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The top 3 marketing challenges facing brands today

Denise E. Zimmerman
The top 3 marketing challenges facing brands today Denise E. Zimmerman

Brand marketers know that digital is important. C-level executives now get it too. But recognizing the importance of digital is not enough to succeed. Simply reallocating media budget isn't the answer either.

As brands continue to struggle with the shift to a digital world, the role of the brand manager has significantly changed. However, many brand marketers consider themselves unprepared to deliver on the top factors that they identify as being key to success in digital marketing.

The insights in this article were sourced from direct experience working with brand managers and marketers, a quantitative survey of nearly 200 marketing leaders ("Finch Brands and Netplus Digital Pulse Study," August 2013), and a series of interviews with the people who work in this space day in and day out. The findings clearly demonstrated that it's time for marketers to stop pretending everything is under control. The success or failure of their brands depends on it.

The top 3 marketing challenges facing brands today

To view the full infographic on the results of the "Finch Brands and Netplus Digital Pulse Study," click here.

So what do brand marketers see as their current biggest challenges when it comes to digital marketing? In this article, we'll discuss the top three barriers to success and provide some tips for overcoming them.

Lack of expertise and training

Among the top factors important to success in digital marketing is having the right resources and expertise to guide strategy, as well as the staff to implement it. About 60 percent of brand marketers believe they need more help from experts to get the most out of their digital efforts, and only 27 percent of those in mid- and senior-level brand and digital marketing positions consider themselves experts.

The word used most often to describe how survey respondents feel about managing efforts in digital marketing is overwhelmed. To put some perspective around this, the pace of change and fragmentation in our industry can sometimes overwhelm even the savviest and experienced of us. There is a baseline of experience required to drive strategy and execute on specific disciplinary practices. Yet the industry changes so much and so frequently that it is impossible to know everything even in a specific subject matter area.

The top 3 marketing challenges facing brands today

The words most often used by marketers to describe how they feel about managing efforts in digital.

The complexity, rate of change, and the ability to plan and execute effectively in digital continue to be a challenge. As one senior brand manager at a Fortune 500 CPG firm said, "Let's face it -- TV is easier to do. Digital is more complicated and fragmented with a pace of change that can make your head spin."

While TV might be more expensive from a production and media buying perspective, it is far more turnkey than digital; the investment in people, skills, talent, and effort needed to develop and execute effective digital programs is often overlooked.

Only 29 percent of brand marketers surveyed feel that their companies have sufficient skills training in the realm of digital marketing, and 60 percent say they need more help from experts.

The skills required to produce effective digital campaigns are often multi-disciplinary and can require teams of a dozen or more. "Skills have a lot more to do with thinking more broadly and strategically -- while thinking tactically," said Cyrille Labourel, a senior brand manager with Johnson & Johnson. "To be successful, you have to be able to move between strategy and execution easily."

Half of all brand marketers surveyed believe that hiring internal staff members that specialize in digital is important to success, but only about a third feel that their firms are doing a good job addressing this need. Some brands are addressing this need by including digital experience in their job descriptions for brand management roles.

When hiring for digital expertise, it is advised to look for core characteristics such as the ability to cross-communicate and connect to business goals. Digital marketers must have a good marketing basis on which to build their digital expertise and a thirst for ongoing learning. Perhaps Jonathan Sullivan, digital lead for Valspar Paint, said it best when he shared, "Experts in our industry are experts at learning."

It's clear that budgets for digital marketing and media are increasing, but corresponding investments are lagging in the areas of acquiring the expertise and resources required to plan, develop, and execute effective strategies and programs. Brand marketers must start to integrate essential characteristics in their hiring practices and demonstrate the corresponding value to get the support they need.

Misaligned organizational structures and processes

Equally important to having digital expertise and resources is having the right organizational structure and processes to facilitate connections and communication across brand, marketing, and business goals.

To be successful, digital can no longer exist in a silo, in a backroom, or as an afterthought. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. And change has to come from the top.

While 62 percent of brand marketers feel that they are now getting senior leadership support for digital, only one in three think that senior leadership at their company has a clear vision for the role of digital marketing. This is greatly felt in the lack of organizational structure and process required to succeed. Brands need more active senior leadership support and focus on the role of digital marketing in their organizations. CMOs are in an ideal position to help facilitate and advance these efforts.

