The Truth Behind Branding In The Digital Media Age

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The digital publishers want more from the big brands.

If you have been following any of the coverage from Advertising Week, this seems to be the main (and continuous) cry from the digital media sector. There’s a feeling that as more advertising dollars shift to the online channels, that the bigger brands (the ones with more significant advertising dollars) are still shying away from really opening up the ad dollar coffers until they can get the true brand effect that they’re looking for (or that they had in the good ole days of television advertising).

Impact. Impressions. Eyeballs. Attention.

When you are a large consumer packaged goods company, the main thrust of advertising needs to create an impact to drive sales. The ad’s role is to break through the clutter of every media input with a slight distraction that is about the brand. That distraction is created as a way to inform you of something new or something improved or something that you may have not known about their products. In a world where so many brands are clamoring for this attention and the competition is fierce, the days of creating slight differentiators and then doubling down on frequency is getting more complex (and expensive). Television has evolved (from cable to specialty channels and beyond). This focus on television is critical, because that’s where advertisers have traditionally been able to get the most impact. The digital media battlecry seems to be that the Internet is the new television.

The Internet is not television.

Both Facebook and Twitter have been creating a lot of news in the past week about looking beyond clicks and likes as measurement metrics. They want brands to dig deeper into the branding opportunities that exist in digital media. It’s true, with the advent of native ads, brands can do some pretty impressive types of branding campaigns that look more like advertorials than a traditional ad, as we have seen on TV (more on that here: Native Advertising And The Trouble It Will Cause). What’s not true is that digital platforms can deliver the same kind of branded advertising experience that traditional advertising does. It simply can’t. Yet.


Yes, it’s the name of my upcoming business book, but the original concept of CTRL ALT DEL came to me when thinking about this, exact, issue back in 2006. It became abundantly clear to me, that the reason display advertising was suffering from such a low clickthrough rate was because brands (and publishers) were putting very traditional-like ad units in a very different media format. The Internet is not a passive media. It’s an active media. Screen/page sizes are not static (like a TV set and a newspaper), they are organic. They are not stale (flat or non-interactive). The consumer online manipulates the experience (with a mouse, with a finger, by swiping and clicking on links and typing and sharing). If the advertising can’t keep pace with the user experience, the ad unit dies.

More is not better.

The response to consumers being active with the digital media properties from brands (and publishers) has been to put more ads on the page, bigger ads, to block the page with an ad, to have an ad pop-up into the space, to make them blink more. This doesn’t lend itself better to the digital experience, it simply makes the ads more annoying (no matter what your ad serving data is telling you). There’s an argument to be made for experiences, the use of videos in ads and the fact that everything I just blogged about is not true for every brand. There’s an argument to be made for retargeting and real time bidding to ensure that – at the very least – the ad unit has a better fighting chance, because it’s more relevant to the content and context of the user. All of this is true, but it doesn’t strike at the core challenge: if brands want a better brand experience for consumers in these digital marketing channels, at what point do we all agree – as a marketing industry – that we have a ways to go in ensuring that the advertising matches the user experience?

No clear answers.

Some of the smartest people in the world, working at some of the smartest organizations in the world are working on this very challenge. There are options and opportunities abound. There is no doubt that these are exciting times. The problem comes when marketing professionals see the glass as half-empty instead of half-full. Think of it this way: as a marketing professional – in this day and age – there will probably never be another moment in time like this for our profession. It’s a moment in time where we’re not just be continuing to work with limitations that were laid out by our forefathers and foremothers. We’re now able – in real-time – to define not only a new way to advertise and connect with consumers, but a better way to create advertising. I don’t think we’ll ever get to a place where people will necessarily seek out advertising, but I am bullish on getting to a place where people appreciate the advertising because it truly creates a relevant moment of impact and it fits within their overall digital experience.

A boy can dream.


  1. I’d be curious to hear more of your thoughts on getting to the point you describe in the last sentence of the blog. I think it dovetails nicely with companies striving to become thought leaders in their industry. It seems to go with the whole idea of adding value for your customer, rather than simply pushing for the sale. Great post!

  2. I think many brands are struggling with the digital experience because they still can’t grasp it’s understanding beyond social media properties and click-throughs. It’s hard for a static digital ad to evoke the same emotion a TV ad can…or a great viral, youtube video. We need some thought leaders on the client/CMO side to invest and innovate in digital advertising…to show others the way.

  3. Great article. We should remind ourselves that brands are created in the interaction between the company and the public. It’s a nice reality check that brand stewards have less control than think in terms of communications. We should focus on the corebrand values, listen to the buzz and react accordingly.

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