Direct Marketing and Branding

Direct communication can be effective brand communication. In today’s environment where enlightened brand managers seek integration across all consumer touch points, the role of direct as a tool to build brand equity is accepted, albeit at times condescendingly, by even the most dyed-in-the-wool general advertising professionals. But try this one: For many brands, direct communication can be the most effective brand communication.

Emerging theory in branding recognizes the participation of the customer in developing brand meaning. It ignores the fact that the customer is the co-author of the brand message. This is not a radical idea; it is simply how communication works. All messages, whether they are 30- second spots, this essay, or the email you sent this morning, are devoid of meaning until they are received, processed cognitively by the receiver and imbued with meaning by him or her. However, the marketing communications industry often ignores this patently obvious fact. In direct marketing, we have no such luxury as the recipient is immanently present in our communication, reacting, responding, engaging in dialogue, and completing the brand story we have begun.

In linguistic studies, they use the terms proscriptivist grammar and descriptivist grammar. Proscriptivist grammar is the kind beloved of your fifth grade teacher. You must never split infinitives, dangle participles, or begin sentences with conjunctions. It’s just against the rules. But in descriptivist grammar, usage defines correctness. Language is a vital, evolving, dynamic human enterprise. As long as meaning is conveyed and received, then communication has been effective. Who needs rules?

Brands are often developed proscriptivistly. You identify an uncluttered position within a perceptual map, stake your claim with a concise brand definition and defend the perceptual real estate with an aggressive communication plan, i.e., words, iconography, and images that enforce the rules, as though brands are perceived by consumers only one way. Time was, much of consumer research undertaken to support brand development amounted to little more than leading the witness: you get the result you seek, which is an endorsement of your underlying hypotheses. Sadly, many brand planners extend a proscriptivist bias. They claim to stand in the role of an archetypal consumer – as though such a thing could possibly exist – trying to channel this fictional entity’s reception of the message. Again, the answer begs the question and validates the methodology, which is: set clear definitions, maintain consistency, and the message will be accurately received (follow the rules). While this approach can lead to effective results, it misunderstands the process. We believe a better understanding of the process can lead to more effective brand communication and undoubtedly more effective use of direct as brand communication.

As we have noted above, the answer begins with an understanding that the consumer is co-author of brand meaning. We are not now, however, advocating an entirely descriptivist or receiver response approach whereby all brand definition is lost because the brand message is diffused amid the millions of interpretations in consumers’ minds, a particular risk in an era of 24/7 communication between brands and consumers. We are advocating rather an understanding that brand communication starts a story that the consumer finishes. Because we know it works this way, direct communication can naturally be highly effective brand communication, engaging the customer to finish the story.

A couple of illustrations will clarify our point. Effective brands are the “once upon time” or “it was a dark and storming night” opening lines that elicit the response for the consumer to take up the story. Or think of it another way: An effective brand positioning is the common file name to documents stored on the individual hard drives of consumer brains. The files are accessed via a “consistent file naming convention,” but the stories contained in the documents found are individual variations on a theme. Or finally and perhaps most appropriately, brand communication is jazz — structured improvisation. The theme or base riff is laid down to begin the performance, which is then taken up by soloists who expand, vary and individualize it.

Below is a diagram that illustrates this point via the example of one of Direct Partners’ most successful client relationships, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar.



We are not, however, describing being all things to all people. Rather we are describing a process where we resonate with the highest number of the right people. This task is inherently one in which direct marketing ought to play a lead role.

With direct marketing, we practice brand colonization. We endeavor to find the right message that will resonate effectively and profitably with the greatest number of people. We believe in engaging a market planning discipline that builds brands bottom up in order to deploy them top down.

Again, a couple of examples will help illustrate what we mean by brand colonization. The state of Minnesota is known for its high percentage of residents of Norwegian descent. In the 19th century, Norwegians left Norway, a cold place with long, nearly unbearable winter nights, to settle in Minnesota, another cold place with long, nearly unbearable winter nights. Their problem wasn’t Norway; their problem was there wasn’t enough Norway to go around. In Minnesota, they found plenty of precisely the kind of land they were seeking. They were a perfect match to the Minnesota brand. It was a supply issue, not a targeting or branding issue. The audience and brand were already inextricably made for each other.

Here is another way to illustrate the point: On one level, the story of Goldilocks is the story of misdemeanor trespassing and vandalism. Read on another level, it is a girl’s search for the right line of cuisine and home furnishings. She found satisfaction in the “Little Bear Brand.” Matching products to the most likely consumers and then developing a communications architecture which conveys to them that the relationship will be “just right” is what direct marketers have always done; consequently, this is why direct communications can be the most effective brand communications.

Direct marketers practice brand alchemy. We use science to achieve magic. By analyzing markets, testing messaging, building probability models, we use facts to build messaging that is perceived individually and emotionally. We find the right messaging cues that will resonate profitably with the greatest number of the right consumers.

We do not believe, however, that the medium is the message. Rather, the message must evolve in appropriate ways to be effective in the medium. When conveying a brand message in a one-to-one space, it is inappropriate to merely translate the general advertising. The appropriate question to ask in developing brand accretive direct marketing is “what should the brand sound like when it is speaking one-to-one?” Like water, steam and ice, the molecular structure must always remain consistent, but the form should alter in ways that are appropriate to the communication environment. When done correctly the results defy conventional wisdom.

It has been the unstated fact in this argument that brand development is rarely the purview of direct marketing agencies, and is the information about customer reception that only direct marketing can provide is almost never used as a factor in brand development. I believe this is nonsensical. Direct marketing communication can be in many instances the most effective brand communication, and the unique information output it has always provided ought to be given serious consideration in understanding brand meaning. We provide meaningful insight into how consumers complete your story.

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