Boon or no boon?

From the last Colosseum email, M. says: “I’d like you to try to disagree with yourself on this point!” The point he’s referring to:

The Internet has been the realization of the wildest dreams of DR marketers (combined with a few nightmare scenes contributed by dishonest adtech brokers), but the Internet has not been an equivalent boon to brand marketers.


Well, poof, there went my spare mental bandwidth for the weekend. 🙂 This is a fascinating question, and one that’s been rewarding to think through.

I’m publishing what is the fourth version of an attempt to respond to this question. The previous three versions started at the wrong place, and while I hate to do this, to start at the right place we need to “eat some vegetables” first.

To think effectively about brand and direct response marketing (or maybe marketing generally), we need to consider 4 important elements:

  • Context
  • Purpose
  • Culture
  • Tools

These 4 things don’t seem to arrange themselves neatly into a model, hierarchy, framework, or tidy 2×2 matrix, but they’re important.

Ideas about marketing that are effective in one context become ineffective or harmful in a different context. The context spectrum looks like this:

Purpose is tricky, but I can’t come up with a better word for it right now. Brand and direct response marketing share the purpose of sellin’ stuff, but they go about it differently.

Direct response marketing seeks efficiency through measurement, optimization, and collapsing sales and distribution channel overhead into the marketing function, while brand marketing seems happy-ish to forgo that efficiency and not give up the infrastructure and attendant benefits of discrete sales and distribution channel functions.

We can think of a culture as a bundle of answers to questions we all have. What’s high/low status? What’s desirable? What’s “cool”? How should we relate to other members of this culture? What’s progress/regress? Etc, etc.

The experience of being within a culture comes in part from these top-down answers, but a significant part of the experience flows bottom-up, from the tangible aspects of the culture.

If a culture defines rebellion as a high-status activity, that culture could feel very loud because the culture’s tools of rebellion are motorcycles with very loud mufflers. Alternately, the loudest noise could be the mechanical keyboard someone is using while trying to crack a computer system on the Internet. Same set of answers, different tools, and very different feel.

Both direct response and brand marketing have distinct cultures, and these cultures use tools. As the tools change, the feeling of the culture changes, even if the culture’s top-down answers don’t change.

There are times when you look at the tools used by DR marketers and find that they are the same tools used by brand marketers, and vice versa. As far as I know, there’s no law or rule prohibiting a DR marketer from placing a full-spread ad featuring a pain-focused message and a strong, direct call to action in the print edition of the New Yorker.

When we talk about brand marketing as a verb — as an activity — we’re talking about a fusion of the culture of brand marketers and the tools they use. This makes defining brand marketing difficult, because one intersection of culture + tools could look a certain way, and a different intersection of the same culture but different tools could look quite different. If internal combustion engines are completely outlawed someday, what will those wanting to feel like an outlaw do? What tools will they use to express their culture’s definition of rebellion as a form of status?

I said there’s no tidy model, but maybe this at least visually reinforces what we’re talking about here:

The bi-directional and perhaps non-linear interplay of these 4 elements of context, purpose, culture, and tools make talking about brand marketing difficult, and I think when lots of folks try to define it, they pick one or two of these 4 elements to work with, so we get this:

This leads to mildly disjointed stuff like Seth Godin saying “Brand marketing is culturally oriented. And it can’t be measured” and then using as his prime example a funeral home billboard. That’s jumping from purpose (“culturally oriented”) to culture (“can’t be measured”) and then to tools (“funeral home billboard”). It takes a lot more words on the page to talk about this stuff holistically, draw comprehensible lines connecting those 4 elements, and speak simply & clearly about phenomena that impinge on multiple of these elements simultaneously. Seth’s definition does a lot with very few words, but it leaves us with more questions than it answers.

It’s pretty common to define a brand as how the market perceives a company. Sometimes I like to say both a brand and a market position are the mental residue of all the interactions we’ve had with all the members of the market. One way to loosely define brand marketing without getting too hung up on how it manifests across the elements of context, culture, and tools would be this:

Brand marketing is what you do to build up the kind of mental residue you want your business to leave in the minds of the market, without trying to immediately sell anything.

