What the Digital Medium Needs, To Be a True Brand-building Medium

I remember digital media being the shiny new thing on the horizon, the year Apple launched the iPhone and the smartphone era was born. That was 2007, and there have been plenty of disruption and changes since then. Much water has flowed under the digital bridge and nowhere more so, than in the advertising landscape.

I have been writing now and then about the evolution of the digital medium, from the point of view of someone raised on traditional media and forms of advertising and brand communications, and new to the digital space. There are a few features about it that are supposed to be really great and revolutionary, and advertisers were the first to jump on to the digital bandwagon. Advertising agency folks were a little late to realise the potential of this medium and it didn’t help that tech companies and social media platforms seem to have kept us out of the early discussions taking place between them and advertisers directly. Soon, tech-savvy digital agencies were starting up everywhere to capitalize on the shift to digital, and later many of these were acquired by large agency networks.

I have written on my blog and on LinkedIn before about why I think that digital communication is too downstream and too transactional. In this piece I would like to expand on that and also why it is not a medium suited to brand-building. At least not in its current form. I shall make my arguments by tackling the issue from two directions. First, I shall look at what the unique features of digital are supposed to be, and why they fall short of delivering on brand-building. Next, I shall discuss what brand building requires, and why digital in its current form fails to deliver the goods. Towards the end of the piece, I also make a few suggestions that could help the digital medium become better at helping build brands, and not merely act as a sales funnel.

The most revolutionary features often touted by digital tech companies are

  • Useful data on consumers
  • Better targeting of consumers
  • Sales-oriented
  • Convenient and on all devices

Let’s take each feature and see what it delivers as far as brand-building is concerned. Useful data on consumers is perhaps what tech companies think they have. Unfortunately, it is based only on consumers’ browsing activity and online purchases. Can the data tell us about consumers and their lives, their relationship with a product category, their attitudes, beliefs and usage regarding the same product, their offline purchase patterns and preferences? I think not, which is why the kind of data that digital relies on, is different from the data that proper consumer research can throw light on. More important, the data itself is downstream.

Print media segments readers by demographics and psychographics; Image: Hatice Yardim on Unsplash

As far as better targeting of consumers is concerned, the question to ask is what about context? The company might know what products and brands I have bought, but when it tries to reach me again with an advert, it is often in the wrong environment and context. Besides, the use of cookies which is what helps the targeting, by following and trailing consumers all over the internet is a complete intrusion of a consumer’s privacy and ought to go.

That the digital medium is sales oriented was never in doubt. But when I want to build a brand, how do I get consumers to even consider the brand before making them a sale. In other words, where is the possibility for persuasion?

Convenience and the ability to reach consumers at any time and on all devices is all very well. But is it really such a big benefit to advertisers when consumers start finding it a nuisance and install ad-blocking software? Again, context and environment are important.

Let us now look at it from the point of view of people entrusted with building brands. Advertisers might have gotten carried away by the sales-clinching capabilities of digital, or its ability to reach millennials and GenZ, folks who are always connected. But when it comes to its brand-building potential, what are really its advantages, to an advertising professional?

Let us look at what brand building requires from a medium and see how digital matches up to each.

The first requirement is reach. Any brand campaign’s message needs to reach as many millions of the right target consumer group as possible. There is no way of measuring that with any certainty except through what are called “impressions”, from what I understand of the digital medium. Besides, the peculiarity of the digital medium is such that it relates to consumers on a one-to-one basis. Whereas the widespread reach that a brand achieves in traditional media, where millions would have seen the same message at around the same time is lost in cyberspace.

Television offers the widest reach, fastest awareness and image-building; Image: Jonas Leupe on Unsplash

Next, brands need to reach the right consumer group. Traditionally, we have always reached the right consumer through the media they consume. That includes publications as well as TV and radio channels. There are years of research that have gone into studying readership as well as viewership of channels to tell us fairly accurately which consumers are best reached through what publications and channel. In digital, it seems like a shot in the dark. There isn’t that much past history or research to tell us more about our audience. The connection between consumer segment and type of media is much harder to make for the digital medium. Besides, from what I understand of the way programmatic advertising works, it is based on ad inventory and an auction system. Making targeting consumers through media a lot more like a game of chance.

