Branding Strategies Without the E

After a long holiday weekend (and some time back at the office to detox from said holiday weekend), I started to reflect back on the recent ClickZ Marketing Strategies 2000 conference I attended last month.

I’d learned a lot, met a lot of really cool people doing some really cool stuff, but I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the whole thing. I had that feeling, like a vague itch under my skin (unrelated to sunburn, I’ll note), that there was a powerful subtheme at work in all the presentations, a trend that I just hadn’t been able to place a finger on yet.

Sure, ostensibly the whole conference was arranged around integrated marketing, but the real undercurrent didn’t rise up and smack me square in the noggin until I switched on my radio on the way to work the other day and heard the most annoying sponsorship message I’d ever heard on NPR.

If you’re a regular listener, you’ve probably heard it, too that irritating announcement touting a certain company’s ability to do “e-business, e-strategy, e-development, e-commerce, e-yak breeding… ” Arrggghh! OK, I put the yak breeding thing in there, but it’s just as annoying without it.

But something still nagged me why was I so annoyed? And then my attention wandered back to the recent conference, and the undercurrent I’d sensed just washed up and smacked me in the face like a tidal wave of bricks. We need to stop being about that freakin’ “E” and start being about the brand… forget the medium.

In not-so-distant times and at conferences I’ve attended in the past, there’s been lots of talk about how to integrate interactive into the traditional agency. There’s also been a great divide between the interactive sides of agencies and the traditional sides. This divide has naturally grown out of the differences in managing projects versus long-term relationships, different work styles and cultures, and the steep learning curve of technology.

The result has been a mindset that puts the web (or other interactive stuff) in one box and traditional marketing in another box. The separation has spread beyond organizational structures and into the general consciousness, too if you’re a client who wants web stuff done you go to a web company, and if you’re looking for print, TV, PR, etc., you go to a traditional agency.

The result (as any of you involved in this split know all too well) is a gulf that’s often tough to cross when it comes to the brand. The web is littered with sites that don’t communicate the brand in the same way that more traditional media do, and lots of ads are being produced that don’t match the online business. But if you’re reading this, you probably already know all that; it’s not big news.

What was big news to me was to see that some people at the conference are finally starting to pull it off, tossing the “e” out of “e-business” and crafting strategies that work across media, touching customers where it’s most effective and not trying to segregate the brand according to the medium.

And, as some of the case studies really showed, it can work really well. (Sam Travis Ewen’s talk about TheStreet.com and Chris Maher’s talk were particularly insightful on this point.) We need to know where the customers are and what they’re doing, and touch them at those points.

How can you pull this off when crafting your marketing strategies? Forget about the technology. Really. Wipe the “e” from your mind. The technology tail shouldn’t be wagging the brand dog. Instead, identify your customers, figure out all the places where they come into contact with your brand, determine the situations where you wish they had contact with your brand, identify the media that can best communicate your messages at those points, and then execute a strategy that delivers your messages at these points.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? And it is really. The trick is not to get held up on the tech (if it’s a technology solution that is needed). Instead, start with the best-case ideas and work backwards to what’s possible.

And don’t set budgets until the strategy is in place it’s crazy to arbitrarily decide ahead of time that you’re gonna put X dollars into interactive, Y dollars into print, and Z dollars into radio. How can you know? It may be that the best place to get in touch with your customers is on the web and that most of the money should go there. It’s just as likely that outdoor might do the trick and you can forego an expensive web site for an email-based loyalty program. It all depends on knowing your customers and where they touch your brand.

The roadblocks to implementing a broad-based strategy probably have more to do with internal politics than technological possibilities. Thinking this way is something that many of us are not used to. But as the ClickZ Marketing Strategies 2000 conference showed me, we’d better start. And the best way to start is by throwing the “e” out the window.

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