Stop the "brand" vs. "performance" battle. Choose smart marketing instead.


In 1992, I showed up to my first day of my last year of elementary school. Sixth grade – kings and queens of the school. The year that all the younger kids were going to look up to us.  If you watched Wonder Years, this year felt like that. Slow motion, soft focus, Beach Boys on repeat, as I made my way down the 6th grade hall, sporting my Hypercolor T-shirt and my Reebok pumps.

My own daughter now cares about fashion and brands just as much as I did as a sixth grader, although at the time I’m not sure I fully recognized it. I’m pretty sure it took me a good half of a day to realize what had happened over the summer. Kid after kid walking by with their T-shirts tucked in way more than mine was?? Whatever, they didn’t have a Hypercolor shirt. Just some solid color T-shirt with something French on the front. And jeans with a weird little label by the zipper. What is that?

Unbeknownst to me, a new brand had made its way to my little town of Elk River, Minnesota - Marithé et François Girbaud. The horror for a 12-year-old girl is unable to be explained… how could this have escaped me?

And to make matters so much worse, several of my friends could be seen with shirts tucked in, obviously to display the fact that they didn’t miss this new brand’s arrival. And not only did they not miss it, but they were sporting it. Insert the "Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon" here…. Now that I know the brand exists, it is everywhere. Every other person I see is sporting something Girbaud related.

Remember, this was ’92. I couldn’t Google “Girbaud” to find out what this brand was about, and I definitely couldn’t order them online. As we all did, I learned I loved this brand simply by seeing it. Where to buy them though? You bet your bottom dollar neither Pamida nor Target would have them. I would need to convince my mom to take me to the big city to get some. Oh… and once that feat was won, I would also need to convince her to spend double what she wanted to spend on jeans for me. [Gulp]

From as early as I can remember, I have loved brands. I love what they stand for. I love that a brand can demand so much more than a non-brand. I love that they have so much moxie, and Lord knows I’ve spent way too much on brands over the years. The psychology behind it all is fascinating. Emotions have way more influence over our buying behaviors than we as consumers understand or would like to admit.  

But somewhere along the way, smart marketing became unsexy. Meanwhile, “brand marketing” became a “logical” excuse to waste millions of dollars. Mad Men would tell you that branding is the one thing that would guarantee sales success for a business. Simply spend $1.5-$2m on creative production + ungodly high CPMs to air in broadcast television, and you should have one hell of a year.

How much does branding have to do with a company’s success? Those fiercely committed to direct marketing practices will argue that branding isn’t important, and that immediate sales are all that matter. Let’s be clear… both strategies have the same goal in mind – sales.


We’ve found ourselves at a fork in the road. Brand? Or DR?

I think both are wrong, or both are right – depending on how you look at it. A DR-only mindset will lead to short-termism with no long-term play – consumers that will purchase today, but only did so because of a great offer, and will never again think about your product or service. At the same time, a branding-only mindset may lead to one ridiculously expensive TV spot, a hugely overpriced media plan and a couple people that care.

A better approach is a blended strategy – performance branding, I like to call it. Here are some principles to consider when you’re building your own marketing plan.


1) Budget for branding and sales. 

All too often, marketers will state they care about their brand (duh, who doesn’t) but sales are priority #1. I get that. Especially early in your journey, you need immediate sales to keep marketing budget up. Taking the “we need every dollar out the door to return and branding is just gravy on top” approach will lead to no long-term play. While this isn’t a one-size-fits-all subject, a good target to shoot for would be 50% of marketing budget needs to produce immediate return. The other 50% of sales come over time. Other than the in-store marketing I saw on Girbaud, the only marketing I saw was other people wearing their apparel. Those are longer-term branding effects that need to be realized and accounted for.


2) Create messaging synergy that works together. 

When done well, a “brand” spot and a “DR” spot can be one in the same. Your branding strategy may have different spot lengths to drive higher levels of reach/frequency, but your message strategy between brand and DR should feel seamless to the consumer. The goal should be to ensure your message speaks to your target audience, regardless of whether they’re ready to purchase today or not. Consumers that come in contact with your marketing aren’t going to spend any mental energy trying to associate various campaign strategies together. You need to do this for them.


3) Don't get too fancy and go with data over gut. 

Frequently, especially relating to branding, marketers can get overly concerned with design elements that just aren’t going to matter. Stay aligned to your brand standards and values, but if you think moving text to the left or right by two kerning pixels is going to matter, it’s not.  Also, with this in mind, don’t fool yourself into thinking your brand spot is just something that the right audience will “get.” Speak to your target - literally, with a voice over (VO). Sixty percent of TV spots are never viewed, only heard. If there is no VO, you’ve ensured your perfectly planned network/daypart/program placement allowed for someone to hear 30 seconds of your lovely music selection.      

On that note, let data drive the strategy. Pre-test everything. You have been studying your brand for months, years, decades, perhaps. Put your new marketing ideas in front of real consumers to gain insight on how different approaches perform in market. Let the test data guide the right approach.


4) Know what you're trying to achieve and measure it. 

Sales. Yes, of course you want to drive sales. Every marketing channel (even top-of-funnel channels) can be measured on a day-one ROI basis. But getting too focused on day one will lead us right back to short-termism. Ensure there is clarity regarding in-year goals and long-term goals. DR tactics can be measured through sales-based KPIs. But, don’t forget that top-of-the-funnel metrics are important as well. We’re looking for awareness and engagement here. Reach and frequency metrics have been around for years because they do matter. If you’re trying to grow your market share, you need to be tracking your SOV and the initial engagement from new top-of-the-funnel consumers, in addition to sales.

5) Optimize and capitalize. 

Traditionally, a brand media plan is optimized against audience targets only. Think about branding as one step beyond just awareness. Awareness is a good start, but awareness and engagement are better than awareness alone. Don’t fall into a “set it and forget it” approach. Be clear on what you’re trying to achieve and ensure there is a plan to optimize to reach those objectives. Don’t use “brand” as an excuse for bad performance, and when you are seeing positive indications of sales lift beyond forecasts, reinvest those wins into the marketing channels that were likely driving that success.

So, let it be less about the choice between a brand or DR approach, and more about performance branding. The right mix between the two will be different for each business and will depend on a variety of factors. Find agency partners that rely on data and experience to help you determine the right mix for your business. Stop overpaying for media and creative, and instead put those dollars to work for your business. Let’s stay focused on smart marketing. Before you know it, you’ll be seeing the two approaches go together like my Girbaud jeans and Hypercolor T-shirt – and let me tell you, it’s a beautiful thing.