Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University

In many ways, digital media have revolutionized marketing communications. Consumer insights—previously restricted to focus groups—can now be gleaned from social media, and the relationship between brands and customers is more fluid than ever. In this landscape, it is easy to assume that one stroke of genius—a clever tweet, a timely spot, or a well-placed online ad—is the single event your company needs to create a successful marketing campaign.

But according to Derek Rucker, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School, relying on execution alone to sustain your brand may often be wishful thinking. “There’s a myth held by some that marketing communications is all creative puffery, not strategy,” he says. “And the rise of digital media sometimes encourages that myth. The reality is, success is a combination of core strategy and creative tactics. The tactics have changed—and will continue to evolve—but the foundational strategic principles remain as important as ever.”

Even in the digital age, marketing campaigns will benefit from a sound creative brief that lays out exactly what the campaign is supposed to accomplish. “For one, the creative brief prevents you from engaging in ad hoc rationalization,” Rucker says. “Whatever form the campaign takes, it needs to abide by a core branding strategy.”

The best branding strategy, in turn, is guided by clear consumer insights. Although rich social media data may now rival the questionnaire as the core source of consumer insight, translating that data into effective brand messaging presents a considerable strategic challenge.

Rucker points to a handful of well-known brands that have exemplified the strategic marketing approach. Old Spice is one company that has won by translating data into messaging. “Once they had a clear insight—in their case it was a focus on imbuing consumers with a sense of confidence—the brand engaged the consumer in a holistic campaign around that insight.” For example, the campaign for its Swagger scent demonstrated how Old Spice helped transform individuals from young boys who lacked confidence to adult men who had confidence in full supply. To illustrate the point, they showed the transformational journey of LL Cool J, Brian Urlacher, and Tony Stewart.

But before firing up the Twitter account or buying ad space on Google, Old Spice’s marketing team still asked itself the fundamental questions: What do we want to accomplish with our advertising, who do we target, and what’s our position? Answering those questions gave them an idea about how holistic the approach should be—and which platforms might most effectively convey that messaging. With that in place, they were able to work in conjunction with the creative minds of Wieden + Kennedy to produce a blockbuster campaign.

Even what might look like serendipity or a flash of inspiration is often the result of rigorous strategy. Consider Tide’s social media efforts during the 2013 Super Bowl, when the brand memorably tweeted during a power outage that halted the game: “We can’t get your blackout. But we can get your stains out.” The wherewithal to pull off such clever, on-brand social media responses was not coincidental. “Tide created an entire team to monitor that event,” Rucker says.

It is true that social media can make it easier for brands to participate in national or global conversations, responding to news events on Twitter is no substitute for strategy when it comes to defining a brand’s purpose. Social media is another platform on which to showcase that purpose. “It’s not purely about being clever in front of customers,” Rucker says. “Both Old Spice and Tide grounded their executions is strategy. They chose ideas that fit their brand.”

Tough Mudder, a company that organizes extreme obstacle-course races through mud, focused its first marketing efforts on social media. They spent their tiny budget targeting fireman, policemen, and former military personnel. But what made its campaign effective in the long run was the company’s strategic positioning: they’ve built an identity for their brand that has helped them enlarge their customer base.

“When it comes to social media, people are looking for a magic bullet. It’s a bit like Ponce de Leon’s quest for the Fountain of Youth—it just isn’t there,” Rucker says. “Social media is an evolving tool, and the most successful brands will be the ones that evolve with it. But in the end it’s just a platform. What you first need is a strategy.”

For more on marketing, see Kellogg Executive Education’s Strategic Marketing Communications and Kellogg on Branding programs.

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