The Branding Forward Project, a collaboration between Mechanica and Fast Company, is an ongoing investigation of the challenges and opportunities faced by those on today’s branding frontlines, and the tools and approaches being considered and leveraged. The study reveals a branding world that is undergoing a very real, and often polarizing, transition.
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Mechanica partnered with Fast Company in a research-based collaboration designed to gain insights from branding and marketing practitioners and influencers. This investigation was directed at better understanding the issues, tools and approaches being confronted and leveraged by those on today’s branding frontlines.
One of our objectives was to create a tool for identifying current branding best practices and creating benchmarking metrics. Many of the practitioners we spoke with were seeking to better understand how their issues and resultant solutions compared to what others in different industries were experiencing. As we conduct future surveys, we’ll be able to monitor the degree to which issues and solutions evolve in importance over time.
We partnered with Fast Company based on its forward-thinking readership, which includes a high proportion of those who have responsibility for, or influence over their company’s marketing and branding decision-making. We received 623 qualified responses from an initial email query to subscribers. The resulting sample represents 41% of respondents from the agency side, and 59% from the client side. Of the client side, 20% market directly to consumers, 30% market to other businesses, and 50% market to both end consumers and other businesses.
Prior to designing the survey questionnaire, we conducted in-depth, qualitative interviews with twenty marketing decision-makers and influencers from Fast Company’s database. We used the many opinions and issues that surfaced in these interviews to design a quantitative survey that would be reflective of both client and agency top-of-mind issues.
There is a remarkable diversity of approaches to branding that is clearly impacting how advertisers and agencies relate to new technologies and to each other as the marketing world evolves. One particular note of interest that arose during these interviews was the different way that clients and agencies described or classified themselves. When these classifications were later presented in the quantitative survey, we learned that on the client side 23% classify their companies as product driven, 52% customer driven, and 25% strategically driven. On the agency side, 27% saw their agencies as creatively driven, 37% strategically driven, 7% integration driven and 29% relationship driven. In future surveys we will probe more deeply into the underlying meaning and implication of each of these self-classified client and agency segments.
The practitioners we spoke with during our qualitative interviews expressed a very real sense of trying to grow their brands and businesses in times one respondent described as “the new frontier” of branding. This sense of being on a frontier, filled with new possibilities for brand development was clearly invigorating for many of our respondents, while resulting in cause for concern in others. It seemed that for every enthusiastic participant in this brave new world, there was someone equally concerned with the consequences of pursuing unproven approaches at the expense of the tried and true. However, what everyone did seem to agree upon was that the days of strong brands being characterized by consistency above all else were indeed numbered. In fact, the brands identified as today’s leadership brands, including Apple, Virgin, Google and Facebook, were seen as pursuing constant innovation, evolving rapidly as they work to stay ahead of fast-changing consumer needs. In many cases, they are actively creating, as well as fulfilling, needs their consumers aren’t even aware of yet.
As to whether or not we are at a watershed moment, the Branding Forward study reveals a highly polarized opinion. For example, while 58% of those surveyed feel that “we’re in a time of revolutionary change when it comes to how powerful brands are created,” nearly the same number expressed quite the opposite viewpoint, believing that “the fundamentals haven’t changed at all.” (See chart no. 1.) We observed a similar polarization within the branding community in other key areas of real strategic and tactical consequence, including the impact of social media and how to best control the flow of messaging.
The age-old question is still very much alive, with some wanting to manage the details of the process while others are very willing to “steer the ship” while consumer forces provide the momentum. What is clear is that the world of client and agency brand thinkers is scrambling to identify an evolved set of “best practices” for this still young branding century. Whether it’s the emphasis on new media (77%) over traditional; the need for brand thinking to be opened up to the entirety of the organization (72%); the shift from mass to more of a one-to-one focus (68%); or the move from integrated agencies to teams of best-in-class specialists (60%), the one constant is change. However, the big undecided question remains for now: Is it best to respond to this new frontier by applying the fundamentals or lean into fresh, new approaches? (See chart no. 2.)
