Can Brands Keep Their Promise in a Digital World?


brand_x1Timing is everything
One of the challenges of brand advertising has always been the disconnect between the times in our lives when we’re thinking about a product and the opportunity for a brand exposure. How do you deliver a brand message at just the right time? The goal of situational targeting became advertising’s Holy Grail. A few channels, such as in-store promotions and well-placed coupons, at least got marketers closer to being in the right place at the right time, but did little to build brand at this critical time. A significant discount might prompt a consumer to try an unfamiliar brand, but the new brand was always fighting the well worn groove of consumer habits. Trying a new product once doesn’t guarantee you’ll ever try it again (reading list suggestion: “Habit, the 95% of Behavior that Marketers Ignore.” )

The disconnect between the purchasing situation and the need to establish brands mentally (literally burn them into our brains) meant marketers played both ends against the middle. They used TV and other branding mediums to build awareness. Then they used direct-response tactics to tip the balance toward purchase when the situation was right. But in between was a huge gap that has swallowed billions of advertising dollars. The challenge facing digital marketing is how to bridge the gap.

Don’t Take Our Word for It
The answer to bridging the gap for a brand that promises quality lies in a few converging areas: the online social graph and mobile computing. Both areas are in their infancy, but they hold the promise of solving the Brand Promise marketer’s dilemma.

If a brand is a promise of quality, we want to hear confirmation of that by someone other than the brand. A brand’s advertising might make us willing to consider them, but we want confirmation of the promise of quality from an objective third party. The Web has made it much easier to access the opinions of others. And, through platforms like Facebook and Twitter, we are now able to “crowdsource” — reach out to our trusted circle of family, friends and acquaintances and quickly poll them for their opinions. But this is still a fragmented, multi-step process that requires a lot of time and cognitive effort on our part. What happens when we weave the pieces together into a smooth continuum?

Keeping Marketing in Hand
Mobile has the ability to do that, because it provides us with a constant online connection. Consider the implications. As we store more of our “LifeBits” (check out Aaron Goldman’s columns on this fascinating project) online and rely more and more on digital assistance to make our lives easier, the odds of determining our intent by where we are and what we’re interacting with in our own “Web” improve dramatically. Our online persona becomes an accurate reflection of our mental one. With mobile devices, our digital and physical locations merge and through technologies like MOBVIS, we can even parse our surrounding visually. All this combines to give the marketer very clear signals of what we might be thinking about at any given time.

Now, advertising can be delivered with pinpoint accuracy: think of it as behavioral targeting on steroids. Not only that, it can be the first step in a continuum: we get a targeted and relevant messaging, with the ability to seamlessly pull back objective reviews and opinions on any given product, location or service. Going one step further with just one click, we can reach out through multiple social networks to see if any of our circle of acquaintances has an opinion on the purchase we’re considering. If brands are a promise, this allows us to vet the promise instantly. If all checks out, we quickly check for best prices and possible alternatives within the geographic (or online) parameters we set.

In this scenario, the nature of brand-building for the brand promise product changes dramatically. We rely less on manufacturer’s messaging and more on how the brand resonates through the digital landscape. Brand preference becomes more of a spur-of-the-moment decision. Of course, the brands will still try to stake the high ground in our mental terrain through traditional awareness-building, but I suspect it will become increasingly more difficult to do so. Ultimately, brands will try to move their position from one of a promise of quality (a promise easily checked online) to a religion, where faith can play the spoiler.

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