Why you maybe don’t need to be always-on. Thinking of brand salience.

Thanks to Photo by Jay Wennington on Unsplash

Foreword: it’s becoming increasingly annoying to me that what our industry considers general lingo is actually highly specialised jargon so I want to make sure that these views here have at least a small chance of reaching more than people who read Byron Sharp. To that end, let me start by saying that “brand salience” for me is the ability of a brand to be present in a consumer’s head when they are in the process of purchasing a product in the category of that brand. “Always-on” is a term I first came across when talking about digital media and the option of continuously communicating to audiences either through paid or organic means. Always-on seemed, at the time, to be set in contrast to the burst or flight-type of media planning that brands adopted throughout the year, which meant they only invested in communication a couple of weeks at a time. I, by no means, claim this is the ultimate way of understanding these terms but in the context of this article this is what they mean.

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When we first started talking about always-on it was, as mentioned above, in the context of the rise of content marketing. Content marketing was seen as a largely less expensive (oh, the irony) means of staying connected to your brand’s audience through small, low-production, unpaid pieces of comms that would take advantage of the democratic media solutions out there. At the time (probably 5–6 years ago) these would have been YouTube, Google Search and, potentially, Facebook in its earliest incarnations. What I find troubling today (beyond the fact that platforms have evolved in a way that makes “always-on” obsolete) is that we seem to have created always-on as a means of doing marketing not because it was important but simply because we could.

If we believe that:

  • every category has a defined purchase cycle and a definable decision funnel (meaning that one does not just stand up and buy a 70k Mercedes on a whim)
  • moments of salience occur exclusively during a natural buying cycle
  • there are some categories where salience is less important because of impulse (how much time am I really going to spend thinking about what pack of gum I’ll pick up at the till?)
  • we are able to draw at least minimal statistical conclusions about certain product categories’ cyclicality and seasonality

we have to should be able, with at least some degree of certainty, to see in which categories always-on makes zero sense and in which it might make some sense. Notice I said “it might”. This is only because I question the concept of always-on altogether at this point.

The trouble with always-on stems from a false inability to estimate when your moments of salience happen. So, you might think, “someone, somewhere, is thinking of buying a car right now. So I must be “on” for them”. And the truth is that you’d probably be right. Someone, somewhere IS probably thinking of a new car, feels like some ice cream or has just noticed their sneakers are ripped. But the thing is, you cannot go after your potential customers one by one. This, maybe, is where the other big red herring of the digital age comes in. I’m obviously talking about [hyper]-targeting, which made a lot of people believe that you could easily get to every single individual who’s signalling they might be in the buying cycle, and you could do it at a low enough cost. You can’t. And you shouldn’t, even if you could, because it turns out people might be creeped out by it.

So while there is some truth in the statement that everything is being considered by someone at any time, there is even more value in actually understanding when does it make sense to communicate to those interested. I want ice cream right now because of a hormone surge, but thousands more will want ice cream in July when it’s 30 degrees because heat makes people want cold things. There are some people who enjoy a cold beer on Tuesday evening but far more who feel it’s better to drink at the weekend. A handful of people might need a new fridge this fall but it’s far more likely that a quick look at sales trends, the last successful model of your top competitors and average replacement rates will give you a sense of when to promote your next fridge.

I think we should not let our perceived ability to do comms at any time at very low cost (which, BTW, is so not true) drive us to think that we should do that. Russell Davies said one of the things I wish I could tattoo on my forehead which is that brands should respect the attention they’ve been given. I think this is gaining new meaning in the age of brand mission comms but I also think it has equal value in the conversation about always-on. The truth is you don’t need to be always-on to have brand salience and salience matters when people are in the buying cycle which is not all the time. Or at least not in big enough numbers.

One of my dearest clients once said this: “people are making and having babies all the time, so we should be always-on because it’s hard to figure out when babies are made”. This I agree with. Can you say the same about the category you work in?