The Fourth Dimension: Brand

Lessons Learned: Significant Brand Discoveries That Shaped Work Tech is a four-part blog series by Bret Starr highlighting unique strategies and best practices learned by The Starr Conspiracy since 2006. 

Lesson No. 2: Entering the Fourth Dimension

In 2006, I discovered the fourth dimension of marketing. Brand.

OK, I didn’t discover “brand” — but I did isolate brand (academically speaking) as a test variable in direct marketing, and was the first person (that I know of) who correlated brand recognition to both demand generation results and market share across across large data sets with stable cohorts of competitors operating in overlapping media fields. If none of that made sense, don’t worry — it’s me, not you.

It happened like this.

We were running direct marketing campaigns for Taleo in 2006 (mostly email marketing). At the time, Taleo was one of the biggest media buyers in Work Tech, spending millions of dollars each year on industry paid media. It’s worth noting that Taleo had only recently rebranded from Recruitsoft (2004) and gone public (2005). So they were kind of a big deal. At the same time, we were working with a smaller upstart competitor (who had just received a very large Series A investment) and a small, bootstrapped company out of Atlanta that was also in Talent Acquisition. (This was all before the emergence of the Integrated Talent Management platform era.)

Tracking so far? That’s three companies in the same category (Talent Acquisition). One large, public company, one medium venture-backed company (we’ll call them Fancy Startup), and one small (older), bootstrapped company (we’ll call them Atlanta). 

So that’s Taleo, Fancy Startup, and Atlanta.

OK. So we had just started working with Atlanta, and we were extremely confident we could change their destiny. They had never invested a significant amount in paid media, but we assured them we could convert on their investment. After all, we were running campaigns for the biggest player in the Talent Acquisition space (Taleo) and the most promising startup (Fancy Startup) to boot! And they were both killing it (at different levels), receiving thousands of leads each month from paid email marketing.

I personally created Atlanta’s first campaign. I had made a lot of promises to the founder, and I intended to keep them. I rented the same email lists we were using for Taleo and Fancy Startup, created an offer in the same vein as successful offers we had tested for the other two companies, and delivered creative of the highest standard, conforming to best practices of the day for email copy and creative composition.

I remember waking up early the morning their first email campaign was broadcast. I was excited! Their salespeople had been waiting years for “marketing support” and we were about to deliver them a big cast iron skillet of sizzling hot leads!

Well. On the day the campaign launched, Atlanta didn’t receive a single lead. We were expecting hundreds from the first list, but not one had materialized. I called the media provider and asked them for proof that the campaign had actually been broadcast. 

“You guys know we use this list all the time for Taleo and Fancy Startup. We usually get hundreds of leads. I find it hard to believe that we didn’t generate a single lead!” 

They provided proof. I called Atlanta and asked them to verify that their landing pages and CRM system were working. They provided proof. I simply couldn’t wrap my mind around why this campaign wasn’t performing.

List-Offer-Creative. List-Offer-Creative. The list was a proven performer. The offer was solid (the format having been tested across multiple campaigns). The creative was also solid, both art and copy. No. Something had gone wrong with the broadcast. I called the media provider back and pleaded my case. To their credit (and my surprise), they agreed to resend the campaign the following week at no cost to Atlanta. And so I held my breath as the campaign was broadcast a second time. 

One lead. One! It was worse than zero, because now I knew the campaign was actually being broadcast successfully. So the campaign sucked? Impossible. It was just as good as the campaigns for Taleo and Fancy Startup. Something else had to be going on. And I was going to figure it out.

I called the media company back. I wasn’t in a fighting mood anymore. I waved the white flag and asked for their help to figure out why Atlanta’s campaign sucked. 

“What happened?” I asked. 

“Hard to say. This happens every now and then. It’s probably just a dud campaign. You didn’t get many clicks and the open rate is really low.”

So I asked for the list of opens. You have to understand that this was something media companies simply didn’t do back then. Again to my surprise, they sent me a spreadsheet with the email addresses of people who had opened the campaign. I emailed those people. I asked if they would spend 15 minutes on the phone with me for a $10 Amazon gift certificate. (Certificate, not card.) And a few of them said yes. I asked each of them if they remembered opening an email from Atlanta. Only one person remembered. I asked her why she didn’t download the white paper. 

“I’ve never heard of the company.”

“What talent acquisition companies have you heard of?”

“Taleo and Fancy Startup.”

“Oh.”

Brand Recognition, Dummy

It dawned on me shortly thereafter that the poor response might be explained by low brand recognition. But for most tech marketers raised during the digital transformation, that just didn’t make sense. You get a good list, you create a good offer, you draw good art and write good copy, and whammo-presto, the good leads come in. You want to talk about brand recognition? BRAND RECOGNITION? Get out of my office.

But I couldn’t shake the notion. Remember my superpower? I’m pretty good at researching arcane topics, rapidly synthesizing information, formulating new models, and applying them in the real world.

So on my own dime, I decided to launch an investigation. 

  • First, I isolated a cohort of brands. You guessed it: Taleo, Fancy Startup, and Atlanta.
  • Second, I conducted a brand recognition survey in the media field we were marketing in. In other words, I sent a survey to the same lists we were using to drive leads for the cohort. In every case, brand recognition for Taleo was over 50%, Fancy Startup came in between (roughly) 10% and 25%, and Atlanta had little to no brand recognition at all.
  • Third, I correlated brand recognition to response rates in the media field. What I found was that factors like lead quantity and quality, response time, cost-per-lead, and sales satisfaction with leads (or the acceptance rate) were positively correlated with brand recognition. In other words, the more brand recognition a company had, the better their demand generation performance was in all but a few isolated campaigns. Eureka!

But we didn’t stop there. From 2006 through 2010, we conducted extensive research into the relationship between brand recognition (and their cousins, functional association and brand attribute recognition) and other important business outcomes.

Our most significant discovery at the time (probably) was that brand recognition is predictive of market share. Specifically, measuring brand recognition on both an assisted and unassisted recall basis predicts market share order 12 to 24 months later. For example, if we were to conduct an open-market brand recognition survey of manufacturing software companies today (Sept. 2, 2020), the order of brand recognition would predict the order of market leadership in 2021 or 2022. To put even a finer point on it, if your company is currently No. 3 in market share, but No. 1 in brand recognition, there is a high probability that you will be No. 1 in market share within the next year or two.

Knowing that is a big deal.

We now had conducted the research and synthesized the insights. But the real innovation happened in the models we created and applied in the real world. One example is what we called the Takeover Strategy

For what it’s worth, we discussed our findings with Atlanta along the way and recommended they invest in brand building within their media field to boost demand generation results in the future.

So they fired us.

-B

Stay tuned for the upcoming entries in the Lessons Learned series: