How Marketing Must Evolve to Build Brands in Digital

Although the fundamentals of brand building have not changed — deliver value via usefulness and price, create a presence via physical product and service and the meaning said product/service has in the mind of the customer — how we accomplish that has.

In the words of renowned strategic planner Stephen King# [hat tip Noah Brier]:

Marketing companies today… recognize that rapid response in the marketplace needs to be matched with a clear strategic vision. The need for well-planned brand-building is very pressing. At the same time they see changes in ways of communicating with their more diverse audiences. They’re increasingly experimenting with non-advertising methods. Some are uneasily aware that these different methods are being managed by different people in the organisation to different principles; they may well be presenting conflicting impressions of the company and its brands. It all needs to be pulled together.

Instant, real time marketing still requires time, investment, and creativity to pull off, however.

As for the term "advertising": King used it as a proxy for all forms of brand communications. He also liked to look at planners along a scale from Grand Strategists to Advert Tweakers and observed how the latter tended to grow more rapidly in the ranks of agencies.

Brand building in the digital age lives in the middle.

It needs a healthy dose of curiosity, and a desire to investigate what is going on (data, facts, and figures) that matters to the business, and creativity to apply the resulting strategic concept to real world situations. 

For creation of presence to work, clear strategic vision needs to be backed up, immersed in the reality of the here and now, and supported by the commitment to consistency over time.

The introduction of direct to customer social interaction creates an interesting challenge for many businesses and brands that just do not have yet the internal structure and resources to support it at the level where it becomes effective.

They are solid where it comes to proven downstream activities, a bit uncertain as to the mechanics of creation and maintenance of presence in social as a component of a more robust upstream investment, which has also redefined presences in owned URLs.

In other words: we are all long on "viral", "infotainment", and "make the logo bigger" and short on making the experience better. Make the experience better. It bridges the world of objects and the world of meanings and it is still a proven way to build confidence via closing the gap on promises made and promises kept.

This is a question I have been thinking about for the better part of the last decade as a practitioner responsible for the growth of brands.

Many of my earlier thoughts are organized in a couple of curated pages on marketing that makes business sense.

Marketing in 2014: that rigid approach will cost you includes some recent thoughts, alongside contributions by industry peers.

In an interview with Jackie Huba, Tom Fishburne provided two examples of how marketing must evolve: by focusing on the people it serves, and by being appropriate.

He said:

Q: What’s the biggest trap most brand managers stupidly fall into?

The mass market trap. Chasing market size. Trying to appeal to everyone and avoiding alienating anyone. By trying to appeal to everyone, no one gets excited.

In my past brand lives, we joked that our target was “a woman, age 25–39, with a pulse.”  Instead, if you cater to a passionate and vocal niche, you become more meaningful. Consumer loyalty follows. Niche marketing isn’t just for small brands.  General Mills does a great job of training marketers to find and truly understand your niche’s brand champions. You create your products and marketing just for them.  When you do, much of the mass market will follow, too.

Q: Is branding dead and if so, where do we bury the body?

I don’t think branding is extinct. It’s evolved. I used the evolution metaphor to play with a couple stereotypes in the noble profession of marketing.

Doctors have Hippocrates. Lawyers have Atticus Finch. Ask most consumers what archetypes there are for marketers and the snakeoil salesman comes to mind. That’s because much of the history of marketing and branding has been about concocting a story consumers wanted to hear, even if the story was a wee bit phony. Charles Revson, founder of Revlon, famously quipped: “In our factories, we make cosmetics. In the store, we sell hope.”

Nowadays, consumers are often in the marketer’s seat.  Consumers have always been the best source for what your brand means.  The power used to be with the marketer to sculpt and shape that message.  The question to ask now is no longer how your consumers play back the message you told them.  It’s what message are they spreading to others.

The key is to tell an authentic brand story (but careful that you don’t overdo that like the authenticity hawker in the cartoon). Then find ways to help your consumers advocate on your behalf.



Valeria is an experienced listener. She designs service and product experiences to help businesses rediscover the value of promises and its effects on relationships and culture. She is also frequent speaker at conferences and companies on a variety of topics. Book her to speak here.

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