The Shadow of Digital’s Tactic-Heavy Origins Still Looms Large

Dennis Ryan, Advertising, OlsonYesterday, I served as a judge for the Effies. It’s an interesting awards show, one favored by many clients for it’s focus on outcomes and rewarding the combination of smart strategy and effective work to build businesses.

While I am honor-bound not to discuss specifics about the work we reviewed, our afternoon category proved as contentious as it was fascinating: Brand Experience.

The Brand Experience label applies to an admittedly broad swath of work, none of which can have traditional media like TV, radio or print central to their efforts. Instead, “It is to showcase how you can create a brand experience beyond traditional advertising.” And so we judged viral films and digital events and social media programs.

After reviewing five or six finalists and then discussing our impressions of them, it became painfully clear that the much-desired metrics on this medium are far from established.

Is it Facebook likes? Does anyone even care about those, or any other engagement scores? Is it sales, and can you isolate one experience from the rest of a marketing plan and calculate its impact?

Listening to the various judges debate, I wondered if this emerging category even has a place in something as Key Performance Index-focused as the Effies. And I couldn’t help but notice that the tactic heavy bulk of so much digital marketing creates an intrinsic bias against anything less linear than simple cause and effect. From the debates I heard, any digital brand experience that’s not entirely outcome based becomes almost indefensible as a media investment. Which is strange since brands flourished on softer,opinion-enhancing TV brand advertising for decades.

Does this mean there’s no room for suggestion in digital marketing? No place online for simple inspiration? As mature as digital advertising has finally become to most advertisers, its sad to realize that many cannot see beyond the most cudgel-like focus on raw metrics. And lacking those, cannot see the value of true brand experiences simply for experience sake.

Of course logic has its place. Metrics provide valuable feedback in a world driven by ROI. And yet I can’t help thinking the biggest decisions we make as human beings—who to marry, where to live, whether or not to go to war—are driven by emotion, not reason.

No matter how trackable we like to believe the digital medium is, digital advertisers cannot afford to ignore that.


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Olson

Three Good Places To Begin Looking for Brand Stories

Today, brand story matters more than brand strategy.  In a world of product parity and saturation, where consumers consciously dis-integrate and opinion enjoys a powerful mass channel, the single greatest service an evolved agency can provide their clients is to identify and define brand stories.

Clearly identifying and defining brand stories: that seems like a simple, straightforward task, but it rarely is.  we inevitably assume too much.  We consider consumer benefits self evident.  We believe product meaning must be universal.  Far too often we share the mindset of former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous proclamation where he admitted how hard it is to define hard-core pornography, but “I know it when I see it.”

Justice Stewart later recanted his hazy view as “untenable.”  It’s the same with Brand Stories; fuzzy thinking won’t stand.  Defining a really great, truly simple and sharable brand story requires deep brand immersion, strategic thinking and cultural investigation.  Here are three places to start that search.

  1. People at the Client With Unique Brand Experience. For god’s sake, not marketing people.  Field salespeople, product developers, longtime employees—these kinds of people can provide remarkably diverse perspectives on a brand and that diversity of perspective is invaluable at the outset.  Our long-running “We’re Here to Help” campaign for Harris really originated from stories we picked up from branch managers, remarkable anecdotes where tellers or loan officers went far beyond the narrow 9-5 mentality to truly serve their customers, often in totally unexpected ways.  Within weeks of launching the campaign, the story of Harris’ commitment to unexpected help was everywhere, from billboards to lobbies to CEO Ellen Costello’s corporate stationery.
  2. The Stories Consumers Already Share On Line. This source is invaluable since Brand Stories exist whether we choose to foster and influence them or not.  People form powerful opinions based on their own experience, peer recommendation, and the powerful cues sent through product and package design; we need to understand these stories before we can optimize them in a way that serves our marketing communication needs.
  3. Historical Marketing Materials. It never ceases to amaze me how many agency and client types assume they can ignore past advertising and just start fresh with a clean slate.  That’s simply ridiculous wishful thinking.  It’s pure hubris to totally disregard the stories consumers already hold (see #2) and it rarely works (Tropicana Pure Premium’s short-lived package redesign anyone?).  You need to assess where you are before you can plot out how you will move to a more advantageous position.

Of course, there are dozens more places to begin the process of carving out effective Brand Stories: competitive analyses help find blue water for parity products, interviews with Brand Evangelists help outline the most meaningful benefits, simply using the product provides invaluable first hand experience for imaginative creatives.

Where do you start?

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79