How to Build Brands in Digital Age

Book Excerpt: As Marketers Deal With Fragmentation, the Idea Should Drive the Media, Not the Other Way Around

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Allen Adamson
Allen Adamson
We are absolutely awash in news and information. Between the election and the economy, the weather and the price of fuel, it feels, to paraphrase a line from the movie "Body Heat," like it comes down so heavy you need to wear a hat. This wash of messages is due, in good part, to the increase in channels of communication, mostly in digital communication. The internet and all manner of things digital have made it almost impossible to escape what's going on in the world, for better or for worse. This has created a host of challenges and opportunities for CMOs and everyone else responsible for the care and feeding of brands. With all the new terms and jargon and the changing dynamics, questions abound. How do you cut through the clutter? How do you get someone's attention without being perceived as disruptive? How do you get consumers engaged and wanting more? How do you take advantage of digital tools and tactics to learn more about consumers and deliver better, more-relevant brand experiences?

I wanted to find out more about this topic, but instead of just reading about it, I interviewed more than 100 of the best and brightest people in marketing and technology and wrote a book about it called "BrandDigital." The following excerpt is about the way marketers built brands in the pre-digital world compared with the way smart companies are building brands today.

Every December around the holidays, I set up my old Lionel trains for my kids. Each year I add a few more cars and accessories, making a collection more elaborate than the year before. Suffice it to say, it now takes hours to assemble. For those of you who don't know about Lionel trains, they are as captivating for the adults in the family as they are for the kids. The last time I set them up, I decided to spend some time testing (OK, playing with) the trains to make sure they'd work when my kids came into the playroom the next morning. As I watched the Union Pacific locomotive pull the freight cars along the track, it occurred to me that the engine pulling the other cars round and round was sort of akin to marketing in the pre-digital world of brand building.

In those days, which seem eons ago, it was traditional advertising, mostly in the form of 30- or 60-second TV spots, that was the locomotive responsible for getting all the other cars to their destination.
Allen Adamson is managing director of the New York office of Landor Associates, a brand-consulting and design firm. He is the author of "BrandSimple" and "BrandDigital."
It was a culture of the masses, and this was the way mass media worked. Like cars on a Lionel train, other branding elements -- direct marketing, events and promotions, hangtags in the store -- were sort of anchor-bolted on. Those of us who grew up on branding and advertising during those days came to accept this linear form of branding as gospel. We got most of our notions and information about brands from TV commercials.

Well, in the digital world, there is no train. The marketing paradigm has shifted from linear to very nonlinear, and digital technology has done the shifting. While traditional advertising still plays an important part in the branding equation, it no longer drives everything else. That's because modern consumers aren't sitting en masse in front of their TV sets being told why one brand of cereal is better than another.

For starters, there is no "en masse" anymore. Consumer segments are more fragmented than at any other time in marketing history.
TV is neither the most obvious game nor the surefire answer. Companies are re-evaluating how they spend their branding dollars. It is harder than at any other moment in the history of branding to break through the marketplace clutter, to get people to pay attention and to focus on any one thing for very long.

As a result of this new paradigm, brand organizations are uncoupling the anchor bolts between departments, agencies and all other entities involved in their branding. Instead of looking at branding as a linear exercise, they're putting the brand idea smack in the middle. They are not thinking about how the media should drive the branding but how the brand idea should drive the media and every other form of brand expression.

Michael Mendenhall, CMO of Hewlett-Packard, was one of the folks I spoke to about this new paradigm. He explained how his organization looks at brand building. "Many companies continue to look at marketing in conventional ways -- from a mass-market point of view. Branding today is not about the media; it's about the idea. You need to dismiss the conventional way of thinking and start with an understanding of the value of each communication channel and how -- or whether -- it will engage people. The idea should be the organizing principle, and it should inform everything you do to help consumers grasp your brand promise in whatever channel you're reaching them: the television, the blogs, the banner ads or the word of mouth."
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