I’m going to say something that deep down, somewhere in the back of your head, you already know. Your brand is wasting money on marketing.
You aren’t the only one at fault. Nearly all of the people I speak with on brand strategy are abiding by the “playbook” and not taking the time, energy, or resources to develop a game plan first.
There is no debate — a well-developed strategy is the key to success. Imagine you’re interviewing for a new job. We can guess many of the questions you might be asked, like what your previous work experience is, what you consider your strengths and weaknesses to be, or why you would be a solid candidate for the opening. Really, you could show up without any real preparation and probably BS your way through the discussion. But will that earn you the job? No! You’re going to do extensive research on the position, the people you’re speaking with, and even the business itself. Because every job is different, and the unique details are what makes or breaks your chances.
Marketing is no different.
There is a vanilla “playbook” that everyone in the marketing community follows. If you Google the term “digital marketing,” you’ll find dozens of courses or agencies that will sell it to you. But it is public knowledge, and it is weak. Buy a few Facebook ads, strengthen your site’s SEO with backlinks, start a PPC campaign, and just like that, you’re a marketer!
Of course marketing can work. If it didn’t, IHOP wouldn’t have temporarily been IHOB, and I wouldn’t have left my salaried job to start a branding and strategy agency. But for most brands, both in the private sector and in the nonprofit world, tremendous amounts of money are wasted on tactics without any sort of foundation. It’s not throwing a bunch of ideas at a wall to see what sticks, it’s throwing the same ideas at a wall knowing very well it probably won’t.
This isn’t just bad for these business. It’s bad for everyone.
It leads to lackluster results from campaigns that businesses and their agencies waste energy, and more importantly, money, executing. It can turn your loyal consumers against you, because the message they actually receive is that your brand doesn’t really understand them, so maybe they should just see what else is out there. For those of us who work on the agency side, it discourages our clients from continuing to engage and to trust us with their hard-earned money.
So how did we get here?
The first, and most surprising sign of this trend is the continued shuttering of all-purpose agencies that act solely as producers, without any form of specialization. This isn’t new and can be traced back into the last decade. With the rise of digital and boutique firms, full-service agencies have endured a hemorrhaging of clients who would prefer to spend less money for the specialized services from which they are receiving the highest ROI. The bleeding hasn’t stopped, and all indications show this trend will continue into the foreseeable future.
There is also a shift within globally renowned agencies. The larger ones with the ability to adapt have shifted their model to promoting strategy, often framed as consulting, with tactical deliverables as a result of the initial strategic development they provide. Here in Austin, Texas, we have seen two of the largest and most respected agencies in the state make the shift.
R/GA (my lifelong agency crush) was listed as the number three ad agency in the country by Ad Age in 2017. The reason? Their ability to adapt, specifically as it relates to selling strategy.
“‘The consulting business is not going to disrupt R/GA,’ said Chairman-CEO Bob Greenberg. But ‘R/GA will disrupt the consulting business.’ He added: ‘R/GA never stops restructuring. We never stop investing in new things. And we never stop connecting them together. So that is why we had our best year.’”
The profile goes on to state that R/GA has also continued to develop brilliant creative. By utilizing a new aspect of their business, a deep study of strategy, R/GA was able to produce some of their best work yet. They worked with their clients to understand who their actual consumers are, what they desire, and how they engage with the client’s brand emotionally.
Though they seem to be popping up more than ever before, these buzzwords have been used for ages. Understand your consumer. Listen to what they want. Sell to their emotions. While these core tenants of advertising have been well addressed, agencies are just now turning these talking points into deliverable actions.
Not a month after I officially launched Y’all Branding & Strategy, an agency that helps purposeful brands find their strategic edge, GSD&M announcedthat they were pursuing consulting and strategy more formally than they had before. They would begin offering these services to all of their existing clients. As much as I would love to attribute their shift to the pure fear that a hungry boutique agency like mine is coming for them, it is far more likely they saw what R/GA had witnessed just a few years prior — the future of winning creative is based on strong strategy.
It would be easier to grapple with this shift in thinking if it were solely in the context of the goliaths. Of course Intel needs to spend hundreds of hours developing key insights into their consumers before launching a global campaign. They would be insane not to when they spend as much as they do to get Jim Parsons to tout their product.
But the truth, a truth that brands across all industries and sizes must realize, is that no matter what your size, vertical, audience, or profit model… solid strategy is a necessity if you want your marketing dollars to be worth it in the slightest. It won’t necessarily require hundreds of hours, but it will require a significant investment of time and money.
At Y’all Branding & Strategy we work with both for-profit and not-for-profit brands that are purposeful in what they do, and find a way to contribute to the greater good. From personal experience I can assure you that brands in both categories have succeeded or failed due to the presence or lack of a core branding strategy.
The insane rise in the popularity of social media and social media advertising has led to what is undoubtedly the most oversaturated consumer base to date. Now more than ever your message needs to break through the clutter. There are tons of incredible agencies that can help with that. The catch, which agencies like R/GA, GSD&M, and my own have realized, is that it needs to break through the clutter and speak to the right people with the right message. For those of us who subscribe to this belief, this is a non-negotiable.
Saying that you are going to speak to the right people with the right message is easy to promise. At times it is easy to fake. But results are the ultimate judge in our industry and often they reveal that no connection was made. Marketing dollars, the time of executives, that board member meeting arranged just to get approval on a budget for that campaign, were wasted.
Brand discovery takes time. It can be messy, as assumptions are challenged and long-standing beliefs about a brands’ audience are shattered. It isn’t cheap. But it works.
I want to end on another hot take, one that has cost our agency business at times, but one that I believe in so strongly that I find it crucial to say at the start of all new client relationships.
If you aren’t interested in understanding your brand’s core strategy and consumer foundation then your money is better spent outside of marketing. You don’t need a new website that just looks nicer. A new logo without process won’t cause your sales to increase. Don’t even think about pouring money into search engine marketing for it only to fall on deaf ears.
Rent a timeshare. Cater in for all of your employees an extra day per week. Put all of your money into an obscure cryptocurrency. The point is, your money will be better spent elsewhere.
But for those of you who are interested in truly understanding your consumers and your brand’s value to them… invest in branding strategy and reap the rewards.
*This article was originally published on Medium and was featured on Noteworthy.