The Blending of Direct and Brand Marketing

Direct and brand marketing have long been the quarreling siblings of the marketing world. Unable to truly get along yet forced to live under the same roof, they continuously wrestle for the larger share of attention—and budget.

“The two approaches compete with each other,” says Vic Drabicky, founder of marketing agency January Digital. “People aren’t quite sure how to combine them, so they typically tend to operate separately.”

It’s easy to understand why. On the one hand, direct marketing is a highly targeted approach to driving transactions and generating revenue with clever calls to action and personalized promotions. Brand marketing, on the other hand, aims to engage consumers with a brand, thereby building awareness and familiarity over time.

But as omnichannel marketing gains popularity, and marketers discover broader metrics to gauge campaign success, direct and brand marketing are beginning to blend into a unified operation that works cohesively to drive sales and boost awareness.

There are a number of reasons for this sea change. For one, some of the hype surrounding social media has dissipated into disillusionment. For every “Elf Yourself” and Old Spice campaign that’s gone wildly viral, there are hundreds of social media-based brand awareness initiatives that have fallen flat.

“Everyone looked at social media and thought it was the saviour of all saviours,” Drabicky says. “But people didn’t really know how to work with it or what it was.”

The difficulty of quantifying the impact of brand marketing has also contributed to mixed reviews. Just ask Liz Sophia McClellan, CMO at software provider North Plains Systems. “I haven’t had good luck proving ROI with brand marketing,” she says.

For instance, McClellan points to a past employer who invested “upwards of half-a-million to $600,000” to rebrand the company. “At the end of the day there was no great measurement as to whether it moved the needle,” she says. “It cleared up some things in terms of how to speak about our product, but I think it also complicated things. There was no metric to go back to and say changing the name or the brand did this or that.”

A backlash against brand marketing can be seen in how marketers are spending their advertising dollars. According to an eMarketer report, “2014 Digital Ad Spending Benchmarks by Industry,” both direct response advertising and brand advertising increased at approximately the same pace year-over-year: just over 16%. However, direct response advertising increased from a higher base, and it gained $4.74 billion against $2.79 billion for branding, leading to an increase in ad spending market share from 58.4 to 59.1%.

But the pendulum is swinging once again as “people are starting to look at brand marketing and direct marketing slightly different,” Drabicky says. Rather than treat them as warring factions, more and more marketers are viewing direct marketing and brand marketing as complementary strategies—approaches that can be blended for a greater overall impact. Here are six ways to successfully integrate the two.

Establish a performance baseline

There are steps marketers can take to improve the odds of a successful merger. McClellan recommends that marketers begin by establishing a clear-cut starting point before diving into a brand marketing campaign. “Where marketers miss the mark is they don’t invest enough in the baseline tracking of their brand before they launch a new initiative,” she says. “With direct…you can usually get results much quicker; it takes longer to prove brand marketing to your executive team. Brand results come over several years.” 

Expecting that a digital magazine or newsletter, for example, will quickly push prospective customers into your sales pipeline the same way a direct mail piece might is a recipe for disappointment and a sure-fire way to risk cuts to brand marketing budgets. 

Embrace the right metrics

In addition to recognizing its slower trajectory, brand marketing requires its own set of metrics beyond “impressions, frequency, and what demographic you’re hitting,” Drabicky warns. Savvy marketers also measure “secondary and tertiary metrics like how consumers interact with an e-commerce site or how they reached the site that show intent or influence,” he says. “They’re not stopping at high-level metrics like impressions.”

Jason Falls agrees. “Many people, when they get into social media and digital marketing measurement, get confused and frustrated with what they’re getting out of the effort,” says Falls, SVP of digital strategy at agency Elasticity. “Generally, they’re performing brand-marketing exercises but are trying to apply direct-marketing metrics to them. When you do that, you become frustrated with what you’re getting out of your marketing initiatives.”

By focusing on how well a brand marketing campaign increases and enhances customer satisfaction, and connecting these upticks to increased sales, marketers can gain a more holistic—and realistic—view of their marketing efforts.

After all, Falls says, “in really smart social marketing campaigns, there’s a blending.” Calls-to-action are vital and coupons can create clicks, but “if you don’t build awareness, and if you don’t improve customer service, you’ll suffer long term,” he says.

Case in point: Computer giant Dell received accolades years ago for using its Twitter account to sell overstock items at a considerable discount. Promotions were advertised to Twitter followers only—a social media strategy that had a significant impact on Dell’s bottom line and helped shape the company’s reputation as a marketing innovator.

