Growth Kills Brand (again, but by mistake this time. maybe.)

Something I have noticed over the last few years is how many Growth marketing led companies are still trying to figure out Brand.

Around 5 years ago, Growth ate Brand because velocity ate momentum.

We ignored things like life time value in favor of acquisition. Brand got confused, cowered, fought for relevancy and ultimately lost its seat at the table.

RIP Brand. All is fine. Move on, this is a new smarter world. Was it though?

It’s easy to pull examples that fit a narrative, but the below were celebrated IPOs which were oft referenced as darling brands others should follow.

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As companies like those above led the charge in a Growth maximilist way, certain patterns began to arise. Aggressive growth was masquerading an absence of brand, they knew it, and exit strategies were perfectly timed accordingly, because marketing:

  • was predicated on permanent acquisition. (Wish)
  • had saturated the category and failed to find (or successfully activate) new market headroom. (Casper)
  • ignored lifetime value (because maybe it was nil and because the product sucks.) (Robinhood)
  • believed that brand wasn’t paramount when rewriting decade-old purchasing scripts. (Carvana / Lemonade)
  • that it could engineer whim-based-demand off unstable future. (Coinbase, ie spending $300mm building an NFT marketplace)

Could Brand have righted any of the above? I’d argue it certainly would have helped, even in the face of other systematic issues. Strong Brand stewardship and leadership presence allows you to get ahead of all of the above, work to understand the role of Growth vs Product, demand and culture. 

Reality and perspective.

But it didn’t, and Growth continued to entrench itself. 

But knowing that Brand is a thing, marketing still needed to reconcile where it fit in the mix. Which as of writing this, feels like an amalgamation of Brand being:

  • a line item on a P&L or, worse, a channel in a marketing plan.
  • a person internally (which is typically a senior titled department of one).
  • budgetless, and largely creatively anemic.
  • measured vs growth, instead of alongside with it. 
  • something not understood, but at some point somewhere there was a patient zero company that did get it, did it well, and someone thought they should do it too.

As a result it has become an unsupported vertical, with unilateral input from its counterpart, it’s this:

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When maybe it should be this:

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How did we get here?

Partly because Brand is a word that is understood abstractly, but not materially. 

It has soft, extrinsic value, but fails to be appreciated intrinsically.

This is in large part because it isn’t strategically integrated (in marketing, let alone organizationally); it’s a tactical byproduct.

Externally, it seems to be reinforced by static that is evidenced by:

  • LinkedIn posts that approach problem solving as one size fits all, and the solution is a paragraph of text written as absolutes. 
  • opinions that are academic and not practical. 
  • a belief that marketing is mostly a funnel that starts and ends with growth. 
  • that you can solve it by buying a person.
  • a fallback to copy pasting someone else’s Brand into your own (we should do exactly what x Brand did but for us).
  • zero-sum.

But this whole thing isn’t one sided. Which is a good thing because it should give a chance for everyone to reset.

Brand, in this weird identity crisis, has:

  • latched on to a belief that they (and/or “creativity”) trumps all.
  • failed to educate itself or understand how growth marketing is central to business success.
  • that it’s somehow anathema.
  • that it can suffice for Brand’s output to be a powerpoint or chart, with little consideration for whether it is deployable (or deployable with ease) in the real world. 

It’s this weird thing where growth is inviting Brand into the system, with no real understanding of how to fit them in. 

And it’s brand feeling left out, suffering from a loss of confidence (created in part by a history of agencies providing no material long term value) and enforcing that there is a battle against growth.

It’s the pen not being as mighty as the sword.

I believe that, ultimately, this is not an either or situation but a together one.

CMO’s or Marketing VP’s at companies at these crossroads need to be fluent in both.

They need to understand and weigh the value of both.

They need to be ok being transparent in how they hierarch them. 

They need to look beyond the funnel.

They need to believe in good work as an output of strong Brand.

In the grand scheme of things does the interplay between Growth and Brand really matter?

I’d like to think so, but hopefully as I’ve tried to illustrate above, without some practical consideration, that integration is not set up for success.

Companies used to choose whether or not to have Brand.

Now they feel like they need it.

But do they really want it?

When times get tough, and marketing is the first to get hit – because they are always the first cost cutting measure – who do you think is going to get hit first?

Growth or Brand?