Looking for convergence in all the wrong places

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The vision of a single living room appliance that lets viewers watch, record and play back TV shows, listen to music, see movies, surf the Web, IM and e-mail, text message and even water the lawn has been around for years. There's a buzzword for it: convergence.

Marketers and their agencies have spent a lot of time and money planning for its arrival. But do they understand what it is that's converging?

Marketers think that whatever technology platform wins the convergence race will determine the future shape of interactive advertising. But while betting on new technology makes sense for the Sonys, Dells and Apples of the world, we think that technological convergence in the ad industry is serving as one large red herring.

Not only is technological adoption extremely hard to predict - the marketplace is littered with superior technical products that for one reason or another could not develop market share - but the very act of forecasting technological change pulls marketers and agencies away from their core competencies.

That doesn't mean the marketing community should stand still. We suggest that rather than spend precious resources forecasting technological convergence, marketers should spend more time preparing for an entirely new world of messaging convergence. This world will offer interactive options in virtually every marketing channel, and powerful branding and metrics-driven direct response finally can be used simultaneously in the same cause.

Branding versus direct response. Back in the prehistoric 20th century, branding expertise and DR expertise lived in different places, both creatively and physically. You simply did not find the two together in one place. Yet even though new cross-platform options are already available, allowing for convergence of the two disciplines, few marketers have bridged the gap.

There are a host of reasons for the failure to reconcile these two disciplines. We must begin with the unavoidable fact that great branding creative talent is rarely interested in working for a direct response company; and great DR talent is rarely interested in working at a branding company. Yet that alone does not explain the difficulty that even the most progressive marketers and agencies have had in making the two disciplines click.

The difficulty really lies in what makes for successful execution in each discipline. Branding needs to impact the subconscious mind, lingering as a largely unexamined predisposition to favor a product or company in the future. For instance, no one wants to think about what's in the Coca-Cola, only that it is refreshing. Branding works best when it produces a passive, non-critical response. That is why television, with a passive viewer sitting in a reclined position, has been such an ideal venue.

Direct response needs to impact the conscious mind, triggering a specific action that must occur right now. It requires a compelling offer combined with an urgent call to act. Even if the purchase decision is emotional in nature, such as that for a diet or cosmetics product, it still requires a critically evaluative, active, conscious response. That is why the Internet, with an active user sitting upright two feet from the screen, is ideal.

Focus on messaging convergence. So what should marketers make of technological convergence, a theoretical time when the TV screen and computer screen become one? The answer is clear: With interactive opportunities available for every promotion, and the pressure ever increasing to build brands while proving ROI, marketers need to be ready to combine great branding with great direct response.

Branders and direct marketers will need to sit together in the same room and formulate each promotion together. To get it right, the DMer would supply the content, defined as the offer and call to action, while the brander would supply the context, defined as the look and feel and enduring emotional connection.

Messaging convergence is the first marketing challenge of the 21st century. How we respond will determine the industry's winners and losers for the foreseeable future.

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