Before we even begin to assess the role that direct marketing has in building strong and healthy brands, we must be certain about what we mean by direct. As markets and audiences fragment, and as we as marketers find it increasingly complicated to make the correct inter-media decisions on behalf of the brands we look after, it's becoming obvious that the old definitions don't work any more. They are terms coined in a world where the concept of mobile phones had barely been conceived, let alone the idea of receiving multimedia marketing messages through them.
So I'm not going to restrict the definition of direct to stuff that comes through your letterbox. I want to think outside the envelope, as it were, and look at direct brand communications as anything that can make an unmediated, personalised contact with members of a brand's audience.
The distinction is important because consumers don't consume marketing, they consume "stuff". Because they don't think in the hidebound category terms that it's all too easy for us to slip into, they are demanding more personalised service than ever. If a supermarket can learn I've got a cat because of my purchasing behaviour and treat me accordingly, why can't my bank spot that my savings account is in good shape and stop trying to sell me a loan?
So what's that got to with building brands? Quite a lot, actually. How brands behave is becoming increasingly important because cynical consumers want to see proof of the promises. And direct communications activity has the unique ability to cross the divide between brands being seen to talk to consumers and brands actually fulfilling promises by behaving in certain ways. Only direct communication can bring the brand promise to life in three dimensions and it is this behaviour that we believe will drive much of consumer behaviour in the future.
Fairly recently, the chairman of a large building society asked if we were damaging his brand by offering additional products and services using direct mail to people who didn't take them up. So we set out to answer the question and found out that the people who hadn't responded actually rated the brand and its communication just as highly as those who had purchased. They thought the brand was delivering its promise to keep them informed and to offer them choice, even if they didn't want the product there and then - that it was a brand behaving as it had said it would.
So the behaviour of a brand can and does drive shifts in people's attitudes towards it.
I'm not for a second suggesting that advertising isn't key to that success too, by the way. It is at the vanguard of brand building and the creation of desire and we know it works (well, the good stuff works). But the brands that will get it wrong over the next five years are - in my opinion - those that fail to appreciate that it is no longer enough for them simply to broadcast a one-size-fits-all message about themselves. Neither is it enough to give a passing nod toward integration and reluctantly ensure that all your communications look the same.
We have to get out of our discipline-based silos and take one of the hardest decisions that can ever face a business - to let that business and its communication be driven by ideas, not executions. Because big brand ideas will be the currency of the future and they should drive everything we do: how our brands speak about themselves in advertising; how they behave to bring their promises to life, in terms of product, service and direct communication. And this behaviour can do more than shift awareness. It would seem that a brand's behaviour can also efficiently change the behaviour of its target audience.
The drinks industry is a prime example of how we're already seeing brands "behaving" as well as advertising. You might think this is odd, drinks are products devoid of a service element. But smart brand owners and their agencies are working to introduce a third dimension into their marketing.
Drinks is a crowded sector; it's fuelled by that elusive and fickle market of young adults; it's image driven and to make it big as a brand it must be seen being drunk in all the right places. Let's face it, halfway though a drinking session, who's going to be able to say "hierarchical inter-brand decision", let alone make one? So salience, top-of-mind awareness and badge value are key.
True, advertising plays a huge part in creating these. But brands truly seeking to differentiate themselves are already changing the rules of engagement. It's no longer about shouting louder than the competition; it's not even about shouting a more compelling message.
In Singapore last year, Heineken threw a series of parties that it was impossible to get into unless you were a celebrity. Far from wasting an opportunity to sample their product to a wider audience, the idea for the parties was based on a simple insight about the target audience - the harder you make a nightclub to get into, the more badge value actual entry carries. Word of mouth saw increasing demand for tickets, Heineken's "premium" attributes rocketed in tracking and the project contributed to a 43 per cent jump in sales for the brand.
If, as marketers, we truly embrace the importance of ideas over execution, we will be closer to a true model of integration. This important first step allows us to assess how, where and when we can best bring consumers into contact with our brands, their communication and their behaviour.
This model is one that we believe will allow the brands of today to grow into the great brands of the future.