• Craig Relyea

Brand Marketing vs Growth Hacking: A Debate That Misses The Point

Brand marketing is unmeasurable, an advertising philosophy masquerading as a business function, an old-school preference for storyboards over dashboards, art over science.


Growth hacking is unapologetically myopic, a rigid process lacking critical nuances run by data jockeys obsessed with manipulating short term growth.


For the better part of the past decade, I’ve heard comments like these in the cubicles of startups, under the fluorescent lights of boardrooms and over coffee with peers. The inevitable debates follow: is brand marketing obsolete? Is growth hacking the holy grail of marketing? Unfortunately, these debates miss the point entirely.



Companies with marketing strategies that ignore brand risk winning the sprint but losing the race. At the same time, not adopting a growth mindset makes yesterday’s brand marketer obsolete.

More than a half-century ago, debates sprung up over how quickly a new entertainment platform called television would obliterate the movie business. Several years ago I heard a similar debate about how the rise of mobile would crush the console games business. Last year I suffered through a friend debating that the dominance of three-point shooting guards meant the extinction of big men in the NBA.


Those arguments also missed the point -- global box office receipts recently hit a historic high of $40 billion, console games remain a viable segment of the $100 billion interactive entertainment market, and this year’s NBA rosters list over 30 players at 7-feet or above.


In each of these cases, the incumbent ultimately thrived by adapting to changes brought on by the new.


Let’s look at that last example: in today’s NBA, a 7-footer who remains stubbornly rooted in power moves around the basket has become obsolete. But size still matters, and the “Bigs” who’ve adapted to the complexity of today’s game are thriving -- cue the emergence of unstoppable big men who’ve added ball handling, three-point shooting and perimeter defense to their toolkit (see Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid and others).


Brand building still matters. Companies with marketing strategies that ignore brand building risk winning the sprint but losing the race. At the same time, not adopting a growth mindset demanded by the increasing complexity of today’s marketplace makes yesterday’s brand marketer obsolete.


A growth mindset should be injected into the circulatory system of every company's marketing team, not to mention product development and distribution.

Let’s take a step back and look at some misconceptions. Merriam-Webster defines marketing as “activities involved in making people aware of a company’s products.” A Google search gives us “the action or business of promoting and selling products or services.”


Those marketing definitions are as relevant today as pocket maps, landline phones and your entire CD collection.


Marketing is about driving growth. Period.


If growth is the Northern Star for marketing, it’s easy to see how hacking should play a central role. Growth hacking is a data-centric method and process for rapid experimentation across every discipline in the company, with the singular goal of producing ongoing incremental growth. Whether you like the hacking term or not, a growth mindset should be injected into the circulatory system of every company's marketing team, not to mention product development and distribution.


The amount of emphasis an organization puts on pure growth hacking depends on the stage of the company and the nature of their products or services. Companies like Facebook, Dropbox and Airbnb are good examples of growth hacking your way to success.


The foundation of brand marketing is rooted in a deep understanding of who we are (the company or product) and who they are (the customer). Marketers use those two key insights as the pillars of brand strategies that drive long-term growth, effective earned media, virality and the most important brand metric of all: customer lifetime value.


That deep understanding of the customer helps organizations identify and focus on their Most Valuable Customers, finding ways to grow the business through increased retention and LTV, along with acquiring more future MVCs. Like growth hacking, a company’s emphasis on brand building depends on its stage of growth and the nature of its products or services – there’s a long list of successful brand building stories from Disney to Apple to Zappos.


To generate lasting growth, brands today hand the reigns over to their customers in ways that would have made yesterday’s ad agency execs throw their PDAs across the room.

Just like “Bigs” in the modern NBA, today’s brand marketer has been forced to evolve -- not just due to data access and advances in technology, but also strategically. Mapping a brand strategy with the classic 5 Cs, 4 Ps and cursory SWOT analysis no longer addresses the influences and nuances of today’s customer-driven marketplace.


To generate lasting growth, brands today hand the reigns over to their customers in ways that would have made yesterday’s ad agency execs throw their PDAs across the room.


There’s been a fundamental shift from reaching and selling customers to engaging and partnering with them. User experience, user empowerment and user distribution is far more important than outbound messaging. Today’s fastest growing brands develop identity networks in partnership with their audience, where brand messaging has been replaced by narrative and experience, handed over to the customer to personalize, validate and evangelize.


And today’s most successful brands generously provide a continuous flow of value -- new product features, relevant content and compelling experiences that make the customer feel good about that relationship, reinforcing loyalty and virality.


Effective brand marketing ultimately leads to a connection that is rooted in shared values, is "always on" and feels personal -- much like a friendship. Ask Uber, Facebook and Starbucks how valuable that connection, and that trust, is to their bottom line.


As such, marketing benefits from a creative and empathetic mindset. Data-driven insights help marketers understand their customers, while creative vision springboards off those insights to play an important part in delivering innovative and impactful ways to connect, delight and engage through compelling brand narrative, brand associations, product features, design, content and experiences.


And while the data revolution and rise of machine learning has garnered most of the marketing attention over the past decade, a parallel evolution has occurred in our understanding of how humans make decisions, putting greater emphasis on non-cognitive, emotional influences. For marketers, that means at times turning away from the rational in favor of the irrational. It means focusing less on driving awareness and more on attracting attention. It means stop trying to persuade customers, and instead develop ways to build and reinforce lasting memory structures.


In his book How Brands Grow, Byron Sharp advocates that brands abandon traditional anchors like positioning, unique selling propositions and campaign bursts. Instead, the focus should be on salience, relevant associations, emotional response and continuous presence.


Would anyone advocate losing half their brain so they can focus on one approach to growing their business?

Which leads to the next misconception: brand marketing and growth hacking must be opposing forces, right? Aren’t we talking about polar opposites here? Qualitative vs quantitative, art vs science, right brain vs left brain?


Assuming for a moment that the right brain/left brain construct is more than a myth, would anyone advocate losing half their brain so they can focus on one approach to growing their business? Should product development teams be configured to only include engineers without designers, or vice versa?


In other words, this shouldn’t be an “either-or” debate.


Brand marketing, guided by customer-focused insights and powered by actionable data, should be strengthened by the growth hacking process of measuring, testing, analyzing and iterating for optimization at every stage.


Growth hacking, while continuously experimenting with product features and channels to drive incremental engagement and growth, should be emboldened to take risks and pursue innovation within the brand framework, contributing to both short and long term growth.


As Einstein observed, "the greatest scientists are artists as well." Similarly, the most effective marketing teams, and organizations as a whole, successfully integrate both art and science to grow their business.


The real question is whether your marketing organization has a growth mindset, balanced for both the short and long term, and is obsessively focused on the customer.


Just like the new breed of hybrid “Bigs” in the NBA, marketers need to keep expanding their toolkit and adapting to the evolving complexities of today’s game if they want to help their teams win.

© 2018 by Muse Digital Group, LLC

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