Why Can’t Johnny Brand?

A list of the posts in this series on Brand Management is here.

But can he do Brand-ing?  You bet!

Curious thing happening out there in online media world.  Comments about the non-effectiveness of Display Advertising on the web seem to be working their way out of the dark recesses of the Marketing community into the light of the media day.  Witness these recent comments from:

1. A Seller of Banner Ads.

2. A Buyer of Banner Ads

3. Consumer research on Banner Ads

1.  “The net is not a branding tool or a quick-reach vehicle, but when used in conjunction with other media, it helps to seal the deal with the consumer.” – Bill McOwen at MPG, the media buying unit of the mega-agency HAVAS, as reported in the Wall Street Journal (subscription might be required).

2.  “I don’t think banner ads are a total waste of money, but they’re not very effective”. – Trond Riiber Knudsen, Senior Vice President of Strategic Marketing at Nokia, as reported in the McKinsey Quarterly.

3.  (bold emphasis mine) “…banner ads may provide a valuable function in fostering familiarity even if those that view them never click through to the source of the ads. The downside for advertisers is that any evaluation of the positive impressions that this familiarity creates, even one based on false premises, is enough to make those positive feelings vanish.  This suggests that familiarity-based advertising may work best for impulse buys, where more detailed evaluations aren’t likely to occur.” – Journal of Consumer Research, as reported here.

A sample of 3 sources is pretty small, sure.  The quality of the sample is pretty good though, and these comments bring up a lot of important Marketing Productivity issues.  But I’ll address just one fundamental idea in this post, and get into the other issues later on.

A lot of the online agency moaning about the lack of “support” for Banner / Display initiatives focuses on the packaged good folks, who represent the majority of offline media spending. These agency people say that if 1/3 of media consumption time is spent online, then 1/3 of the mass media spend should be online, instead of the 3% they get.

That’s the issue we will focus on today. And please remember while reading this (if you don’t know already) that a Brand consists of much more than the Brand Advertising used to support it.

Why Johnny Can’t Brand

The people who support online Display Advertising as an advertising approach always point out how effective it is at “Branding“. I know what a Brand is, and am familiar with Brand Advertising strategy. But I’d never heard the word “Branding” until it was used to describe why it was important to shoot gerbils out of a cannon or have a sock puppet that looked like a dog in a TV ad. I ask myself, what does this effort have to do with Brand or Brand Advertising? I can see how these ads generate awareness, sure, but what do the ads have to do with the Brand? How do they segment audience, differentiate or position the product?

No matter. Despite the complete lack of any real marketing strategy behind this expensive advertising (it’s different this time, right?) “Branding” as a concept persisted in online Display advertising throughout the bubble after the TV experiment. Later, when called to task on effectiveness, the people pushing this type of advertising started to do studies.  They found consumers exposed to online Display Advertising had increased levels of “awareness” and “intent”, as in the oft-cited studies by Dynamic Logic and others.

Cool!  Please read #3 above.

I’m still not sure what Branding really means, but let’s take the industry on it’s word, and stipulate it means “increasing awareness and intent using online Display Advertising”.  Let’s even agree that Branding works, despite the very real measurement problems present with  metrics like “view through“, which means the awareness and intent they are measuring could be generated by other sources  Search, for example.  Let’s ignore all that, and believe “Branding” works as described.

Despite this acceptance, we now get to a real problem, in my mind.  I don’t think many heavy buyers of mass media (TV, Print, Radio, etc.) are judged on awareness and intent alone. They are primarily judged on Sales and Share.  Do you think the Brand Managers at Procter & Gamble get away with spending billions of dollars on mass media with nobody looking at Sales and Share?


A  Brand Manager knows whether the Brand Advertising is working or not, and for what segments.  This analytical effort is a damn science at the packaged goods companies, who are the largest buyers of mass media and of course, the ultimate “Brand” folks.

Sure, they measure awareness and intent as part of managing a mass media campaign, that’s market intelligence.  But the effort doesn’t stop there, they need to see product movement, and they know how to track this movement.  In other words, they understand how awareness and intent turn into actual product Sales and Share of market.  How mass media ad spend turns into Profits.

So, I ask you, where is this comparable measurement effort with the online “Branding” folks   How does the awareness and intent generated by online display advertising turn into Sales and Share for these mass media advertisers?

Based on the above 3 comments, I think I know the answer. Branding folks simply can’t measure the end impact of the awareness and intent generated by online Display Ads – and neither can their clients.  So even if you stipulate “Online Branding Works”, it’s still irrelevant in the mass media world. Online Branding can’t move the needle enough to be measured at the checkout counter or at the cell phone store.

In other words, Branding is Brand Advertising without the “end demand” part.  So the bottom line for the big mass media spenders is this: it “doesn’t hurt” to sprinkle a few dollars across “Branding” online, but it’s not going to be a big deal, really.  A rounding error, and the budget should reflect that.

What’s the root cause of this problem?  Try this on for size: Dragging an old media idea like Display Advertising online and expecting it to work like it does offline, and at the same time, making the case it should be measured differently than offline.

You can’t have One without the (pause) – Other.

