When we think about brand building, we typically picture big actions that are not meant to have a short-term impact. For example, the style of mass media ads is often close to that of a manifesto, expressing what the brand is or why it is in the market. In this type of action, the value of creativity is not questioned.
However, when actions are designed to generate direct responses from our audiences, such as purchases or prospect acquisition, no importance is usually given to the impact of those actions on the brand. In fact, the type of metrics that determine whether an action was successful have more to do with return on investment (ROI), understood in the simplest way possible ─a certain amount of money is spent to get a certain response, and whether that response presents profitable revenue for the business. No one cares about what the brand could have gained or lost in the process. In this type of action, creativity and brand building are not valued to the same extent as in large positioning actions.
At Good Rebels, we believe that this is preventing companies from generating greater value, particularly in digital. We will explore three major themes that can be identified as the roots of this viewpoint, one from the business perspective and two from the marketing perspective.
1. Short-term planning
The first of these is short-termism, which is one of the evils of our time, and certainly not exclusive to the business sphere. The pressure to yield results in the short term, in a three-month or one-year horizon maximum, has transformed corporate life. This is especially true of listed companies, as the financial information they are obliged to report quarterly has, in theory, a great impact on their stock price. Thus, boards of directors put high pressure on marketing areas to show positive improvements as compared to previous periods. This will lead the company’s market capitalization to grow or, in case of an adverse economic environment, to at least remain constant.
Stress and pressure are just one side of the coin. The other is incentive compensation for management, which also tends to be aligned with this short-term approach. Even medium-term incentives, such as receiving benefits or company stock, are in line with this relentless market instruction: show results, and show them now.
However, according to a study published in 2017 by the McKinsey Global Institute, this philosophy has no real justification in either profits or company value; in fact, it is counterproductive. The study sheds light on the fact that companies with long-term planning and execution grew 47% more than those that took a short-term approach during the same 13-year period. Moreover, their profits were, on average, 81% higher. These companies also invested more in research and development (50% more than their competitors), and even increased investment during the years following the 2008 crisis.
It is precisely in times of crisis when companies succumb more easily to short-term thinking and, according to McKinsey’s study, the trend is upwards. In fact, short-term trends in many companies are likely to become more acute in light of the current COVID-19 crisis.
The inevitable question is, why is this trend still on the rise if the pressure for short-term results has shown to have no real economic justification? Apparently, it is an irrational reaction generated by the leaders of the companies themselves. According to another study cited in the Harvard Business Review, almost two-thirds of the 600 participating executives stated the pressure comes from their own board of directors and other executives. In other words, it is self-imposed.
2. Erosion of the impact of creativity
The second phenomenon, which is a direct consequence of the first, is the decreasing impact of creativity. The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) in the United Kingdom has been warning for several years about the dangers of short-termism in marketing, which is undermining the impact of creativity on advertising effectiveness.
By cross-referencing information on the most award-winning campaigns in terms of effectiveness, with that of the most outstanding campaigns in prestigious creative awards over the last 24 years, the IPA has shown how outstanding creativity contributes greatly to achieving campaign objectives.
The erosion of the impact of creativity is no small matter: between 1996 and 2008 (the years preceding the financial crisis, advertising campaigns that had been recognised as highly creative were on average about twelve times more effective than “normal” campaigns, meaning they represented a highly profitable investment. During the years of the crisis, creative campaigns were only four times more effective, and by 2019 there was simply no difference between highly creative and normal campaigns.
According to the IPA, this collapse has to do with the change of focus from the long to the short term. Creativity, the main driver of advertising effectiveness, lost importance when it was almost exclusively put at the service of short-term objectives. Thanks to studies such as IPA’S, we now know that this is a mistake.
3. Digital media is perceived as made for direct response only
The third reason is that some digital platforms have been able to prosper enormously by strengthening and taking advantage of this short-term trend. This is because their business models are geared towards it, and towards the bottom of the mythical marketing funnel.
On one side, marketing managers have their CEOs asking for immediate results. On the other side, Silicon Valley giants are assuring them they can provide those immediate results. It is the perfect storm, and the only ones really winning are the owners of technology platforms. Big technology companies tend to exacerbate the situation and, even more worryingly, make marketers think that focusing on the short term is the right thing to do.
The reality is that digital is not just made of one or two platforms: it is a huge ecosystem in which people, media, tools, information, bots, services and products coexist, which we access through different devices, and with which we interact. We cannot have such a monolithic vision of the digital ecosystem as a means for direct response only, without thinking about strategy and creativity.
Brand vs Activation: a false dilemma
In line with the above, we find a false dilemma in the world of marketing: when designing campaigns and advertising actions, we are supposed to choose between building a brand or activating the market, and we are told we cannot cover both objectives at the same time. However, if we start from the fact that each and every thing a company does and says builds or destroys its brand, it is clear why this dilemma does not exist: to activate commercial campaigns is also to build our brand -or to destroy it.
This is something that we are certain of as consumers: we don’t care if the person who answers our email is in one area of the company or in another; for us, it is the brand that we are interacting with. As marketers, and many times as agencies, we lose sight of this, which results in a lack of coherence between brand-saying and brand-doing.
The solution: a 360 view
Although the integrated communications discourse is not new, it is important to recognise that implementing it is not easy, as we are talking of many different parts in multiple channels that are typically handled by people in diverse areas, and by various agencies and consulting firms.
However, at Good Rebels, we are convinced that it is strategically important for our clients to have a partner that can look after their entire digital ecosystem. This is why we have recently acquired Muskae and Kanvas, specialised in UX and SEO, respectively.
Besides considering the metrics that each of the digital actions of a brand provides at the tactical level, we make sure that all of them are in line with the brand’s DNA, and that each interaction builds on that. This does not mean straitjacketing communication and being uniformly stiff. Henri Matisse said, “Every leaf on a fig tree is different, but they all scream ‘fig tree’! This is how integrated communications should be.
Of course, this means giving value to creativity in every action, because we know it is the great multiplier of efficiency. In short, we know that being creative in every interaction is a good investment.