Be Creative Or Be Invisible: Branding In The Digital Era

In the days before digital, marketers were relatively comfortable with the delineation between response and awareness. Awareness was required for consideration which led to preference, then conversion. And it was clear what channel did what. Justifying that big creative idea and big budget to build awareness was a challenge and its benefits not always immediately measurable. It was an investment for marketers with vision and patience, and CEOs who “get it”. Breaking out of the clutter to generate awareness begs for edgy, emotional creative because that’s how you get talked about. After all, we are humans and we feel things first, then we act. While difficult to quantify without pre and post research, no one would dispute the benefits of branding over the long-term.

Enter online display advertising. It was decidedly a direct response medium bound by metrics and the almighty CTR. Understandable, given CMO’s needed to justify spend in new channels. Display advertising was transaction-based, targeting consumers at the point of the purchase decision. It was a response channel, not an awareness or branding channel. Online display felt like the uncreative advertising stepchild, invariably sacrificing creativity for better numbers. Technological limitations didn’t help. Troubling for any good creative.

Fast forward a decade. Print is on life support. TV as we knew it is struggling to reinvent itself. Consumers are not watching or reading the way they used to. Advertising is no longer invasive; I can’t make you watch. Consumers watch what they want, when they want, where they want, and on the deviice they want. The decline of traditional channels has left brands little choice but to embrace digital channels for building awareness. As a result, creativity is exploding. Of course, the ad used to convert or drive traffic is simply not the same as one used to intrigue and emotionally engage. To build awareness, ads must flirt as opposed to asking you to date. Engaging with these ads has to be a benefit unto itself. Done well, they encourage sharing and tempt consumers to come back for more. They build awareness and beget a relationship, not a transaction. Of course, this nicely coincides with technical advancements in design tools and the rise of social media, smart phones, and tablets.

These days, the industry is focused on content and storytelling. The result is we’re all inundated with more content than we can consume. It’s forced creative risk-taking even more; if you don’t take risk, you risk not being seen. I can’t force you to watch, I can only make you want to watch. And keeping you watching is an ongoing process, not an event made up of 13 week cycles. Now brands focus on providing content and experiences that emotionally bond and bind regularly over time. It’s a “pull” approach where compelling creative seduces you to spend time with a brand. Compelling content that reaches an emotional consciousness first is how consumers learn to love a brand and then share that love with friends.

And the proof grows. Social and buzz monitoring, along with other new metrics allow us to see the benefits of great creative better than the days before digital. Engaging creative gets shared and spread. It earns views, unpaid. It generates awareness. Great work more often than not, pays for the incremental investment required to produce it. Better creative drives higher dwell (engagement) scores (Microsoft’s Online Branding Metrics) which results in more branded searches, more traffic to the brand site and increased engagement once there. Importantly, the data shows that more compelling creative generates greater engagement and resulted in significant uplifts in key offline brand metrics – brand awareness, brand favorability and purchase intent. Seems painfully obvious.

Technology has expanded what we can do creatively. We can now finesse design, tweak type, display HD video. Page takeovers give brands the real estate for creative expression, CTR be damned. Engaging creative at its best is an integrated experience that happens across channels; Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc., all contribute to extend the brand experiences. Creative is the new force in the digital space, and it’s alive and well.

Here’s a few beauts:

Facebook’s on board for branding too. (Good idea, given their transaction metrics suck for display.) Their pitch to the world’s biggest consumer marketers is that Facebook is a branding platform like TV, and it’s been urging them to focus less on metrics and more on reach and resonance. In an Ad Age/Data Center survey regarding advertisers primary goal in Facebook ads, 45.9% of respondents put building awareness and sentiment for their brands at the top.

The evolution of communications online has dictated that creative matters now more than ever. We’re seeing a return to a holistic approach in creating integrated campaigns and greater collaboration with media and technology to fuel ideas. It’s not about digital or traditional, it’s about the idea. We’re concepting, ideating and doing thumbnails… again. We’re extending ideas across channels, building brand, driving behavior and taking risk. Yeah, it’s a good time to be a creative.

What are your thoughts on creativity?