The seven things marketers need to know in order to answer The Question

Right-minded marketers understand the need for long-term brand building investment, but most still question how they can convince those above them. Here’s how you do it.

Six senior marketers have offered their key insights into influencing companies to invest in brand building

There is a question. A single question, which marketers are asking more than any other at the moment. Let’s even refer to it, for the rest of this article, as The Question. I get asked it all the time. Whether I am talking to a marketing director in Prague or a room full of high-potential brand managers in Sydney, The Question literally comes up every time. And it’s always essentially the same:

“I understand the importance of long-term brand building. I get the need to invest heavily in it. I get all of that. But how do I get X to buy into it and support me actually doing it?”

The Question

The only thing about The Question that varies is the X. Depending on the marketer asking, it can stand for CEO or CFO, and even CMO. Sometimes they refer to their “organisation” or just “my company”. More generally, the X refers to the ignorant army of managers who focus on short-term impact and immediate ROI, and see no other logic or deficit in their thinking.

I don’t want to be too pejorative about these people marketers need to get on the bus. As you will see later, one of the keys to answering The Question is exactly that point. If you want to get someone on the bus you must ascertain their current location and the reason why they have decided to stand there. These people are not anti-marketing, nor are they being negative or irrational. They just don’t understand what we, this small tribe of enlightened and educated marketers, already know to be true.

And let’s be clear about that empty bus we are driving, before we try to get others onto it. What is it, exactly, we believe that we want others also to believe?

Well, we know that growth and financial success come from a combination of both long-term brand building and shorter-term sales conversion. We also know that these two alternatives each require approximately half the marketing budget, for that success to eventuate. We also know that the two don’t just require separate investments, they demand different objectives, tactics and timelines. And we know that, if you look for returns from your marketing on a 12 month or shorter time scale, you will inevitably undervalue long-term brand building and move too much of your marketing investment into shorter-term tactical fare.

This will result in superior ROI initially and, over the next 18 months, a better commercial outcome. But, if you had a sliding doors moment and compared the performance of a company that spends most of its money on shorter-term marketing tactics with one that split its investments equally between longer- and shorter-term stuff, you would see two very different stories emerge over the next five years.

Three axioms and three questions that summarise all of brand strategy

The short company would peak at 18 months and then flatline. The long/short version would eventually grow more and, by the five-year mark, all other things being equal, generate significantly more profits in total.

I want to write that last bit again because it’s the key point and will come up later. If you split your marketing across upper-funnel, emotional, brand-focused, long-term marketing and shorter-term, rational, product activation, you will make more money. Not in year one. But across years one to five. Despite what the ‘growth marketers’ and ROI junkies might tell you on TikTok, the reason we build brand with half our budget is because it makes us more money.

But you knew that already. And so does everyone who asks The Question. They don’t need any more evidence or case studies. They need help convincing X that long term brand building is the right thing to do and should, therefore, receive half the total marketing budget.

It’s important to note at this point that I, personally, have never been able to answer The Question at any of the sessions in which it has been asked of me. In fact, my reaction is woefully consistent, forged as it is by the repeated inability to actually come up with any useful advice. I do everything except provide it.

First, I feel the questioner’s pain. Then I reaffirm the correctness of their thinking and the quality of their question. But I ultimately umm and ahh and deflect the rhetorical bullet with indirect waffle. While I happily take credit for sharing the credo of Uncle Les and Uncle Pete, and making as many marketers aware of their empirical assessments as I possibly can, I have very rarely found myself in the position to defend their ideas to non-marketers. This is the stuff of rare internal meetings. The ones that consultants are rarely admitted into. We just hear about them later.

So, around the 20th time someone asked me The Question, I started to think that maybe I should probably work out the answer. And the minute I made that commitment it became apparent that I was not in a place to do that personally. There was only one location where it would be found.

How has the pandemic changed brands’ view of ROI?

