Adapt or Become Extinct: The Marketing Status Quo Will Soon Be Irrelevant

For the past ten years working in digital marketing, the world has been divided into Branding and Performance Marketing. Branding is full of large budgets and not much accountability for their results. Performance Marketing (or Direct Response) has ugly creatives but gets beautiful, carefully documented returns.

Advertising has not always been like this. At the turn of the century, Coca Cola ads like the one below were boasting the benefits of the product while telling you where to buy it and how much it cost. It was probably during the 1950s and the rise of the “Mad Men” style advertising agencies when people started to be OK with the new methods, a concept best summarized by John Wanamaker: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

19th Century Coca Cola ad

People didn’t just accept the new way, they started embracing it as a law governing the universe. Since then, most of the energy and money in marketing went to “building a brand” with a serious lack of accountability. There was no effort to drive more tangible results or sales. At the same time, Direct Response was seen by many as a necessary evil; companies had to do it to justify their budget, but no creative person wanted to really be associated with it.

Luckily, in the past few months, things have started to change: consumers are collapsing the time it takes them to discover, like, and buy a brand, and marketing needs to evolve accordingly.

What has changed

We live in an “on demand” world. We are constantly connected via internet-enabled and portable devices, and we expect products to meet our schedules and our needs. Services like Netflix allow people watch their content in their own time, even if it means bingeing an entire season in a weekend. TV network executives are recognizing this change and adapting accordingly. John Stankey, AT&T veteran and now HBO CEO, is planning to change the network from a boutique network with signature Sunday night lineup to a something bigger and broader that could keep people connected “hours a day” because “You are competing with devices that sit in people’s hands that capture their attention every 15 minutes.”

We can agree or disagree on the industry’s response, but we need to recognize the meaning it has. Our “on demand” mindset is not limited to the way we consume our entertainment. It also means that we can get the news at any time on our phones without having to wait for the scheduled update at the beginning of the hour. We get ten-day weather forecasts for any place in the world in a matter of seconds. We order any kind of food and have it delivered hot to our doors in less than an hour, and we can schedule our grocery shopping while sitting in the back of an Uber that arrived to pick us up mere minutes after we opened the app.

When everything is available the moment we want it, the classic purchase funnel is collapsing, and customers are blurring the lines between awareness, consideration, and intent.

In short, advertisement that doesn’t recognize this mindset is outdated. When an ad shows me a remarkable product through great storytelling or enticing photography, but then doesn’t give me the option to engage further and eventually buy it, it’s missing an opportunity. When was the last time you saw a wonderful TV spot and said “let me note this product down so I can find where it’s sold around town” or “let me put it in my grocery list so I can remember to pick it up next time I’m in the store?” The only thing you really do is you pull out your phone (which was already in your hand) and do a search to learn more about that product. “Free shipping and return? I’ll buy it without thinking too much about it.” We live in a world where any delay between desire and gratification is avoided at all costs. If there is a delay, we’ll likely take our interest (and our purchases) elsewhere.

This is why Facebook is adding shoppable features in their Instagram stories and Google launched shoppable YouTube videos. The fact that we now live in an on-demand world, means that people say “Oh cool! I want it!,” and they expect to be able to get it right there and then. Every time you spend money in marketing without giving people a seamless option to buy, it’s like opening a beautiful store on 5th avenue with a highly curated window, watching people gather at the glass, and then not letting them in. Instead, you are asking them to go to your other store downtown that is only open during for a few hours. Even if they start the journey, they’re going to pass other stores along the way where their needs can be met instantly.

It’s just counterintuitive. You wouldn’t do it with your physical store. Why do you do it with your advertising?

Photo by Anna Utochkina on Unsplash

Here’s what needs to happen

Many in marketing stop at getting people’s attention and believe that temporary recall or recognition is enough to drive sales. While this may be marginally true, not giving an option to take an action in a continuously connected world means that you are leaving money on the table. When you’ve captured an audience’s attention, use it! Use it to drive a specific behavior. It does not have to be a sale right there and then, but provide something that will allow them to get off autopilot. Invite them to engage further in an action they wouldn’t have taken if they weren’t exposed to your message, and allow the brand to start an ongoing conversation.

To adapt to this new paradigm, remember these three things:

  1. When marketing for awareness or branding, choose your activations based on their ability to drive your audience to engage more (a.k.a. “go deeper down the funnel”). Don’t let them take the leap between your story and your product, but invite them to take the next step. This is the only way to maximize your chance to have an impact.
  2. When marketing to drive a specific action (DR), treat every piece of communication as a branding opportunity. Find the tie between what you are selling and why it should matter to your audience (consumer insight). Don’t use only promotional mechanics, or your relationship will be purely transactional.
  3. Find ideas that stretch across the funnel, from awareness to loyalty. Everything is about performance whether you admit it or not. Everything is a brand experience whether you like it or not.

“I’m running a brand campaign, I’m not trying to drive sales.”

Often time I speak to brand marketers that tell me things like this. I used to get really upset. Now I just get sad for them.

Photo by Pineapple Supply Co. on Unsplash

It reminds me of the people who argued that digital was never going to be as big as TV (digital spending surpassed TV in 2017), and programmatic was never going to be as big as reserve buy (it’s expected to be 83% of all digital in 2019). A lot of them are afraid that adding a call to action will cheapen the brand, but I have run multiple studies in the last few years that actually show that – when done right – brand ads with a call to action drive higher ad recall and message association. Obviously, you have to design for it and not just slap a “buy now” on a TV cut-down, but people want to be invited to take action when they are interested in a brand.

Everything is about performance whether you admit it or not. Everything is a brand experience whether you like it or not. Others are afraid that being too salesy will not be “on brand,” but I remind them that you don’t have to lead with a “buy now.” Once you have captured an audience’s attention, you should invite them to engage more with your brand. For instance, an invitation to “learn more” is softer than an invitation to “buy now.” I also like to remind them that Cannes just introduced an eCommerce Creativity Lion, recognizing that when done right, eCommerce ads can be as creative and beautiful as any other.

The thing that these people fail to understand is that the world around them has changed, and they are now living in that twilight zone where they can keep on doing what they have always done and not get in trouble for it. Eventually, though, they are going to be forced to change, and they are going to be late to the party: outpaced, outmaneuvered, and likely irrelevant.

What’s really happening

Not my daughter – Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

To understand what’s really happening, let me tell you a story.

My daughter lives in a world where most of the screens are interactive. She can unlock my phone and pull up the YouTube app to watch cartoons. She can call Google Home and ask it to show her favorite cartoons. She’s one and a half years old.

Admittedly, Google Home doesn’t understand what she’s saying most of the time, but she has learned to say “Google” before “cat” (let that sink in for a second . . . branding!) The thing that confuses and frustrates her most is having to deal with a screen that is not touch enabled or interactive, that she can’t control with her finger or voice. She looks at me and seems to be asking “why can’t I interact with the images on the screen? What’s the point of this?” The first time this happened, I looked at her and thought “Oh baby, you don’t know how the world works!”

Then I realized it was me being convinced that the world had to be in a certain way while the world around me had actually already changed.

Marketers that don’t think about the full-funnel are just like me looking at my confused daughter. Just like me holding on to outdated ideas about how we will interact with devices, these marketers are separating branding and direct response simply because they think it has always been that way. I realized that my daughter had her pulse on the future of technology and that her generation would grow up demanding (and getting!) changes that fit their expectations. It’s time for marketers to make the same realization. The old ways aren’t working, and the next generation has already moved on. It’s time we move with them.

Author: Paolo

Economist by education, marketer by profession, coffee roaster by hobby.