DM and brand: When lines blur, you may need glasses

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Based on the Direct Marketing Association's recent report, "The Integration of DM and Brand," some have concluded that the lines between direct marketing and brand advertising are blurring or have all but disappeared. With all this blurring, it's time for a little focus on lines that matter.

For experienced direct practitioners, the line between branding and direct has always been clear. Slapping a toll-free number on the end of a TV ad generally won't confuse us into thinking the spot was direct marketing. At least not good direct marketing. The lines separating bad from good and good from better can always be clearer. Testing is the way to draw these lines that are so essential to continuous improvement. While general advertisers are integrating DM techniques into branding efforts, these often lack a disciplined testing strategy and a willingness to stand solely on results.

Clients are demanding more accountability from agencies. Integrating direct marketing techniques gives general agencies hard sales numbers to point to when claiming victory. It's something that is more quantitative than recall studies and focus group praise. There is nothing blurry about what's going on.

I'm glad branders are realizing that stating offers and asking for orders may not be crass and unseemly pursuits after all, but what about direct marketers' integration of branding techniques into their efforts? Well, we've been doing that for many years, to the extent that it works. We know direct marketing's most valuable contribution to a brand is through introducing new customers to the experience of the brand. Whether you like the answers you get or not, in the harsh light of control-based testing, the question of whether to integrate pure brand messaging into direct really becomes this simple: How much pure advertising content can be integrated into a DM effort for an improved response rate?

Geico has become a poster child for "bridging the gap" between brand advertising and direct marketing with their gecko and caveman spots. But has Geico really been aggressively testing alternative approaches to find ways to outperform those spots on a quantitative basis? Or are they selecting their creative by more subjective criteria? The latter would mean they have abandoned a cornerstone of direct marketing that makes the foundation upon which the bridge is built quite shaky.

And while the benefits of brand awareness in a large-scale television campaign may be more forgiving of less disciplined direct marketing, what about the mail? When was the last time you received a Geico direct mail solicitation plastered with photos of the cavemen or gecko? If the so-called gap has truly been bridged by the creativity, we'd see it all over the mail, too - but we don't. When mail must pay for itself, we see a return to more traditional, if less entertaining creative efforts.

Is integration a worthy goal if it is not in pursuit of a clearly defined objective, like increased sales or retention rates? In a measured effort, I'm not satisfied writing off a deficiency in ROI with faith that the value of branding makes up for it. That's a subjective approach to analysis that I'm not comfortable with as a data-driven marketer.

Whatever gap exists between the techniques of brand advertising and direct may not need to be filled. To the extent that the two disciplines work well together to achieve an identifiable objective, they should. To the extent they don't, they shouldn't. Your brand is far more than your most recent media campaign and successful integration is not simply defined by producing brand and direct creative that looks the same. Rather, it's about optimizing spending between the disciplines for maximum efficiency and profitability in the delivery of a consistently superior customer experience.

Do you really care how blurry the line between DM and brand gets in the hands of general advertisers who dabble with direct techniques in their creative efforts? The lines between good, bad and better will remain clear by virtue of another important line - the bottom line.

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