I made a short list of CMOs from big brands. It’s actually a very short list of only six names because I was very fussy about who I included. They had to be a senior marketer in charge of budget allocation. They also had to be someone that knew their shit – a bigger issue than you might think. In my experience the title of CMO or head of marketing does not necessarily connote marketing expertise; as often as not it means a skilled political shapeshifter or someone that built a career on keeping their head down and their PowerPoint up to date. I also picked marketers who originally landed at companies underspending on brand and longer-term marketing, and who had personally changed the game by successfully making the case for brand investment, before investing the subsequent rewards successfully to building brand equity and making more money.

In essence, to answer The Question, I went looking for the people who had already answered it. It took me ages to work that out.

I will keep this shortlist of six secret, if you don’t mind. The six do not even know the names of the other five. Anonymity ensures a level of honesty that I would not have enjoyed had their names and photos appeared here. Rest assured, all of them are the most senior marketer in their company and most either sit on or report directly to the executive. Their companies come from different sectors but all of them operate brands that you would be fantastically familiar with. And, if I totalled up the combined revenues of the brands that these six marketers manage, we would get to many billions.

And, to my delight, each of my experts said essentially the same thing. They each used different examples and different ways to explain their success. But when I collated them together, it was apparent just how similar their advice is. And that is what I present to you below. A proven playbook for getting your company and your leaders to be more long-term, more brand-focused and – ultimately – more successful.

Aren’t you glad my columns don’t have a paywall?

1. You need the remit in place

A lot of the work to have influence has to be done long before you need to exert it. That means before you start fixing things you must first draw attention to the lack of long-term brand building and its fiscal implications for the company that you work for. It also means that you are also perceived to be the kind of manager with the track record to be able to fix this problem once you have established it.

While it is possible to achieve these ends from an existing position, it really helps if you are brought in as the new senior marketer from outside. This newness allows you to immediately point out the sub-optimal state of marketing investment at the company as part of your initial ‘first 100 day’ assessment. Your recent recruitment also means you have already been vetted and respected by the senior team, who should trust you to know what you are doing.

That “tailwind of trust”, as one of the six described it, is essential once the actual switch to more brand investment begins. The leadership needs to remember they agreed this was a priority and that you were the right man/woman to get the job done.

This might all sound pretty obvious, but reverse the logic for a second. If you aren’t the new gun hired to fix things, your chances of moving the levers towards longer-term brand building are far lower. Your company has not seen the need to bring in new talent, does not see any issue with the current approach to marketing, and does not expect you to make the case for change. It thinks of marketing as the ‘colouring-in department’ and you as the person in charge of the crayons. A change to brand building is unlikely.

As hard as it might be to accept – many marketers might find it easier to introduce a more advanced, long-term approach to marketing at a new company, rather than the one they currently reside at. And if you do make the move and gain the remit, remember your first challenge will be to…

2. Manage up, properly

Our six senior marketers are all clear that you do not have to be a member of the executive team to enact change, but you do need to know your way around a boardroom to get it done. Moving to a longer-term approach requires senior sign-off and too many marketers simply do not have experience at that altitude.

The first lesson from the six is that most senior executive members have an almost total ignorance of marketing and branding matters, but a recurring fear of being shown up in front of the people they lead. This all might make sense to you, but their background in accounting or engineering leaves them completely adrift in all matters of brand. Lead them gently, authoritatively through the marketing jungle.

How marketers can win over the C-suite

The first rule of dealing with C-suite people is that they hate, HATE, surprises. Keep them abreast of everything and seek their counsel and coaching at all times. And remember all board members are not created equal. There is inevitably a triumvirate of executive leaders that effectively run the show – identifying these people and working with them to gain their trust, as you show them the value of brand building, is imperative.

And remember too, when you are looking for that motivating value, that it will be very different from the arguments that initially won you over to brand building in the first place. That is crucial because…

3. The ‘why’ really matters

We get so carried away in our little unimportant marketing bubble that we forget that senior executives give not one fuck about either the long or the short of it, or any of the other hot-button concepts that our industry obsesses over. While it is imperative that the marketing team become familiar with the core concepts of long-term brand building, two-speed targeting and funnel ratios, nothing could be further from the truth for the people above them.

