The End Of The Line

P&G may have cemented “The Line” in marketing vernacular back in the 60’s but it’s long since time to let it die a respectful death.

“The Line” was intended to divided the realm of awareness or brand focused marketing and that of interest and/or behavioral-focused marketing such as direct marketing, collateral, POS and promotion. One was a long-term capital investment in the brand, and the other a near-term expenditure designed to generate specific return (revenue) on investment.

Above and Below The Line had a significant disparity in spend levels relegating Below The Line marketing to a low budget, response-driven game, not a creative one. If you were a creative, God forbid you should work on Below The Line stuff. It was second tier; the creative stepchild. Below The Line was code for “we don’t care about the intangibles of good creative, only the numbers. As such, different creative people worked on different channels and brands “siloed” their capabilities and budgets based on Above or Below The Line work. A mistake many clients repeated in the digital era and are still paying for.

Whatever the origin, the terms stuck and agencies and corporations organized around them. And this has never been more of a mistake than than it is today, in a digital and social world where smart brands think like publishers and engage consumers around content. Work that would have been relegated to Below The Line is now leading the way.

The Line vernacular, while still used today, has been speeding towards irrelevance. The Line was getting gray back in the 90’s. Brands like Geico proved we can leverage Below The Line tactics (DR TV, direct mail) and still build brand. Starbucks built its brand and a $13B business with primarily Below The Line tactics. RedBull built its business while thinking like a publisher way before the rest of the world got it.

Digital marketing and social media has increasingly and necessarily embraced integration fundamentally negating The Line. As a way to avoid saying the model we knew was wrong, the industry coined the term “Through The Line” to define what we already knew: all touch points build brand AND behavior. They all need to work together. Through The Line refers to an advertising strategy involving both Above and Below The Line communications in an approach designed to engage the customer at multiple touch points. Oh, big surprise,.. sounds a lot like integration…

Today we live in a content driven world and for all intent and purposes, The Line is gone. Mass media, unless you’re Budweiser or Ford, is no longer practical and commissions have withered away. Smart brands are creating and sharing content in channels that were once considered Below The Line and are now clearly the primary awareness channels to build brand. Brands need to consider all content as a capital expenditure and investment in the equity of its brand. Good strategy leverages owned, paid and earned media in an integrated approach where all activities carry the responsibility of building brand awareness, relationships, and ultimately conversion and advocacy. This makes all activity both a capital investment and an expenditure essentially relegating the Above/Below The Line concept to the marketing history books.

Marketing continues to reinvent itself to stay relevant (and so as not to appear wrong). Integrating media and channels is recently being called Converged Media. The strategic blending of owned, paid and earned media. Oh, yeah, smells again suspiciously like integration to me.

Smart marketers know that all channels build brand but what historically distinguished Above from Below was its measurability. With the rich data available today, content branding efforts are as measurable as any channel and at the same time are as abstract in their data as they ever were. In fact, Above The Line work is measurable like never before giving it the same ROI responsibility as any Below The Line effort. Yet given big data and the infinite measurability of the digital world, we still struggle to measure intent, sentiment, and the abstract quality of brand love and awareness. This is of course what distinguished Above from Below. So where’s the line?.. yeah, I don't know either.

Today, consumers will engage with content on a phone, do several searches online and a couple of site visits, pass on a shared piece of content, read friends reviews on their tablet, and ultimately receive a geo-targeted coupon at the point of sale while clicking a placed product in a video. And Converged Media, while couched as a new marketing term in a digital and social age is really just about what it was always was: knowing our target, leveraging all the marketing tools available to achieve goals, and consistently integrating branding and behavior across communications to build and maintain engagement.

Welcome to the end of the line.