Branding vs. selling: Which is more important?

Branding has not traditionally played a big part in the creation of direct mail, ads, and other forms of direct response advertising. That’s because direct marketing is all about selling directly to consumers and relies less on product recognition than retail marketing.

In recent years, however, as direct marketing has become mainstream and is now being used by businesses that sell through multiple channels, branding has become more important.

People like me who work on the front lines creating direct response advertising have to deal with clients who want to sell but who also demand adherence to branding guidelines, usually in the form of font, color, and graphic specifications.

It can be a difficult juggling act. The guidelines may be simple, requiring only the use of a logo, or difficult, enforcing highly restrictive design rules that curtail selling techniques.

When branding guidelines become too restrictive, it can hurt sales. Years ago, I began working with one of the top communications companies, helping them sell products and services such as DSL and long distance. I decided to break out of the overly restrictive branding guidelines and create mailers that I thought would sell better.

This didn’t go over well with others in the company and I received many complaints about the “look” of my mailers. However the response rates were high. In one effort, I created a self-mailer that met the annual call generation goal within 9 weeks. So I was allowed to continue.

Eventually, my “ugly” mailers provoked the branding department so much, I was asked to test a “pretty” and properly branded mailer. I did. The ugly mailer won hands down.

Do I think I hurt the brand with my ugly mailers? No. I think I made them a lot of money and created a larger customer base.

I’m not one of those direct marketing neanderthals who think branding is irrelevent. But having dealt with the issue of branding vs. selling for many years, I have a few thoughts on the matter.

Please understand that I’m not suggesting that branding is not important. In fact, I think it IS important. All I’m suggesting is that there is a difference between maintaining a brand and slavishly following design guidelines.

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13 Responses to “Branding vs. selling: Which is more important?”

  1. Janice C Cartier on September 3rd, 2008 12:23 pm

    Dean- This is very timely. I know that we have personally had this converstion about design and branding vs “what works”. And although I am a reluctant convert, with screaming aesthetic red flags all over this, I am a convert. Here’s how I justify it to my highly attuned fine art self. It is very much form following function. In art and business we want that elegance of utility. That it adds to the coffers or allows us to get the girl so to speak, is what the dynamic is about, not posturing. And I have to love that like white on rice. Especially if it acquires that nifty ideal client or sale or notice that I am after.

  2. Dean Rieck on September 3rd, 2008 12:43 pm

    Janice: “Form follows function.” I should have included that because it sums up the point nicely.

  3. Janice C Cartier on September 3rd, 2008 12:58 pm

    Just so.
    There’s a “new” product hitting the airwaves I noticed, Shamwow. This is a super absorbant towel product ( a chamois) my sailing partner and I used to buy every year at the boat show, or the swim team would get for poolside. This Bowser like guy from Brooklyn has highjacked the product and is selling it, I bet like crazy, to “everyman” out there with his tee-shirted Brooklyn guy schtick. I am loving it, cannot stop watching the Shamwow guy . Just like that other yelling guy whose name you know, the orange cleaning products guy. Not pretty either one of them, but I am thinking they sell product.;-)

  4. Dean Rieck on September 3rd, 2008 1:12 pm

    Janice: Shamwow has been selling for a while now. The guy’s name is “Vince.” He has a quirky delivery, but it works.

    Here’s a link to the video so you can enjoy it any time you like:

  5. Janice C Cartier on September 3rd, 2008 1:28 pm

    LOL. I bet they call him Vinny…okay business question: Does he get paid a percentage of the “take”, or for just doing the spot?

    Thanks. ;-)

  6. Dean Rieck on September 3rd, 2008 1:41 pm

    Janice: No idea what deal Vince has. Most of the time talent is paid a flat fee.

  7. Janice C Cartier on September 3rd, 2008 1:49 pm

    That makes sense. …thanks Dean.

  8. Mark on September 3rd, 2008 8:55 pm

    Dean couldn’t agree more. I would add that I have been involved with several companies that have “brands” “reputations” that have been established over 100 years.

    When you work with companies like that you quickly “get” that the “brand” is already well established and there’s not a whole lot you can do to change it. The best you can do is try not to really screw it up.

    The customers have had over 100 years to see what you stand for. Pretty colours and graphics aren’t going to change it.

    You can build on it, reinforce it but you can’t change history.

  9. mark on September 16th, 2008 3:58 pm

    Years ago I worked as an account director in a DM Branch of a major ad agency. the Mainstream Part of the agency won the businessof a copier company in a competitive bid and offered our DM services as an aside.

    The mainstream agency spent a fortune on research to benchmark the brand image, a fortune on production and media another fortune on researching the results of the branding campaign only to find the brand had backslid and the prospective clients so called Decision Makers were now confused as to what the company actually did.

    Meanwhile we busily created cheap and dirty DM tests in industry publications that the REAL decision influencers actually read. Sales blossomed. I was able to infiltrate EVERY division of the company because we got results…. measurable results that the Marketing and Sales Managers and Sales People (all of whom were paid on commission) could actually see.

    The little DM “aside” became the Major part of the ad agency’s business with this client. We built their business on targeted selling of FAB (Features Advantages and Benefits)and making it easy for the purchaser to BUY.

    The BRAND IMAGE became clear again. The company became more successful and more competitive. Their clients had better more reliable products and everybody won…. including me and my agency.

    DM ROCKS for sales and Branding.

  10. Dean Rieck on September 16th, 2008 4:06 pm

    Mark: I’ve always said that the best way to build a brand is to make sales. People get “branding” and “designing” confused.

  11. Janice Cartier on September 16th, 2008 4:36 pm

    Wait. Branding is NOT designing? What about that purple cow and all that?
    Branding is making sales?

  12. Simon on November 1st, 2008 11:31 am

    Excellent debate here. I think it depends on the brand, how the DR is established. As a designer myself function and great ideas are the key. Having said that I would not expect Apple to release poorly designed DR..and they don’t. A brand is not design. A brand is that companies promise to the world and its customers. A brand is a value and emotion. Design is secondary and form. I think that for many companies DR that is short of “aesthetics” but delivers the message works fine, but for others they simply must be consistent in the image they portray. Again you would not expect a text laden, multi coloured, drop shadow, lens flare piece of DR from Mercedes Benz.

    Just my two cents…but a worthy debate indeed!

    We live in a results world…a track record world…all about sales…all about money.
    Sad really.

    Search for a video called “Pale Blue Dot” from Carl Sagan. Puts things in perspective. Did for me anyway.


  13. Janice Cartier on November 1st, 2008 1:55 pm

    I love that phrase, “brand is a promise…value and emotion.” Then the design function has to serve it…. and sell. Seems like form and function are intricately laced, even in DR.

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