Branding may have more to gain from online testing than any other branch of marketing. Sure, some will claim that testing’s sweet spot is in offer or copy optimization. But branding will literally be set free by testing.
How? First, a quick story:
At the GEL Conference earlier this year, Ji Lee, a former Madison Avenue copywriter, captured one of the greatest irritations in online branding:
“(in) my experience working at an ad agency, I learned a lot about how clients think, and how mass communication works, and I was frustrated with the often politically correct and conservative aspects of these companies.
“Everything was a prob
lem–solution setup. The brief comes from a big company like General Mills, or one of the big airlines – millions of dollars is budgeted to produce these ads. Every time I came up with an interesting idea, a great idea, I saw the potential of how to make communication interesting and engaging to the public - but these ideas always had to go through layers of client approval.
“I remember one assignment for Cheerios, which was about communicating all the different flavors. Consumers are used to the yellow box, but there are several other flavors. So my partner and I came up with this line - ‘only the holes taste the same.’ The client loved it, everybody in the meeting was laughing - and then all of a sudden, a discussion started about the difference between ‘flavor’ and ‘taste.’ So all the excitement shared in the beginning disappeared, and we were locked into an absurd discussion, forgetting the big picture.”
This type of experience – spending meeting after meeting focused on a discussion of details, instead of seeing if the idea worked – is a common one.
Imagining such “testing by conference table” approaches makes me think about the old Miller Lite slogan – “Tastes Great, Less Filling.” I had always supposed it was a moment of creative genius. Now I wonder if it was just a clever compromise between competing marketing teams.
So, how can online testing set branding free?
First, let’s acknowledge that there is a real distinction online between a “sales–y,” direct approach and the quest for long–term brand value: online is more measurable, more trackable, and more similar (so far) to print and direct than to broadcast. But that doesn’t mean that online branding is an oxymoron.
Rather, the online medium can be a forum for floating interesting ideas that would otherwise be drowned in the process of brand management.
Here are a few tips that might open your eyes to the potential:
1. Effective and fun is the real goal
2. Brand synchronization can benefit online creative and promotions
3. Context synchronization may blow branding wide open
Effective and Fun
The biggest concern that most branding folks have is that testing is too focused on direct response approaches. They fear that the emphasis on closing the deal in a session kills the long–term brand investment.
Let’s say, for example, that a marketing team wants to evaluate a new promotional strategy. Running a targeted campaign online to evaluate the impact on direct response is valuable. But wo
n’t it lead to the most sales-y treatment possible?
It doesn’t have to. To quote Leo Burnett, “Fun without sell gets nowhere, but sell without fun is obnoxious.” In other words, branding and selling are not mutually exclusive – you can have both in a single campaign, and you can test both.
You can choose to manage the risk of brand deterioration in direct response tests by adding in attitudinal metrics. When you look at things such as customer satisfaction and brand values scoring, it can give insight into the longer–term impacts of “winning” elements within a campaign.
More importantly, testing allows a “crazy” idea see the light of day. And the freedom to experiment is a creative catalyst.
A much bigger risk with the standard approach to branding is that it is glacially slow, while online demands speed and responsiveness. In fact, as Jonathan Mendez illustrated at SES San Jose, very few companies are consistent in their messaging across display ads, email, landing pages, etc., because of the speed at which online works.
When you adopt a continuous testing approach, however, you can be more rigorous without sacrificing responsiveness. When you can make changes and measure effects across multiple customer response points, you can actually effect a synchronization of your brand that may be impossible today.
How? First, focus on making certain that key elements of the onsite experience synchronize with your display ad – regardless of which ad network. Through this exercise, we have discovered that inconsistencies among different areas become embarrassingly evident.
In Jonathan Mendez’s SES presentation, he offered a host of examples – cases where PPC ads and site experiences were clearly unsynchronized leading to poor reinforcement and brand confusion.
Finally, we need to recognize that the way we place ads online is fundamentally different than traditional methods of media planning based on reach and frequency. The old broadcast approach frankly has resulted in numbing ad consistency across channels.
When you approach branding as a creative process that results in the production of assets for distribution by media buyer/planners, you end up creating a product that is divorced from the context in which it is promoted. This may be okay for a thirty–second spot, but it is disastrous online.
Recent research shows that the audience’s perception of your brand depends upon the media in which it is viewed. Consider whether the attributes of the vehicle change the attributes of the brand, and whether you should change your brand message slightly in order for it to more closely match the vehicle.
Don’t mistake me – I am not referring simply to more targeted placement of creative. I am arguing for more targeted creative itself.
Branding is obviously a critical factor in supporting pricing as well as establishing long–term affinity between consumers and the brands they connect with. But testing can be an amazing way to reach out to those consumers.
In the end, branding is becoming less and less about shouting your message over and over and more ab out “joining the conversation” with consumers. There is simply no better way today to listen in on the conversation and learn the language than testing online.
Thus, testing with real customers actually increases the level of creative freedom. Nothing has to be shot down, because it can be tested, easily and without risk. (Worried about damaging your brand reputation? Test only on a small, select group of visitors and carefully watch their reactions.)
The difference between testing by conference table and testing with actual customers is big: when you put forward your best two or three ideas to test with actual customers, those customers are not deciding anything arbitrarily. They are not guessing which idea they think someone else will like best. They are simply responding to the creative they have been served, based on whether that creative is useful to him or her at the time.
That can give a brand marketer an enormous amount of freedom, because even the strange, silly or weird ideas can see the light of day. Then, only consumers get to decide whether the ideas are strange, silly or weird.