Adam Ferrier: Branding Was Never Meant To Be Personal

Adam Ferrier: Branding Was Never Meant To Be Personal
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Adam Ferrier is founder of Thinkerbell and unstoppable force in the Australian advertising landscape. Thinkerbell recently partnered with RMIT Online to launch a Brand Experience course. In this guest post, Ferrier warns that in their race to convert customers, many brands are sacrificing brand building and that can ultimately damage their longterm success…

Marketing was, is and always will be a mass market game. In fact, the very point of marketing is to ensure as many people as possible both buy and buy into your brand. We look for brands that have a strong, clearly articulated promise, and the brand gets stronger the more it consistently delivers on whatever it is that it is promising. From McDonalds, to Google, to Nike, and IKEA – these are all strong brands with a promise they keep.

The idea of building a brand was never meant to be personal

A brand must stand for something and people decide to buy or buy into that brand (or not). Now imagine that brand X – a brand with a large and loyal following – wants to build a stronger relationship with its existing customers. It may then start to customise its features or language to better service one customer over another. In theory, this is probably an excellent idea.

Last year, Publicis Groupe acquired data marketing firm Epsilon for an eye watering $4.4 billion, allowing them to own a platform that delivered more personalised marketing messages. Now obviously, data-driven marketing such as this is powerful (for example a study from Invespcro showed 83 per cent of marketers who employ data-driven campaigns enjoy five times more ROI). However, at a base level, the value of personalisation is entirely dependent on what you’re selling. It makes sense for Spotify to get to know me a bit so it can mix Paul Kelly with a bit of Billy Bragg, but do my Corn Flakes need to know anything more about me to deliver a better breakfast?

There is a bigger marketing issue at play here, and that is: with so much access to personal data, behavioural metrics and analytical tools, marketers are investing in the pointy end of the funnel – the personalisation, the attribution, and the conversion – whilst forgetting the important part that sits before all of that. Marketers are sacrificing brand-led marketing at the short-term altar of conversion, and need to look beyond the immediately measurable if they want to build big brands that last. And it is not ironic that it’s the digital first brands who are the worst offenders.

Darren Savage, Chief Strategy Officer at Tribal Worldwide London, evocatively calls this the ‘effectiveness death spiral’. With so much data-driven “personalised” performance marketing cluttering feeds, consumers are subject to a suffocating rhythm – where nothing stands out and everybody is clapping on the one and three. Our short-term focus on efficiency has come at the expense of longer term strategic vision, with companies “incrementally getting better at delivering day-to-day sales, against a very small (and increasingly refined) audience who are ready to buy.” However, at the other end of the funnel no one is coming in – people have either forgotten what the brand promise was, or were never aware of it in the first place.

Big-name brands like Adidas, are now admitting that they fell for the old trap of ‘becoming what you measure’ focusing on simple metrics like last-click attribution at the expense of brand recognition, creativity and magic. Adidas marketers were pruning their marketing model, rather than building a memorable, emotive brand. And this led to all sorts of unforeseen problems, like oversupply, inconsistent messaging and poor projected growth. “We had an understanding that it was digital advertising – desktop and mobile – that was driving sales, and as a consequence we were over-investing in that area,” said the brand’s Global Media Director, Simon Peel. Or put another way, they confused sales with marketing.

Optimising data driven marketing works best when focusing on smaller, tightly defined problems: multivariate testing, micro-exchanges, smoothing the path to purchase and so on. However, this only works if you’re optimising off a brand platform and brand expression that you know is right. It can’t work backwards. You can’t improve the brand foundations via optimising marketing, or by making it more personalised, you can only work within the parameters you have. Personalisation can’t answer big, fundamental questions. Questions like, ‘What should my brand stand for? Why will people like my brand? What channels should I use? How does my brand make people feel? Or even what really drives ‘loyalty’ to my brand?’ Getting stuck in the effectiveness death spiral will spin you into a vortex of brand understanding that makes it hard to extract yourself out.

In a 2019 Salesforce survey, 82 per cent of shoppers said it was important for brands to offer personalised experiences ((un)surprisingly Salesforce has tools that help you do that). But personalisation is the tail, not the dog, and some are yet to be convinced if the tail is needed at all. For example, the UK Advertising Association survey, found 75 per cent of consumers no longer trust digital advertising, and a recent the Gartner study, predicts 80 per cent of marketers will abandon personalisation efforts entirely by 2025. Maybe, after all the hype and promise, personalisation will become one of marketing’s passing fads? Not sure.

So with these insights in play RMIT Online is offering a course on brand experience. This course puts ‘branding’ (and marketing) at the heart of business strategy and is less concerned with the personalisation and optimisation of marketing messaging, and more focused on the fundamentals of good branding. It aims to kickstart a new wave of thinking in business leaders to understand the impact of brand and branding across all parts of their organisation.

At the crux of it, business leaders (not just marketers) should be asking questions like; What’s the market like? Where’s the opportunity? How do we create a brand against that opportunity? And ultimately how should that brand be expressed? The goal here is to create a strong brand – one that has as much value as possible, to as many people as possible. Strong brands play a collective and mass game and draw people in. Marketing, or branding at this level is the very opposite of personalisation.

Personalisation is dancing around the edges, it’s the one to one stuff for people who need that final bit of convincing. It’s the opposite of what strong branding is. And the misuse of the expensive personalisation tool is why personalisation is killing brands.

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Adam Ferrier

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