If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, is such a cliché that it has spawned its own cliché: If it ain’t broke, break it. Unfortunately, that’s just what many companies do unwittingly to their branding programs, playing into the hands of public enemy No. 1 in today’s marketing environment: fragmentation. More and more television networks, radio stations, print titles, and outdoor billboards are competing for attention, and new marketing channels pop up every day, from apps to publicity stunts and beyond. The number of places we hit people with marketing messages these days is growing a lot faster than the number of eyeballs that can take them in, and as a result audiences (and attention spans) are becoming increasingly fragmented. That reduces the chance any message has of getting through.
Even sales channels are fragmenting beyond the online vs. bricks-and-mortar divide to which we’ve become somewhat accustomed. Desktop and laptop purchases are giving way to shopping via smartphone—at a time when many companies don’t even have a mobile website, to say nothing of e-commerce capabilities. Add inflation to the mix (even with 2-3 percent increases, the wonder of compounding is working against you), and fragmentation can shred what once was a healthy marketing budget. The good news is that there is a powerful way to overcome fragmentation: integration. But don’t be deceived—it’s more difficult than it appears. Integration is not simply slapping a common tagline onto all your ads, using a single-color palette, or force-fitting a message that’s suited for one medium into another (great television commercials rarely translate well to outdoor billboards, which in turn are very different from online banners).
Integration means communicating a consistent identity from message to message, and medium to medium, and (more importantly) delivering consistently on that identity. It requires not only the identification of a powerful, unifying strategy and compelling voice for your brand, but the discipline to roll it into every aspect of your organization—from advertising to sales, customer service to customer relationship management programs (and beyond). It’s not for the faint of heart.
Sometimes my advertising firm does an exercise with our clients in which we ask them to recall the tag-lines of the world’s 10 biggest advertisers. Some respondents get a handful correct, but most everyone fails the assignment (underscoring the point that slogans aren’t the answer). But one company’s tagline participants often do recall: McDonald’s (MCD). It’s not because of the money the fast-feeder spends—the other nine top advertisers spend as much or more. It’s because McDonald’s has maintained a singular focus since 2003—so long ago that the famous pop music heartthrob named Justin who helped launch the campaign wasn’t Bieber, but Timberlake (remember him?).
To fight off fragmentation effectively, everything you do to attract, convert, retain, and engage your customers should be integrated. If your brand isn’t woven beyond your marketing efforts into your human resource practices, your training programs, even your compensation and employee evaluation metrics, you’re leaving opportunity on the table. You’re also risking backlash, as spurned or burned customers use Facebook and Twitter to make their complaints heard. It’s vital to deliver consistent signals in everything you do.
That raises a question: If fragmentation is so damaging, and integration such a powerful counterforce, why don’t companies implement an integration strategy more often? It’s not for lack of understanding, desire, or even intent in the minds of most marketers. It’s for lack of perseverance. Put simply, integration takes time. It’s not easy to integrate a brand into a wide suite of processes, materials, and messages that have been shepherded by different people, driven by different objectives, and brought to life in different places within the organization. Many companies simply don’t have the patience to see it through. Beyond that, integrated branding takes time to soak into the marketplace. Consumers just don’t pay attention as much or as quickly as they used to. My firm’s research of hundreds of growth companies found that the average advertising campaign lasts approximately 2.3 years and that companies that maintain healthy growth over time tend to have longer-lasting campaigns, while those that struggle tend to change direction more frequently.
That’s exactly what’s happening in the cola wars. Coke (KO) has remained focused and consistent for years and is winning market share, while Pepsi recently fell to an embarrassing No. 3 (behind Coke and Diet Coke). As a result, PepsiCo (PEP) recently announced a significant increase in marketing spending and has spent the better part of a year in research and deep introspection. Advertising Age reports that over the past nine months a core team of Pepsi marketers “scoured the globe for inspiration, looked to the past for insights, and sought to understand what precisely made Pepsi different from Coke. There were exhaustive focus groups, in-home ethnographies, quantitative and qualitative studies, and cultural immersions in markets as diverse as Argentina, Australia, United Arab Emirates and Russia.” The brain trust at Pepsi appears to be taking the correct steps to right their brand’s ship, but as it does, it shouldn’t neglect the need for and power of long-term integration. Neither should you (and all the more if your budget is a bit less than what McDonald’s or Pepsi spends). Find a time to gather as many different expressions of what your company says and does in one place, then make an honest evaluation. If it doesn’t all connect for you in some meaningful fashion, it won’t for your customers and prospects, either. If your strategy is weak or off the mark, you may need to do what Pepsi is doing and reexamine everything. But it may be that your problem is more a matter of execution. If so, your enemy is entropy: Everything in the universe (including your brand) tends towards disarray, and in that case your role is to be gravity. No one else is going to hold it all together.
Not so long ago, it was enough to have great strategy and a big idea. Today, even the best ideas have a hard time getting off the ground as consumers’ media and purchasing options—not to mention their attention spans—grow increasingly fragmented. While perfect integration is unachievable, companies that do the best job of harmonizing all their marketing efforts have an advantage.
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Copyright ©John Trenary 2020