The Conversation is More Important than the Brand

Brand marketers suggest that brand is everything.  In order for your brand to be effective you must invest in building strong brand equity and make sure that you consistently deliver on your brand promise.  To do this, your brand must be consistently portrayed and always visible.

But what if your brand creates friction in the communication process?  Often when we think we are being marketed to we tend to put our guard up.  Even if this doesn't happen on a completely conscious-level, it happens to some degree in our subconscious. 

This was the premise of a recent marketing experiment that I conducted in partnership with The Heritage Foundation.  The main question was this: “If the essence of marketing is messaging, and the essence of messaging is a conversation, how can we remove psychological barriers to that conversation?”  Do "brands" induce feelings of anxiety?  If so, by removing the brand and focusing on facilitating a more effective conversation, can we produce a stronger response?

The Client

The Heritage Foundation is a conservative think tank in Washington, DC.  Their work focuses on formulation and promotion of conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.  They are the most broadly supported organization of their kind with nearly 700,000 financially participating members. 

The Experiment

Heritage was in the third year of a talk radio campaign with Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, and was beginning to experience the law of diminishing returns.  The massive audiences for these two nationally syndicated talk show hosts were not as receptive to our Heritage-branded messages as they were initially and we considered doing something drastic and perhaps even unintuitive-- creating an unbranded campaign.  The idea was to have the radio hosts create excitement around a controversial issue and then send their audience to an unbranded web site where they could learn more.  The visitor would be taken through a guided conversation online that provided an educational experience, and then at the end, provided with an opportunity to respond by signing an open letter to Congress calling for the end of wasteful government spending.  After signing the open letter, the visitor was then taken to another page and provided an appeal to join The Heritage Foundation.

The Web Site

DirtySpendingSecrets.com is very simple web site that was designed for a very specific purpose-- to acquire new names and to inspire new donations.  The message is simple and clear-- Washington is spending too much of your money, and here are some examples of how wasteful some of that spending is.

The site then stepped the visitor through a guided conversation about spending by asking them to answer simple questions.  For example, how much money the US Government spent to train Chinese prostitutes to drink more responsibly on the job?

When the visitor provided their answer, a message appeared with the correct answer and provided additional details-- this provided the educational experience.

When the visitor got to the end of the quiz-- when they were all good and worked up-- the web site prompted them to do something about it by signing the Heritage Foundation's Open Letter to Congress to tell them no more wasteful spending.  This is where the brand is finally introduced.

The visitor is then taken to a Heritage-branded page where they can sign the open letter.  After they sign it, the visitor is prompted to make a donation.


The Results

In the first three weeks of the campaign, the web site generated 115,000 new names for the Heritage Foundation and a significant amount of revenue from new donors.  The web site also went viral with over 40,000 facebook shares, 4,100 tweets, and over 32,000 email shares.

The Key Takeaways

This experiment illuminated a couple of interesting principles:

  • The conversation is more important than the brand.  When we lead with a compelling concept, and initially divorce that concept from being connected with any sort of brand, we can inspire a great many more people to engage in that conversation.  When Rush and Sean talk about this new web site they discovered that exposes all of these government spending secrets, people take interest and seek out the web site.

  • The Call-to-Action should not be introduced until the value proposition has been experienced by the visitor.  Too often, we think too little of our potential donors.  We think if we just stick a donate button on our page, that people will just donate.  And the problem is that some actually do.  But the bigger problem is that so many more actually would if they have been properly guided through a conversation that enables them to discover the value proposition on their own.  Our goal in communication should be to lead the constituent to an "aha! moment." This is no easy task and requires tremendous creativity and strategic thinking.

  • Good ideas go viral.  A lot of people think there is an easy button for social media.  But there isn't.  If you think about things that are share-worthy, they are always things that move people.  They must shock, surprise, make you laugh, make you cry, inspire you in some way-- the point is that a good social media strategy starts by developing a good and share-worthy idea.

Now, It's Your Turn

The model and concept that is outlined here is very repeatable.  I would encourage you to perform your own experiment with the unbranded concept and share your results and learnings.  Remember a good idea that isn't implemented is a worthless idea.