Are brands in an activation race to the bottom?

Are brands in an activation race to the bottom?

With the inevitable shift from analog to digital, brands increasingly focus on marketing in the moment; reaching out to consumers when their behavior indicates a potential interest in the brand or its category. But will devoting more attention and budget on changing behavior when people are searching or shopping build or undermine brands?

My definition of a strong brand is one that people are predisposed to buy. One that, when the need arises, they instinctively reach for based on prior experience and pre-existing feelings, ideas and associations. One that they want to buy, and are willing to pay that little bit more for. But predisposition alone does not guarantee that a brand will be bought; it simply gives it a good head start.

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For me, strong brand predisposition is like qualifying for pole position on the starting grid of a Formula One Grand Prix. Pole position does not guarantee that a driver will cross the finishing line first, but it puts them in a far more advantageous situation than the one starting at the back of the grid. The driver in pole position will still have to drive well to maintain leadership, but it is theirs to lose.

It used to be that brands focused single-mindedly on building brand predisposition, but increasingly they are focused on trying to sway people’s behavior when they are actively engaged with the category. Behavioral tracking systems monitor real-time activity using specific data cues as proxies for interest  and intent, and programmatic systems then deliver a pre-specified call to action. In the short-term I have no doubt that these systems deliver increased conversion, but I do wonder what they do to longer-term profitability.

Never mind that the data used to target people is often selected based on what can be measured, rather than what should be measured. Never mind that much of the behavior is assumed to indicate interest in purchase when often it does not. Never mind that much of the advertising is delivered well after a purchase has been made. No, my concern rests in the fact that to sway a person’s brand predisposition there are few more compelling appeals than a price discount or special offer.

Just as the advent of scanned sales from grocery stores led to an over-emphasis on sales promotion, I believe we are seeing exactly the same thing in digital media but on a far wider scale. Brands in many categories are involved in an activation race that will not only teach consumers to be focus on prices and special offers, but may well undermine brand predisposition as well. Why? Because the more we encourage people to switch, the less likely they will be to assume that their current brand choice is a good one. Right now activation ignores benefits from brand predisposition, since it primes people to respond well to activation ads from familiar brands, but in future it may all come down to how good an incentive you put in front of them.

So what do you think? Is brand predisposition important? Will its importance be undermined by an undue focus on activation? Please share your thoughts.

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