So what’s going on? Why are so many organizations burning barrels of cash on ineffective brand advertising? What are the results of brand advertising campaigns? And what are the most effective ways to promote a brand online? Let’s have a look.

The value of your brand

Your organization’s brand is a very valuable asset. A strong brand makes it easier to win clients (and keep them tied to you), is probably a multiplier for many of your non-brand advertising campaigns, helps you to gain more visibility from press & PR, and generate link bait for SEO.

However, a valuable brand does not automatically mean that your organization will thrive.

Uber: Strong Brand, No Profit

Uber’s brand is so strong that thousands of people invest precious time and money into using Uber’s product. Politicians argue about whether to ban or embrace Uber to solve their transport problems. But despite their strong brand, a multitude of investors and nominal overhead costs, Uber still fails to make a profit.

This illustrates that a strong brand is important, but not a silver bullet that will solve all your marketing problems.

The brand advertising myth

As an online marketing consultant, I’ve come across many low-quality “strategic branding campaigns”. These brand advertising campaigns were usually lacking in focus and good, SMART KPIs - with SMART referring to Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Time-Bound KPIs (TIP: here’s how to choose the right online marketing KPIs).

Bad brand advertising strategies are all about generating clicks or impressions – the more, the better. The sky was the limit, and as long as the CPM (remember: CPM is never a good KPI – by ANY means) stayed low and the impression count high, everyone was happy.

Branding campaign reports touted excitingly:

• “We’ve reached an average of 8 impressions daily per person in [country X].”
• “The brand promotion campaign has increased the number of impressions by 600%.”
• “National exposure coverage between the age segment of 21-65 is virtually 100%.”

However, it was never clear just HOW all these brand impressions actually helped to promote the brand. Hardly ever a mention on how this branding activity increased demand, boosted sales or altered the potential customer’s brand perception.

Brand advertising strategy

The problem with many brand promotion campaigns

The biggest issue with many brand advertising campaigns is that they are implemented for the wrong reasons. In most cases, the advertiser is expecting to see an uplift in business results, but that is usually not the effect of brand advertising. Advertisers need to realize that branding is a long term investment and that for most organizations, brand advertising usually doesn’t make a significant difference in lead generation or sales.

Agencies need to be alert to address this misconception, to ensure that campaign expectations and business results are aligned.

Brand advertising: Are you wasting your money?

When to engage in brand advertising

There’s nothing bad about brand advertising. It’s just that brand promotion primarily is a strategic tool, and it has to be relevant to the audience. Brand advertising is a great strategy to strengthen your brand when:

  • A brand needs to re-position itself;
  • A brand can generate demand for generic products (e.g. billboards showing pictures taken with iPhones);
  • An organization releases a new product or service for which there is no demand yet;
  • A brand has a bad reputation or is tainted (e.g. Andersen Consulting > Accenture);
  • A brand is highly dependent on public opinion (e.g. fundraisers, NGOs, tourism boards);
  • The brand has a profound impact on client retention, leading to cross-, up- and repeat sales;
  • Customers need to invest a large amount of their time and/or money (e.g. car sales);
  • An organization changes its name or is being incorporated.

The wrong reasons for brand advertising

Always check that your organization doesn’t start a brand advertising campaigns for the wrong reasons: generally, a good lead generation campaign usually generates more uplift on your brand AND your business results. Brand promotion on for the wrong reasons usually leads to a waste of marketing budget.

Is your organization or branding agency stating any of the following reasons to start a brand advertising campaign? Be aware, and check if it makes sense for your organization’s long-term marketing strategy, products and/or services, and (especially!) niche:

1. Competitors are doing it

You are not your competitor. All businesses are different. If they’d all employ the same marketing tactics, it would be a race to the bottom. Your competitor might have different priorities, better value propositions, or deeper pockets. Check if your brand strategy is aligned with your long-term business priorities. If your goal is to increase revenue, ROI, or market share, promoting your brand might not be your most efficient option.

2. There’s money left in the advertising budget

Well, that’s great! But deploying a brand strategy isn’t something to do on a whim. Brand advertising needs a large investment in time, media budget, and buy-in from senior management and across the organization. If done improperly, branding campaign might even HURT your brand, and chances are that your organization is already running other campaigns that are doing better at meeting overall business objectives.

Instead, consider using the budget it to try something new – are you already publishing advertorials (with the highest ROI after SEO and SEM/SEA) or doing remarketing? (TIP: 10 remarketing strategies!)

