argument, conflict, controversy

Making The Most of This Divisive Issue

It's frustratingly divisive.

I'm not talking about the US elections. (Although, as a Canadian watching from the sidelines, I admit that it can be just as frustrating for us.)

I'm talking about one of the most controversial and contentious arguments in marketing; one that has frustrated many, fueled countless debates, and even led to bitter animosity between the two camps.

It's branding vs. direct response.

On one side, you have designers, creatives, and content writers duking it out with direct marketers, advertisers, and sales copywriters, who are on the other. Even SEO and PPC experts are flaming each other on social media.

First, let's understand the two concepts.

Branding comes from the process of identifying livestock as a way to prevent confusion should they ever commingle with cattle from neighboring farmlands. Branding is simply a way to identify yourself and your property. (In business, that's both intellectual and physical property.)

It's also a way to create an anchor in the mind of the marketplace. And to me, that is the real purpose of branding. It's an anchor and not just an identifier.

If one accountant provides a certain kind of service and another offers the same service, there's nothing to help you identify which one is which. If both are the same, it doesn't really matter.

If one of them provides a unique version of that same service, a version that offers added value, extra benefits (whether physical or psychic), and a positive experience that the other accountant doesn't offer, it still doesn't matter.

It will impossible to distinguish who provided that service.

So you need an anchor to connect it with.

For example, if the accountant's name is “Jane Smith CPA,” now you have a name. More importantly, you can associate all those things (e.g., value, benefits, uniqueness, etc) with her name. Her brand becomes an anchor on which you hang your trust, loyalty, approval, appreciation, positive feelings, etc.

While branding is for identification, brand marketing serves a greater purpose. It identifies the product, service, or provider, and also:

  • Communicates differentiation,
  • Creates top-of-mind awareness,
  • Makes a unique value proposition,
  • And associates authenticity.

I would also go so far as to say that it evokes an emotional reaction or response, too. So you can say that brand marketing does some indirect response.

But direct response marketing, on the other hand, is trying to create an immediate response. Its purpose is to elicit a response directly from the marketing message it's advertising. It does so by:

  • Hooking attention,
  • Making an offer,
  • Asking for action,
  • And injecting scarcity.

Branding is difficult to measure because there is no feedback loop. But when you conduct direct response marketing, you can instantly know what kind of results it generates and what's the return on your investment.

But done well, branding can deliver results that are far more impactful, longer lasting, and more valuable (i.e., greater ROI over time) than direct response, which is more immediate, shorter term, and limited.

However, I believe that, used together, they can support each other and actually improve one another's results.

Direct response advertisers often dismiss branding because they say it doesn't convert. But ample research shows that branding, used in marketing and communications, create an environment more conducive to response.

In other words, branding aids conversions. Conversely, direct response supports branding, and can help measure the efforts and effects of brand marketing. They are independent but inter-dependent at the same time.

The best explanation I've heard was from Jason Falls, who wrote:

“Direct-response marketing helps people buy while brand marketing helps people choose.”

Jason Falls

Well said.

So in my estimation, it's not an either/or question. It's both. You should leverage both branding and direct response in your ads placed strategically in your funnel. They can be immediate, sequential, or spaced out over time.

An ad campaign can do both (branding and direct response together), or it can be two distinct marketing approaches done at different times.

You begin by communicating your brand to identify yourself, create awareness, and differentiate your services. Then, you follow up (either directly or at some later point) with a direct response call-to-action of some kind.

Either way, they both can and should support each other.

Here's the reason, and it's a double-whammy.

Not only will branding create a better environment that will increase direct conversions, but it will also increase indirect conversions in other efforts.

If the audience comes across other mentions from the same brand, whether it's for the same ad through remarketing, for a different offer, or as a search engine result, the response will likely be more favorable.

If your audience thinks positively about you and has a positive previous interaction, chances are they will choose you when they're in the process of making a buying decision. If you present them with other offers in the future, chances are equally high they will take advantage of them, too.

Here's the second whammy.

When it comes to SEO and PPC, there's a vocal group of SEO experts who say that buying ads do not directly affect SEO (i.e., buying ads on Google will not make Google rank you better).

While it is true that buying ads do not directly affect your rankings, indirectly they may help — and some have shown evidence of this.

Several SEO experts say it's because PPC provides important user experience data (such as bounce rates, traffic volume, search intent, conversion rates, etc) that helps feed Google's machine learning.

Others say that ads create organic branded traffic (i.e., traffic using branded terms) due to their previous exposure. Some even advocate buying PPC ads for the purpose of creating brand awareness, which is ruffling a few direct marketing feathers in the process.

All this to say, whether directly or indirectly, both sides can complement each other, support each other, and magnify each other's results.

When it comes to marketing, it doesn't have to be divisive. Both sides should get along because they can actually help each other grow.

So when you hear questions like “Content marketing or copywriting?” “Branding or direct response?” “SEO or PPC?” Keep in mind that they are not (or shouldn't be) mutually exclusive. A well-rounded marketing strategy uses both.

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