From brand campaign to brand interface — Rethinking integrated marketing campaigns
The wish to synchronize and integrate marketing efforts is almost as old as the marketing discipline itself. While often described as the ideal scenario in marketing theory, the integrated or “360” approach has often proven to be very hard to implement in practice.
These implementation difficulties can have various root causes. One is the fact that the various touchpoints a consumer has with a marketing campaign often have different requirements in terms of messaging and content, making it hard to develop a one-fits-all concept or idea. For example, an epic story arch created with an 60sec online video will be hard to migrate into a point of sale display with limited possibilities in terms of messaging.
If the creative concept has been briefed and subsequently approved in above the line advertising or digital first in order to then be rolled out to the rest of the touchpoints with consumers, deficiencies in terms of migratability can quickly become visible and hard to correct. The result can be a campaign message that remains hard to understand in the context it appears, in the worst case it can even confuse the consumer. For example, the campaign “Transform Today” which Absolut launched in 2013 was based on a powerful consumer insight of the willingness of millennials to own their future. Putting this call to action in a product centered ad for shopper environments however proved challenging as its meaning could easily misunderstood.
But the migratability of content and messaging and are not the only reasons integrated campaigns sometimes lack effectiveness. There is also an organizational hurdle to take when designing and implementing them. Most marketing budgets are still built per department rather than per project. This means that for an integrated campaign usually the brand team, digital team, PR team and trade marketing team have to synchronize their efforts. Each with their own objectives, creative ideas and specialist agency. Adding to this, in recent years innovation in technology has led to the inclusion of new functions like digital marketing, social media and performance marketing or tools like dynamic advertisements into marketing teams, often adding more complexity and silo thinking. Given the resulting complexity it is no wonder that despite of effectively run project teams and lead agency setups, competing creative ideas and executions are often combined in an integrated campaign effort. The lack of simplicity and clarity often only becomes visible once the campaign is launched.
The biggest challenge integrated marketing campaigns have to face today are however not messaging and organizational setups, it is the ongoing shift of behavior and media consumption among consumers driven by digitalization. So while many marketers are trying to optimize messaging and setup, the overall approach to integrating their campaigns may no longer be fit for purpose.
A new generation of consumers.
The effects of digitalization on the consumer behavior in the last decade has been addressed by many books and articles before, it is however important to outline some of those again to explain why they need to be addressed when integrating marketing efforts, especially when marketing to a younger audience.
We can consider three major shifts important:
1. Further dominance of experiences
With the increased demand of consumers to design their identity online and their search for content to express their individuality, experiences from sports to festivals to dining have become more important to consumers. It’s no longer what you have but what you do that allows you to express your status and personality to your social network. Desirability is created from using a product and showing the experience of using it rather than simply owning it. That is why people rarely share information on recent purchases even though the functionality to do so is offered by most online retailers. They rather show the usage of their new phone (by shooting pictures with it) or snowboard (by uploading a go-pro video) on their social channels. For most companies and brands however, experiential marketing has still not left the events department and is rarely at the core of their marketing model. It mostly stops at creating awareness for the product through a TVC or digital campaign (in hope it will be shared on social networks which it hardly ever the case except for truly funny content) and then converting this awareness to a sale in a (online) store. After the purchase is completed the sole interaction the brand has with the consumer is when the experience with the product or service goes wrong and after sales support is needed. The “Thank you for your business, good-bye.” mentality is still predominant in most companies, completely ignoring the content creation opportunities available by the users of the brand and its possible impact on their peers.
2. Consumer as mobile natives
It should be no news that the smartphone has become the device people spend most time with today, using it to express themselves, discover things, prepare errands or projects, shop, socialize and spend me-time with* (Source: Seven shades of mobile study, 2018, InsightsNow). The small screen is now the primary one used by consumers and putting advertising on it has proven challenging. For the most part, current marketing campaigns still bypass this channel completely due to a lack of relevant content to show or not enough content pieces to use during a campaign (some brands still work with key visuals which burn through on digital channels within weeks). Another important change is the fact that smartphone empowered consumers are able to react to brand initiatives in real time through social media where they are able to comment campaigns or any other forms of expression or behavior of a brand, use it as a base for personal expression (by doing homages or spoofs) or proof the information delivered wrong. For example in 2014, on the US Facebook page of Absolut, a picture depicting a winter wheat field with the claim to be taken next to the distillery of Absolut in Ahus, Sweden was proven incorrect within minutes after its upload by a consumer uploading a picture of the field used for the ad and it’s exact GPS coordinates. Absolut reacted and corrected the error immediately. But also at the point of sale the consumers has more possibilities now as mobile connectivity allows them to research claims, consult other consumers about a product or compare prices.