"There was a time when the web was its own thing -- brand managers weren't involved," said Barbara Rentschler, CMO for K'Nex Brands. "There was no integration between marketing efforts and what we were doing on the web. Over time, we have changed the organization and the way people work together so that they are integrated, high performance, self-managed teams."

Dedicated, internal digital teams that can bridge both classical and digital marketing are also a key contributor to advancing success. According to a brand manager at a Fortune 500 food manufacturer, "People are used to running traditional marketing programs. Having a digital team really helps."

These internal experts can bridge the language and skill barrier between digital marketing and brand management, helping brand managers get the most out of their agency partners and each other. "Brand managers and digital marketers are still learning what each does and how our roles can support each other," said Renee Heath, digital lead at B&G Foods. "It's a tag-team effort, and some things we work on jointly. We are all focused on where we can best apply our expertise and skills."

As content becomes integral to effective digital marketing, integration across brand management and digital becomes even more important as well. Brand managers for the most part are responsible for an increasing volume of content and messaging, in addition to their responsibilities for overall financial performance of the brand. Seventy-two percent of brand marketers believe that investment in strong digital content is important, but only 39 percent feel that their companies' efforts are "good" or "very good." To be successful, there must be true organizational support to drive the right business outcomes for brands.

Brand marketers are also calling for improved alignment and reorganization around agency selection and management. Many of those interviewed expressed frustration with agencies' lack of digital expertise or ability to hire agencies with the expertise they need. Often brand marketers are managing multiple agencies. Brand managers and digital marketers are calling for innovation in agency management and to be included in decisions regarding agency selection. Often times, these decisions are made from the top down -- by those furthest away from the existing and emerging needs of brand managers.

Ingrained legacy practices

Brand marketers are driven to figure out valid measurements, establish benchmarks, and gauge ROI returns that map meaningfully back to financial outcomes. When it comes to digital marketing, the language and the means are vastly different from what came before, and there is not a long history of proven performance, especially when you consider the pace of change.

From the perspective of the brand marketer, the fear of the unknown can be paralyzing. It's always tempting to rely on vehicles like TV, even if they are losing relevance, simply because they have sophisticated validation models. As one brand manager put it, "You never get fired for deciding to go with TV. If you make a large investment in digital and it flops, everyone notices." These legacy mentalities remain a key barrier to success with digital.

According to one senior brand manager at a Fortune 500 personal care giant, "There are so many legacy mindsets and processes from the old way of doing things that continue to persist. I'm not sure if CPG companies are still feeling safe about putting a lot of money down in the digital space because other older tools are 'more proven' because of historical marketing mix models."

Labourel with Johnson & Johnson went further to say, "Even if we know that TV doesn't have the same ROI, we don't know how much digital connects to sales. At the same time you have to be able to convince management that we need to do things differently."

There have been many industry attempts to translate digital metrics into legacy models with online ratings and GRP-type measurements with mixed results. While industry guidelines might be helpful, brand marketers must also focus on understanding the metrics that digital provides to develop their own benchmarks and ROI models that translate to their business.

According to one senior digital manager at a Fortune 500 beverage firm, "I sometimes get asked about how many GRPs digital provides, which reflects people trying to transfer old thinking to the new tools, and that just doesn't work. It's critical to be able to get into the numbers to understand what's happening and the behavior behind them. These are different metrics from what brand managers usually look at."


As digital rises in importance, brands need to have the right support from management. Budgets are increasing, but fragmentation, confusion, and frustration are as well. So while we might celebrate increasing digital budgets, the advancement of our industry, and acknowledgement of its importance, we still must address significant, unmet needs among brand marketers if we are to make these investments successful.

Only those organizations that recognize the needs and address them with senior-level commitment will be in a strong position to activate digital's full potential.

Are you prepared for that?

Denise Zimmerman is president and CSO of NetPlus. A special thanks goes to Finch Brands for its work on the "Finch Brands and Netplus Digital Pulse Study" that drove the insights in this article.

On Twitter? Follow Zimmerman at @dzimmerman. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Surviving adversity and managing risk for big business" image via Shutterstock.


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