There’s a book called How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know that I think is helpful here. It’s trying to apply data to questions about how commodity[1] brands grow. This book would say the purpose of marketing for brands is to 1) be distinctive and 2) increase mental availability. The book also emphasizes the importance of increasing physical availability (distribution), but that’s more about operations than marketing.

I’m interested in the context that lies at the other end of the context spectrum: custom volume-constrained expert services.

In that context, I’d define brand the same way (mental residue) but I’m beginning to think that most of us should combine direct response and brand marketing, and furthermore I think most of us can more effectively promote an idea than we can promote ourselves. We’re not trying to build what is conventionally thought of as a personal brand. So the mental residue we leave in the market comes from 4 kinds of interactions:

  1. Usefully and effectively solving discrete problems for our clients.
  2. Using direct response marketing to market and sell #1 as efficiently as possible.
  3. While interacting with our clients, we intentionally introduce them to the idea that’s at the core of the brand we want to build.
  4. We make use of other brand marketing tools to invite the market to buy into the idea we’re championing.

Alrighty! How did those vegetables taste? Lots of iron in them brussels sprouts, right?

My boon/no boon claim was based on something that may now make sense: the Internet has forced brand marketers to make greater use of direct response tools. I imagine this must be disorienting and frustrating to the culture of brand marketing.

This creep of DR tools into brand marketing culture might not, on the whole, be bad, but it’s certainly gotta be disorienting.

If you could timetravel a brand marketer from the year 1985 to the year 2015, I think they would feel like a polo player who showed up for a pleasant game of polo and was instead ushered into a stadium and forced to compete in a WWE professional wrestling match. After the third time they get hit with a folding chair they start to whine to the ref and the ref whispers, “What?!?! Just grab your polo mallet and hit him back! Really sell it! The audience is loving this!”

I forget who, but I remember hearing some OG direct response marketer say “The Internet is fundamentally a direct response medium.” It’s true. The Internet has created infinite shelf space, zero marginal cost economics, and inevitable data exhaust from every single interaction. These are huge opportunities, but they come with costs that harm brand marketers more than DR marketers.

We could define the delivery vehicle for both brand and DR as media. Not “the news media”, but “media writ large.”

The Internet has greatly magnified the size of and fragmented the composition of the media landscape. This is business as usual — the straightline growth of an existing trendline — for DR marketers. They were already very accustomed to thinking in terms of segmentation, targeting, shopping among lots of poorly differentiated lists they could rent, dealing with shady brokers and their attempts at fraud, figuring out how to use data exhaust to optimize and increase efficiency, etc. Think for a moment about direct mailers. They were already adapted to the cognitive and real costs of operating in a fragmented media environment because, in essence, they created a fragment of the media environment every time they did a mailing. They wanted recipients to enter a some fantastical fragment of the real world — like watching an episode TV show — where the pain, the agitation of that pain, the urgency, the promise and the desire of the product, and the proof became reality for a moment and did so strongly enough that they produced the desired response. Fragmented media is their game.

For brand marketers, this magnification+fragmentation of the media landscape is a discontinuity — a disruption. In one sense, it’s giving them more opportunities — more “display surfaces” or “billboards” — to increase mental availability and distinctiveness. Thats not a bad thing except this opportunity comes with costs that I think feel disorienting and frustrating to brand marketers.

I think you see the same underlying issues I’ve been pecking away at here also explored in this piece on the potential impact of Adele’s most recent album release:

In Jane Friedman’s most recent issue of Hot Sheet, there was an article about how a traditional publisher used “data-informed” marketing channels to support the launch of a new book. A book launch that would have tilted towards brand marketing culture/tools/approach (print ads, etc.) was re-constituted using more DR-ish tools (TikTok! Egads!). Because THEY WORK BETTER! What does brand marketing culture make of this?

Direct response marketers are used to getting hit with a folding chair.

I think brand marketers are still figuring out how to play this new game.


1: It’s fun to say “there are no commodities if the company actually tries to differentiate”. That may be true, but I look at commodity/not-commodity from a different perspective and as a result I see different things. From my perspective, if the thing a company sells can be produced at relatively high levels of volume and consistency at what the market considers reasonable price and if significantly increasing the company’s profit involves significantly scaling the production volume, then we are talking about a commodity. In other words, your business model is what makes what you sell a commodity, not whether it’s adequately differentiated in the market.

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