This need to understand the fundamentals, while embracing the new, brings to mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation on navigating ambiguity and change, which is perhaps relevant to today’s winners in the branding world: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
Seeking to identify and prioritize the forces underlying these changes, we used the research to explore those factors most responsible for propelling this rapidly evolving marketing and branding world.
Social media (70%) and the rising demand for personalized experiences (48%) are viewed as the forces having the most significant impact on the world of branding and marketing. The growing need for provable ROI (44%), increasing competition (42%), and media fragmentation (41%) follow closely, potentially representing critical contributing factors. (See chart no. 3.)
If we look at the gap between the expected impact of a given force on the marketing world overall versus its current impact on a respondent’s specific organization to date, we’re able to construct a proxy for projecting the magnitude of ultimate effect on the marketing and branding world. Through this lens, it can be expected that the true influence of social media (21% difference between expected and current impact), media fragmentation (17% difference), diminishing advertising returns (13% difference) and splintering target audiences (13% difference) are only just beginning to be felt. (See chart no. 4.)
When it comes to emerging marketing concepts and tools seen as having the greatest impact, the “social media trinity” had the greatest familiarity to respondents. Those three being content-based marketing (85%), corporate social media policies (84%), and social media-based customer service (82%). These were followed in familiarity by tools and services related to the mobile world, including branded apps (83%) and location-based mobile services (82%). (See chart no. 5.)
Once we identified the forces responsible for this shifting landscape, we then set out to identify and prioritize the strategies, methodologies, tools and tactics being employed to not just respond, but to thrive in this brave new world.
Developing and maintaining ongoing customer relationships (46%); thinking and acting from a brand perspective beyond just the marketing department (32%); and linking marketing and social media programs to ROI (32%) rose to the top of the organizational priority list in this Branding Forward world. (See chart no. 6.)
When we asked respondents to rank which one factor was having the greatest impact on their long-term strategy, focusing on the entirety of the user experience (35%); using innovative media thinking (27%); thinking about branding more holistically (27%); and improving marketing accountability (24%) were most consistently stated. (See chart no. 7.)
Perhaps not surprisingly, focusing on the entirety of the user experience was significantly more likely to figure into long-term strategic thinking for customer-driven organizations (41%) and product-driven companies (32%), while innovative media thinking was most consistently top-rated for strategy-driven organizations (29%). (See chart no. 8.)
Themes having to do with opening up the process and better integrating branding thinking across the entirety of the organizations were generally viewed as the most challenging to execute effectively. Specifically, thinking and acting upon branding issues/opportunities more holistically and comprehensively (90%); thinking and acting from a brand perspective beyond just the marketing department (87%); and the growing need for cross-functional teams to understand and support cross-channel brand strategies (87%) were viewed as some of the most challenging initiatives to implement effectively. Additionally, addressing the increasing customer demand for more personalized products and experiences (88%) heightens the seemingly unrelenting pressure to be more customer centric.
Being strategically and creatively driven were ranked as the top two attributes when it comes to the ideal agency partner to help navigate the changing marketing and branding landscape. Being cost-effective (#3), idea-driven (#4), accountable (#5) and collaborative (#6) made up the second tier of priority attributes.
Branded apps (56%), location-based mobile services (60%) and social monitoring (57%) were those marketing concepts with the greatest number of respondents claiming either no interest in trying or stating that they have tried these concepts and do not feel like they were effective. On the other hand, SEM/SEO programs (72%), analytic dashboards (63%) and sales force automation platforms (57%) had the greatest number of respondents claiming to have tried them and realized proven effectiveness. (See chart no. 9.)
Despite much probing with regard to new approaches such as group buying and shopping, crowdsourcing and mobile commerce, the majority of marketers have yet to wade into these areas. There is also a feeling that a lot of education still needs to be done regarding concepts such as online retargeting, online ad exchanges, and pop-up retail. (See chart no. 10.)
