, 2013 at 4:47 p.m.

    Interesting article, and some good points. I've wondered in the last couple of years whether that moniker of "the most measurable medium" has become a millstone for online, with brands and agencies unable to see beyond the existing imperfect metrics. "A bad metric is better than no metric" appears to be the mantra, and as you say, it's resulting in the wrong approaches being taken for online display campaigns.

  2. Bert Shlensky from stretchandcover , August 27, 2013 at 5:03 p.m.

    great article . I argue that much of the success of google is the free measurability of position, clicks and conversions . In contrast tradional meida has always lived on the theory of branding results and unjustifiable spending . If they switched significant dollars to direct the traditional budgets would just collpase

  3. Fraser E from Opinions expressed herein are solely my own, August 27, 2013 at 6:12 p.m.

    Really, Bert? Traditional media has always lived on theory and unjustifiable spending? That is the kind of abject ignorance of marketing reality that smacks of a 24-year-old posting from Starbucks. The grown-ups operate in a world where we study the impact our spending has on every relevant part of the funnel any time we can, whether the spending is online or offline. Now, fully understanding that folks like you love to chuckle over your PBR's about how "branding" is just an excuse to waste money, people who actually know better know that branding is really *demand generation*, and that done properly, it actually improves the results captured by the DR metrics you're so fond of.

    You say much of the success of gogole is its measurability, and you're right. One could go on to argue that google et al's success with measuring those DR activities has actually throttled its growth potential, because it's caused people like you to jump at the bright shiny easily-measured object, instead of looking at the longer play.

    One could also argue, now that brand lift studies are more readily available online, that perhaps...just maybe...heresy, I know....but maybe the online ecosystem still hasn't caught up in its ability to drive demand-gen metrics at the same scale as offline can. For now. Yet.

  4. Jan Jilek from ad-net, August 28, 2013 at 10:16 a.m.

    Problem of digital branding is not because is too measurable. TV can guarantee EXCLUSIVE time spent with an ad (30''), display ads can't (for now). And because of that TV GRP can guarantee results for brands and display ads can't. For example what is better 100 impressions of display ad in duration of 1'' each, or 1 impression in duration of 100'' which can be 100 times cheaper. Time with ad is dimension which is most important (for branding), in any media (if for disscusion we can say that all ad copies are producing same result).

  5. Richard Fielding from Kantar Media, August 28, 2013 at 3:58 p.m.

    Fraser you made some excellent points, but were all the snarky comments and baseless assumptions you made about Bert really necessary? They just made you sound like an angry old media guy, which I am sure you're not!

  6. Yaakov Kimelfeld from Merkle, August 28, 2013 at 5:39 p.m.

    Jan, 30 seconds of consumer time are guaranteed to no one in today's media - especially on TV, with all the multi-screen activities and DVR ad skipping going on.

  7. Jan Jilek from ad-net, August 29, 2013 at 8:13 a.m.

    I am not sure if DVR activities are counted to particular channel, and if not then they are not counted into rating point of that channel. Regarding multiscreen activities things are a bit more complicated...before smartphones and tablets certain number of users also ignored advertising time on TV and used that time to do something else (maybe now the number of users doing that is larger, but it exists for a long time). Besides that in every offline advertising has been reached also users that do not have any interest in advertised product whatsoever. For example man are watching ads for woman pads and probably a great number of those man switched themselves to another activity. Researches of brand avareness, as farr as I know, are based on certain target group – for example woman using pads and they possibly saw that ads while male population choose another activity. From that same research is concluded that xy of GRPs causes increase of brand awareness for yz in their target group (women using pads). If we are able to determin even today in certain country that xy of GRPs is enough to keep brand avareness at certain level, than we could say that GRP is still reliable mesurement indicator.

    Also If we compare "switching atention" on TV with display ads, we can conclude that position of 95% display ads is near content for which user primary came to that page and that display ads do not have „exclusivity“ over all senses of the user as TV ad have. Main focus of online user is on content and not on display ad. So question is how much will the user notice display ad. And as I already said that we could also compare to a TV advertising time during which user is surfing on the internet using his mobile phone and display ad positioned near content user is consuming.

  8. Jan Jilek from ad-net, August 29, 2013 at 8:56 p.m.

    And there is one more point that I forgot in the last comment (which is probably most comperable). TV GRP perhaps counts more people than they actually see an ad, but we have a similar problem with cookie deletion and also cookies are browsers and not users. Adservers count more cookies than there is real users which see an ad, so we also estimate reach and frequency/OTS for any campaign.

  9. Jennifer D from Time Warner, September 3, 2013 at 12:47 p.m.

    100% true. thank you, yaakov!

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