Branding vs direct response marketing

Never ending fight: branding vs. direct response marketing

With the development of Internet and online business, one fight has become ever more fierce: what should you focus on, branding or direct response?

Direct response - Mad Men TV Show

Marketing as perceived by the famous TV show Mad Men, is long gone…

In times when “marketing” first became a buzz word and when ad budgets took priority over other parts of the companies, branding was the one thing that guaranteed a success. Ad agencies were in power, and brand equity was determining success of any given company.

But how does it look today? Is branding still such a crucial element of the business strategy?

Direct response marketers will fiercely claim that no. On the contrary, they advocate that the main focus of any business should be to sell, and so the marketing strategy should be aligned with the goal of continuously boosting revenue rather than building a brand.

But is that true? Can we simple let go of the importance of branding?

I believe that both sides are wrong. If you keep pushing for sales (direct response) but you don’t build a strong brand behind it, sooner or later you will fail. Just like you will fail if you keep building  a brand (branding) without securing revenue.

So instead of seeing it as either branding or direct response, look at how to make the two work in synergy (synergy is one of the habits from the acclaimed The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – so why not put it in practice right now? )

The American Marketing Association (AMA) defines a brand as a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.

Here is how you can do it:


1. Allow budget for brand building

There is a reason why people prefer Apple phones or Coca-cola drinks. The importance of branding today hasn’t changed much for the last 10 or 20 years. It’s a guarantor that you will always be happy with your choice.
Imagine you’re shopping for sunglasses. You find 2 identical models, at the same price, but one comes from a brand you know and trust, and one from a brand you have never heard of. Which one will you chose?
This is why it is important you dedicate some part of your budget to branding. It is that additional factor that helps prospective customers choose your product over the one of competitor. This can include PR activities, market research, design, endorsements.

2. Focus on values

But wow to build a brand? By defining what it stands for. This is what the real branding is about.
Your brand is the combination of the emotions it evokes in your target group, whether it makes them feel safe purchasing from you and trust you. There are brands that have changed their logos 5 times, yet they still stand strong for being consistent with their values.
When working for Procter & Gamble, the CEO of that time shared a very valuable advice: [paraphrasing] You brand is your values. Everything can change about your company, but values have to stay the same. It is also me recommendation you follow this advice.

3. Start

Don’t wait for all the elements to be ready before you start. You want to start a blog, but you don’t have a design for a logo yet? It doesn’t matter! Go ahead, anyways. You don’t need a perfectly designed website, logo in place, all the professional pictures and tens of testimonials to start? You start and you figure things out on the way. If you wait for all those tiny little things, you will never move ahead. As a painting on a Facebook office wall says: Better done than perfect.

4. Measure your branding campaign

Yes, you can measure your branding campaign. And yes, ROI might not be always possible to calculate, but ROI is not the only measure you can get.
What is crucial for your campaign is clear targets: what do you want to achieve? And how much is that worth to you?
Based on that you decide you goals and budget for the campaign.
You target can be: increase number of likes/shares by ____ or get ___ of positive reviews, retweets, impressions, traffic, etc. There are many different ways to measure success of your campaign. You also want to check the budget (if you spend what you had planned).


1. Don’t focus so much on all the small details

Don’t make the small things stop your projects. When I was working for luxury brands, I have witnessed this practice quite often. The whole launch of a new collection would be pushed because the gold we were using on our promotional materials wasn’t the right shade of gold. That cost us significant amount of dollars.
Too often projects are delayed because things are not perfect. The color is not the exact Pantone, an element is a bit too small.. Who cares!
You don’t need all the design elements to be perfect. Besides, trust me, nobody is going to notice it. Your brand is not colore #0000A0, font type Georgia and size 16 (as we covered above – it’s the values that make the brand).

2. Don’t focus only on ROI

Don’t get me wrong, you do want to measure you ROI, but remember that not everything can be measured in its terms. On the contrary, putting a price value on some of your assets can actually destroy them. You don’t measure your customers loyalty in terms of how much money they give you. You measure it in terms of how much money they give you AND if they connect with you by leaving comments AND if they promote your brand to others AND if they are willing to leave a positive review for you AND if they stand up for you and many more.
Looking solely at ROI can give you a misleading idea of what your next steps should be. You should always look at ROI in reference to volumes, time and engagement.
Imagine getting a 200% from the investment of only USD 100 vs 130% return on the investment of $2,000. Just a percentage will not tell you how much money you actually made.
Or what if you learnt you’re getting a 160% ROI on your new customers but that the refund rate is over 50%?

3. Don’t use branding as an excuse for bad performance

It is important to distinguish which projects you start to build the brand and which ones to generate sales. And you need your targets (measurable) defined before those projects go live.
It may happen that you don’t hit your revenue target. If that happens, analyze why and learn from your mistakes. But don’t use branding as an excuse Don’t just accept your poor result saying that “it helped us build the brand”. Maybe it did, but you missed your objectives and you need to be honest about it. Even if it did help you build your brand, you need to analyze why you missed your targets. Otherwise you will keep missing it over and over again.


To make a successful business you should focus on branding only, nor should you put all your focus on sales and nothing more. You need a healthy combination of both.
Make sure you have clear objectives for each of your projects so you can determine how successful you are in working on both areas.

To learn more about branding vs. direct response marketing, check out:


Now back to you.

How do you build your brand while securing sales? Share your tips and ideas in the comments section below.

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  • Jari Helenius

    Reply Reply October 6, 2016


    Good thinking here and also good arguments. Coming from deeply rooted D2C environment I’m firm believer in measuring ROI and the fact that it’s the data behind marketing that matters at the end of the day. You can have a mediocre design/creative and top notch targeting (use of data) and you will get stellar performance measured down to bottom line profitability. But, will it work the other way around (i.e. fantastic design etc. but bad use of data)? I would say not…

  • Praveen Kumar

    Reply Reply August 21, 2019

    Excellent article differentiating between branding and direct response marketing. Thanks for sharing this.

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