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Brand marketing: the time is...(?)
In the second of our series of posts on brand for startups, we look at how to approach brand marketing at different stages. With insights from Tom Hillman's time at Wise.
Go back pre-covid, and you didn't need Crunchbase to find out who had just raised a Series A in London. You only needed to look at who was advertising across the London transport network.
Brand marketing is really exciting.
For employees, it's that trust symbol to their friends and family that they haven't just embarked on some mad journey for a bunch of people in hoodies in Shoreditch. "Look, Mum, it's a real thing, we're on the tube!"
For many marketers and founders, it follows the logical path of their professions. We all read the memoirs and business books and case studies of the world's biggest consumer companies. We look at Nike, Apple, Disney, Dior, Airbnb. We look at the thousands of companies owned by Nestle, Diageo, LVMH, and Proctor and Gamble. All of those companies do brand marketing really well. And survivorship bias leads us to believe that.
Plus it’s fun. It’s a good creative challenge and a great use for brilliant talent.
For others, deep down it can be the longing for a silver bullet. Growth has plateaued. You have no idea if its your product, your marketing, or your team. It's time to close your eyes, throw the ball, and pray.
Smart marketers also lean heavily into data here. The work of people like Les Binet, the IPA, and the seminal Long and the Short of it, all provide statistically solid foundations for the positive impact of brand marketing.
But the majority of the time, these types of brand campaign don’t do what you want them to do. You spend months focused on them, they arrive, they are great. And then the next month you’re back to the same growth problems you had before.
This post looks at:
The differences between brand and brand marketing
Building mental availability (or the purpose of brand)
The big brand mistake early-stage startups make early
How to approach brand before you’ve got 7 figure budgets
The measurement framework and results that Wise used to prove value of brand marketing
Bonus win that you can do today
This post includes snippets of a conversation I had with Tom Hillman, former head of paid social at Transferwise, earlier this year.
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Brand vs brand marketing
There is an important distinction to be made between brand and brand marketing.
Brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room. We all have a brand.
Brand is the thing that bridges your vision, mission, and values on one side, to the company culture, customer experience, and public perception on the other.
Having a well thought through brand, therefore is deeply important.
Developing your brand early helps guide your product strategy, and helps you hire and retain the best talent. It helps you tell a more compelling story for fundraising, for staff, and for customers. And it helps with your growth: top-line, revenue-generating, real growth.
Brands without a developed brand may be able to grow well to a certain stage. Good performance marketing can cover all sorts of sins. But a developed brand is required long term, and the earlier you do it the better.
But brand and brand marketing are different.
Building mental availability
Why do we do brand marketing? What’s the real objective? To gain awareness? So what. To be known by more people? So what.
Ultimately, a desire for these brand metrics is about your growth. It might not be short term, but it is long term.
Companies gain value from their brand being known – even by those who have no intention of buying. Red Bull gains value from brand even if you never buy a can of the energy drink.
It’s about mental availability.
Most of the time, most people aren’t in the market to buy something. We know this because you can buy 100,000 impressions and only convert a fraction of a percent of them at any given time. Mental availability means when someone is in market, you are there front of mind.
I don’t need to have seen your ad campaign to know about you. People talk. We read. Culture delivers us the stories of companies through osmosis.
So what is being said when you’re out of the room?
The big brand mistake early-stage business make
When I sat down with Tom Hillman, we were discussing the various brand campaigns we’d seen over the years.
Many were one-time things. You’d see a brand cover every London bus, all of Old Street roundabout, and then half of the tubes for a few things. Then you’d not see those campaigns repeated in the future.
“What happens when you do those £30-40k type buys,” says Tom Hillman, “might have some good short term impact. You might get a spike in traffic. You might get some press off it, but then a few weeks later that’s it.”
“The problem is that this type of brand marketing: to get recall across the population, costs millions of pounds a month to move this stuff. And it’s not just spend, but creative too. You’ve got to consistently invest.”
