Branding Is Important


Andrew Ettinger kicked up a little dust recently when he declared “branding is not important.” Obviously, statements like that are a bit… err… polarizing (I’m trying to be polite here, folks). And wrong. Why?

Because all advertising is branding. Especially on the Internet.

Often, it’s too easy to get into the old “branding vs. response” argument that pushes advertising into two camps: those who care about direct, measurable results and those who go for more of the intangible, cumulative effect we like to call “branding.” Direct response folks measure numbers like clicks, sales, and ROI (define). Branding folks like surveys and focus groups; they measure success on qualitative data that seek to measure brand recognition, feelings about brands, and attitudes about companies. The goal of direct response is, well, direct response, while the goal of branding is changing attitudes and building good feelings.

To separate the two forms in this Internet age (even before the Web, I’d argue) is to miss the point of what branding really is. If a brand is the experience that occurs every time a company and a customer touch, then branding is unavoidable in any circumstance in which company and customer come together. The brand experience is even more intense when the advertising the customer responds to is designed to force immediate contact with a company through a sale, sign-up, or request for more information. Driving direct response can’t help but create a brand experience. To think one can’t exist without the other is myopic at best and brand death at worst.

Still skeptical? Consider spam. It’s easy and relatively cheap to spam a huge number of people. Even if response rates are low (say 0.01 percent), a mailing to 10 million people can result in 1,000 suckers arriving on the spammer’s site, and perhaps several hundred sales converting from the yield. Considering the low cost of harvested names and sending all that spam. From an economic and direct response standpoint, spam makes total sense.

Yet most of us don’t spam. Why? Consumers hate spam, and that hatred usually results in very negative attitudes about the spammer. Yeah, it’s illegal too, but that’s probably not top of mind for most marketers who don’t spam. You and I don’t spam because we know mass unsolicited emailing results in a negative brand experience for those we’re trying to reach. It’s bad for the brand, never mind the response potential.

Since the beginning of online advertising, the Web’s been viewed primarily as a direct response medium. Yet online branding has always been top of mind (though hard to prove). The hope online marketing can also accomplish branding has led the Advertising Research Foundation to publish “The Online Advertising Playbook” to help “brand marketers eager to tap the power of the Internet,” and the Internet Advertising Bureau to continue to release studies on online brand effectiveness.

Although these studies and guidelines are useful, they still fall into the false brand/response dichotomy so many of us subscribe to. Online, you can’t do response without brand. It’s just not possible.

Interestingly enough, Google’s new Checkout may be just the thing that helps everyone understand how brand and response go hand in hand. Search advertising has always been viewed as direct response advertising. The new Checkout service, which integrates with AdWords, seems to add even more “responsiness” (apologies to Stephen “Truthiness” Colbert) to a system that many of us have used very successfully to promote our clients and our companies.

By providing a universal checkout system together with Google’s trust and caché to shopping, the new service should help merchants improve response and, more important, conversions to sales. Checkout merchants’ brand experience will be more favorable compared with competitors who force consumers through more gyrations in order to buy. The halo effect of Google’s brand will extend down to even the lowliest of merchants using the system. AdWords will drive response, Checkout will help build the brand.

Checkout is one example of many. No matter what you’re doing online to drive customers to your site, you’re building brand every time you touch that customer with your ads, mailings, newsletters, blogs, podcasts, and viral media. “The sell,” as Ettinger puts it, won’t happen without the superior brand experience that drives the sale.

It’s not about “brand vs. response.” It’s about brand response.


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