Brand Purpose Brand Strategy Business Leadership

Brand building v performance marketing: experts on a dumb dichotomy


By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

February 17, 2022 | 6 min read

Going by column inches, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the debate of brand v performance marketing is a pitched battle with entrenched advocates on each side. And fair enough: when budgets swing to one poll or the other, those affected will have opinions. But when we sat down with seven brand-building experts from The Drum Network for a roundtable on the topic, a consensus was very clear: like many binary distinctions, it’s useless.

A chess game

The battle between brand and performance – does it help anyone? / VD Photography via Unsplash

When we asked seven assembled brand builders at a recent roundtable whether, right now, the recipe for success means prioritizing brand building or performance, Jellyfish’s vice-president for brand planning Tania Barr set the tone for the discussion to come: “We’re bound to all say both.” And they did – sort of.

Against the brand-performance binary

What we’re talking about when we talk about brand v performance is the investment decision between building long-term reputational cache, awareness and recognition (that’s brand) and targeted pushes toward measurable outcomes such as sales and engagement (that’s performance).

As a baseline, our panel agreed that a strategy purely focused on either one would be a risk. “The challenge for every brand is getting that balance between the two; you can’t do one without the other. Brands that just focus on sales won’t get any longevity ... whereas if you just do the brand building you might miss out on short-term sales,” says Bethan Gibson, Space and Time’s business director.

But it’s not just about balancing – it’s also, says Journey Further’s chief strategy officer James Addlestone, about “avoiding the false dichotomy of thinking that brand doesn’t help sales.” Strong brands do, of course, drive sales – few would deny that – but it goes deeper: “We don’t think of brand in the right way. It’s not just campaigns. It’s everything. Including time of purchase.” Brands that are winning right now, he says, are often engaging in a kind of “brand-led performance marketing” – driving quantifiable growth against set metrics with smart, brand-centric campaigns.

These strategies are enabled by a proliferation of channels and technologies that give the lie to the brand-performance binary – shoppable media, for example, that enable a brand- or purpose-heavy campaign to convert directly into sales. “The journey from brand building to purchase has become much shorter,” Barr says.

With the falsity of the dichotomy in mind, this expansion of opportunities carries with it some risk. Barr says: “It’s not a divide audiences have ever perceived ... they feel it’s all from the same voice and therefore it can feel quite [disordered] when brands get that wrong.” The wrong messaging, tone or presentation in just one of the many channels a modern brand finds itself in will undermine the brand as a whole. So, as James Reeve, an executive director at Foolproof, says, “the thing is to watch out where you neglect the original intention of the brand itself.”

Following through

If brands’ commitments and purposes are increasingly visible across more channels, while consumers are becoming more conscious of those commitments and more likely to be influenced by them, then communicating who you are and why you exist (and doing it consistently) becomes essential.

Creative Race’s strategy director Victoria Aspinall says: “Your purpose has to be so authentic that it shines through everything you do with customers.” The hope of being able to articulate a purpose that’s good for humanity and the planet is by now so universal that it was the focus of Blackrock president Larry Fink’s 2022 letter to chief execs.

The holy grail, says Admind’s chief exec Krzysztof Langer, is an authentic story about how you’re “changing the world for the better.” Authenticity is the core requirement there – without it, grandstanding about purpose is “a risky game to play.” On this, our panel agrees: as Gibson says, “talking the talk without walking the walk” is just about the most dangerous play out there at the moment.

“You’ve got to be all in,” says Reeve. Hollow declarations of purpose are “toothless, totally meaningless and really easy for me as a customer to find.” For the inauthentic, the bandwagons of sustainability and social purpose are jumped on at your peril. We cannot simply read off from top brands’ sustainability-driven success that hammering on about sustainability is a good strategy for those without sustainability baked in to their business. “It’s a bit like saying, ‘Roger Federer’s got a single-handed backhand, so everyone should have a single-handed backhand,’” says Addlestone.

“Purpose is something that’s built inside-out, not outside-in,” says Liz Baines, head of planning at The Agency (part of eyecare brand Specsavers). As the panel’s sole representative of a brand, she has an interesting perspective: that brand does have a clear purpose – to provide best-quality eyecare to everybody. “But that doesn’t mean that our advertising needs to talk about that.” What it does mean is that business decisions need to be made on that basis – but, bringing us to a synthesis of brand, purpose and performance, “the role for advertising isn’t to say how great and purpose-driven you are if that isn’t what’s going to drive growth.”

Brand Purpose Brand Strategy Business Leadership

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