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A Direct Marketer Looks at Branding

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This is very embarrassing.

As champions of instant, measurable results, direct response people are supposed to dismiss any form of advertising that doesn't make the phone ring—and ring now.

Yet, here I am, confessing a passion for, of all things, branding.

Branding, as you might imagine, is not typically what direct response agencies, like the one where I work, do. Except, well, yes it is. Because all advertising, including direct response, impacts the brand.

Every commercial for Time Life Books brands. So does every J. Peterman, Levenger and Sharper Image catalog. So does every ACLU, AARP and AAA direct mailing. And so, unfortunately, does every Ron Popeil infomercial.


Even a message that has the sole objective of producing orders leaves an impression about the advertiser. Responsible direct marketers understand the importance of leaving the right impression, and of leaving it on purpose.

They recognize that direct response advertising influences all within its reach, not just the relatively few who actually respond. A chance to leave a strong impression with the non-responding majority is a bonus marketing opportunity that only a fool would waste.

Moreover, smart direct marketers build their strategies upon the brand. The first half of our own agency's strategic process focuses on the brand. We grow the direct response tactics from there.

I suspect that it isn't branding itself that direct marketers disdain so much as the abundant abuses that pass for it. On this point, despite any other differences, responsible direct response marketers find themselves in full agreement with responsible branding agencies.

What Branding Isn't

Occasionally, I stumble upon companies that proudly tell me they have just, at no small cost, revitalized and redefined their "brand." Then they lay a slogan on me—usually a lame one—and show me a new or updated logo. They are so pleased with themselves and the fruits of their investment that, in an uncharacteristic show of restraint, I keep my mouth shut. This is not the time to tell them that a slogan and a logo do not a brand make.

There are as many definitions of branding as there are branding agencies and consultants. I define a brand as "the sum total of your values, as evidenced by how you deliver on those values, at every point of contact."

Your brand is what you stand for, and what you won't stand for. It is your company's personality. It is how you will and won't do business.

It is the customers you seek, and the ones you don't. It is how you treat employees, partners, vendors and customers. It is the care that goes into your product or service. It is your overriding principles, and your diligence in adhering to them.

To the extent that you ride herd on your brand, it is manifest in the look and feel of your facilities, in the behavior of employees and in all of your communications—in person, in policy, on the phone, online, in correspondence and in advertising.

In short, a brand is what you, your company and your people live.

Advertising does not create a brand. In fact, some of today's strongest brands belong to remarkably quiet advertisers. There is no Nordstrom campaign touting impeccable service and upscale décor, no Barnes & Noble campaign extolling a book lover's hangout with enthusiasts eager to help you find obscure titles, no Starbucks campaign bragging about the aficionado behind the counter who can tell you the difference between coffees from around the world.

These companies have built strong brands through consistent delivery, which is the outgrowth of values backed by passion.

And, they all managed to do it without help from slogans like "Nordstrom. Great service, real marble floors."

A Bit of Branding History

Originally, branding referred to burning one's mark on bovine rear ends to help ranchers distinguish among look-alike cattle.

We have the advent of the railroad to thank for the term's induction into the marketing lexicon. Railroads made mass distribution possible, which, in turn, made mass production viable. With them came knockoffs, and with knockoffs came the need for manufacturers to differentiate their products. They solved the problem by adding proprietary marks to their packaging and began referring to the practice with the aptly appropriated term branding.

Branding worked. Consumers began lining up behind preferred brands, and it wasn't long before brands became valuable assets in and of themselves. Companies protected their brands by standardizing trademark use, prosecuting unauthorized use of names and trademarks and—if they were smart—refusing to put their mark on products that didn't live up to their standards.

Brand preference has evolved in two directions. The first centers around product attributes: Ruffles have ridges, Heinz ketchup is thickest. The second centers around creating a product image to appeal to the self concept of the market: a Levi's wearer would rather die than wear Wranglers. And vice versa. Image marketing proved a useful solution for products with little else to distinguish them—at first. Suddenly, a brand could wishful-think itself an image and attract customers who identified.

After an unsuccessful foray as a women's cigarette, Marlboro reintroduced itself as the cigarette for manly men. Powerful TV spots featured ruggedly handsome cowboys puffing away as they herded cattle to music from The Magnificent Seven. Soon, any male smoker who wanted to look manly had to be seen smoking Marlboro, and would pay extra for the privilege.

Other brands without a readily apparent competitive advantage were quick to differentiate by image as well. Substance became optional. For a while, and in quite a few cases, it worked. Pepsi became the cola for young people expressing individuality. Ultra Brite became the toothpaste for people with sex appeal. Jif became the peanut butter for choosy mothers.

