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Brand Strategy Customer Journey B2C Marketing

Brands need mid-funnel magic to thrive during economic downturn

By Dan Bowers, Chief strategy officer, TMW Unlimited

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March 1, 2023 | 8 min read

In times of recession brands are often urged to spend bigger, but by focusing on the middle of the marketing funnel they can really drive brand performance, says Unlimited's Dan Bowers.

Lit up tunnel in Copenhagen

The middle of the funnel is the key battleground for driving decisions / Jakob Soby

What can brands do to survive and thrive in times of recession? We’ve all heard the same advice: ’spend through it'; 'spend bigger', time and time again. Despite this, it’s tempting for CFOs to reduce marketing budgets as a way to cut costs in tough times, but there are mountains of evidence to support spending on brand. In fact, recessions can be the most cost-effective time to investment for long-term returns.

But this isn’t one of those articles.

Not because I think any of that advice is wrong; it isn’t. But it has become a lazy answer. We need to say more during difficult periods than 'keep spending' or 'spend bigger', because it’s not a particularly practical or helpful suggestion, no matter how much empirical evidence there is.

With consumer confidence low and inflation is biting, there’s less money to go around. When you add that businesses should be at least aiming to maintain their employee’s wages in real terms, expecting marketers to have the budgets to invest their way out is optimistic at best.

So, the question becomes where can we find gains, despite budget pains? It’s quite simple: if spending big is not an option, marketers need to be smart in how they spend. They need a way to drive brand performance with even more accountability and cost-effectiveness. I believe brands can do this by starting in the middle, right at the heart of the funnel.

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Starting in the middle

We’re long past the time when a brand was built purely by a 30-second TV spot. You no longer need to be bigger to be better. Huge inroads can be made if you’re able to properly tackle the 'messy middle', and deal with the complexity of the increasingly fragmented, multi-touchpoint journey leading to consumers’ final purchase decisions.

Here, you can spend smarter, not just bigger, to make a difference during times of trouble. Brands should prioritize the middle as the key battleground. It’s where a combination of decision drivers and barriers are at play, each one presenting an opportunity for brands to move up (or down) the pecking order. It’s where brand consideration can be earned and lost. Success depends on how deft your brand can be.

It’s not easy. There is a big chasm between awareness and purchase, and it requires real prowess to traverse this gap. Everything a brand does in the middle counts. Every interruption and interaction, every exposure and engagement, however fleeting, needs to create an emotional and persuasive connection that leads to a positive brand outcome. To do this well, brands need what I call (drumroll, please) mid-funnel magic.

Seamless end-to-end connectivity

Mid-funnel magic is a special kind of creativity that seamlessly interacts with end-to-end connectivity. It requires a perfect combination of top-down brand thinking and bottom-up comms thinking. It’s a style of thinking that isn’t afraid to deal with the many complications of the murky middle, whether that’s understanding human decision-making, digesting reams of data, or dealing with myriad channels, formats and tech platforms.

Many brands continue to rely on a top-down creative approach, by creating a beautiful advert, and trying to shoehorn it everywhere else. Some swing too far the other way, relying heavily on performance activity for short-term gain. In both instances, true integration is little more than an afterthought.

Brands are best served by creativity built from the middle out. This removes the binary choice between brand building and sales performance, by utilizing ideas that can stretch up the funnel as effortlessly as they work down the funnel. Using this approach, marketers aren’t forced to choose either/or, and they can drive brand performance when they need it most.

I am not questioning the power of creativity here, and this certainly isn’t a love letter to pure performance marketing. As people are exposed to more and more advertising messages, unexpected creativity has always been at the heart of effectiveness. It’s been widely reported that creativity delivers the largest profit multiplier, but not far behind is optimizing other campaign elements.

Mid-funnel magic still starts with great ideas. Not just for ads, but ideas that connect across the whole funnel and can be adapted in any native digital or social space, big or small. There are so many ways to flex your optimization muscles in the middle, so get stuck in.

Mid-funnel magic

Magicians don’t usually reveal their secrets, but with recession looming, every incremental brand gain matters. Here are three tricks that will spark some mid-funnel magic for your brand:

First, create ideas, not ads. Integration should not be an afterthought; you need creativity that can work every everywhere.

Second, embrace complexity. Top-down thinking alone won’t cut it, so start at the bottom, collaborate with specialists, and obsess over touchpoint detail.

Third, prioritize human understanding. The human brain is amazing. You need a scientific understanding to know how to influence decisions and inspire behaviors.

Finally, let me deal with the elephant in the article. Yes, I consciously used the word ‘funnel’, which some see as a deeply old-fashioned and antiquated marketing term. I know I should have used something cooler like ‘customer journey’ or ‘brand experience’, but all fashion is cyclical and none of these terms sound anywhere near as good as 'mid-funnel magic'. Forgive me.

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