Brands are built in the right media environment and context. Reaching the consumer through the right publications and channels is one part of the communication exercise. The other equally important part is the context. For example, I had recently written in a post that I saw an M&S advert in The Economist digital edition while reading it. And I thought, how odd! Although I have been an M&S customer, the context in which the company tried to reach me and the media environment were quite wrong. The Economist being the kind of publication that it is, doesn’t attract fashion advertising, and for a very good reason.

Ability to engage and persuade is one of the most important requirements for brand communication. And this is where digital medium seems to fall short most. The formats and space it allows, given the smaller screen sizes, make engagement and persuasion work at a much lower level than traditional media. Brand building requires a format that is capable of visually engaging an audience to convey the right imagery and positioning of a brand, like video or television adverts. And it needs space to communicate in words to inform and persuade, the way print media does. To my mind, digital media falls between two stools. In fact, the way digital media has evolved it has mostly been fait accompli for advertising and brand communication professionals like me. As I had written long ago on LinkedIn, digital is still only a plumbing network for traditional media formats like video and print, and doesn’t have a format of its own. It still needs to develop a language of its own, with its own idiom and grammar.

Digital’s promise is to reach people indvidually; Image: Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

Finally, brand building requires the ability to build a relationship one-to-one with consumers, as that is what brands are all about. This is one area where digital has promise and should be able to enhance communication between brands and consumers, given the personalized nature of the medium. In fact, I have always believed that the digital medium can go on to become the direct marketing medium of the future. But not before it addresses certain issues:

  • The right consumer – publication – context match
  • Mechanism for seeking consumer permission to share adverts and email updates from the brand. Not “manage or accept cookies” as these need to go.
  • Make the format for advertising more interactive and engaging, without being intrusive
  • Simplify or do away with two-stage process currently required where consumers click on advert to then reach company website to read more or make a purchase
  • Find ways to allow proper brand campaigns to work over a fortnight or a month, in ways that consumers make the connection and the brand drives home its message.

The cookies issue is the most contentious as it is a surreptitious tool harvesting consumer data by tracking and trailing consumers, often without their knowledge. The option of managing cookies doesn’t necessarily make it right. Unfortunately, it is advertisers in the US who insisted on it as Shoshana Zuboff has written in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and about which I have written before in a blog post.

I must clarify that most of what I have written here applies to the digital medium, as in digital editions of publications, channels, etc. I have not addressed social media advertising separately, since it is believed that targeting of consumers is better on social media and the context issue too does not arise. Besides, in social media, adverts get likes and shares and some even go viral. Companies and brands are known to have pages on social media where they try and engage directly with consumers in the hope of creating a conversation with them. How much of a brand gets adequately communicated and filtered to the consumer in the sense of creating brand preference is another question. Engagement with a brand and its advertising message can’t be very high in a medium that has “disappearing” or “vanishing” stories, as I have written before on my blog. In comparison, print media, especially magazines have a long shelf life and people tend to go back to to re-read them, which is another opportunity for them to see an advertisement.

How the different media deliver on brand-building requirements; Graphic by the author

That said, in many of my brand strategies and ideas that I have been sharing on my blog recently, and that you might have read, I recommend social media as a PR tool as I believe it will be an effective one, especially for premium and luxury brands.

Finally, as I have written before, marketers themselves seem to treat brand-building communication as distinct from digital/social media communication. I am not surprised that they don’t see digital as part of brand-building, even if their reasons are different from mine. They perhaps see it as a good sales funnel and way to create “buzz” around the brand. There is also no way yet of measuring digital’s impact or reach or strike rate, in the way that traditional media has industry figures, independently audited. This is a critical requirement for the digital medium to help build brands and grow.

It is time digital media moved beyond the hype and actually delivered on what it takes to build a brand. Sustained, regular and consistent communication that helps brands build relationships with consumers. In a way that is unintrusive and with consumers’ permission. Else, it will have to accept its place as a sales promotion tool and clients’ budgets will have to reflect that accordingly.


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