3. Seamless integration of off- and online
Combining the two points above, we increasingly see a consumer who successfully manages both his/her identity on- and off-line, sometimes blurring the boundaries. Also, she or he is able to bridge off-line experiences with on-line self-expression, creating content and messages that competes with the ones of brands in terms of cultural relevance and speed of reaction. It is important to understand that brands in channels like social media do not compete with other brands for top of mind, they compete with the content created by the friends of the consumer. This means that branded content needs to be as strong as content by individuals, also employing a language that fits the target and occasion.
If we look at these very visible shifts it becomes obvious that integrated marketing efforts face new challenges beyond communality of messaging and internal synchronization of teams. Integrated campaigns need to step beyond the act of purchase to engage with consumers in a way that more effectively leverages the rise of importance of experiences. Stopping once the sale is done leaves a lot of potential for further storytelling and advocacy at the table. Even most consumer journey models employed by brands lack the granularity need to become fully effective beyond the consumer buying the product or using the service.
Furthermore, the penetration of social media and smart phones allows for integrated campaigns that react to consumers in real time, use their location data and possibilities to create and share content. Whereas before consumers could only be reached at touchpoints, brands can now target them while moving between them, a development only very few marketing efforts target currently.
Building on this it becomes obvious that today the conception and execution of integrated campaigns can no longer just be the orchestration of initiatives but needs to evolve into the design of an interface between the product/service and the consumer, which reacts to situations and actions rather then sends signals in one direction.
Integrating marketing efforts: A possible new approach
In order to evolve integrated marketing efforts it is foremost necessary to start at the beginning and define the role of marketing or more specifically brand management. For many, the management of a brand is seen as the management of a quasi-human being. The brand is referred to in the third person in meetings (“Absolut is doing great in the US.”) and descriptions of its condition verbs linked to illness or efforts are used (“Dove struggles in Germany.” etc.) One can argue that using the metaphor of a person makes it easier to relate, engage and identify with brands which is certainly true. But brands are not products. There are also not beings. Brands are the relationship between a product/service and the consumer. So brand management is essentially relationship management. And this relationship does not end once the product is sold or only comes into play when the product needs to be serviced. It starts earlier, when people become aware of a brand and ends later when people use or in need of after sales service. Integrating marketing efforts can tremendously help to successfully manage this relationship by providing simplicity and consistency.
The concepts of brand management as a relationship as well as understanding of brands as interfaces previously put forward has two implications:
One is an organizational one as it would mean that customer service needs to be moved closer to the marketing function, if not fully integrated into it. Today most customer service teams are in operations or supply chain with little interference with the marketing and sales teams. They are currently left alone in managing the relationship between products and the consumer post-purchase which can have a huge impact on brand advocacy and re-purchase rate. For example, a strong brand campaign for a mobile network provider in Germany with targeted ATL advertising and strong in-store presence was weakened by the enormous difficulties the company had to provide strong after-sales service.
The second implication is that there is a need for a simple model to design integrated marketing efforts that offers higher relevance and faster responsiveness to consumers. The model proposed here consists of one overarching brand crusade and three pillars: Brand Love, Brand Choice and Brand Advocacy. I call it the brand interface model.
The overarching brand crusade is a summary of the objectives the campaign should achieve for the brand as well as the key messages and results put forward towards consumers. It is the starting point and guardrail for all initiatives and should be established first.
Underneath it are three pillars. All three cover different elements of the relationship between consumer and products. They are at the core of the model.
This pillar encompasses initiatives to make consumers aware of the products or services and initiate the relationship based on relevance and shared values. The clear aim here is to establish the brand as fit for purpose in terms of functional and emotional needs as well as its possibility to support consumers to build their identity, especially online. So for example the campaign “Transform Today” by Absolut showcased the product as part of the crusade of creative visionaries to create the future. It not only showed the product in very stylish party environments and asked consumers to join the global crusade to “create the future”, it also made branded content films and other material available so that people could learn more about the stories of the crusaders and share these stories with their social network, hereby building their online identity and shaping the perception of their peers.
