Should you invest in a brand campaign?
Launching a brand campaign is a rite of passage for any company, but the experience can feel especially significant for startups. Think about it: one day you’re a total unknown, and the next day your brand is on billboards all over town!
Suddenly your friends are sending you selfies in front of your ads, and your parents finally believe that you work for a “real” company.
What a milestone!
As fun as brand campaigns look on the outside, internally they have a huge impact on budget and require complex conversations between Marketing & Finance teams. And that’s what we’re here to talk about.
We ran our first major out-of-home brand campaign at Spendesk in June 2022. In this article, I’ll explain how we decided it was time to spend the big bucks on brand marketing.
What is a brand campaign?
Broadly speaking, a brand campaign is one unified message expressed through a series of communications across multiple channels, designed to generate awareness about your brand, and leave a memorable impression.
The key here is: one message, many channels.
The purpose of a brand campaign is to give people the impression that they’re seeing your brand everywhere. They should encounter your message enough times to easily understand and remember it.
The main message of our brand campaign was “Super Satisfying Spend Management.” We brought that message to life through various visual and verbal iterations, in both online and offline advertising formats across Europe.
Why invest in brand awareness campaigns?
From a marketer’s perspective, it’s easy to get excited. Brand awareness is the foundation for success in all other sales and marketing activities, for a few reasons:
Credibility: brand investments help consumers see your brand as legitimate
Loyalty: smart branding builds an emotional connection between your brand and your customers - both current and future
Pricing power: customers are willing to pay premium prices for well-known brands that they perceive as trustworthy
Share of voice: smart, consistent brand investments help you stand out from the competition
Help with hiring: a great brand campaign can also drive demand for your company as an exciting and well-known employer to work for
Employee engagement: brand campaigns generate internal excitement and pride among your employees
(This Frontify article has more on these concepts.)
That pretty much runs the marketing gamut. A great brand campaign should have a positive impact on every significant KPI, and all throughout the funnel.
Therefore, I would argue that brand awareness isn’t just icing on the cake, it’s more like baking soda — essential to making the entire recipe work. Which is why many companies are willing to make brand investments early and often, to reap all the business benefits of increased brand awareness.
The bottom line: the earlier you can get people familiar with and excited about your brand, the better.
When to invest in a brand campaign
Now that you’re convinced of the benefits of a brand campaign, how do you know when the timing makes sense for your company?
This is a somewhat subjective question, and depends on plenty of other factors like cashflow, lead generation strategy, and your priorities for the next 6-12 months. But here are few questions which can help you decide to hold off or dive right in:
How crowded is your category?
If your competitors make big brand investments, you don’t want to be late to the party. Otherwise you risk being left behind altogether.
For example, when 10-minute delivery companies started popping up everywhere overnight (Flink, Gorillas, Getir), they were all competing to win market share as quickly as possible. So big investments in out-of-home advertising were a must. They were all pouring ad dollars into the same markets and channels at the same time to win mindshare.
Another way of thinking about this is: can you really afford not to launch a brand campaign?
Is the product ready to deliver on your brand campaign message?
For early stage startups, you don’t want to waste the attention your campaign is going to attract on a product that’s not 100% ready for the masses. This seems obvious, but you want to maximize your moment in the spotlight.
If your campaign message is “the fastest internet the world has ever seen” and you’re still working out the kinks of your MVP, you won’t want to create demand you can’t serve.
Besides, an over-promising campaign is also a great way to make your sales and customer success teams hate marketing. If they constantly have to politely explain that the product can’t do what you claimed, that’s bad for your image both inside the company and out.
How much budget can you allocate?
This is typically where the rubber meets the road; where marketing meets the finance team. Brand campaigns are not cheap. It’s a “go big or go home” game. As in, hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars or euros.
In simple terms, if you’ve only raised a Series A, you likely won’t get much bang for your buck with out-of-home advertising channels like billboards or TVs. You either have to skimp on placements (local channels, small subway stations), or you spend the whole budget on a two-week campaign that’s over before it starts.
The most successful campaigns are not one-hit wonders. They require a sustained investment over 6-12 months, repeating your message to make it stick.
This doesn’t all have to be TV, radio, and billboards. A campaign will live on your website, blog, and social media, too. But if the finance and leadership teams aren’t willing to put serious money on the line, you’re probably not ready.
How much should you budget for a brand campaign?
The average startup marketing budget is usually between 11-20% of overall revenue, mainly dedicated to building brand awareness and attracting leads. This depends largely on the age and growth trajectory of the company. And that's the total marketing budget.