Perhaps the best way to understand where people’s heads are at when it comes to future investments is to grant them a hypothetically larger budget and ask them where they’d spend that money. Online content development (#1), online marketing (#2) and social media (#3) topped the list of investment priorities should extra budget be freed up. This is likely a strong indicator of where we can expect to see incremental investments flowing in the foreseeable future as marketing and branding teams work to forge new solutions and fresh approaches.
As clients and agencies seek fresh paths and new approaches, there are a number of perennial debates that are clearly still ongoing within the Branding Forward world. These differences can be observed in terms of overarching methodologies and approaches, as well as the specific differences between client and agency viewpoints, on the best paths forward.
For example, the jury is still out as to whether or not consumer research holds the key to marketing success. While 48% believe that following the research is the only way to make tough marketing decisions, fully 52% feel that at the end of the day, research has serious limitations when it comes to making tough marketing decisions. (See chart no. 11.)
A similar split can be observed when it comes to whether or not the answer lies in opening up the decision-making process. 49% believe the impact of marketing decreases as the number of people involved in shaping it increases. Conversely, fully 51% believe that the only way to get to high-impact marketing is to open up the process and invite as many people to participate as feasible. (See chart no. 12.)
Follow the research, or not? Engage many internal constituencies, or not? Perhaps it is all simply a question of control. Well, the jury is equally divided on that one as well. 51% believe it is really important to understand how to control the message as much as possible. Yet fully 49% believe that companies must learn to surrender control. (See chart no. 13.) Clients are significantly more likely than agencies to believe in the importance of controlling the branding message as much as possible (51% vs. 43%). However, the nature of how that control is exercised is being re-evaluated, with clients more likely to emphasize that the days of strategic consistency are over, and it is all about inspiration and engagement (36% vs. 27%).
When it comes to ideal brand-development partners, perhaps not surprisingly, agency respondents are more likely to believe that the best partner today is an integrated agency (46% vs. 36%). Clients are more likely to favor a team of best-in-class specialists (64% vs. 54%). Additionally, clients are more likely to believe that consumer-generated marketing is inherently more relevant and effective than agency-generated creative ideas (59% vs. 40%). (See chart no. 14.)
Agencies are significantly more likely than clients to believe that the rise of social media (56% vs. 44%) and media fragmentation (32% vs. 18%) will have a high degree of impact on their specific organization. This certainly highlights the degree to which agencies are thrust into the middle of the splintering Branding Forward world.
Agencies are more likely than clients to believe that thinking about branding more holistically (33% vs. 23%) and staying on top of the latest marketing innovations (22% vs. 16%) are having the biggest impact on their long-term strategies, whereas clients are more likely to believe that improving internal collaboration (16% vs. 10%) is a key long-term strategy priority. (See chart no. 15.)
Agencies place a greater priority than clients on the need to think and act upon branding issues more holistically (31% vs. 26%) and creating truly integrated programs (26% vs. 18%), with regard to their being top organizational priorities. Given their more direct customer connection, clients are more likely to prioritize developing and maintaining ongoing customer relationships (50% vs. 41%). (See chart no. 16.)
Agencies in general are more likely to have a greater degree of familiarity with most of the emerging marketing concepts surveyed. This is especially true for location-based mobile services (55% vs. 41%), branded apps (51% vs. 38%), crowdsourcing (47% vs. 31%) and pop-up retail (39% vs. 25%). Perhaps this underscores the critical role agencies play in identifying and experimenting with new brand development approaches for their clients. (See chart no. 17.)
In addition, agencies are decidedly less skeptical than clients about the effectiveness of new marketing concepts and approaches. Agencies are more likely than clients to claim that they have tried and realized proven effectiveness for virtually all of the new concepts in the survey. The differences between agencies and clients were especially strong when it came to behavioral targeting (33% vs. 19%), SEM/SEO (61% vs. 48%) and content-based marketing (42% vs. 24%). Thus, it is not surprising that agencies are also significantly more likely to prioritize incremental budget dollars for online marketing content development (54% vs. 44%). (See chart no. 18.)
Thank you for your time and interest.