October 17, 2023

Foundations over false choices: Building brands with meaning

Is there anything marketers love more than passionately debating false choices?

Traditional vs. Digital. Data versus Creativity. Short-term versus Long-term. And the undisputed debate du jour: Brand versus Performance Marketing.

Though it’s becoming increasingly clear that the answer to all of these questions is a resounding, “yes, and!,” they aren’t necessarily bad ones to ask. We should be regularly interrogating the quality and relevance of our marketing initiatives, and the efficiency and effectiveness of our campaigns and media investments.

But these debates dangerously assume the answer to another, more fundamental question that we fear not enough CMOs and CEOs are asking themselves:

Do we even have a meaningful brand to market?

You may have a name and logo, and maybe even a slogan and some successful ads, but these elements alone do not a brand make—at least not one that endures in our hearts and minds for the long-haul. It’s what lies beneath—the strategic choices around what you stand for and how you deliver value—that ultimately unlock the power of brand to create meaning for customers, grow demand, strengthen pricing power, and drive sustainable growth. It’s the bones of the house, not the wallpaper, that keep it upright in good times and bad.

As consumers, we can intuitively see and feel the proliferation of brands built on wobbly foundations. The umpteenth mattress or meal kit or movie sequel or athleisure pant with no compelling reason to exist beyond, “why not?” The powerful incumbents whose collective inertia and complacency have turned their industries into seas of sameness. The helpless scrolling through Amazon storefronts, desperate for a meaningful point of difference or mental shortcut to free us from the tyranny of choice.

“You may have a name and logo, and maybe even a slogan and some successful ads, but these elements alone do not a brand make.”

Brand Aperture®, Lippincott’s longitudinal study of nearly 100,000 consumers, corroborates our intuition. Among the hundreds of brands we tracked in the U.S. in 2023, only 36% actually mean something to their users, as measured by the brands’ perceived ability to connect emotionally and enable tangible progress. In categories like Financial Services (25%), Retail (29%), and Telecom (29%), meaning seems to be especially hard to come by. If that’s the state of affairs among people actively choosing and using these brands, you can imagine how few manage to make a mark on the general public. Indeed, only 5% of brands are viewed as truly unique by consumers at-large.

Having meaning—or as we call it, being “Go-to”—is admittedly a high standard.

Whether we’re talking about people or companies, having the emotional connectivity and functional utility to be truly indispensable is a position few will earn. But those that do reap great rewards, in the form of deep relationships, long-term goodwill, and in the case of Go-to Brands, outsized financial returns. 5X faster revenue growth to be exact.

Only 5% of brands are viewed as truly unique by consumers

While we tend to celebrate the outward-facing activities that allow brands to build meaning, what we’ve learned from 80 years of creating, growing, and transforming meaningful brands is that the real work starts from within.

Namely, with the clarity, focus, and elasticity that comes from developing and activating a strategic brand platform consisting of:

  • A big brand idea that translates a foundational human insight and your company’s role in addressing it into a compelling, emotionally resonant north star. For some, this also becomes an external message, but it’s equally powerful as an internal rallying cry.
  • A brand purpose that connects the dots between all of your audiences, businesses, and offerings. For complex, global businesses in particular, a brand purpose enables CEOs and CMOs alike to help all stakeholders orient around a consistent narrative and articulation of the brand’s role in the industry and the world.
  • A series of commitments that tangibly inform and inspire the products, services, communications, and experience you deliver. Commitments serve as a common blueprint from which infinite ideas can spring without losing their center of gravity.
  • A distinctive voice and personality that, even in the absence of breakthrough innovation or product differentiation, helps you cut through and connect. It’s the feelings you evoke at every interaction point that ultimately make you unforgettable.
  • An experience vision that defines the brand’s signature moments and interactions, using the brand platform as a guide to creating tangible connection- and progress-driving programs and behaviors. At the end of day, strategy is execution.

The exact origins of the term “performance marketing” are unclear, but there is no question that its prevalence and influence grew in lockstep with the sales teams and ballooning profits of digital ad behemoths – most notably Google and its AdWords product. And to this day, the time and energy all of us spend in the hamster wheel that is the brand vs. performance debate keeps the ad tech industrial complex rolling.

But as true Go-to brands (of which Google and its YouTube subsidiary are two!) remind us, hashing out the optimal channel mix or allocation of media spend or even the merits of a specific creative idea is a meaningless exercise without a solid strategic foundation to lend them substance. We need an actual brand before we can market it or ask it to perform. And as our research shows, very few companies are living up to the clarifying, connecting, growth-driving potential of truly meaningful brands.

Even the inventors of performance marketing understand this. When pressed for a solution to the clutter, chaos, and fraud that seems to define the modern Internet landscape, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt showed his true colors with respect to the brand vs. performance debate.

“Brands are the solution, not the problem,” he noted. “Brands are how you sort out the cesspool.”

So before you dive into the tension that is “brand” vs. “performance” marketing, make sure you have a meaningful brand to begin with. Ask yourself these five key questions:

  1. Does your brand occupy a clear, differentiated position in the minds of your customers? Do you have an evocative, compelling, and consistent articulation of this positioning…or are you missing this crucial center of gravity?
  2. Are your leaders “singing from the same song book” when describing how you serve, and create value for all of your stakeholders…or do your narratives for different audiences and business units lack harmony?
  3. Do you have a clear filter for developing and pressure-testing new ideas and initiatives…or are you inventing new principles and measures of success at every turn?
  4. Is your brand making an impression at every opportunity…or are you just paying for millions of hollow ‘impressions?’
  5. Are your teams equipped to bring the brand to life through authentic and impactful experiences…or is your brand strategy just a talking point?

If the answer to many of these questions is no, then table the debate between brand and performance and double your efforts on the fundamentals.