Ad-focused budgets threaten engagement: column

Cameron Wykes says spending won't save brands that don't adjust to the new realities of customer engagement.

by Cameron Wykes, president at Jacknife Design Inc.

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When I ask prospective clients to name three of their brand engagement touch points, without fail, they start naming advertising initiatives.

It was my wise friend Will Novosedlik who said that “engagement comes from the interaction with a brand, not the ad… and all you should expect from an ad is awareness.” A lot of brands continue to invest the vast majority of their budgets against awareness, and leave very little, if anything, to critical brand engagement initiatives and experiences that complete the customer experience.

When budgets are so lopsided, marketers run a very real risk of not fulfilling a brand promise when the customer chooses to engage. The arena of that engagement is increasingly dictated by disruptors like Google and Amazon, and that lopsided budget does not account for how drastically different the path to purchase has become in even the last five years.

Many clients will assume their social media marketing initiatives cover off branded engagement with their target audience. But true engagement focuses on brand, reputation management or driving business outcomes. Marketers are still relying on retweets and Snapchat followers to demonstrate engagement, but ultimately that’s not what I believe builds businesses.

When things don’t connect as promised, consumers will feel cheated and will trust your brand less.

If marketers don’t start bridging this ad/engagement divide, they will be chasing their tails when it comes to the rapid evolution of both the customer journey and user experiences. Consider what a big ad spend will do against these two examples of purchase disruption.

Voice vs Brands
Despite being in only 4% of North American households, voice-controlled connected devices like Amazon’s Alexa are pushing their own generic products and leveraging AI to circumvent a typical online brand experience. With a verbal command, Alexa will fetch products found on Amazon and seemingly prioritize them based upon Amazon’s generic brands first. In tests, Alexa results have not included non-Amazon branded products even if they are available in a standard Amazon web search. While die-hard brand lovers will simply flip back to good old online surfing to get the brand they love, most will trade loyalty for a more seamless and intuitive experience, a cheaper price and free delivery.

This is certainly not new, as Scott Gallaway points out in that video linked above. Many larger retailers favour house brands over the more popular known brands. But where the real issue begins is when brands competing with Amazon’s generics are forced to lower their pricing model in order to stay on store shelves. This move leads to decreased margins and forces cuts from within, which in turn gives brands no choice but to cut costs on the P&L statement. And we all know what’s first to go… the marketing budget.

Bots vs Brands
I find the concepts of bots both enticing and terrifying (I’m still wrapping my head around the idea of cashiers going the way of the dodo). Well, bots are coming to your fave online retailer and will be the catalyst to driving more relevant and intuitive online shopping experiences.

But they will also reboot the typical online browsing behaviour by letting shoppers find exactly what they’re are looking for based on benefits and desired outcomes rather than brand names (asking “what do you need” instead of “who are you wearing?” for example).

This essentially turns casual browsers into short-path buyers and leaves many brands out in the cold, trying to find other means of driving that brand connection with a prospective purchaser who is well down the ol’ funnel.

So far, the stories about successful bots for brands like Domino’s, North Face and others have focused on the business efficiency they’ve brought to the shopping process. Not enough attention is being paid to the changes they’ve brought to the customer journey.

We all know that customers are not searching for brands, but seeking benefits and desired outcomes. Branded ads generate awareness, make a promise and point your customers in the right direction.

So how do you ensure your brand fulfills on those outcomes? By rebooting your brand strategy, investing more into tangible, sharable and memorable brand engagements; by ensuring that your engagement strategy is staying in-step with technology; and by looking beyond retweets and likes as a measure of brand engagement success.