Friday, May 3, 2013

Presentation Layer is Branding for the Connected World

In my previous two posts, I discussed the limitations of using branding as the primary focus of marketing communications.  In short, the branding focus often ignores the cornucopia of information available about a brand and, perhaps more alarmingly, assumes that consumers want to engage with brands and not with content or functionality.

Before finding the solution to this problem, let's talk about something almost, but not quite, entirely unlike marketing communications, application development.  Developers create applications to help people or machines create specific tasks, such as analyzing financial trends or keeping you from drunk-dialing ex-girlfriends.

While application development takes many forms, they all have some key similarities, such as the use of a presentation layer.  The presentation layer is the part of the program that users see and interact with; the heavy-duty number crunching happens below the surface.  In all consumer-oriented applications, the thousands or millions of lines of code remain invisible.

This opacity does not mean, however, that the presentation layer does not play an important role.  The presentation layer determines how the user understands and relates to the application.  If gives him or her a concrete sense of what the application does.

By now, you should realize that, in fact, application development is at least somewhat like marketing communications.  In fact, I'll argue that presentation layer should serve as the basis for how branding works best in our connected world.

App developers think first about what the application they're charged with building should do and how it should do it.  While the presentation layer plays an important role in the success of the application, it nevertheless must take a backseat to what the application does.

Marketers, I think, should work this way, too.  When thinking about a marketing communications program in its entirety, marketers should first ask, "what are we trying to accomplish here?"  Of course, these objectives generally center around "sell more."  However, most marketers have adopted the customer journey as a model for understanding how consumers actually move through the purchase cycle.  Based on that customer journey, marketers need to understand how each channel or each communication program moves the consumer along the journey.

Here's where the presentation layer comes in.

Once the marketer has mapped out the role of the communications streams--and only then--should she think about how these streams will appeal to the audience.  Many of the traditional brand rules apply, such as consistency in design, copy and tone.  The website and the TV commercial ought to look like they came out of the same factory.

However, the branding should focus on initiating engagement and let the other elements of the program focus on maintaining or building engagement.  Just as an application presentation layer doesn't do much in the way of executing the purpose of the program, the brand should not take on the burden of, say, directing the conversation between consumer and marketer.

In more concrete terms, let's look at the Mountain Dew example I cited in the last post.  The brand's content site fits under the brand umbrella as an extension of what consumers see in channels such as TV.  As I argued, the Mountain Dew content faces great difficulty in competing with the oceans of content available to the audience.

What if, instead, Mountain Dew relied on its branding as a presentation layer, insofar as it created an identity for the brand that appealed to the audience of young men?  What if that presentation layer then funneled the audience into a loyalty program (e.g. collect codes on the packaging) or a relevant social marketing effort (e.g. make a movie involving a Mountain Dew bottle and post in on YouTube)?  Those efforts might feel less constrained by the brand and more independent and effective in their own right.

In other words, instead of force-fitting objective-driven marketing programs into a brand umbrella, simplify branding so that it acts as a carnival barker for other programs.  Ad folks may not appreciate the comparison to a carny, but I'm sure they've been called worse.


  1. This is an interesting thought and analogy, but I think the analogy may break down slightly upon closer review. The presentation layer of an application does act as the "carnival barker", as you suggest, for the core of the application. The unseen, processing part of the application and its database (typically) are the content or ultimate point of the application. In your branding layer example, branding only leads to more activities that are not the ultimate point - more marketing activities (although I must admit that to a marketing person, it may "seem" like these are the ultimate point).

  2. Very thoughtful comment, David. I agree that the analogy breaks down a bit, but what I'm really trying to get through here is that branding is a means to and end, rather than the end in and of itself as many branding agencies believe.

    I suspect what I'm trying to say is that great marketing is invisible. Hmmm...maybe I'll write about that next...