The entire paradox of “brand awareness”

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Alright, so … what exactly is a brand awareness strategy? This post does a good job of defining it. Basically, marketing has a pretty suspect ROI in a lot of ways. If you hire Michael Jordan to market your shoes, are you absolutely sure that people bought the shoes because of Michael Jordan? You are not. It seems logical that they did, right? But you cannot absolutely know. This lack of clear ROI has sent many marketing heads to “The Shrine of Big Numbers,” where they chase impressions as opposed to real impact. Brand awareness strategy is a way to craft a strategy so that your branding and marketing can be tied directly to the bottom line.

This is where it all begins to get fraught.

First of all, most people aren’t really good at “strategy.” You become successful in organizations by focusing on short-term execution. Strategy requires long-term thinking. It’s hard for many people in most types of jobs. Most jobs don’t compensate people well for “strategy” and “thinking;” those are buzzwords we reward and value after the fact.

Secondly: the whole narrative around “branding” is flawed. Many CMOs and their teams aren’t good at branding. There’s a thing I would call “the on-brand problem.” What do I mean? Most marketing people think “branding” is about logos and changing colors on a PDF. That worked in 1987. Now “branding” is much more about stories and how customers (and potential customers) relate to the service provided by the company. The new world of business changed a lot about how we think about “branding.” Digital and mobile changed it even more. If you’re used to beautiful printed graphics (ads, magazines, direct mail) and you don’t see that graphic quite as beautifully on a mobile app, you might freak out.

“This is off-brand,” someone shrieks. In reality, though, the “brand” isn’t the colors or the prettiness. The “brand” is what the idea represents for someone who might part with money on your stuff. So, so, so, so many marketing people miss this. It’s all about “campaigns” for them. Why? Campaigns are controlled elements. That makes a middle manager feel comfortable. “Brand awareness strategy” is a complex tapestry involving many things beyond the control of that same middle manager. Of course you’re going to focus on things you can control. It makes you feel better about your job! In the process, though, most marketing campaigns suck.

There’s one more issue with brand awareness strategy: the inherent paradox.

What’s the brand awareness strategy paradox?

This is an article from Northwestern called “Reviving A Brand That’s Lost Its Luster.” One example they discuss is Coach. For years, Coach was known as a top-of-the-line brand. But over time, they had pressure from “stakeholders” to find new revenue streams and expand offerings. What happened?

For a brief period, business boomed. Then consumers started to question the brand’s value. “When everybody has a Coach bag, it isn’t so special to have a Coach bag,” Calkins says.

This is the paradox around brand awareness strategy. Let’s say there is a really good CMO. He/she drastically understands the brand. They know where the brand needs to go and what it needs to represent. Problem: the CMO isn’t the most powerful person in the organization. The CEO probably is, and/or the Board of Directors. Those people want growth. How do you get growth? Typically, you create new products or services.

In the case of Coach, they pretty much had to do this. With inequality growing, the market for luxury goods is essentially capped. How many people are entering the luxury market every year? Some — and some who just want a Coach bag, sure — but not millions of new people. They needed new offerings.

Those offerings, though, create two problems. (1) is that they dilute Coach’s existing brand. (2) is that they compete with handbags and other stuff already in existing. Now we’ve got choice overload, which pushes down the overall market for everyone. These are real issues happening every day in business right now, and we’re still clinging to the old brand awareness strategy playbook from 1991.

Why are we clinging to the old brand awareness strategy?

It’s easy. We know it. And change is hard.

Here’s the other thing: in the last few years, there has been a growing awareness that marketing might need even need to exist. Slack got to a $1 billion valuation in 2 years with no CMO. And so much of marketing and brand awareness is happening on digital and mobile these days. Current CMOs by and large do not understand those worlds, often burying their heads in the sand and discussing “media impressions” with their CEO. I’ve seen that at every job I’ve ever had — and I started working after Google and 1 year before Facebook.

I try to think about work in different ways, and I also try to call out some managerial BS we’ve all experienced. If that kinda sorta interests you, I do a newsletter every Thursday. Feel free to join up.

Look, most of work is about (a) looking good yourself and (b) pleasing your boss. You do that by hitting targets and delivering the right numbers. You could run some mobile campaign and get only two people interested. Now, those two people might have a lifetime customer value in the millions — but you can’t go to your CEO and say “This thing only got two people.” He’ll shit all over you. You might get fired. But, let’s say you run an ad on the Grammys. You go to him now and say “14 million people saw the ad.” Maybe none of those 14 million will buy your product, but your CEO is happy. Your bonus looks secure now. Basically, you arrived at relevance and higher compensation via something that completely doesn’t even remotely matter. Weird how we set things up that way, right?

Can we fix brand awareness strategy?

A new generation coming up will help a little bit. More understanding of digital and mobile will help. Extra money coming in via digital/mobile will help as well. These are the ways people in formal power roles will care more about how the world actually is, and how branding actually is, these days.

The other thing is marketing embracing data. I haven’t seen this in jobs I’ve had. Most marketing departments still seem to use aimless user personas like “Art from Operations.” They do this despite us living in “the age of data.” I dunno what to make of all that. HR is supposed to be chasing “People Analytics” by now — hiring data — and that’s not really happening either. Because work is so tied to self-worth, “gut feel” won’t go away in favor of “data” anytime soon. (I don’t think.)

Last place I worked is a good example. The CEO and CMO told everyone under the sun that they “competed on data.” They even turned the CFO’s job title into “SVP, Data and Analytics.” (Not a demotion.) Day-to-day at the execution level, what was the brand awareness strategy? “Oooooh, that looks pretty!” or “Why would we use data? We’ve always done it this way…” A lot of companies are like this. They claim there’s a change somewhere, but it’s not real. Change is really hard for people. Can’t just say it. Gotta live it.

Use data to find marketing ROI. Care about mobile and digital. Understand that “branding” is largely about stories and resonance.

What else would you add on brand awareness strategy?

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