Walking The Never-ending Tightrope

Synapse columnist and seasoned international marketing leader, Richard Palk digs into how Brand Marketing and Performance Marketing have never been more inextricably linked.

Many of us clearly still find ourselves regularly sucked into “Performance vs Brand” investment debates. I was fascinated to observe at the January 2024 Little Grey Cells gathering in Islington how prescient ‘The Long vs The Short’ remains.

The economically-challenging last two years have certainly re-kindled interest in the “Performance vs Brand” topic at Board/C-Suite level, during which period many companies are have upweighted focus on maximising short-term Return on Investment.

In my own experience these debates have been nigh-on continuous since the start of COVID. After March 2020, a considerable number of critical offline Brand Marketing channels and touchpoints globally simply froze shut as a result of countrywide lockdowns. Reliance on digital commerce thereby greatly increased, and related discussions on ‘Performance Marketing driving sales’ thereby became more commonplace even outside of Marketing teams.

For example, in autumn 2020 I observed Chief Financial Officers, on two separate occasions, deeply discussing CPM (Cost Per Mille), CPC (Cost Per Click) and CRO (Conversion Rate Optimisation) – as part of their company-wide efforts to pivot when planning Q3 revenues. To see how widely across the business such discussions were propagating was eye-opening.

It may be that the seeming ubiquity of these discussions stems from the fact that technology-driven Performance Marketing is a relative newcomer in the Marketing Mix – when compared to the doyen that is multichannel Brand Marketing – so its role and nature is less established.

It is my opinion (and that of many other marketers) that the two distinct styles of marketing are perpetually interlinked. Below are some thoughts from the “Brand vs Performance” frontline. 

What is the difference between Performance and Brand Marketing?

Let’s begin with some definitions. Since the early 2000s “Performance Marketing” has generally referred to digital-only activities, in which short-term and direct measurability of results is a given and it is generally a prerequisite to pay associated suppliers and channels. 

Such measurability benefits ROI quantification, especially at tactical, campaign-specific levels – this in turn providing fuel to keep the “Brand vs Performance” debate alive.

Of course, the measured results of Performance Marketing – whether relating to defined or always-on campaigns – don’t always tell the story of their real commercial value. This is especially apparent in the trade-off between banking short-term conversions from customers already demonstrating intent to purchase, and acquiring “colder” (but potentially more lucrative) leads earlier in the customer purchase journey. Despite the major advances of Multitouch Attribution and Marketing Mix Modelling, this trade-off remains – especially outside “pure eCom” businesses.

“Brand Marketing” is where a brand owner creates positive emotional experiences for customers that extend far beyond the products or services that the brand sells, thereby increasing brand loyalty and repeat purchase, and enhancing CLV (Customer Lifetime Value). In contrast to its performance cousin, “Brand Marketing” is less channel-specific, less short-term, and harder to value quantitatively.

Therein lies an ongoing challenge for Brand Marketers: what is the credible, measurable predictive link, or retrospective connection to financial performance, of Brand Marketing…or even of a brand itself?

This article isn’t one in which I will dive into the latter topic. There are a wide range of authoritative sources, from ISO 10668:2010, via agencies such as Interbrand and Kantar BrandZ, to Harvard Business School, that provide viable Brand Valuation frameworks.

However while Google and Meta “Performance” channels, platforms and tools remain dominant in providing reach to and attention from Western consumers towards the brands, products and services we market, simple delineation between Brand and Performance Marketing offers less and less value. This is especially apparent post-lockdowns and post-global-inflation shocks.

So how do they overlap?

For at least as long as Google’s “Zero Moment of Truth” 2011 theory has existed, the reality is that regardless of final purchase/sales decision settings – online, offline, local, remote, individual, consensual – all “Marketing Funnel” stages in the majority of Customer Journeys are now informed by channels we consider to be “Performance Marketing” ones. Even the 125-year-old Funnel paradigm has itself come under attack as a result (while remaining standard fare for many or most experienced marketers).