Another way of initiating the relationship is to invite consumers to use the brand interface to either express or promote themselves by handing over assets for them to work on, acting as an amplifier or even curator. One should however aware that only around 8% of consumers will follow this invitation but they would be most reactive to it when exposed (Source: Seven shades of mobile study, 2018, InsightsNow).
The brand choice pillar is where the goodwill or equity build up through brand love initiatives is converted into sales through initiatives in consumption as well as shopping channels. As outlined by Byron Sharp in the book “How brands grow” the key element here is to make the product easy to buy by offering the right product in the right size in the right channel.
This pillar makes all the difference. It includes activities to assure consumers buy the product again, see their feedback being taking into consideration as well as setting up the possibility of a constant conversation between brand and consumers. While the first pillar initiates the relationship and the second one transform it into a transaction, this one deepens it in order to keep the consumer in the franchise as well as enable repeat purchases. Ultimately, it is aiming at consumers recommending the brand to others.
In the current marketing practice we see many companies only focusing on one or two of the pillars, not able to set up a true brand interface and resulting in less strong relationships with shorter longevity.
Some brands solely focus on brand love with expensive content and influencer marketing campaigns which fail to synchronize with the shopping or after sales experience, often leaving new consumers confused and even being “pushed” to one-off purchases. This is the reason why it often makes sense to build campaigns from the point of interaction backwards. So not put out a national out-of-home campaign first and then hope that your staff in the branches does get it, too but to work with them first to define how the relationship put forward in the new campaign should be lived at their touchpoint.
In more established brands the focus has often moved brand choice, especially when the brand shows a strong growth performance. The necessity to build brand love is neglected as the brand is already growing heavily, budgets for brand love building are cut or redirected to brand choice initiatives who drive frequency of purchase or transaction size, often with the argument that they show a higher performance and return on investment (often they are also far easier to present to top management). The increased frequency keeps sales performance up while the consumer base for the brand starts to shrink with the brand starting to rely on heavy users of the brand. The brand enters into decline a few years later, brand love initiatives are reinstated but are not able to show immediate effects on sales.
The absence of an integration of brand advocacy may not have such drastic effects as the one described above but it seems like a growth accelerator not accessed by many brands to its full extent.
As we can see from the above the brand interface is most effectively managed if all three pillars are addressed within integrated marketing campaigns or plans. By investing in all three pillars the brand is able to recruit, retain and leverage consumers with the result of a growing consumer base and a sustainable brand performance that is less volatile.
Further elements of the brand interface model
The model does not only consist of three pillars but also has supporting elements which will be explained in the following.
Brand Love: Key Experiences and Key Stories
If the core objective of brand love is to drive awareness for the brand, one will certainly consider traditional advertising using broadcast media as the most effective. However, it can be more effective to leave the traditional thinking in media channels (traditional, digital etc.) behind and rather build the marketing efforts of a brand around the key experiences consumers should have with it and the key stories the consumer should internalize. They are expressions of the brand strategy or crusade, reinforcing brand identity cues and explaining the brand’s personality. In order to build a lasting relationship and deep emotional connection, the consumer needs to have the opportunity to fully understand what the brand stands for, what problem it solves and which values it represents. By the defining key experiences and key stories first before applying them to different touchpoints, shortcomings in consistency or simplicity can be identified and corrected at a very early stage.
Key experiences can be interactions with the brand both on-line, off-line and in sales channels. They can make the consumer aware of the brand, help him evaluate it or cause him to react to the brand proposition, comment or even co-create it. As mentioned before, the more actions are expected from consumers the lower the amount of people actually participating will be. But for some strange reason also the more actions consumers are expected to do, the more excited the agency or your brand manager will be about the idea. As an example, when Absolut ran an event series in 2014 based on “Transform Today”, the creative agency presented consumer take-always like “I am so excited. Absolut is helping me to create the future.” In reality people mainly shared pictures of themselves at the events and mentioned the brand only marginally. Absolut quickly reacted and had animated gif photo booths installed to allow people to share selfies of them with a brand watermark. The amount of shares in social media dramatically increased with subsequent events. The learning here is that one should not automatically expect content from branded events being created by users and shared over social media. This will only happen if consumers identify the experience as a possibility to design their identity online. A reason why photo-booths and logowalls work so well at events.
