The path-to-purchase has become a meaningful canvas for multi-faceted brand activation, argues Callum Saunders, head of planning at brand activation agency Zeal Creative.

Where should we focus our marketing efforts: brand-building or sales activation? Depending on who you ask (and their respective agendas), the answers may differ significantly. 

Understandably, media and above-the-line creative agencies will always tell you that brand-building is critical to sustaining brand health and driving long-term growth (and they’re not wrong).  Conversely, many below-the-line agencies will instinctively extol the benefits of sales activation.

Even the likes of Binet and Field, heavyweight champions of industry effectiveness, talk about the need for brands to incorporate both elements into their strategic brand planning. But are we asking ourselves the wrong question?

I apologise for regurgitating a hackneyed sentence, but the sentiment is pertinent: we live in a fluid, omnichannel world where lines between consumers, shoppers and brands are more blurred than ever.

If that’s the case, then surely the world of sales activation, shopper, and promotional marketing has just as important a role to play in ‘brand-building’ as traditional branding tools?

The entire path-to-purchase is your canvas

Professor Byron Sharp talks about the importance of both physical and mental availability, the latter being traditionally driven by mass awareness through above-the-line media. But the reach and return of advertising is diminishing, as media audiences, viewing platforms and consumption habits continue to fragment.

In addition to this media fragmentation, the path-to-purchase is also becoming less linear than ever before. We never know when shoppers are going to dip in and out, so being present in all of these fleeting moments is critical.

The entire path-to-purchase becomes a marketer’s canvas, and so meaningful, brand-building interactions can no longer be limited to traditional ‘mass awareness’ tools.  Every interaction should support brand-building no matter the touchpoint, no matter where a person is along the path-to-purchase.

Brand building is everyone’s responsibility

As an industry, we constantly talk about the blurring of lines between ‘consumer and shopper’, yet to some degree we’re guilty of maintaining the barriers and silos that hamper us from brand-building all the way along the path-to-purchase.

Indeed, the need for a fundamental shift is recognised by Lee Smith and Anne Rayner at TNS Global: “Gone are the days when we could decide whether somebody fell within the remit of the brand or shopper marketing team based solely on which environment they were in.”

Similarly, the need for a more holistic and joined up approach to activation is also acknowledged by Al Wittemen and Marta LaRock. In ‘Brand to Retail’, they claim: “There is no such thing as consumer marketing or shopper marketing. There’s only good marketing by driving brand equity all the way to the point-of-purchase wherever that may be – at home, away from home, or at retail.”

Let’s not downplay the different areas of specialism and expertise that different functions and departments have to offer. But if these suppositions ring true – and I wholeheartedly believe that they do – then brand building is the responsibility of every single one of us.

The brand-building qualities of sales activation

If there’s only ‘good marketing by driving brand equity all the way to the point-of-purchase’, it doesn’t automatically follow suit that all marketing out there is indeed, ‘good’.

But in the instances where more holistic, integrated marketing is deployed along the path-to-purchase, then the opportunities are rich for sales activation in a way that inherently builds brand equity.

Ensuring that activation is truly ownable to your brand

This may sound obvious, but that doesn’t mean that it’s simple to implement. 

Take cash for example. Extensive shopper research clearly demonstrates that cash remains king and has an incredible pulling power: Carabao’s ‘£1m Giveaway’, Walker’s ‘Win a Pay Packet’, and Kingsmill’s ‘Grab a Grand’ are just three examples of cash-focused on-pack promotions.

But whilst all of these have undoubtedly been effective in unlocking retailer support and driving sales, one could argue that these promotions do little to reinforce brand equity, nor indeed are they truly ownable to one individual brand.

Let me be clear: this isn’t about spotting a niche that only your brand can activate. It’s more about bringing that activation to life in a way that is completely ownable to your brand. 

Tickets to theme parks are nothing new, but Peperami’s ‘Terrify a Friend for Free’ used both the language of the call-to-action and the prize partnership (new scary rides at Alton Towers and Thorpe Park) to deliver a promotion in a way that inherently reinforced the brand’s distinctive ‘animal’ personality.

Leveraging equity through entry mechanics

But it’s not only the prize or proposition that can help to build brand equity. The entry mechanic itself can help to reinforce memory structures by amplifying or dramatizing key distinctive brand assets.

At Zeal Creative, we worked with Kellogg’s to deliver Crunchy Nut’s ‘Shazam Your Crunch’ activation. Not only does the call-to-action work to reinforce one of the brand’s most distinctive and ownable brand assets, but the partnership with Shazam allowed us to deliver an entry mechanic that is both innovative and equity reinforcing.

Oreo also deployed this to good effect with its ‘Dunk to Win’ promotion. Whilst the mechanic was simple enough – entering a unique code into a website platform – the online redemption platform saw entrants attempting to ‘dunk a cookie’ in a glass of virtual milk. 

Not only is this an engaging entry mechanic, but it also dramatises a product consumption ritual: sales activation that reinforces key distinctive brand consumption behaviours.

Sales activation is brand activation

Due to silos, legacy process and departmental structure, the merging of sales activation and brand building will not happen overnight. 

But in a world where the path-to-purchase has become a meaningful canvas for multi-faceted brand activation, the remit of sales, shopper and promotional marketing has become more brand-centric than at any point ever before.

It doesn’t matter what your job title is, or where you sit within a marketing or agency structure. We’re all brand marketers now, and the opportunities to build our brands are more omnichannel and exciting than ever before.