“Dell proved that we can take a single Twitter account and turn it into a revenue stream,” Falls says. “People who are gadget heads immediately started following that channel and began clicking and buying all of these overstock, lower-priced gadgets.” 


Leverage content assets

Making brand awareness part of a content marketing campaign is also an excellent way to blend direct and brand marketing. Rather than choose between either driving sales or raising awareness, North Plains Systems accomplished both by delivering content assets, such as whitepapers and guides, to a particular target market, McClellan says.

“In [only] six weeks we received leads within our target market that had buying power and budget; plus, they were the kind of buyers we wanted,” she says. “If you make content marketing part of your strategy, the by-product is brand marketing. If you’re targeting the right audience with the right message, and providing great thought leadership, then you’re doing brand marketing.”

Spearhead an omnichannel approach

One trend that’s making it easier than ever to blend direct marketing with brand marketing is omnichannel. With mobile platforms accounting for 60% of total time spent on digital media, according to comScore, marketers are taking steps to ensure that consumers experience consistent service, personalization, and brand messaging regardless of whether they’re using a smartphone or visiting a brick-and-mortar shop.

For marketers, this presents “a larger opportunity to create a whole brand experience,” says Daryl Travis, CEO of research and strategy firm Brandtrust. “The omnichannel phenomenon is a mix and a blend of everything.” 

Suddenly, brand marketing efforts, like Twitter feeds and Facebook promotions, can work hand-in-hand with direct marketing initiatives, such as direct mail or a website, and vice versa.

Falls agrees. “There is absolutely no reason to think that brand marketing and direct marketing can’t coexist in any one channel.” The secret, he says, is figuring out “what your audience is going to respond to most.”

Mine your data

If omnichannel is the magnet that draws direct and brand marketing together, then data is the glue that binds them forever. According to a January 2015 report from Forbes Insights and Turn, leaders in data-driven marketing are at least six times more likely than laggards to achieve a competitive advantage in increasing profitability and five times more likely in customer retention.

But that’s not all. “Compared to five years ago, getting data is so cheap and easy at this point that people are able to apply data to all of their campaigns,” January Digital’s Drabicky says. All of which, he adds, “can make brand marketing feel a little more like direct response.”

Drabicky offers up Facebook as a perfect example. The networking behemoth got its start as a popular social media platform for building brand awareness and converting consumers into online advocates. However, “Facebook has turned into being very much a direct response–type of marketing channel,” he says.

At the core of this transformation is data. First, Facebook gathers reams of information about its users. Next, these details are analyzed and packaged for marketers so they can create direct marketing campaigns that lead to online purchases.

“Facebook is in a great spot because it sits somewhere in between direct response and branding,” Drabicky says. “Everybody always looks at social as branding but their paid marketing channels are very much direct response.”

Roadblocks worth avoiding

Establishing a baseline, embracing new metrics, creating content assets, adopting an omnichannel approach, and leveraging data are all ways to better blend direct and brand marketing. But there are also risks that marketers need to be aware of.

Despite data’s ability to turn a social media platform into a direct response delivery vehicle, you can have too much of a good thing. “We have a lot of clients who come to us and say they’re drowning in data,” says Brandtrust’s Travis. “They say they’ve got numbers up the wazoo but still don’t know why people do what they do. We still don’t know what it is that really motivates them.”

Without greater insight into the data being collected, creating a campaign, be it direct response or brand awareness, can be an exercise in futility.

Another potential pitfall: banging consumers over the head with hard-hitting calls-to-action. To be sure, social media channels can open the door to direct response endeavors. Just remember, Falls advises, when it comes to social media, “there’s typically not an appropriate way to say, ‘Here, buy something.’” Rather, he adds, “what you’re trying to do in these efforts is establish a sense of familiarity and a relationship. You’re trying to create a top-of-mind awareness so that when a consumer is ready to buy, the direct response action becomes a much easier transaction.”

Finally, maintain realistic expectations. A few years ago social media took off as the perfect platform for brand marketing. But ill-conceived campaigns and tough-to-quantify results prompted disillusioned marketers to refocus their efforts there on more traditional direct response initiatives. Now that agencies are figuring out new ways to blend direct and brand marketing, it’s more important than ever for marketers to stay realistic. “Social media is like any other channel,” Falls says. “For some reason we put this purple dinosaur suit on it and we thought it was something different for a few years but it’s really not. It’s just another communication channel.”

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