Column: The Sell -- Branding Is Not the Goal

Branding is not important. The purpose of advertising is not to brand products. Rather, the purpose of advertising is to sell products. This is not just an idiomatic difference, but the economic basis for what we do. Naturally, brand identity plays an integral role in the sales process, but it is merely one of many other components.

To assume “branding” is the most important factor in a purchase is to discount the role of pricing, distribution, and availability, among other factors. All too often, media departments don’t consider these factors. Even worse, agencies tend to blame them when sales decline — and discount them when sales increase.

In short, advertising suffers from an over-reliance on the idea of branding. If awareness were the only key to driving sales, supermarkets would look very different than they do. Instead, agencies must incorporate branding into a larger sales/marketing mix. It is not enough to make consumers aware of a product. The goal is to make them buy.

So how can we do this?

Media departments must dig deeper into their clients’ desired goals. When marketers think about funding an ad campaign, they typically have a “magic number” in mind: They must move a certain amount of product to effect a positive return on investment. It is crucial to know exactly how many “widgets” the marketer needs to sell before the campaign begins. An ad’s value must exceed the minimum net value of each widget. Best practices dictate that agencies plan with this number in mind.

It’s imperative that clients openly discuss and share these data with the ad and media teams. This can be an uncomfortable discussion: Clients guard these sensitive data, and agencies take client confidentiality seriously. But without exposing the most granular expectations, agencies cannot properly plan and advise.

Sometimes, companies that have never advertised don’t have these data available. It is incumbent, therefore, on the agency to help the marketer process these numbers. The sales department may know these figures but may not have shared them with the marketing staff. One consumer packaged goods marketer encouraged me to liaise with her sales department to research these numbers. I will leave the lack of internal communication to the management consultants! Still, the resulting data proved invaluable to crafting the media plan.

The Internet’s strength as an advertising medium stems from its ability to track transactions and behavior. It is truly phenomenal to be able to measure how users interact with a site and then track where they go next on the Web. But the breadth of most campaigns also requires offline media. Far too often agencies justify non-trackable offline media with the all-encompassing term “branding.” Just because something does not immediately produce results does not mean it should be categorized as “branding.”

Tracking offline effectiveness is difficult but not impossible. There are both quantitative and qualitative methods to address this issue. Proponents of econometrics would say that anything that generates data can be used to help generate a model. Optimizing TV based on respondent data can help to some degree. When used in conjunction with smart analysis, optimizers can lend support for a buying decision. These models are not 100 percent accurate, but they certainly can lend a guiding hand.

For years, the direct response community has successfully used vanity phone numbers to localize response. Conventional marketers can adapt such tactics. Adding an 800 number at the bottom of a print ad can help refine magazine selection. More recently we see the use of vanity URLs that reference a medium. Web sites can be easily modified to include the product name with a specific media selection. is a good example. Given enough lead time, even more granular URLs can be established for each vehicle (TV or radio station, magazine). For consumer brands, such tags can provide planning guideposts, at the very least.

Advertising is not about ubiquity but about achieving a measurable result. The goal of branding — increasing people’s awareness of a product — is a good one. Brand equity remains a cornerstone of the sales process; people buy what they know. But it’s used far too often by media professionals when buying and selling media. Branding can help further the sales process, but it should not be the end goal of an ad.

Andrew Ettinger is Media Supervisor at Earthquake Media. (


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