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Should Direct Marketers Worry About Branding?

June 27th, 2005 by Bob Bly

Yes, says Steve Cuno, chairman of something called RESPONSE Prospecting and Loyalty Strategies, in an article in Deliver (7/05).

?As a direct marketing, you?re hired to pull a profitable, measurable response, not to build the brand,? says Steve.

Well, at least he?s got that part right.

But then he goes on, ?But if you don?t recognize the impact your work has on the brand, and, perhaps more important, that the brand SHOULD have on your work, you?re being na?ve, and you will lose sales in the long run.?

Sorry, Steve, but that?s where you?re dead wrong.

As a direct response copywriter, your responsibility is one thing and one thing only: to maximize ROI from every promotion you write.

Direct response isn?t a branding tool. People barely remember million-dollar TV campaigns. Trust me that they forget 99.99% of your mail the minute they toss it.

And whenever you subordinate ROI to worrying about ?the impact your work has on the brand? ? or anything else ? you are compromising the ability of your promotion to maximize response.

When I sit down to write a letter, I think of only one thing: what true, ethical, and legal thing can I say that will get my prospect to buy this product?

And not, ?How can I create a good image? or ?How does this build the brand??

I have been doing it that way for 25 years ? with pretty good results.

So I think I?m right and Steve?s all wet.

What?s your opinion?


This entry was posted on Monday, June 27th, 2005 at 3:33 pm and is filed under Branding, Direct Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

85 responses about “Should Direct Marketers Worry About Branding?”

  1. Jim Logan said:

    You may both need a towel. And I’m not sure I’m dry enough to offer you mine 🙂

    I’ve never liked the word “brand” and this is as good an example as any as to why.

    I agree with you 100% on the purpose of a direct response copywriter – “…your responsibility is one thing and one thing only: to maximize ROI from every promotion you write.” However, I don’t believe you can completely ignore the brand of the product you’re promoting.

    I agree you shouldn’t be thinking of how to build the brand, but the brand does influence the true, ethical, and legal things you say to get the prospect to buy the product.

  2. Bob McCarthy said:

    I don’t know, Bob. I think you got yourself a little “damp” with this one.

    I agree that branding is a much over-valued concept in marketing. It provides almost no short-term benefit. And there is no way to measure it.

    But in the long term (meaning years, not months), a consistent, branded message can contribute to a company’s or a product’s reputation – which is a good thing.

    Clearly, if you need to choose between direct response and branding, direct response should win every time – but I don’t think it needs to come to that.

    The direct response message/offer/call to action doesn’t have to be sacrificed by the use of branded messages and design. You can have both.

    Keep in mind, too, the difference between a prospecting mailing that reaches individual prospects maybe once a year and a multiple-hit mailing that reaches a smaller group of pre-qualified prospects up to 12 or 24 times a year.

    Both programs want to generate response, but isn’t there some added value in having a consistent, branded “look and feel” when you are reaching the same people over and over again?

    Bob McCarthy
    The Direct Response Coach

  3. Adrian said:

    What are you talking about, all these things do build the brand. Every contact you have with a customer ends up building the brand. It’s pouring in here like Niagara Falls.

  4. Bruce DeBoer said:

    “Brand image is the sum total of your customer’s experience across all contact points with your product or service.”

    Are you sure you’re not in your back yard pool while writing this: wet and/or heat stroke? You can either build the brand or harvest it. Your strategy depends on the product life cycle. I’m no direct mail guru but if I were to hire a DM guy or gal, they had better be true to my strategy my brand. While DM isn’t a “brand awareness” activity per se, it is a contact point with my customer and shouldn’t erode my branding efforts.

    Surely you didn’t mean to say that DM is a completely separate marketing entity and needn’t be part of an integrated strategy. I KNOW you didn’t mean to write that.

    BTW – there are some good ways to measure brand value. Go here for more:

  5. Richard Leader said:

    I agree with Bruce and Adrian here – I think Nick Usborne once wrote that ‘only words set you apart’ – brand is more than a few logos and a mission statement. Brand building has to include the words you use in all your communications with customers, prospects, suspects, ex-customers, partners, resellers, competitors, enemies…
    If one of your ‘brand values’ (ugly term) is about good customer service, you have to use words in your DM that reflect this (among the many other ways you should show good customer service practices).

    Your mission as a DM copywriter is surely more simple than just maximising ROI for every promotion you write – you have to maximise ROI for all those promotions you haven’t yet written too. That’s branding. And it doesn’t mean compromising ROI on the initial promotion.

  6. M. Cloward said:

    I agree with Bob. Why focus on building brand when building your business is vital?

    Most successful brands don’t focus on branding or building identity. They focus on selling stuff the most effective way possible. I’ve never had the CEO of the company ask me, “Hey, how’s our branding doing today?” Hasn’t happened. Never will.

    The CEO wants to know how much we’re selling — and what we’re doing to sell even more.

    Jon Spoelstra (author of Marketing Outrageously) says, “I’ve got a warped perspective on advertising: I think advertising should get results you can feel. Don’t give me any of that image or identity stuff; I want revenue that I can track to the ad. Anything less is, to me, like throwing money into a tornado and hoping for the best.”