So if your revenue is $10M, your marketing budget might be around $1.1M. And candidly, you could easily spend ALL of it on a brand campaign. Those billboards you’re seeing all over town likely cost $1+ million, when all is said and done.
A brand campaign budget involves two main line items: creative work and distribution.
Typically you’ll need more budget if you work with a creative agency vs. using in-house talent. We decided to work with an agency for the creative concept and production of the key visuals, and our in-house brand design team then tailored these for different formats and channels.
Creative spend can vary widely depending on the medium. A campaign focused on illustrated visuals and simple animation will be much less expensive to produce than one with original photography, or videos with live models and actors (which adds licensing and usage fees).
Either way, plan for a minimum of €40-50K for creative fees.
Note: In most cases, you’re better off agreeing to a project-based fee vs. hourly fee so there aren’t any surprises at the end.
Even though your heart and energy will probably go most towards the creative work — all those brainstorms and deep brand discussions are exciting — the bulk of the budget goes to distribution.
And it’s money well spent, because you want as many eyeballs on your beautiful creative work as possible. Your campaign may be a mix of billboards, print ads, direct mail, paid social, and experiential marketing — and the costs can add up quickly. Especially when you’re reaching multiple markets.
In general, you can plan to spend around 3-5x more on distribution than on creative. But more is always better!
How do you justify the investment?
Because we’re talking about big, expensive marketing campaigns, it’s natural to worry about return on investment. Modern marketing teams are increasingly data-driven, and a broad, hard-to-measure campaign can be unappealing.
But assuming you’ve decided that the time is right and you can’t afford not to, there are smart ways to measure your brand awareness campaign.
Here are a few points to emphasize that, in my view, make this investment fully worth it.
You’ll go beyond your current marketing channels
Probably the single best reason for spending big on a new campaign is that your existing campaigns and methods aren’t meeting your growth plan. Brand awareness is principally a top-of-the-funnel metric, so if you need more awareness to fuel the funnel, a large brand campaign may be just the thing.
As with all marketing, it’s vital to understand your audience and where they discover brands. Are they very online, and a social media strategy may be best? Do they largely work remotely, in which case a subway campaign is a wasted effort?
Not all your buyers are on social media, and many will never open your emails. So, don’t jump to the status quo channels without verifying your audience will be there.
You’ll be physically present in each market
Physical billboards and even local television or radio ads can be a shortcut to more trust and notoriety. Think about it: would you give significant money to some company you’re not certain actually exists?
Out-of-home advertising (OOH) is proven to increase trust and loyalty as a trusted and well-funded brand. In a study conducted by Rapport, companies that used OOH for brand building and sales activation saw their brand trust ratings increase 26%, brand quality ratings rose by 106%, and customer loyalty improved 275%.
Outdoor advertising delivers a message that you are a big, real brand. No matter how good your website, many prospects simply won’t become buyers until they know you’re legitimate.
Increased brand awareness levels up all your other goals
Clearly more top-of-funnel interest has a positive impact on your revenue goals. More awareness means more website visits, which means more demo requests or items in the checkout.
But lead generation and sales aren’t your only goals, especially once you reach a certain size. In fact, it’s entirely likely that our brand campaign had the biggest impact on our employer brand.
When candidates have actually seen your company in the wild - not just on LinkedIn - it becomes real for them. And while our campaign was aimed at finance teams first, the calm, satisfying sentiment also resonates with potential employees.
Candidates still tell us every day that they saw a billboard in the Eurostar terminal in London or the Berlin Hauptbahnhof.
Measurement isn’t everything
Finally, I want to acknowledge that not all marketing impact is easily quantifiable - far from it. And eventually, companies of a certain size and in competitive markets may feel they don’t have a choice but to advertise.
When you’re in this position, put your cards on the table with executive leadership. By all means share the positive benefits above and justify the expenditure as best you can.
But as much as we want all marketing activities to be data-driven and measurable, not all benefits and impacts of a brand campaign will be. And that's fine! As long as it's fine for your executive (and financial) leadership.
Get them on the same page with the intangible impact, rather than promising laser-targeted tracking and perfectly measurable lead generation. That’s just asking for trouble down the road.
After all this talk of attribution and budgets, let’s end on vision. You want a campaign theme that can grow with your company & product, so you can iterate on it in the future. You don’t want your brand to fade out after the campaign ends.
The best brand campaigns feel both timely and relevant to right now, but also line up nicely with the messaging that comes before and after.
Choose creative work that you’ll be proud of in five years’ time, when the company is ten times larger and the market has changed completely. As long as it’s true to the business, your products, and your people, you should achieve this goal.