Now, I know a lot of folks have vested interests in creating, buying and selling Display Ads, and that my thoughts above are not terribly welcome.  But just take a look at what is happening around you. If you want to be relevant to the packaged good folks and others like them, you are going to have to change the Display / Branding model. It’s simply not going to survive in the current form because it cannot move the demand needle.

Is it possible that there are much more effective ways to execute Brand Advertising on the web than simply buying Banners and other Display units?  Approaches that will lead to a higher percentage of mass media spend on the web, which after all, seems to be the end goal?  Of course there are, and there are people out there making it happen by thinking about what the packaged goods folks want / need and being creative. Using both brains – left and right.

For example, if you are in love with the idea of Banners / Display as a customer-facing media, why not tightly package them to activity on the web site, where you can drive interaction and measure something tangible?  Integrate the media so the messaging flows into the site, tell a complete story, cause some interaction that has value?

When I ask most online “Branding” agencies about the example above, here is the answer I get:

“What happens on the web site is not our problem”.

What happens after the impression is not your problem?  Why not?  Again, that’s an old media idea, isn’t it?  How convenient to fall back on the “old way” of thinking about advertising when it suits you, often at the same time scolding folks like those making the 3 comments at the top of this post for being “stuck in the past” or “not getting it”.

How’s that working for ya?

I’ll run through a model for thinking about and understanding this area in future posts, along with some examples.  Be warned though, we will be covering things like Psychology and Human Behavior- you know, that Marketing Strategy stuff that rarely seems to come up anymore.

Your thoughts on the ideas above are appreciated and welcome!

And if you don’t agree with what I have said in this post, please provide a counter-example (go ahead and hide the personal stuff) so we can all learn from your expertise.

The next post in this series is here.

4 thoughts on “Why Can’t Johnny Brand?

  1. In my experience (I’ve been a marketing mix analyst for 8 years), you’re spot on about online and our ability to measure significant business performance benefits over and above other activities. Online ads are a great prompt to action IF a consumer is already pre-disposed to purchase. However the number of online campaigns which actually change that predisposition to purchase are few and far between.
    Having said this, online banner ads are at least affordable for small advertisers and they offer a great opportunity to do something different for niche audiences if you are a large advertiser.
    I guess the question which is up for debate is that of complex purchase decisions and engagement. I’m thinking of products which require lot’s of research before purchase (automotive, electronics, banking). Online offers a great way to prompt people to evaluate a product alongside others. This is where online as a medium is totally different to the others (TV, press etc) and I guess that the term branding is being used in place of evaluation.
    Your point about landing sites from online ads is 100% correct and I can’t believe any advertiser would direct users to a non-specific generic site. I also can’t believe it when users aren’t directed to a multitude of landing sites enabling test & learn as to the best way to engage with customers (assuming that the advertiser has a real measure for this). Of course, the engagement measure which matters is sales. However sales results need to be evaluated across all channels – not just one at a time.

  2. John — You jump to an interesting (and arguable) conclusion regarding products that “require” lots of research before purchase. People research their automotive, electronic, and financial decisions not necessarily because they have to — but because: 1) they can, and 2) they’ve been trained to. Fifty years ago in the US, you didn’t research your car purchases — you were either a Ford guy, a Chevy guy, a Buick guy, etc. You didn’t call around to 20 insurance companies to find out who gave you the best rate.

    Both supply and demand increased, where supply = information available about choices, and demand = demand for information about the choices.

    But, it’s dangerous to conclude that certain products require research. Consumers can be influenced to make a more considered decision for products that aren’t researched today, and loyalty building efforts can help reduce the amount of research a consumer conducts on certain purchases.

  3. John, thanks for the comments, good to have a “mixologist” looking over my shoulder. Yes, the pre-disposed part in the intereting part, isn’t it? And perhaps we could get people to be predisposed by using (dare I say it) – TV, the great pre-disposer? I have some examples coming up.

    The classic example of the “compare” function you mention is Progressive Insurance, (I believe) the first major player to actually show you the prices from the competitors when you get a quote from them.

    Your last sentence is a major challenge for people I think, they are so used to measuring single “campaigns” at this point as opposed to the cumulative effects of a messaging strategy.  Not sure that will change anytime soon…

    Ron, this whole area of what I’d call “less friction” in terms of comparing notes on products really runs to the heart of what a Brand is or can be, I think. Calls for a bit of a change in Brand land thinking, from “telling” to “showing”.  It’s the main reason I think “Brand” isn’t created now until there is trial, an actual experience of some kind.  Similar to John’s “evaluation”, but more tangible, and after the evaluation.

    I’m also thinking web sites are becoming a proxy of sorts for actual product usage, especially in services: “If their web site sucks this much, their service probably sucks too”; I believe you’ve pointed to some of this effect before in financial.  More on this down the road…

    Thanks both!

  4. As a small business owner, I’ve got no money in my budget for branding. Branding seems to me to be a term cooked up by advertising agencies to muddy the water when their ads don’t perform.

    Show me the money. I don’t want a brand on my rear end. I want some money in my back pocket.

    I can’t track the source of every penny we generate, but I can track most of the dollars. The metrics available from an online campaign can be very precise. The concept of branding is just a desparate attempt to get me and other business owners to ignore the statistics and buy more ads.

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