3. To please executives

Unfortunately, in some organizations, pleasing the executives is more important than reaching marketing goals. For example, one agency had a client’s senior executives flown in and drive them around the city in a top-to-bottom branded streetcar. The agency knew that this one activity would take a sizeable chunk out of the budget and that it would hardly improve campaign results, but chose to do so to strengthen ties with the client’s management.

Office (and client) politics can be a mine field, but marketers have to protect the quality and the overall ROI of their campaigns. The same goes for executives: they need to rely on their trusted marketing experts who know about their market and products and be careful not to jump on the bandwagon of a new marketing trend too soon. Even best practices do not always apply in each market and for each strategy.

4. To promote a niche product

A strong brand is great for companies that have products that are readily available and of value to a large segment of the population. For niche products, not as much.

Promoting brands in niche markets: an example

For example, just think of the services of a bankruptcy trustee. They are professionals that you hope that you’ll never need. The general public is not interested in their services, and cannot be persuaded otherwise.

Roughly speaking, such a company has two options:

  1. Reach out to the population in their area in general. This will be very costly and yield a low ROI, even in the long run; or
  2. Focus on improving the visibility and brand awareness among people that need their services, through targeted campaigns. This will have far visibility but will be much less costly and yield a higher ROI.

Conclusion: if your organization operates in a niche and the marketing budget is a constraint, common sense and real-life experience show that a targeted brand advertising campaign is much more efficient in terms of generating brand uplift, sales, and revenue.

Offline vs. online brand strategy

For by far most companies, quality in marketing goes over quality. The strange thing is that when it comes to brand promotion campaigns, quality is often measured by quantity – a contradictio in terminis.

Many brand strategies are created by people who have a lot of experience in offline marketing. They think of the brand as a very visual tool, that has to be communicated consistently and frequently on visual and mass media, such as billboards, television, and radio.

But the world of marketing and advertising has changed. As budgets have shifted from offline to online marketing, so should your brand strategy. And online marketing allows you to use much more efficient and tailored marketing tactics, to promote your brand among a much more relevant audience.

Ensure that your brand strategy does not focus on CPM or impressions, but entails a detailed description of your audience’s intent. Demographics don’t cut it anymore: include targeting based on behaviour, past brand interaction, intent, and timing. It is much more efficient to build and promote your brand among a qualified audience than to scatter your brand impressions across large, generic parts of your population.


Excuses to run branding campaigns in generic media channels

Many brand strategies are centred around brand promotion and brand advertising. That makes sense from the perspective of a brand agency because design and advertising are their bread and butter. But brand promotion usually isn’t the most effective use of a budget to generate leads or sales.

On the contrary, for many businesses, it’s the other way round. A direct response campaign often has a more profound impact on a brand. Think about it: does it make sense to spend a relatively big part of your budget on people that will never be interested in or able to buy your product? It’s more effective to have a very strong presence among the people that are looking for your service, at the moment that they’re looking for it. That’s the big advantage in targeted brand advertising vs. generic brand advertising: your audience is much more likely to be open to receive and remember your branding message and become a customer.

Have a good look at your brand strategy and check if it has a valid reason for spending all that money. If your brand strategy very broad and based on any of the following “excuses”, think again. Will this really help your organization to make more money? If needed, create a business case to see if you’re using the right KPIs and if the audience is significantly more likely to purchase your products or services.


Excuse 1: No brand has ever been created without offline branding

That’s simply not true. To name a few: Amazon, Google, Vitacost. Good branding is all about reaching the right audience with the right message – independent of medium. Sometimes you’re better off with a well-written direct mail, and other times remarketing will have much higher impact on your brand.


Excuse 2: Apple invests in billboards

Chances are, you are not working for Apple. Their billboard showcasing pictures taken with an iPhone are awesome, but they are geared towards creating demand for their iPhones. If your audience is not likely to be able to use your product or service, you’re probably wasting a lot of advertising budget to an audience that will never convert to leads or sales.


Excuse 3: Everyone in [insert location] will be exposed to your brand at least XX times!

This sounds impressive, but this is usually said about generic branding campaigns with a low CPM. It will generate a lot of impressions, but they often are shown at a bad time and place, to an irrelevant audience. These are the campaigns that sell adult content or novelty items.Check if your campaigns have a frequency cap if the ads will be visible above the fold, if the audience is targeted enough, and if the main KPI matches your organization’s marketing objectives.


