Connecting brand to the bottom line

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Ghost stories go digital
Ghost stories go digital

Sad as it is to admit, I've probably engaged in several dozen conversations over the years — some rather heated — that revolved around the definition of the word "brand." Occupational hazard, I guess.


The debates are as interesting as the word's origins: Wikipedia reminds us that the term "began as a way to tell one person's cattle from another's by means of a hot iron stamp." Dictionary.com defines brand as "the identity of a specific product, service or business."


My favorite definition is also perhaps the simplest: a brand is a promise. When you spin the top off a bottle of Dr Pepper, you know what it will taste like. Same goes for the experience of getting behind the wheel of a BMW. Or reading the back-page column in your favorite direct marketing magazine. 


Brand equity is built on fulfillment of the promise, and it can be damaged when the consumer's trust is betrayed. There's a lot of power in the concept of brand. Yet somewhere along the line, the word has gotten a bit weak.


Blame (or credit) the age of ROI. The more the industry conversation focused on issues of accountability and performance, the squishier the notion of branding became. When you want the cash register to ring, brand-building — with its intimations of vague and unmeasurable long-term benefits — doesn't seem the most obvious route.


In certain circles, including some direct marketing ones, "brand" became a kind of dirty word, applied to those who couldn't draw a direct line between what they did and the number of widgets sold.


I experienced that a few months back after writing a column that bluntly criticized questionable direct mail tactics. The column raised the hackles of some practitioners. One of the harsher criticisms they branded me with is that direct marketing is about sales, which I couldn't possibly understand as someone who toils in branded content (a field, I'd argue, that's also often maligned by those who don't understand it).


"Ah, yes, why create marketing pieces that convert into sales when you can chase awards instead," wrote one pebble thrower. "Why is a guy who doesn't work in direct allowed to pass judgment on direct?" asked another, echoing every filmmaker, author, artist and chef throughout history.


"Changes in brand perception," a third critic noted, "don't exist as a line item on the CFO's balance sheet. Direct marketing clients have financial goals for their marketing dollars."


Branding, in this argument, may create awareness, shift opinions, kindle desire and stoke intent, but it doesn't close the sale, so it's disconnected from the bottom line. The only problem: the argument is wrong.


This was made vividly clear to me by Randall Rothenberg, head of the Interactive Advertising Bureau and one of the biggest brains in the business. Over breakfast, he casually tossed off his definition of brand: "The ability of a product or service to maintain a premium price advantage." There's a reason why a two-liter bottle of Coca-Cola Classic sells for $1.89 at ShopRite while the store's own cola lists at 69 cents.


The point isn't that branding is more powerful than direct marketing, or vice versa. It's that branding isn't a dirty word or even a squishy one. The power of brand is closely aligned with business outcomes. More than that, it's a leading driver of profit and margin. Looked at that way, brand is a lot more interesting to the CFO.


In any case, the argument is silly and draws false distinctions. Whatever tools we pull from the marketing box, our goals need to be the same: to build and sustain our clients' businesses.

Scott Donaton is CEO of Ensemble, the branded-entertainment arm of Interpublic's Mediabrands. The End (USER) is his consumer's-eye view of life.

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