Look around the boardroom. Identify the powerful players and work hard to identify what they want. Then drop a long line of breadcrumbs from brand building to these unspoken desires. Again, remember that very senior people almost never accept the opinion of a marketer at face value. But if you can toss those crumbs in the right direction you might enable senior managers to form their own opinions on the matter that align with your intention.

If you stand up in a meeting hoping to persuade board members to embrace brand building, you have already failed. These people aren’t won over with PowerPoint and a couple of dodgy quotes from Les Binet. Before you stand up, long before this meeting is even convened, you win the day by having the three people you need to get across the line already across it.

How marketers can improve their impact and influence

They will get there because you assiduously help them to get there, by working out what is in it for them. “Isn’t it ironic,” one of my six drily observed, “that marketers are supposed to know what makes people tick, but so many fail to understand their senior colleagues enough to get them onside.” So true.

The arguments that convinced you to believe in long-term brand building are not the ones that will work on your superiors. Learn to market your marketing. And if there is one recurring precept that should underpin all your arguments, it is that everything you propose should ultimately link to sales, profit and growth. The good news is that there is a treasure trove of data showing that brands deliver exactly that.

The great irony of the ROI-obsessed, short-term approach to marketing is that it leaves enormous amounts of potential money on the table. Make that point, and make it aggressively. But make sure you have the fiscal and numerical capability to do so and the support of the Big Daddies and Big Mommas on the board already in place. If there was a time to be evidence-based, this is it. That is why…

4. You need all kinds of case studies

Every member of my six referred to the use of other corporate exemplars to move the needle towards longer-term thinking. These cases can be broadly divided into four types. First, pick big impressive brands – in your sector or outside it – that best illustrate the power of brand building and longer-term marketing. Amazon and its Damascene conversion to TV and brand building was a favourite among the group, not only because of the company’s size and success but because it was so short-term in its approach until that moment.

Second, the reverse also works. Showcasing companies that have moved to shorter, promotional marketing and paid the price is also a winning approach. Using advertising-to-sales ratios or excess share of voice data to demonstrate the danger of cutting ad spend and, eventually, losing share can make a powerful comparative point. Our six also made it clear that the success or failure of the executive team in charge of the companies discussed in these case studies, and the repercussion that they subsequently experienced, was also something to dwell upon.

Our six also all seem to have realised something that most marketers have missed. The work of Les Binet and Peter Field is a bonanza of case studies and practical, applied examples. Yes, their most famous contribution to the field is a theoretical macro chart with no actual numbers or dates. But scratch a bit deeper and their work is filled with real case studies and real data. Use the John Lewis story. Apply the AA case study. Look at the accumulated data from hundreds of examples in your specific industry. It’s all available and incredibly useful to make the case for brand building.

Finally, once the bus starts to move, use successful case studies from your own organisation to demonstrate that it is being done, it is working and it is the future. As one of the six puts it: “Creating and internally publicising content that showcases the breadth of brand building initiatives that our markets are executing is essential to get the rest of the organisation to join the journey.” These internal case studies are a first step in ensuring you…

5. Brand your branding like a brand

The move to long-term brand building is not so different from any other campaign. You need the promotional material, the imagery and the naming to make the transformation to longer-term marketing stick with the troops.

No company will buy into generic thinking from external thinkers or war stories from other companies. Marketers bristle if a newcomer tries to introduce thinking from their former employer, partly because it infers another company is superior in its approach and partly because it insults the quality of the incumbent marketers.

You need a vision that lays out a perfectly plausible explanation for why your current company was so short-term, and then provides an obvious and easy pathway to a more balanced approach. Once the senior team has bought it, the rest of the organisation can be won over with a program that spells out a new approach.

A simple acronym. A handful of transformation goals. A new approach to brand planning. Our six used different mechanisms to explain, promote and then execute the change to longer-term brand building. But each deemed this factor essential in getting traction.