This overlap of “Top of funnel” Brand discovery, or “End of funnel” loyalty investments, with the Performance Marketing domain, isn’t limited to paid Social, Search or Display touchpoints. Customers’ first interactions with Brands, or at least their first emotionally-meaningful interactions, can be significantly driven for example by careful SEO, by third party ratings and reviews, or by LiveChat.

Rather than categorizing channels, activities or investments into “Brand” or “Performance”, “Upper Funnel” or “Lower Funnel”, we would be far better off doing what marketers always should: look at our brands through the customers eyes. Then, we can overlay the relevant digital insights with our understanding of who that customer is, what their needs are, and where they are in their journey with our brand at that moment.

We can use the contemporary discipline of Performance Marketing (e.g. cross-touchpoint tracking; timely reporting and reviewing; optimisation and adaptation; data science logic) to inform the unchanged requirements of successful Brand Marketing in those channels and for those customers. By combining thus, we can present our necessary clear and unique identities, establish emotional connections, and work to build long-term Brand Equity that co-exists with short-term revenue targets.

Performance marketing only happens online – right?

A common misconception, that helps to sustain the perceived dichotomy of Brand Marketing vs Performance Marketing, is that the latter is somehow “exclusively digital”.

We don’t buy Programmatic inventory, or bid for SERP (Search Engine Results Page) visibility offline – even if increasingly smart DOOH (Digital Out of Home) solutions may be blurring this ad buying divide. However, these typical Performance Marketing channel investments can mask certain key, well-established, real-world customer interactions with brands.

I first encountered the acronym ROBO (Research Online, Buy Offline) back in 2016 while at Sony. It was coined by BazaarVoice, my main CRR (Customer Ratings and Reviews) supplier at the time.

BazaarVoice’s premise was that even high-ticket B2C purchases that remained predominantly offline transactions (such as €5k TVs) – were ever-more influenced by customer’s online research ahead of their purchase. Shoppers consuming online CRR posted by other customers was that supplier’s focus research type.

Wind forward 8 years, and that already-convincing premise is writ even larger. Browsing in-store shoppers on Oxford St (currently being-overhauled London), on Fifth Avenue (NYC), Pavilion (Kuala Lumpur), or Takeshita Street (Tokyo) are constantly cross-checking the brands, products and prices they see in-store online – in real time.

Many such checks occur at the first emotionally-meaningful interaction with the brand – pure Top of Funnel. Their onward purchase journey, and thereafter, repeat purchases, will be influenced by what we could call “Brand Performance Marketing”. Examples are geolocated website optimisation, or in-app display banners, deployed in subsequent offline brand touchpoint interactions.

Moreover in B2B, and in certain B2C sectors such as Luxury, when purchases often have long consideration cycles and still often end offline, effective Performance Marketing should directly influence the path to purchase of identified Leads. These can be first-time buyers of the brand, or potential repeat buyers, whose loyalty the brand seeks to nurture regardless whether their next interaction be online or offline.

After all, building server-side Lookalike audiences for ongoing online targeting isn’t as valuable as being the convincing final “Moment of Truth” before an in-store purchase! 

The bottom line: Performance Marketing is often considered “exclusively digital” not because it reflects true consumer behaviour…but because joining the ROBO data dots is even more complicated than online multichannel tracking, analysis and attribution. However, taking the time to build logical and measurable online-offline journey insights is where we marketers can shine.

4 Key takeouts:

In summary:

1.     Brand Marketing and Performance Marketing are deeply linked disciplines.

2.     Driving short-term online conversions, and building healthy long- Brand Equity, both need attention and investment in the same channels…and frequently at the same time.

3.     Performance Marketing isn’t “exclusively digital” – especially in high-consideration B2C scenarios, and in B2B spheres.

4.     Performance Marketing discipline and tools can assist the continuing challenge of quantifying Brand Marketing value – especially when selling in to the Board.

Richard Palk has 15 years of senior international Marketing experience, and 10 years of eCommerce leadership, in multiple Consumer sectors. He uses this professional background, and an MBA from London Business School, to bring Digital-First insights and analysis to a range of contemporary Marketing topics.