Publicis Media's Frank Harrison: Why Branding Is More Important than Ever

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My first question to Frank Harrison was "What is your definition of branding?" There was a long pause before Harrison, Publicis Media's global research lead, Data Sciences Practice, replied: "Oh… How long do you want me to talk?" The subject of branding looms large in the media world today, so it's no surprise that the results of the recent Myers Brand Equity Study has sparked great conversation and some thoughtful consideration among advertisers, agencies, and networks.

Harrison was moved to comment on the study, and we delved deeply into the subject of branding from the past — "since people started writing on cave walls," as Harrison said — to the present, to the (spoiler alert) impossible-to-predict future.

The Value of Branding

For Harrison, branding is establishing a brand's presence in the mind of a consumer through a multitude of attributes associated with that brand, such as fame, trust, and saliency (i.e., when a brand comes to mind for a consumer who is in market for a product or a service). This includes all the elements of brand equity, which relate to the feelings and thoughts consumers have about brands based on their multitude of experiences with that brand through various contact points.

Branding has always been important to establish a product or service, but is even more vital today "because of the clutter and the general level of noise, which are growing steadily and rapidly — especially in digital," Harrison says. "So much of digital media is consumed through a small phone screen."

There is much more competition for attention when you consider all the messaging that comes across these screens, including social media feeds, Harrison points out. Branding becomes that much more important in this environment because "you have a real danger of having your brand exposed in that channel but be completely missed or misattributed."

There's also the dichotomy of attention spans versus brand volume. "Attention levels are lower than ever and so branding is more important than ever," Harrison says. Plus, with so many brands currently on the market in nearly every category, the need to offer consumers a sense of distinctiveness is critical, he notes.

"Distinctive brands are vital in the era of low attention and small screens," he asserts.

Changing Consumers Change Brand-Driving Attributes

A core element of the Myers Brand Equity Study is to measure the attributes that most impact overall media brand equity: brand love, cultural relevance, distinctiveness, emotional connection, social responsibility, ability to thrive in the future, and viewers' interest in content. For Harrison, the level of importance of each of those attributes has to be considered according to the different consumer categories. "You have to think about which categories are most influenced and affected by changes in consumer behavior. The biggest changes are, of course, the many different ways that you can connect, engage, and pay attention to brands through the Internet," he says. But, "some categories are much more affected in terms of their business success than others."

To Harrison, finance, retail, and travel are categories that have much more consumer involvement and interaction online. "There has been a significant shift in behaviors for those categories; more than in less-involved categories, such as packaged goods," he says. "And, in that environment, it is so much more important for brands to be established in consumers' minds."

A Warning for Media Companies

Based on Harrison's review of the study's findings shared in "Survey Says: Key to Media Growth Is' Brand Equity,'" he believes that "traditional TV brands have not focused as much on brand and on branding as they might have — and this is probably not in their best interest." Given the lack of focus on brand, he says, it's no surprise that buyers regard media brands as commodities, where cost is the dominant factor.

Additionally, the outreach to the consumer has become more about content, as well as more transactional and short-term, rather than long-term, and this shift concerns Harrison. "The observation that TV networks discount the equity of their master brand in favor of promoting their series and programs is, in the ever more competitive landscape, worth reconsidering," he explains. "Content needs promotion, but a branded 'platform' is also a vital memory cue for viewers in the ever-more cluttered-environment." Netflix does this well, he says, adding that "famousness continues to be vital for growth."

The risk is the slippery slope towards commoditization for media brands. "There is a new way of thinking today that is very much around a short-term promotional sales activation focus, which is moving away from long-term brand building towards promotional short-termist advertising. That could lead to commoditization for brands, where pricing becomes everything and the sense of brand becomes less and less important," Harrison warns. That's another reason branding is more important than ever today, he notes, especially for traditional media brands.

The Future Is … Pending

Looking forward, will all of the media consolidation happening impact branding and the attributes associated with success? "It depends on the results of these consolidations," he says. "Do they result in fewer brands or an ever-growing proliferation of brands?"

Consolidations are happening to reduce costs, according to Harrison. "Consumers are stripping brands of their margins to the point where the only position is to consolidate, which will probably result in fewer brands," Harrison says. "So, we would return to an age where there were fewer brands. That makes it easier from a consumer and advertiser perspective to understand what is available in the market."

On the other hand, "the trend is to have more and more brands and more and more choice and, from a consumer perspective, more and more difficulty in choosing because there is so much choice," he says. The risk there is that the consumer is apt to choose the lowest cost, which, "obviously, is not good for business."

What's not so obvious is what the media landscape will look like in the fast-changing future. "It is really hard to look out even three years. That is one of the great issues and why there's so much short-termism going on at the moment," Harrison says. "One thing is certain, however: The future of media will not be easy to predict."

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