But as brands and choices proliferated, and as consumers paid more attention to benefit for price paid, brand loyalty began eroding. All but the fussiest consumers began figuring out that choosing Hunts, Heinz or Del Monte tomato sauce had little impact on the outcome of their lasagna. They learned that J.C. Penney briefs performed about the same as briefs from Fruit of the Loom. They noticed their cars handled equally well with radials from Goodyear or Sears.

The unthinkable was happening: despite distinctive trademarks and carefully crafted images, well-known brands were becoming parity products. Even the cowboy lost his hold and mighty Marlboro found itself doing the ultimate brand no-no: lowering price to compete.

Pseudo Branding

Justifiably panicked, marketers today have reacted by becoming increasingly evangelical about the need to build and maintain powerful brands. That's a good idea. It becomes a bad idea when they decide that they can still build a strong brand with advertising alone.

Times have changed. Linking your brand to a cowboy is no longer enough. After 50 years of shallow images and incessant clutter, consumers are no longer so easily charmed to the cash register. Today, the practice of claiming to be unique without bothering to change anything but your advertising is pseudo branding.

More and more companies, stuck in the past, fall prey to pseudo branding. A company runs a campaign telling you that it really is different in the way it thinks, hires and behaves. But upon visiting its place of business, you find a bank, a grocery store, an insurance company or a department store that looks, feels and acts like any other. This is not branding. It is letting your customer down.

Or, the company comes up with a slogan that means a good deal to Board members and their relatives. This is not branding. It is talking to yourself.

Today's consumers demand more than pretension. They demand substance. And they reward—at the cash register—those who deliver it to them.

Test: How Strong Is Your Brand?

Do you have a strong brand? Here are some revealing questions that we put our own clients through as we work to understand who they are, and who their customers are, before building a direct marketing strategy.

Caution: denial is seductive. It's easier to tell yourself you have a strong brand than it is to take an honest look. Even the most seasoned executives are good at kidding themselves when it comes to questions like these.

  1. If you masked your logo, would customers be able to tell you from the competition by the experience you, your product or your service creates? Could customers tell they were in your facility by the feel, the décor and the way they were treated? A yes indicates a strong brand. A no indicates you have work to do.

  2. Would your customers readily jilt you for a lower-priced look-alike? A no indicates a strong brand. A yes indicates you have work to do.

  3. Does your brand pass the "oh come on" test—that is, do people believe your claims, or do they pass them off as empty corporate boasting? A yes, they believe, indicates a strong brand. A no indicates you have work to do.

  4. If you wrote and framed a summary of your values as you see them, could competitors get away with hanging the same document in their own halls? A no indicates a strong brand. A yes indicates you have work to do.

  5. Do your employees know, get behind, and help deliver what you stand for? (For that matter, do you?) Don't let yourself off easy by reassuring yourself that they've read the mission statement and can recite your slogan. The question is whether your values have become part of their behavior on the job. A yes indicates a strong brand. A no indicates you have work to do.

Finding—and Delivering—Your Brand

You can have a strong brand.

Now, I have to admit that no law says you must. Marketing history, direct marketing history in particular, is full of flash-in-the-pan campaigns that sold oodles with little regard to the brand: Ginsu Knife, the Abdomenizer, the Smokeless Ash Tray, the Pet Rock. If you want to capitalize on a momentarily open window, go for it.

But marketers, even direct marketers, who want to prosper for the long haul need staying power, for windows close, fads pass and knock-offs arise. And the foundation of staying power is found in the brand, even for those who sell by mail, by phone or online.

Chances are, the makings of a strong brand already exist within your company, or within the minds of its leadership. The trick is to discover your brand, develop it, live it and ensure its delivery at every point of contact.

This will require, among other things, leadership. Posters in the break room and ads in the paper saying "customers come first" fall flat when the CEO plays hermit. Branding begins at the top. Values trickle down, never up.

If you need help discovering and delivering on your brand, there are many fine firms, including ad agencies, that can help. But please beware anyone who offers to give you one wrapped up in a slogan and a logo.

With your brand in place, your ad agency can get to work. Whether you give it objectives for building brand awareness, selling products—or both—it will be able to build its work on a solid foundation.


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Steve Cuno is chairman and founder of RESPONSE Agency (www.ResponseAgency.com), a direct-response marketing firm in the Salt Lake City area. He is author of Prove It Before You Promote It: How to Take the Guesswork Out of Marketing, due in bookstores December 2008 (John Wiley & Sons). Contact him via Steve@ResponseAgency.com.

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