Why Facebook has been terrible for brand-building

—Despite its massive popularity with marketers, Facebook is about efficiency not effectiveness, and activation not brand-building, says Mark Tomblin—


A truth that many of us in marketing struggle with is that ordinary folk—the people we are trying to influence—don’t think much about brands at all in their day-to-day lives.

It’s a hard truth because of the discrepancy of focus between those who manage brands and those who buy them. In any given year, a brand manager might spend 1,800 hours thinking about her brand; the brand’s typical buyer might spend five minutes.

This difference made brand managers particularly vulnerable to the charms of social media when it first emerged. Here was a medium that suggested the possibility of a relationship that was different in kind from what had gone before. You could speak to—and hear from—customers directly. You could “engage” with them. You could personalize your messaging. But most important of all, you could share with your customer the depth of feelings you (hopefully both) had for the brand.

What brand manager wouldn’t want to hear that? Who wouldn’t want that validation for all the hard work, the long hours, the weekends, the thankless presentations to skeptical sales forces and time-pressed retailers?

And best of all, social media was free—or very close to it—at a time when budgets were stretched thin by the great financial crisis. A heady cocktail for sure. So heady that the whole industry swooned.

We are all living with the consequences today. Especially as it’s no longer free (far from it) and taking a bigger and bigger share of marketing budgets each year. And now, of course, it’s really only about one platform—Facebook.

Despite its ubiquity and apparently unassailable position as an arbiter of what works in modern marketing, I believe that Facebook has been terrible for brand-building, and that its rise, more than anything else, has led us to where we are now: on the verge of a branding crisis like nothing we have seen since modern brands were first created in the early years of the 20th Century.

This is for a number of reasons.

It’s a private world, not a public one

“Hey, I really loved that direct mail piece I got from Big Bank in this morning’s mail,” said no-one ever. Substitute a Facebook Canvas ad for direct mail piece, and the sentiment holds. Here lies the first major weakness of Facebook as an environment for building brands.

Les Binet and Peter Field have shown again and again that fame—talkability—is a crucial part of building a successful brand. The most effective communications plans start with a conscious aim to generate public profile—beyond just reaching their intended target audience. They are looking to drop a rock in the pond of popular culture, if you will.

A public act that quite deliberately prioritizes reaching—and resonating with—the broadest possible audience is the very antithesis of the micro-targeting that lies at the heart of Facebook’s appeal.

These ads are seen by everyone—and most importantly everyone knows that everyone else is seeing them. The publicity is part of the point. This is the key to fame as an engine of effectiveness.

No matter if the reach is the same, there is a world of qualitative difference between running a commercial in Hockey Night in Canada and on Facebook. Yet this rarely seems to be discussed. (I’m also cutting Facebook quite a lot of slack here by not getting into its viewability metrics, which would only further weaken its case as a fame-generating medium.)

As leading U.K. ad-person Charles Vallance put it so well, “Great brands live in a world of their own creation.” I firmly believe that these worlds are created by consciously seeking fame, not as a corollary but as an explicit objective, from the outset.

Which leads us to the next point:

Facebook is an activation medium that pretends to be a brand-building one

As Binet and Field’s famous chart shows, comms activity can be broadly defined as either short-term (activation) or long-term (brand-building). In general terms, in most markets and at most times, brands that want to be successful (i.e. grow) should spend rather more on brand-building than on activation. In a nutshell, this is because they need to attract new users, and you don’t do that by just talking to the ones you already have.

Facebook has sold itself as a brand-building medium when in my view it’s much better suited—and thought of—as an activation medium. As shown by the self-reinforcing culture war bubbles for which Facebook is now infamous, it’s a great way of preaching to the already converted.

People talk about Facebook’s reach as if that alone makes it appropriate for building brands. Such thinking completely misses the important point that environment matters, too.

And Facebook’s environment is much more that of the corner store than the Super Bowl. Which is why so many small businesses like the very low CPMs and the ability to buy really focused audiences. But that is also true of traditional direct marketing channels, and no-one ever thought that you could build sustainable, emotionally resonant brands using those.

“More personalized = more effective” is unproven

At the heart of the attractiveness of social media is the idea that the better targeted the communication, the more effective it must be. It’s just so obvious!

But—and sorry to be the guy with the bucket of cold water—is it actually true? Like many “common sense” ideas, this one bears inspecting, especially as it has spawned its very own industry—performance marketing.

I get that better targeting makes for a more efficient use of resources, but more effective? That seems a stretch to me.

Facebook has actively encouraged us to talk about short-term ROI as if it’s synonymous with effectiveness, but it’s not the same at all. Valuable, yes, but indicative of efficiency, not effectiveness. To be fair, this lionizing of short-term ROI is common to all activation media; it’s part of the same impending branding crisis.

Show me an independently evaluated long-term effectiveness case built around Facebook, and I’ll suspend my scepticism. I have yet to read one. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

Meanwhile, Facebook has become a significant TV advertiser in markets around the world (it spent nearly $300 million in the U.S. alone last year, according to Fast Company). Could it be that they know something that they aren’t sharing with their clients?

Which takes us neatly to…

Facebook has helped destroy the idea of the campaign

Once upon a time, clients wanted campaigns because they were both effective (each new execution built upon what had gone before) and efficient (for exactly the same reason). But such ridiculously old-fashioned thinking won’t wash in the brave new world of social media.

Instead, we continually reinvent the wheel, and tie up eye-watering sums of money on endless executional variations while we’re doing it—red car for Paul, blue car for Lisa, yellow car for Kim etc. Then, of course, we have all the “innovative” formats that have to be dealt with. As a result, production budgets, already under pressure, are spread thinner and thinner. Unsurprisingly, the work gets less and less memorable.

No wonder Peter Field last year called attention to the increasing disconnect between creative awards and effectiveness—the first time this happened in his analysis of the IPA Databank that goes back more than 30 years—as creative teams all over the world are being forced to play on smaller and smaller fields, dramatically reducing the chances of making anything that has a sustained effect on base sales. It seems that we are all in the direct marketing business now.

We know from the recent excellent work by Orlando Wood of System 1 what creative work needs to be effective. It needs narrative continuity, characters, “fluent” devices, stories and elements that people can relate to. Sadly, in Facebook World, there is almost no chance that creative work like this will ever get made. And that it an existential challenge for which brands need to find an answer—and soon. Time is running out to get back on track.

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The subject of building brands on Facebook will—quite rightly—never get as much attention as Facebook’s issues with privacy, hate speech, misinformation and other toxic content.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth discussing. The new conventional wisdom that, due to its reach and micro-targeting abilities, Facebook has to have a growing presence on every media plan comes at a truly significant cost, and not just in terms of opportunities foregone. The real cost lies in the fond expectation of brand-building results that will never come.


Mark Tomblin is the founder of Thinking Unstuck.

Mark Tomblin