Key stories are the elements of the brand you want to consumers to know about. What differentiates key stories from key messages is that they show what the brand is about through examples or stories rather than bold messages. For example, a key message could be “We are the compact car for the creative class.” A key story is showing members of the creative class using the compact car in their everyday life or their artistic work. This makes it possible to put more layers on the brand interface, allowing the consumers to truly understand its purpose and meaning and identify shared values. It also makes it harder for consumer to consider it as a hollow marketing maneuver. A clear watchout in creating key stories is not connecting them to the core proposition of the brand but to borrow equity from influencers and collaborators to make it look contemporary or cool. For example not putting the drink at the core of an experience for a vodka but rather the artist, the location etc. The only one benefiting from the initiative will be the influencer or collaborator as it will put the brand into the position of a sponsor, one to clearly avoid. Most successful collaborations between artists and brands have always been the ones where the brand acts as true content partner, bringing in its strength and personality into the mix and creating something not possible without the brand’s involvement. For example, one can always wonder why car companies sponsor art gallery openings or art fairs. Most of these happenings are clearly static. They usually happen in a defined space surrounded by four white walls. There is clearly no movement from A to B possible or intended. But cars at their core are all about movement, about acceleration and making distance. But if a car company sponsors one of these events it puts a car on a pedestal in front of the gallery, almost like a stuffed animal in a museum. No movement, not even an indication of movement. The car is on a pedestal. Things would break if somebody would move it from there. And so the consumer wonders why the car is there and understands that the car company through its financial support made the gallery opening possible. But that does not create an emotional bound to the car company and its models.
So in short, it is truly necessary to build both brand stories and brand experiences from the inside out. The questions to ask are: “Why are we doing this? What do we have to offer? What is our key experience? Who could be our spokesperson or amplifier?” Not the other way round.
Key element of brand choice: Conversion
The pillar of brand choice is the most important one as it links the marketing campaign to the economic engine of the company. This is where brand love is converted into sales and future funding of marketing efforts.
When it comes to converting brand love into sales it is key to allow the product to take center stage the closer the consumer gets to the buying act, leaving key stories and other brand messages out of the picture to avoid information overload. The best example of this approach is Red Bull who is keeping their quite diverse content (extreme sports, music, etc.) out of the point of sale altogether and focus purely on product advertisements in the sales channels.
So while the relationship with the brand can be established on the basis of very diverse passion points (for some “Red Bull Music Academy”, for some “Flugtag”, for some “Flying Bach”), the conversion is brought back to one thing, the product. Too often integrated marketing efforts fail exactly at this process of narrowing down the campaign to a product messaging in the sales channels and bring emotional campaign messaging into the great wide open of the retail space where it may activates the core target but confuses the broader user base.
Brand Advocacy: Usage and after sales service
For most marketers the job is considered done once the product is sold but it is actually in targeting the consumers after the purchase where the most potential for acceleration lies.
Brand usage is very often neglected in marketing theory and practice. Most marketing models consider after sales service as an important part of the consumer journey but problem-free, regular usage of the product is usually not considered any efforts by the brand. This is mainly due to the fact that no financial revenue stream is expected to materialize from current users of the brand (if we take upsell or offering of accessories out of the picture). It is however in this crucial phase where the product or service offers the biggest social currency to consumers as it again can be used to express their individuality in social media (as mentioned before not the ownership but the usage itself) and the highest likelihood for consumers to recommend or advocate the brand. Possible initiatives can be very basic but have proven to be very effective. Things like a general check-ups after two weeks of usage, pointing out of hidden features, invitation to reviews, rebates to give to friends etc. For example, the San Francisco startup Riksha Bags asks people about their experience with the product so far and offers a discount on future purchases if a short review is written. With more and more customer data available it becomes easier and easier to design campaigns addressing new users of the brand. It also allows to bring consumers back into the brand love section by using them as protagonists in key stories to be told. By keeping the connection to the brand interface intact, the emotional connection is sustained and higher advocacy for the brand is build.
After sales service can be seen as “relationship problems” between consumer and product and should be designed and managed very carefully by the marketing team, not leaving it solely to customer service. The main reason for this is the need for consistency in messaging but also in handling in feedback to avoid harsh consumer reactions or possible shitstorms in social media. The aim here is not so much to replace existing customer service processes but to make sure they are fully synchronized with the key stories and key experiences the brand should stand for. This can be achieved through tone of voice, simplicity of repair or refunding processes and integration of support options in existing buyer or user profiles. For example, Sony is well aware of the cut-off effect caused by a the days a mobile phone is travelling from consumer to repair shop and back and prepares the consumer for it in its messaging.
