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Branding Basics for Digital Marketers

Posted on 11.01.2015

By Tim Ash, CEO of SiteTuners

"Branding" is a dirty word for many digital marketers.

It is the province of the Mad Men set - wowing clients with slick creative campaign pitches. Similarly, it is a detailed brand-guidelines document laying out allowable fonts, colors and even messaging (including on-site content and even vanity business phone number systems) for maintaining consistency across all marketing materials - a restrictive set of handcuffs.

Huge amounts of media money are spent on branding exposure, seemingly without a requirement for any tangible results. On the other side, are the accountable digital marketers like you - measuring every aspect of marketing, testing and optimizing everything and keeping an eye on campaign ROI. You chafe at the seemingly random restrictions placed on you when something is arbitrarily declared to be "off brand."

 It seems like this gap can never be bridged and the two groups are destined to speak past each other forever. Luckily, there is a better way. The following ideas should help you better understand how to use branding to your advantage.

A brand is expensive to build and difficult to change

Face it - most marketers don't work for Coke, or Nike or Disney. And despite their claims that their product is "the world's leading solution for..." somewhere, deep down marketers probably know that is not true. Maybe the brand is well-known in a tiny market niche, or in the minds of direct competitors, but unless marketing teams have already spent a lot of focus, time and money - they don't have a real brand at all with the general public. Don't confuse name recognition with brand.

For those who do have a strong brand, they may have the opposite problem because it has a life of its own. Don't think that a cosmetic logo change or a new creative campaign will change people's perceptions overnight.

+ Don't pretend you have a brand when you don't.

A brand is not its representation

Many people mistakenly believe that the brand is its visible symbols, or color theme or design aesthetic - but this is not true. It is the mental concepts that are triggered in audiences' minds that are the actual brand.

Marlboro's cigarette brand may be defined by iconic blocks of red color, but also by photographs of cowboys on the open range. The real brand, however, is the vision of rugged male independence that it evokes in people's minds. The trigger is not the brand, and digital marketers should have the freedom to experiment with the best stimuli to best activate the underlying brand concept.

+ Our job is to identify the best triggers to activate the underlying brand concept in prospects' minds.

A brand is situational, not absolute

A brand is not monolithic and equally strong in all circumstances. If someone mentions bookstores, most Americans would probably think of Barnes & Noble. If asked about this in the context of online, however, they would probably activate the Amazon brand. If asked about audio books, they might think of This shows how much the concept of brand is context-dependent. All are bookstores, but one can provoke an audience to bring other brands quickly to mind by manipulating the context.

+ Your job is to identify contexts in which your brand is the dominant leader.

Website Magazine Bookshelf: Decoded

For detailed examination of these concepts, Phil Barden's "Decoded" is a must-read. It's available for purchase at

People's brand needs are also situational, not absolute

People's days are filled with competing priorities and goals that often change on a moment-by-moment basis. Most do not have durable needs or desires. When someone is hungry, for example, they want to eat and this dominates their experience. When that same person is cold, shelter becomes a priority. When sad, they seek excitement or distraction. Yet this could all be the same person.

Knowing about their demographics would tell a marketer little about their affinity for a restaurant, ski lodge or live music event brand in the moment.

+ Stop thinking about market segments, and think about situational brand advantages instead.

A brand frame must be consistent with messaging

All brands satisfy some combination of basic implicit human goals. Everyone craves excitement, adventure, autonomy, discipline, security and enjoyment at various times. A marketer should be very clear about the degree to which his brand activates each of these. For example, the Volvo brand works primarily on autonomy (individualistic idiosyncratic self-expression), discipline (austere and functional looks) and security (strong safety record). By contrast, BMW is more likely to map to goals of adventure (the potential for extreme performance), excitement (high-speed prowess) and enjoyment (of the driving experience itself).

Let's say both companies created high-performance sports cars that are very capable. Which one is likely to activate its brand in the minds of the consumer, and sell more cars? The answer is obvious. BMW would have a tremendous advantage because its brand frame fits the product. By contrast, the notion of a high-performance Volvo is in almost direct opposition with its brand frame, and will fall on deaf ears with consumers (as evidenced by several failed attempts to launch sports cars over the decades).

+ Understand the implicit goals satisfied by your brand and make sure your messaging amplifies these.

Hopefully, the above ideas will help you unify modern direct-response digital marketing with the seemingly esoteric realms of branding. They should not be separate, but should be used in tandem to create the strongest possible impact.

Tim Ash is the CEO of SiteTuners, Chair of Conversion Conference and bestselling author of "Landing Page Optimization."

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