DM, branding: all one and the same now?

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A NEW report from the Direct Marketing Association claims that the lines between direct marketing and brand marketing have all but disappeared. That discovery is not surprising given that marketers now require accountability from all advertising, be it online, print or broadcast.

The DMA's study said direct marketing's versatility and measurability have led marketers to integrate the discipline's tactics into all brand marketing efforts across channels, as reported in this issue by deputy editor Melissa Campanelli.

Direct marketing service providers should be happy with this report. It means more business coming their way. They can walk into pitches and presentations confident that marketers finally get it: that advertising and accountability can go hand in hand. But they will have to fight for the media dollars. The charm of a multimillion-dollar commercial played in the seclusion of a plush conference room on a widescreen television surrounded by brand advertising's champions is still hard for clients to resist. Compare that to a commercial which constantly reminds viewers to "Call Now!" for a hard discount. That does not sound, you know, very sophisticated.

One advertiser that has bridged the gap between brand advertising and direct marketing is Geico. How many consumers are aware that this innovative company that sells car insurance using geckos and cavemen as pitchmen is owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway? Geico's use of a cockney-accented gecko captivated the nation, won serious business for the company and garnered wide acclaim for The Martin Agency, creator of that advertising.

The gecko commercials are still on air, as cheeky and clever as can be. The Martin Agency couldn't wait to rest on its laurels and that led to its employment of Neanderthals. Who can resist the caveman's double-take upon seeing a poster with another of his kind at the airport? And what about the excitement palpable when one caveman announces to his buddies at the bar, "Tina's here!" Irreverent, self-deprecating and no hard sell: That is classic advertising, even with a toll-free number and Web address included in the spots.

No one refers to the Geico spots as short-form infomercials. Instead, the gecko and the cavemen are celebrated in media, written and talked about. The cavemen are even getting their own television series. When was the last time an advertising icon got such wide attention? Exclude Smokey the Bear, Mr. Potato Head, the Jolly Green Giant and the Michelin Man.

Geico's ads represent the best of branding and direct marketing. They combine humor and irreverence with a call to action and a 15 percent discount for a product as dry as auto insurance. If Geico can do it so can marketers of cars, home furnishings, travel experiences, consumer products, food and apparel. Even a discounter offering "everyday low prices." Wal-Mart Stores Inc. recently tapped The Martin Agency to handle its advertising. The jury's still out whether Wal-Mart will let its agency inject humor into its advertising. It would be a wonderful change from Wal-Mart's usual workaday advertising on television and in print.

Advertising's job is to make the brand stand out from its competition. The goal is to stoke desire, to evoke an emotion, to fulfill a need where one existed or to create one where none existed. This heavy lifting should be predicated on the fact that the marketer's product or service is reliable and that the advertising - general or direct marketing - is not selling a bill of goods.

A good branding ad will spread awareness and establish trust. A strong direct marketing ad, whether on air, online or in print, will encourage consumers to take the next step - call, mail in the order form or visit a site. A good ad will combine the two, benefiting from brand advertising's emotion and direct marketing's reason.

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