Digital can build brands if you use it right

There is no doubt that the plethora of convenience metrics offered by digital media is focusing marketing attention on the here and now, often to the exception of longer-term outcomes. But there is actually no reason why digital media cannot be used for brand-building.

Brand-building requires reaching out to people likely to be interested in your brand, either because of its tangible merits or its emotional appeal. All too often brands take a blanket approach to this process but if you look at the most successful brands they have a clear idea of to whom they are trying to appeal, they do not try to appeal to everyone. Small brands often have the luxury of going after well-defined groups (as Subaru did in its early days) but as the brand’s penetration grows will need to reach out to broader and broader groups (Subaru now targets parents and dog owners).

A lot of people seem to assume that broadcast media like TV, radio, and outdoor are somehow better at brand-building than better-targeted, digital media but I do not think that assumption is warranted. The difference to my mind is in how the media tend to be used.

Digital offers the chance to target not just behaviours but attitudes and interests, so it is perfectly possible to develop a digital, brand-building campaign designed to reach out to specific groups likely to value a brand. For instance, Subaru would find it a lot easier and likely more cost effective to reach lesbians, teachers, healthcare professionals, IT professionals, and outdoors lovers today than it did back in the 90s. However, it would still need to develop creative executions likely to engage each specific audience.

The problem is that many brands ignore the brand-building opportunity in favour of using digital to target behaviours not attitudes. Rather than trying to build brand predisposition among people not shopping today, digital tends to get used to try to make the sale to people already shopping a category. By which time, the advertised brand not only needs to overcome existing brand preferences it needs to make its offer compelling enough to appeal to a more deliberative mindset.

One could argue that broadcast media have the advantage over digital because by definition they will reach beyond the bounds of a specific target group. In fact, there are substantial benefits to be widely-known for specific things. For instance, discussing your car needs with a friend might cause them to suggest a Subaru, not because they have any vested interest in the brand, but because they know you have a dog and associate the brand with dog owners. In associating itself with dogs, Subaru has created a social currency that has a far wider impact than the direct appeal of the ad to one individual. However, we have plenty of examples of digital-only campaigns becoming social currency, so again, I cannot help believe that it is how the medium is used that matters. But what do you think? Please share your thoughts.


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