And remember that the whole endeavour must remain as simple as possible. This is complex stuff if you let it become complex. Shit senior marketers do very little thinking about their new approach to marketing, and produce a super-complex 60-page Frankenstein’s Monster, featuring a bit of Byron Sharp, Scott Galloway, Jenni Romaniuk, and Les and Pete. Impractical, unexecutable brand planning ensues and failure follows.

Good senior marketers spend a long time, and do a lot of advanced thinking, to produce a new approach that is so simple it can be summarised in one slide and widely seen around the organisation as ‘obvious’. That’s not an insult. You worked extra hard to make it look simple.

Remember that even the best brand building approach might take up to four years to properly bear fruit – one year to develop, another to execute, and yet another two for the impact of brand to drive shorter-term benefits and dollars to new highs. You need the process to be simple and obvious to keep the team on track until the rewards eventuate. And if you really want to see those rewards you will probably need to…

6. Allocate two pots before you pour

Clearly, there is a grey area where long-term branding also causes short-term sales. Similarly, shorter-term activations can build brand. The Venn diagram of long and short marketing is not as discrete as the theory suggests. But – as Peter Field points out – while tactics can do both long and short at the same time, these “double duty” approaches are invariably ineffective.

Sure, you can ask sales objectives of your brand campaign or hope that a price promotion improves awareness. But you’d be better off dividing up the budgets, a priori, so that each can do their work optimally on their terms, bringing them together only in the final fiscal reckoning each year, as brand optimises activation and as activation funds brand.

Ultimately, to build long-term brands you need to redirect significant funds away from shorter-term tactics and towards a very different direction. Our Six were keen to point out that the long-term branding path is impossible to follow without influence and, ideally, control over the marketing budget. That means centralising much of the marketing spend and, in many cases, overtly dividing it up to create two very separate pots of money. Not doing so runs the risk of the shorter-term ROI argument taking all the money once again.

Farfetch on its ‘two-speed strategy’ to win over luxury fashion shoppers

And our six were also keen to stress that you may not be able to get all of your 60% deemed essential for brand building, and that this limitation is not a deal killer. The reality of budgeting for longer-term brand building is that you need to ensure a fixed amount of the budget is ring-fenced for several years, to allow it to have its impact and make its return. Ideally, the number might be 60% of the budget, but if you cannot get and hold that proportion for two or three years, you are better off with a consistent, carved off 30% to work with.

This kind of pre-ordained split is essential because it also prevents any of the turf wars over budget that can paralyse marketing teams. And to further avoid this unhelpful division remember that…

7. Metrics matter

A company that only uses shorter-term metrics and basic ROI on all its marketing investments is always going to favour activation over brand building. It is essential to have the right metrics in place before, during and then after each planning period, not only to assess what has worked but also to ensure that assessment is done in a manner consistent with both long and short approaches.

All of our six were passionate about the need not just to have marketing metrics but to use the right ones for the jobs at hand. Brand valuation was used by some. Dr Karen Nelson-Field and her measurement systems for mental availability were used by others. Several of the six used early econometric modelling to demonstrate just how much was being lost from the shortism at their companies and suggest the appropriate level to fix the issue. Others noted the value of a good media agency partner to provide external advice and independent assessment of the situation. Almost all of the six had advanced consumer dashboards that measured the purchase funnel at regular intervals, and could attribute whether long-term brand building was succeeding towards the top of that funnel and shorter performance marketing was doing the business down below.

In all of these cases the six were using data in a different way from most marketers. Yes, the research was helping to diagnose the situation and direct strategy. But it was also being used politically, especially in the initial phase of the transformation to longer-term brand building, to convince others of the problems and potential of a more balanced approach. Again, the fundamental challenge of long-term brand building is that it takes time. You need the metrics to show the nature of the problem, then to set the benchmarks for change, then to chart the progress of the organisation before the money eventually starts to come in.

And there you have it, straight from six thoroughbred champion horses’ mouths. The seven simple steps that answer the question on everyone’s lips. Not ‘why should I build brand over the long term?’, but how. Well? Get on with it.