Protecting Brand in a Performance-Driven World

By Claire Russell

Everyone loves measurement. Put simply, it helps us confirm, amend, and deny various hypotheses and gives us the proof that marketing matters.

But are there places that we have over-measured at the expense of brand building? Does our craving for real-time everything create bias against channels, tactics, and partners that do not work the same way?

COVID-19 put us to the test. There we were, steadily contributing a healthy but still relatively modest percentage of sales to clients, and boom, the bottom fell out.

For many, marketing was suddenly in the spotlight as one of the brand's most dynamic and scalable business levers. As many businesses faced a make-or-break moment, they and their agency partners doubled down on what they knew to be impactful; and "impactful" became unmistakably synonymous with "measurable."

The need for certainty made brands focus on paid search, shopper marketing, retargeting, and other lower funnel tactics, all known performers with proven, profitable returns. For most, the onset of the pandemic was not the moment to experiment with new channels or invest in ones that were meant to support mid- to long-term objectives.

Fast forward to today: We are still facing a soft macroeconomic climate and have conditioned ourselves and our clients to benchmark against what was a necessary but perhaps over emphasis on the lower funnel.

These tactics work and have a bit of a shelf life. If you're not giving people a reason to choose your brand, your ability to win in those final shopping moments becomes diminished. And there's only so much a paid-search ad can do to bring your brand to life. (I say this lovingly as someone with a search background).

Going into another year of uncertainty with many working with flat budgets, how do we break out of the cycle and build the brand too?

Clients and their partners are hungry to tell the brand's story again. Inspire consumers. Differentiate within the category. Build insulating loyalty and growth for the long term. Not to mention, these are the places where creative comes alive and makes our industry what it is: a video that lasts longer than six seconds or an out-of-home execution that uniquely pays off the creative idea. Social ads that don't just follow you around with a sale.

In reviewing System1's latest research, Marketing Week doubles down on this concept, saying, "the danger of overinvesting or only investing in short-term tactical activation now becomes all the more apparent, given the general inability of this kind of advertising investment to build brand for future sales. It leaves the brand at risk of ever-decreasing circles of demand while mopping up the current in-market potential."

Furthermore, Nielsen research reveals that just a one-point gain in brand metrics, i.e., awareness, is equivalent to a one-percent increase in sales. A gain from 10 to 15 percent is likely worth more than improving from 70 percent to 75 percent.

Despite the research and desire to go back up the funnel though, it has become difficult to justify especially within a flat budget because it means the budget is coming from those lower funnel tactics.

So, how do you do it?

The first step is aligning on the goals and making sure everyone knows there will likely be short- term discomfort. The first day, week, and month you don't meet or beat last year's numbers cannot come as a surprise.

Next, brands should seek to understand the impact of each of those discrete changes – decreasing budget in the lower funnel – and separately, increasing budget in the upper funnel. Knowing the interplay between the changes is, of course, helpful too, but just be careful that the impact of decreasing performance media doesn't overshadow the upside you may be seeing from brand building.

Make your measurement framework robust. If you don't have a media-mix model, look to partners or other correlated metrics to help act as intermediaries in putting a value on introducing someone to the brand for the first time. Measure the "downstream impact."

All brands are going to have different time horizons and tolerance levels for how this rebalancing happens. Just find a place to start.

The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

Claire Russell is head of media at Fitzco in Atlanta.