Building brand in an uncertain economy
Looking long-term can help future proof a business in times of crisis
We are repeatedly told that we are living in a “VUCA” (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. The intuitive implication is that we need to be more reactive, more agile, more flexible. But the intuition is wrong.
Because if the paint hasn’t dried as quickly as you’d hoped, you don’t simply switch to wallpaper. You accept. You wait. You watch. Because you’ve committed.
We now know that significant budget investment in brand building (balancing “long” vs “short”, as Binet and Field wrote) is optimal. A law that can be generalised to fit any company of any size in any industry.
Most business leaders know this. It’s intuitive and has been proven through multiple research avenues.
But as many marketers know, securing brand-building investment can be a real fight.
And as a general rule, creative marketers aren’t often great change managers. There are three reasons for this that we need to overcome to help brands grow in an uncertain world:
- Our environment is fuelled by short-termism combined with over-agility
- There is a wide gap in marketing between intuition and rationality
- We’re great at winning the hearts and minds of customers, less so of colleagues
Short-termism meets over-agility
Short-termism is the biggest obstacle to meaningful change in individuals, businesses, governments, nations and humankind. This might sound dramatic. But when you break down the biggest challenges of today and ask yourself, ‘why is this happening?’ – from global warming to lack of planning for public health crises – short-termism is often the ultimate “why”.
For businesses, short-term thinking propagated by short buying cycles can be further exacerbated by the rise of ‘agile’. Any activity with long-lasting effects that can’t be instantly measured suffers.
Successful marketing requires building and reinforcing memory structures of category buyers to be front of mind at the point of purchase. Prompting customers who already have the brand front of mind to purchase is both easier to measure, and easier to execute.
So the success of the hare quickly draws further investment, whilst the tortoise is left to fend for itself. And in a world where daily trading reports, budget agility and short-term experimentation are commonplace, the barriers to shifting budget away from brand growth into performance are no longer there. Those beautiful constraints, gone.
So how can we help senior leaders do what’s right for the brand today and tomorrow? The answer is two-fold:
- Clarity on measurement across the board. What are the leading indicators of, say, memory? (Romaniuk’s “Better Brand Health” is a great place to start)
- Locking in an untouchable budget. Specify how much will be invested to create long-term effects, and agree on strict parameters before this budget is shifted based on the leading indicators above.
The gap between intuition and rationality
Art supported by science, creativity backed by data – it feels unoriginal. But the consequences of working in a discipline that leans heavily on intuition supported by rationality (rather than vice versa) are often not thought through.
Attention-grabbing, memorable, resonant campaigns requiring significant budgets are guided by intuition and creative brilliance – rarely by rational thought processes. But CFOs and FDs are. Piecing together a business case for a brand-focused budget can be truly painful.
Bridging the gap requires the confidence to look externally for case studies to build the right business cases.
It requires the following framework:
- We know from external research that shifting metric ‘a’ (say, prompted brand recall) will impact sales by £’x’
- We know from external research that shifting metric ‘b’ (say, memorability one week after seeing an ad) and ‘c’ (say, frequency) and ‘d’ (say, reach) tends to have this impact on metric ‘a’
- We know from internal testing and planning that our campaign will drive the following for ‘b’, ‘c’, and ‘d’, and therefore this impact on ‘a’
- Therefore, we can expect the following impact on sales
- And the leading indicators this is working will be ‘e’, ‘f’, ‘g’
Often it’s only by building powerful externally (i.e. from industry rather than internal data) validated assumption-led business cases can you win the minds of budget holders.
The gap between hearts and minds
Showing the impact of long-term brand investment on all aspects of the business, and persuading individuals that they will benefit from this activity is key. The sales team will find it easier to earn a commission when the brand is top of mind. The performance marketing team will have lower CPAs. The finance team will have efficiencies all around, from procurement (who may be able to harness a stronger brand to lower costs) through to lower long-term marketing costs etc.
The role of a good marketing strategist – internal and external – is to help deliver the above, as much as to deliver step-changing direction and ideas.
In an uncertain world, we seem to think that innovation should trump conservation. After all, it’s harder to conserve a house when the environment around it is harsher. But actually, the opposite is true. We need to work even harder to preserve the brand, to preserve the house, rather than rapidly paint over cracks through heavy investment in short-term performance.