Make branding, direct-response work together

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Direct marketing often treads a fine line in balancing promotion of brand, on the one hand, with direct-response urgency on the other. The focus at the top of the marketing funnel, primarily ones of awareness and stimulation, must balance with the conversion and advocacy activities closer to the sale.

That message was driven home last week at the expo and conference of the National Center for Database Marketing, held in Miami.

"It's all about finding the best blend of brand and direct response," said Li Saul, VP-strategic and creative development at The Agency Inside Harte-Hanks. "The big question is, is the top of the funnel playing nicely with the lower funnel?"

Saul, a presenter at an NCDM session titled "The Role of Brand & Brand Value in Direct Response Marketing," advised that, "The best of both worlds would combine 'branded direct,' with features, benefits and appropriate calls to action."

Saul presented a series of examples of print ads, some being totally brand-oriented and featuring dominant visuals and company-oriented text, and others that were completely direct, with an abundance of calls to action to spur quick sales.

While branding is important in direct mail campaigns, Saul said these missives need no more than a logo to do the trick.

"Overwhelming visuals typical of branded campaigns can steal the thunder from relevant messages," she said. Along with a simple logo, the balance of effective direct-response ingredients should include relevant copy, bold colors, bulleted or numbered points, and multiple calls to action, she said.

Co-presenter Jeff Biesman, senior VP-direct response with Bank of America, presented a case study on how the company tested direct-mail campaigns within its home-loan division. In 2009, the company used brand-focused mailings, with such copy as, "We're committed to providing you with new opportunities."

"There were no emotional motivators, no calls to action and a limited sense of urgency," Biesman said. "This was hurting response rates."

Working with The Agency Inside Harte-Hanks, Biesman set up test mailings this year that compared the brand-focused approach with a new set of mailings with boxed calls to action, copy tactics to "pop" customer benefits, and a "buy-now" approach.

"The new direct-mail piece saw a dramatic lift in response and profitability," Biesman said. "We also saw positive changes in customer recall."

Biesman said this new approach to direct-response will be rolled out for e-mail in 2011.

Biesman acknowledged that companies often shy away from such aggressive direct-response campaigns, thinking they will negatively impact the brand. But he said of his experiment, "Voice-of-the-customer research showed no difference between the two versions when it came to recommendations and satisfaction with the brand."

Both recommended that companies expand their brand guidelines to include best practices in direct-response advertising, because the two can be very different.

"Can you have too many calls to action in a direct-response campaign?" Saul asked. "There's no such thing as too many. I just did a direct-mail piece with seven calls to action. And sometimes marketers say they 'don't want to scream' in their direct-response campaigns," Saul said.

"Don't want to scream? I say, 'Have at it!' " she said.

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