This will ring true for many.
We had a very successful PR stunt at Thriva early days that had a strong halo effect across our other activity. It increased the amount of capital we could deploy across paid. But this lasted 2-3 weeks. And by the time the story had stopped being shared, the halo effect dried up.
And that was with a brilliant creative execution1. We did a bigger spend later with a new stunt and creative execution that failed to land. There was coverage, but it didn't connect. There was never any halo effect.
To gain a long term impact from brand marketing, requires continual investment in both creative and spend. You remember those big consumer brands we mentioned at the top? They don’t advertise for two weeks and then stop.
And so if you’ve just raised a Series A. Now is probably not the time to commit to your brand campaign for long term growth.
How to approach brand before you’ve got 7-figure budgets
What do people say about you when you’re out of the room? What do you stand for? What’s the single-sentence elevator pitch about your brand?
At Wise, that was ‘send money abroad.’
No matter what else people knew about them, that was the one thing they wanted to be known for.
And you don’t need a big brand marketing campaign to achieve that.
Every performance marketing ad you run impacts your band. Every email you send out. Every delivery that gets sent to a customer. Every reply via social media. Everything your company does contributes to the perception of your brand.
So the very first thing you can do is consider every piece of comms you have and see if it reinforces that message.
Play one of your Facebook ads to someone who doesn’t know you and see if they can tell you what you’re about. If they can’t describe what you are, what your brand message is, then you haven’t built that mental availability. You’ve just wasted money on that impression.
This isn’t just about performance marketing though. What does your packaging say about you? Say you’re an ecom with a luxury price point, but your deliveries feel like they’re from Amazon. You’ve lost the opportunity to communicate your message. The whole experience has to reinforce your brand message.
Very often I hear ‘brand consistency’ be mentioned. It often refers to a visual identity that should sit across every aspect of a company’s marketing. Visual consistency is important (though not at the expense of platform-centricity2), but more important is that message consistency.
If you don’t have high hundreds of thousands or millions to commit to your brand activity, then focus instead on the brand message. Make sure it sits across everything you do.
If you asked 10 customers to describe your company to their friends over WhatsApp, would they all say the same thing? Would they all say “send money abroad?”
How Wise proved the value of brand marketing activity at scale
This isn’t a rally against brand marketing. There’s a strong place for it in today’s marketing mix, but when it’s timed right.
In my conversation with Tom, we discussed the stage when they got really good at measuring brand activity and how they went about it.
“We split Australia in half. Not literally, but we divided it up as equally as possible by demographic and population size. This was when we launched Borderless in Australia.”
In terms of activity, “we did a load of offline brand activity, and some brand stuff on Facebook: brand awareness buys. As close as you could get to billboards.”
“And the creative was very different from the normal oCPM ads.”
“To measure it we did a few things. We did pre-, during- and post Attest trackers. We did Facebook brand lift studies, and conversion lift studies.”
“For each cell, we had a view of conversion impact, Facebook brand recall, and what the general population brand recall was from Attest. We figured out that the stuff that correlated – over the course of six months – saw the conversion impact eek out.”
“Over time, as people became more aware, their conversion rates went up, and it was cheaper to acquire them. It makes logical sense, but you needed the data. And it was only with this data that we had an answer on how much to invest in brand activity.”
Bonus: the brand thing you can start doing today
As a closing piece of wisdom from the interview, Tom added a tidbit which I think worth highlighting.
“The most effective thing we did was add in a How Did You Hear About Us? question”
This is something I’ve been a defender of for years. And yet it is weirdly met with pushback. “Surely that data isn’t accurate,” I often hear, “let’s just go with last-click attribution instead.”
But I’ve used this question too and often find that things like PR are under attributed and PPC is over-attributed. You adjust based on that and grow.
I’ve also seen public companies where that question is still a fundamental part to their marketing measurement. Put it post-checkout, do it today, and you won’t regret it.
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