Beyond the Brand vs. Performance debate: a customer-centric approach

I’ve seen in my career the conversation of brand marketing versus performance marketing come up time and time again. Often with polarizing views where the championing of one or the other becomes the debate. But in my view, this is the wrong discussion.

To be effective in marketing today there needs to be a focus on the customer journey, with brand building and performance marketing working in tandem, to build interest and serve customers at every single touchpoint.

The misconception of brand vs. performance

Let me start by saying brand is really how your business is perceived and experienced by the customer, in every touch point and “moment of truth”.  In today’s day and age – with greater empowerment from the customer, their ability to move from brand to brand at the flick of a thumb, with AI creating enormous amounts of content but also reasons for doubt – the biggest concern for brands is ensuring trust and authenticity. And this is required at every point, whether it is when you are promoting your brand for the first time and creating a first impression and brand promise, but also at every single ad and interaction with your brand that follows.  

For the purposes of this article, I am specifically talking about the argument of where to invest your budgets. Should it be in brand building? Or in performance marketing (converting potential customers into customers)?

Champions of brand marketing argue that a strong brand builds awareness and loyalty, and it is this investment that leads to future sales. They point to iconic brands that evoke emotional connections, resonate deeply with their target audience and result in repeat purchases.

On the other side, performance marketing focuses on immediate conversions and ROI.  Advocates highlight the power of data-driven strategies, of the importance of digital sales funnels, and clear call to actions, that deliver measurable results.  

In my view, both approaches are required, and by taking a one-sided view, brands will suffer from their limitations. 

Focusing solely on brand can lead to a lack of sales if customers don’t know how to find you when they’re ready to buy. Imagine a beautifully crafted brand story with no clear call to action – it’s like building a stunning mansion in the middle of nowhere but giving no one directions on how to get there.  

An overemphasis on performance marketing can create a transactional relationship that lacks emotional connection. Customers may be enticed by your targeted ad, but if they don’t understand your brand’s values and what way you are going to make their life better (easier, sexier), they’re unlikely to engage with your business or product, no matter how compelling the offer. 

The customer journey is key

The reality is that customers don’t exist in a vacuum of brand awareness or immediate need.  Their buying journey is a process, from not knowing you, to considering you, to buying from you. Marketers need to be present at every stage.  

In the early stages, brand marketing builds awareness and establishes both a position and the first brand promise and thus trust. Think of great videos, informative blog posts, engaging social media content, or thought leadership articles (just like this one!). These efforts educate potential customers about your brand’s story, values, and expertise.  

As customers move closer to a purchase decision, performance marketing delivers targeted messages and facilitates conversions. This can involve retargeting website visitors with relevant information, case studies, helpful tips, offering free value before you then make it helpful to offer an “opt-in” buy or exchange for free value.

Investing in brand: building a foundation for success

Brand is often the first marketing budget we see cut when money is tight but brand marketing is not a luxury, it is an essential investment. At Digivizer, we recommend to our customers allocating at least 30% of their marketing budget to brand building efforts. 

This investment creates volume at the top of the funnel that in turn makes performance marketing more effective. Consider brand marketing as an investment that targets new and potential customers and ultimately lowers the customer acquisition cost in the long run, i.e. the further down the funnel the customer moves.  

Think of it like building brand awareness as priming the pump – it creates a pool of potential customers who are familiar with your brand and more receptive to your performance marketing efforts, ultimately driving greater performance.

Building trust with digital marketing

It is no understatement to say digital marketing has fundamentally changed the consumer landscape. Today’s customers are bombarded with content and have become pretty comfortable with ad-blocking and other ways of protecting their online experience. 

Effective brand building in this environment requires creating engaging content that resonates with your target audience. This content should entertain, then infotain, educate, and build trust. 

The key is to create content that is valuable to your audience, regardless of whether they are actively looking to buy your product now or may consider it for later. This approach fosters a relationship based on trust and positions your brand as a helpful resource, not just a salesperson.

Finding the right balance

At the end of the day, the optimal balance between brand marketing and performance marketing will vary depending on your industry, product, and target audience. 

For a new B2B company with a complex solution, a higher allocation towards brand building might be necessary to establish reach, expertise and trust. For new brands, you want to ensure you have enough budget to create multiple touch points of your intended audience so they feel that you are bigger and more suited for them. However, for a well-known consumer product with a short buying cycle, a heavier focus on performance marketing might be more appropriate. 

The most important tip here is to pay attention to key metrics to guide your decision-making.  

Performance marketing KPIs like click throughs, time on site, conversion rates and customer acquisition costs are important. They help you measure the immediate effectiveness of your marketing efforts. But don’t neglect brand metrics like brand awareness, engagement, and sentiment analysis either. Like all metrics, a clear, data-driven objective should be set first.   

These metrics provide insights into the overall health of your brand and its impact on customer perception.

Continual measurement and improvement

It can feel like the world of marketing changes every day. Consumer preferences change, new technologies emerge, and the competitive landscape shifts. You should be regularly assessing the effectiveness of your marketing efforts and be prepared to adjust your approach in real-time. 

Don’t be afraid to experiment and test different strategies. A/B test different ad copy, creative and web pages, analyze website traffic patterns, and gather customer feedback. 

Use data to identify what’s working and what’s not, and refine your approach accordingly. Think of the customer journey as a map, but remember that the map needs to be constantly updated to reflect the ever-changing terrain. Don’t throw everything out – work out what is working and what is not, focus first on fixing what is not so you are in a continuous state of improvement.

Moving beyond the debate

By moving beyond the brand versus performance marketing debate and embracing a customer-centric (value as determined by the customer) approach, businesses can create an effective marketing strategy. By focusing on the customer journey and using a combination of brand building and performance marketing tactics, combined with continuous improvement through performance insights, you can build new and lasting relationships with your customers to drive long-term success.