  7. Steve Slaunwhite said:

    The best thing you can do for your brand is to sell the product. And direct-response marketing is — or at least should be — indelibly focused on doing just that.

  8. Bruce DeBoer said:

    There is a strong disconnect between the pull and push of product sales. Any suggestions as to how to make them work together?

    Both are important. If us Branding types to our job, the sales types (DM) should have an easier job, isn’t that the point?

    In the words of Rodney King, “can’t we just all get along?”

    BTW – Thanks again for the call Bob. Blogs RULE! I never would have benefited from your knowledge without blogs.

  9. Danny said:

    Direct-response (DR) types seem to have this image of “Branding” as this amorphous, whim-and-fancy approach to marketing. Which is understandable, because many “Branding” types do too.

    Here is where, in my experience, the difference lies (or should). DR folks are after one thing: the sale. Preferably as many sales for as small an investment as possible. Which is a perfectly reasonable MO.

    What are you selling in DR? The Brand. You are compelling people to buy one particular type of widget. To buy your brand, versus the other guy’s.

    The brand is the identity of your product–and your product has a brand whether you focus on it or not.

    And DR is only one aspect of the brand. Packaging and design is another. So is customer service. And tech support. And community involvement.

    Brand building is nothing more than maintaining consistency across all facets of a company or product’s interaction with it’s customers.

    DR’s focus is on controlling all facets of a campaign to generate the maximum ROI. By ignoring the brand (which is simply consistency of communication), you are at best missing out on a huge opportunity to capitalize on past campaigns and existing consumer knowledge of the product and at worst, creating a lability by casting away that investment.

  10. Bob Bly said:

    Danny, we are NOT selling the brand. Usually we are selling BENEFITS. Often we are selling OFFER, which has nothing to do with brand and which branding people often dislike. Gevalia coffee has a strong brand, but it is sold with the offer: sign up and get a free coffee maker. That drives branding types nuts but it works like gangbusters.

  11. Steve Slaunwhite said:

    Danny, I can’t count the amount of times when a client has given me a list of brand guidelines to follow… and those guidelines have done nothing but stifle response. What works in brand communications (and how do you guys define “works” anyway?) often doesn’t work in DR. So as a copywriter who wants to get the highest response rates possible for his client, which rules do I follow? The brand guidelines? Or the proven principles of direct marketing?

  12. Richard Leader said:

    Steve – is it brand guidelines that stifle response or bad brand guidelines (those that are created without a thought for DR) that stifle response?

  13. Steve Slaunwhite said:

    Richard – I personally haven’t come across brand guidelines that were created with a thought for DR. But I’m sure they exist. And I would love to see an example.

  14. Bob Bly said:


    To succeed, the direct response copywriter must focus on one thing and one thing only: what true, legal, and ethical thing can I say to get the reader to buy this product?

    Thinking about ANY brand guidelines, good or bad — or ANYTHING else — always interferes with that mission and invariably compromises response.

  15. Ray Edwards said:


    I think you’re right on target with your comments. And I promise not to use any water metaphors in my post…

    What worries people about “branding” in direct response promotions, I think, is that the copywriter might do something that is counter to the “brand identity” of the company.

    I believe any good copywriter incorporates that identity into his or her copy. If I’m writing a promotion for Apple Computer, it will be very different from the promotion I would write for Zim’s Crack Cream, and at least some of that difference would be based on the “brand identity” of the two companies. Apple Computer is just a different kind of animal than Zim’s Crack Cream, and thus my “pitch” for each will be different as well.

    Now, as for “branding”… as a direct response copywriter, that’s not my job. My personal opinion on the subject is that companies should spend a lot more time trying to BE the “brand” they want the public to see them as, and LESS time trying to convince the public that the company is something other than itself. My experience has been that companies often try to portray a “brand identity” that has very little resemblance to the company’s TRUE identity (how it looks, behaves, and conducts business).

  16. Jim Logan said:

    Bob, Regarding you comment…If Gevalia coffee has a weak brand, what is the affect on your offer to sign up and get a coffee maker?

  17. Ankesh Kothari said:

    One of the legends of direct marketing – Joe Sugarman started adding his JS&A logo in every display ad.


    Because he believed that it built trust. People would see the logo and remember the last product they had bought from JS&A and how that product delivered on the promise made by the ad.

    (I’m just writing from memory, and if memory serves me right, thats what Joe wrote in one of his books (I think it was in “Advertising Secrets of the Written Word”, but could be one of his other books too.))

    So, imho, Steve is not all wet.

  18. kalvine said:


  19. Don Nicholas said:

    Hi Bob:

    I’m going to weight in on the “all wet” side when it comes to Internet marketing. In a world where 20 to 40% of our orders come from people who are looking for us with a search engine, every thing we do either builds or detracts from our brand.

    For a quick and free case study on the topic, check out:

    All the best,

    Don Nicholas (another reformed direct marketer)
    Editor, Mequoda Cafe Daily

  20. James Cook said:

    I discovered this discussion while searching “Gevalia” and “copywriter”. I just read their recent ad in my wife’s magazine (I just read them for the ads, honest) I thought this DR piece was phenomenal and have cut it out for my swipe file.

    Does anybody know who wrote it? I’m just curious.


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