Building a brand in an age of hyper-targeted messaging

Mark Howe / January 2021

Mark Howe is the managing director of EMEA agencies for Google, focusing on building lasting and trusting relationships with customers. Previously, he worked in the UK television industry for 20 years.

Today’s marketers have to work much harder at building a brand. 20 years ago, launching a killer ad was enough to get you on the map. Now, strong brands need to have a social purpose, cut through the clutter, be transparent in its use of data, and respond to changing customer needs.

One way brands have been positioning themselves in the minds of customers is through the use of video. I started my career selling TV ads on regional ITV before Channel 4 — the UK’s biggest commercial channel — even launched, and have seen firsthand how this transitioned into brands telling entire stories in six or 60 seconds on YouTube. What has remained true over all that time is that nothing builds a brand like emotion, and nothing drives emotion like video.

Two people whose work has been at the forefront of proving that to be true are global industry leaders Peter Field and Les Binet. I’ve known them both for a long time, and while I don’t always agree with everything they say, we very much enjoy challenging each other. So I sat down with the pair to discuss the ways marketers can build a strong brand in 2021 and beyond.

Building a brand in an age of hyper-targeted messaging

Why is brand building so important to effectiveness?

Field: If you want to drive long-term success, you need a powerful brand behind you. About seven years ago Les and I discovered, after decades of stability, that the traditional mix between branding (60%) and sales activation (40%) was beginning to change. Effectiveness — or the extent to which a marketing strategy maximises spending with positive short and long-term results — was rooted in that balance.

Nothing builds a brand like emotion, and nothing drives emotion like video.

Those fundamentals haven’t changed. With the arrival of big data, many people say brands have no real value in the modern world. I fundamentally challenge that. You have to constantly recruit people to a brand. It’s not good enough to keep going back to the same customers. Brands often focus on the low hanging fruit through niche targeting, but they should really be reaching broadly for the fruit at the top of the tree.

But what happens once you’ve harvested all that fruit? Doesn’t saying that brand building is the top of the tree imply that it’s static while it’s actually the opposite?

Field: We live in a world that is all about quick and easy wins — the low-hanging fruit. But that’s not good enough if you want to build long-lasting brands. The world’s greatest brands were not founded on small thinking or niche targeting. They were built on big visions and ambitions. If you want to achieve that it is necessary to reach as broadly as possible, as often as possible.

What role does emotionally rich media like online video play in branding?

Binet: The process of building a brand is really about growing favourability. You’re preparing someone to buy your product at some point in the future, and it takes time. Whether you’re selling a chocolate bar or a car, the process leading up to consumers selecting one brand over another is the same. It has been brewing in their minds for maybe decades.

The world’s greatest brands weren't founded on small thinking or niche targeting.

Preparing customers for that purchase means to start engaging them when they’re not at all interested in what you have to say. This can only be achieved by sharing memorable content that is intrinsically interesting. And the most powerful selling tool we have is emotion. It’s not the message that makes advertising work, but the way it makes people feel.

Finally, is it true that recent changes in audience behaviour have increased the need for brands to broaden their media mix?

Field: Yes, but there is a double-edged sword here. One of the big trends we’ve seen over the past 10-15 years is hyper targeted advertising. Obviously, in terms of short-term activation, this is very useful. But when it comes to building your brand, you need a much bigger audience to achieve success.

Binet: There are some really interesting studies on this. One by Nielsen a number of years ago found that targeting only added about 10% to campaign effectiveness, whereas reach can add up to 90%. This shows that reach and scale are still the main drivers of effectiveness. The main difference is that now, we’re able to reach people with videos and drive home that emotional message not just in the living room, but wherever they are.

This is an extract from a roundtable discussion that took place during the Northern Europe YouTube event “Branding Talks”. You can watch the full conversation here.

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