Putting it all together: the brand interface at work
Designing integrated campaigns with the brand interface model is very different from the classical approach of TVC+ (creation of an idea for above the line advertising and migration to other touchpoints) or Digital+/Mobile+ (similar to TVC+ put starting with the digital or mobile element of the campaign). It is channel blind in the beginning meaning key stories and experiences, conversion and usage activations are created without the touchpoint in mind.
As mentioned before the starting point of the brand interface is a clarification of the overarching brand crusade. This means within the marketing team clarifying what the campaign should achieve for the brand as well as the key messages and brand deliveries put forward to consumers. The former is usually clarified by a first workshop where internal stakeholders gather to align on the objectives and necessary deliveries put forward to consumers. Depending how well the brand strategy is clarified or formulated this can be an easy or more challenging task. In some cases the sessions can end with the realization that a clear alignment on brand strategy is needed first before starting to design the brand interface. Allowing for a parallel process due to time pressure or top management interference and internal deadlines (like brand summits etc.) should be avoided as it can lead to the “moving lighthouse effect” i.e. constant rework and delays due to recalibration of a brand’s strategy. Simply put, show up only with your homework done.
Once the overarching brand crusade is defined it makes sense to identify which elements of the brand interface the integrated campaign should encompass. It can be that certain parts of the campaign will be de-priotized for the time being, for example after sales service.
In the next step the agency roster is chosen against the brand interface i.e. who will lead or co-lead which element of the brand interface. In some companies it will be only one agency, in others several specialist agencies will be used. In a similar fashion project leaders within the brand team will be identified.
With a clarified brand crusade, internal team and defined agency network a day long briefing session is conducted where the team works on how possible translations of the brand crusade could look like in terms of key stories, key experience, conversion and usage. Far from a brainstorm for creative ideas, this is more a discussion of requirements and directions to allow the team to identify possible synergies, reinforcing storylines and possible experiences. Nominating a person who brings the team back from detailed creative ideas facilitates the process.
After the workshop the agencies are asked to come back with a debrief to assure common ground was found useful before embarking on developing creative ideas. Usually already in the setup workshop cross-discipline opportunities have been identified so it is not unusually for agency partners present ideas together already in a following session. The ideas presented are then put next to each other to form the interface and checked for synchronization and synergy. It is during this step where complexity and message overload can be identified. The sessions are repeated until a bulletproof interface slowly emerges.
One of the challenges with the model is that is much harder to test in marketing research than an advertising concept. One is in most cases forced to then only test key stories or key experiences or rely on A/B testing later in the process to weed our low performing elements. Another shortcoming could be identified for brands in need of very simple messaging. In that case it might make more sense to create slogans or taglines with a separate process to feed into the brand crusade before setting up the brand interface.
The rise of social media and mobile phones has asked for an update of the integrated marketing approach mainly due to the evolution of consumer behavior and media consumption. Consumers demand more from a brand than just a fancy advertisement and low promotional prices, they expect purpose, meaning and inspirational content that allows them to build their identities online. With these requirements in mind it becomes obvious that the traditional approach of migrating above the line messages in different touchpoints appears to not be fit for purpose anymore.
A more encompassing management of the relationship between consumers and brands is needed to assure stronger emotional bounds and higher likelihoods of advocacy. Especially integrating brand usage and after sales service into integrated marketing efforts would allow for stronger campaigns and deepened relationships with consumers.
The brand interface model with its stronger focus on storytelling, experiences, and a more holistic view of the different aspects of the relationship between consumers and products could be a possible answer to the challenge facing the design of integrated marketing campaigns today. Its adoption and implementation would demand for a stronger internalization of the brand strategy by companies as well as a willingness of agencies to surrender brand leadership to their clients as well as being willing to work together with a multitude of actors on the design of the interface of a brand. But time is working for this setup as more and more global brands moving from one lead agency to a swarm approach of smaller expert teams and setups, making it easier to create rosters to effectively design brand interfaces.
One can see the brand interface approach in line with other concepts like consumer journeys and the consumer lifetime value models, which also stress the need of managing the relationship between consumers and products beyond advertising and promotions. The increasing availability of better data about consumers both in their behavior online as well as their location will allow for even more refined models in the future. The days of traditional campaign design which dominated marketing since the 1960s is in its last breaths, giving way to more detailed, more granular and responsive models in the future. The brand interface model can be one of them.