Harry Lang: You can’t ditch brand for performance marketing – even in digital

It’s difficult to create true differentiation today, but even in online-only industries you still need brand marketing to make performance marketing effective.

Panini football stickers – a great product, no doubt about it. No skill required, inherently social and with a low barrier to entry. They were the ultimate in cheap, disposable and sharable media. A fantastic brand.

The yo-yo was also a winner. Everyone at school had one, and they could all master at least a few tricks. It was an egalitarian toy – almost Communist in its universal equitability. Duncan’s yo-yos were the brand of choice for any discernable ‘dog walker’. They were crucial.

Then skateboards came along – more expensive, harder to master and you had to spend every school breaktime for at least a term learning how to ollie. But whether you could pull off a backside heel flip or not, you had to be wearing the right shoes to try it – and those shoes were Vans.

Even as early as the 1970s, with the Sk8 Hi and Old Skool models, Vans were cool. But why were they cool? Their aura was part rugged product and part California skate mystique. The pros wore them, according to everyone in the break after double maths. Tony Hawk rode in no other, apparently – and if they were good enough for Tony, well…

Vans were the archetypal trending brand, ultimately transcending a universe way beyond skating. Their perceived quality and desirability was more about the myth and legend that surrounded them than the rubber, leather and cotton that built them. This urban folklore added significant desirability value in the minds of a million knee-high skaters worldwide who pestered their parents and caused a sales spike only replicable by the spending power of sports shoe giants Nike and Adidas.

Brand awareness, perception and advocacy make customer acquisition campaigns work more effectively.

A brand such as this – and its disciples Etnies, Airwalk and Vision Streetwear – owed a great deal of its sales success to the word-of-mouth narrative that surrounded it. The brand stories were the viral media of their day, thus replacing media spend with direct revenue.

Nowadays everything is a brand. Your fridge, sunglasses, car, pork pie, G&T. If the vapid, vacuous Bisto-hued cast of Love Island speak about themselves as ‘brands’ in the third person then something’s gone seriously wrong, right?

As marketers our world is not only built with brands, it’s defined by them. This means enhanced perception and differentiation is extremely difficult, especially in sectors such as automotive, grocery, beauty, technology and beverages.

But in performance-driven industries such as the one I work in, online gaming, is it any different?

Awareness makes performance more effective

Whether you fancy a flutter or not, you might perceive gambling as a more value-driven pastime – choose your sport, select your market, find the best odds, decide on your stake comfort zone and click ‘bet now’. Marketing success is all about shortening the ‘awareness to spend’ path – so the key metrics are low cost acquisition, clinical conversion, optimised retention and enhanced reactivation, leading to incrementally growing customer lifetime values. The same model can be overlaid onto most online businesses from flight booking to music streaming.

READ MORE: Digital ad budgets see biggest rise in almost 10 years

To some CFOs in gaming, costly brand marketing campaigns might look like vanity spending – even wastage.

However if you look at the big success stories in online gaming – Pokerstars, Mr. Green, Foxy Bingo, Unibet to name but a few – they all share one common thread. They invest in brand marketing as much as direct marketing every single year. The big chief, Bet365, is rumoured to spend north of a £400m per year on marketing worldwide, brand advertising and sponsorship being a significant proportion of that.

In simple terms, enhanced brand awareness, perception and advocacy make their ‘nuts and bolts’ pay-per-click, display, affiliate and other customer acquisition campaigns work more effectively, deliver customers for less money and ultimately increase their return on investment.

Out of the gambling success stories there are very few exceptions to this rule. The brand I work for, Pinnacle, is one of them. We differentiate on value and availability – taking less margin, meaning we offer better odds and we don’t restrict successful punters (you’d be amazed how common account blocking is). We are, however, unique in this positioning.

The gaming industry has always been a front runner in performance marketing – second only to adult entertainment, supposedly. There’s a whole heap of money to be made and with that opportunity to constantly tap into a well of riches comes innovation.

There is no ‘brand’ versus ‘direct’ debate. Brand marketing itself can deliver customers, and direct campaigns can help build brands.

For any brands competing in a performance-driven environment, it seems you have two choices: differentiate on product and price to such an extent that you stand alone, or find a balance between brand investment and direct response to generate interest, fill your customer funnel and convert the highest percentage possible.

From there, squeezing value from every customer is crucial, which is where gaming has once again been a front runner with the adoption and total integration of data science, big data and analytics (here’s a handy guide of what each area stands for). The gaming industry, and more recently marketing as a whole across every sector, now lives and breathes through data-led decision making and daily use of tools like R.

Data is now unequivocally cool. It’s the glue that bonds brand development and performance enhancement at a granular level across every marketing channel. Put simply, the more astute you become with data, the more effective your marketing becomes.

There’s no either-or

In short, no profitable entity can choose sides. There is no ‘brand’ versus ‘direct’ debate. Brand marketing itself can deliver customers, and direct campaigns can help build brands – ultimately it’s all part of the same team working towards shared objectives. No matter what sector you work in, a balance is required and the work is never done. Constant manipulation and optimisation are key.

The hallowed Vans brand has just past its 50th anniversary and its longevity and success are etched in skate park folklore. This is no fluke – it has moved with the times and balanced brand credibility with localised direct marketing, relevant digital noise and product delivery.

Vans’ social and digital footprint now reaches way beyond the playground hype of yesteryear, meaning it will likely be selling footwear to excitable grommets at 100 years old.

Harry Lang (@FactDeJour) is marketing director at online sportsbook Pinnacle.com (@PinnacleSports).

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