Excuse 4: We’re getting a great deal on radio/tv/newspaper/OOH ads

Don’t be fooled – it’s extremely common for a publisher or media agency to provide a discount. That’s all great, but verify if the discount is substantial enough to justify the spend. Look at your opportunity cost: chances are that the marketing budget can be used more efficiently elsewhere.


Excuse 5: Google (or the agency) is creating the campaigns for free

Google offers to create AdWords campaigns for free. Sometimes agencies do the same. The trouble is, these quick-and-dirty campaigns usually aren’t effective. A quick SEM campaign will have less overhead in the total budget but will yield substantially fewer results than a well-researched campaign with well-written advertisements.

Both the online and offline advertising markets are very mature. If you don’t focus on quality in your campaign setup, optimization and creatives, you’ll be left with the low-quality traffic that better-organized competitors leave to fight over.


Excuse 6: Improve conversion rates in price-competitive markets

Another reason for brand advertising that I’ve heard often, is that a stronger brand will improve overall conversion rates. Although this undoubtedly is true, it usually still is a bad tactic. When the aim of the campaign is to improve sales or leads, think of the opportunity cost: the investment needed to generate even a small uplift in sales or leads through brand promotion is usually a lot larger than the amount that is needed if it would be invested in direct response campaigns. This especially goes for services in price-competitive markets or other products or services where the profit margins are small.

In addition, when your marketing mix relies on non-brand SEO or SEM, the impact of brand promotion is usually negligible. Your audience has probably never heard of you but is looking for your products (TIP: you can check this in Google Analytics or Google AdWords, by comparing the audiences that were exposed to your display ads and the ones that weren’t).

Brand strategy beyond advertising

Brand advertising is just a small part of the brand strategy. A good brand strategy does not just revolve around brand advertising - it should start with topics as:

• Goal (what do you want to achieve with your brand?)
Key performance indicators (how do you measure brand and campaign effectiveness?)
Visual identity
Positioning (how do we differ from our competitors?)
Unique Value Propositions (why should potential clients do business with you?)
• Messaging and communication style
Interaction (how do your client-facing employees act?)
Brand protection (trademarks, copyrights, SEM protection, social media, etc.)

These act as a multiplier of brand advertising. Imagine reaching out to a lot of people, but providing them with a disjoint or bad experience after your promotion activities. This might not completely negate your branding efforts, but even create a negative backlash – especially on social media.

Alternatives for a branding campaign

OK, so you have decided that you might want to invest some of that branding budget into direct response campaigns. What would you invest it in? Here are some ideas:


  • Protect your brand name

    Register your brand with the authorities in each jurisdiction where your organization operates. Claim relevant domain names, monitor social media and set up a Google Alert for your brand, so you’ll receive a notification when it’s mentioned. More importantly, create SEM campaigns in the main search engines (Google, Bing, Baidu (Chinese markets) and Yandex (Russian markets) to protect your brand name. Costs will be negligible, but you’ll keep competitors at bay and probably double your visibility in the SERPs. If you don’t capitalize on your brand, your competitors will.

  • Optimize your web site for mobile users

    If you haven’t done this already, start here. With mobile internet use continuing to grow at a high rate, chances are that many potential customers are viewing your website from a smartphone. A bad user experience on mobile will hurt your brand, hinder SEO, and decrease the conversion rate to sales or leads.You can use data from our friends at Statcounter to the frequency of mobile internet use in any country:
    Mobile vs web traffic per year

  • SEO (Search Engine Optimization)

    SEO still is the most profitable medium, judging by ROI. But beware that SEO is not a quick fix, as its success depends on a large amount of factors, such as design, content, analysis, and the technical performance of your website. And if you try to promote a new product that has no demand yet, SEO might become an uphill battle.

  • SEA (Search Engine Advertising - often referred to as PPC)

    Search advertising is highly flexible, yields quick results, and offers a vast amount of ways to sculpt your niche audience that is ready to buy. Focus on intent and related keywords, add demographics if necessary, and you’re off to a great start.

  • Remarketing

    Remarketing (or retargeting) is when you tag (or mark) visitors to your website based on their behaviour and reach out to them afterwards. This is a highly effective way to improve brand awareness and visibility among potential customers that have shown interest but haven’t converted yet. It’s quick and easy to set up and will be a continuous multiplier to all your online media.

I sincerely hope that this article is useful to you and that it will help you to promote your brand efficiently. Please comment and share your experience with brand strategy and advertising, or read any of the related articles listed below. Thanks for your time and/or your contribution!

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