Brand vs performance… in PR & comms

Written by Nick Woods

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This one is for clients.

We’re at that awkward stage in the year, with January soon to end, when “winter is coming” could still be true… cold winds, snow and heavy rain are not unheard of through February.

Conversely, the emerging daffs in my garden suggest that spring might be just around the corner.

As analogies for the economy go, it’s as good as any given the way indicators and forecasters seem to be wavering between “long slow recession and recovery” vs “inflation has peaked, house prices have turned and, we’ll be ok.”

The story I’m hearing from a lot of client leaders is pretty pragmatic – “it’s not our fizziest time ever, but it’s been a lot worse, we survived/did ok, and I’m confident we’re going to come out the other side of this too. So, while I know what my exposure is and how to manage it, I also want to plan positively.” It’s a delicate balancing act.

CFOs and FDs are, often, a little more cautious than their CEO counterparts and we’ve definitely seen a couple of clients recently shift their balance of spend more into performance comms, at the expense of brand, almost to the point of total exclusion.

They obviously know their business, but the marketer in me can’t help but wish more would read Les Binet and Peter Field’s The Long and Short of It, an examination of how best to balance short and long-term marketing strategies.

This is THE book on the subject.

There are two basic views on what to do when recession hits: option one, cut your cloth, scale back, switch down/off all brand comms and focus on hitting short-term sales targets; option 2 is what we might call The Ayrton Senna Theory – “you can’t overtake fifteen cars when the sun is shining, but you can when it’s raining”… you seek to outspend your competitors in order to gain market share.

And yet, Binet & Field argue, the data they have analysed and the case studies they have curated show the need to maintain both and that there are huge dangers in judging success over the short-term and assuming that it will apply to the long-term.

In Summary they say:

  1. the way in which long-term effects are generated is fundamentally different from how most short-term effects are produced. Although long-term affects always produce some short-term effects, the opposite isn’t true – long term effects are not simply an accumulation of long-terms effects.
  2. a succession of short-term response-focused campaigns (e.g. promotions), won’t succeed as strongly over the long-term as a single brand-building campaign.
  3. the ideal campaign will include both brand and performance elements i.e. be a brand response campaign.
  4. IPA data suggests the optimum balance of brand vs performance is around 60:40, with variations by category.
  5. Emotionally-led campaigns produce considerably more powerful long-term business effects than rational persuasion campaigns.
  6. Rational campaigns however, can be better in terms of immediate performance (and are therefore pretty seductive if you’re focused on short-term sales).
  7. Retailers will often try to force brands into price promotions – but these really only help the retailer; there may be a short-term boost to sales, but there is long term brand damage and far better, from the brand perspective, to run competitions, gifts and instant wins as they enhance brand-lust without price discounting.

While the majority of this analysis is based on consumer-focused advertising, it’s clear that PR and comms needs to be considered as part of the brand v performance mix too.  The key is understanding how to use PR’s various tools.

A new story, for instance, is unlikely to deliver much performance in a traditional sense… media aren’t going to add a call-to-action, phone number or website address except in some weird and unusual circumstances.  But a news story can create a huge amount of awareness, buzz and fame.

Influencers and experiential can be used for either brand or performance… it’s all in the briefing. For instance, your chosen influencers can ‘just’ give a positive piece of brand endorsement, and/or they can be given their own specific codes so their followers are incentivised to action.

Social media communities are usually considered part of long-term, brand-building activity… but can equally be used for performance marketing, particularly when you have a big, heavily engaged gang… in some ways existing fans are the most likely people to respond to a call to action.

Partnerships, whether with celebrities, other brands or media titles, can equally be ‘swingers’, and again the brief is key.

Lastly, brand competitions, gifts and instant wins can be used to give retailer partners some show of action, and deliver a short-term boost to sales AND be integrated into part of a longer-term brand-building campaign.

So, in summary, please argue with anyone in your business that thinks recessionary times equals performance-only, or performance-heavily-dominated activity. Buy The Long and Short of It to form your own specific argument for your brand in your sector. Remember to keep brand-building alive and quote Ayrton Senna to anyone who will listen.

And do it all to make sure that whatever the short-term weather, you’ll be in a better position when the storm passes.

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