Why short-termism alone will kill your brand

Content Strategy

Industry Insights

Thinking only for now can feel quite good. You feel present – culturally relevant and news-worthy. Gratification is immediate and so are the results. As such, short-termism has become a safety blanket for our industry; with 75% of marketers and 73% of agencies agreeing that short-term needs take priority over longer-term objectives. But to exist purely for the now is to exist in a vacuum. A vacuum where immediate gain alone rarely leads to long-term pay-off.

Post-Cannes Lions 2019 this, more than ever, has become a recognised issue. According to System1 data, 5 of the gold-winning brands scored only 1 star when it came to effectiveness, these include Bodyform’s “Viva la vulva”, Apple’s “Apple at work: the underdogs”, Old Spice’s “The endless ad”, Burger King’s “BK bot” and the Grand Prix-winning New York Times “The truth is worth it”. Arguably, this is largely down to a need to fulfill short-term sales needs at the expense of long-term brand building.

Connection takes time

It’s tempting to borrow value and talkability from what’s happening in the world rather than taking the time to build your brand and what it stands for.  According to Les Binet and Field’s study ‘The Long and Short of it’, rational product focused ads generate short-term sales uplift, whereas brand building campaigns bring longer-term results in sales, share, pricing and loyalty. As such, they recommend an investment balance of 60:40 when it comes to emotional (brand) and rational (product) communications. This is largely because emotional connection takes time and results will never appear overnight. Investment should therefore be directed to formats and creative that help build mental brand recall at the top of the purchase funnel over time, for example brand video, social, display and editorial. Instead of acting as a short-term product push, for example a sales promotion, these brand building communications should be deployed over time. Brands can’t rely on neither the short nor the long-term alone; emotional and rational communications should be balanced to deliver against immediate and long-term business needs.


Don’t use cultural relevance as an excuse for short-termism 

The pressure to act and be perceived as ‘culturally relevant’ can engender short-term thinking. A desire to contort and misshape your brand to fit what’s happening in a given moment. For every global crisis, political race and climate disaster there is a reaction from the brand world. But being culturally relevant isn’t mutually exclusive with long-term brand building. Instead brand values and principles should dictate when and how you speak about a given topic. Brands fail when a desire to be relevant trumps all long-term ambitions. Gillette’s ‘we believe in the best in men’ is one such example of this. Set against the backdrop of dwindling market share (from 70% to 50% in the past decade), they needed to do something to be relevant and current in order to boost sales. But with a long history pertaining to be ‘the best a man can get’, their forged alignment to #MeToo failed to connect with both men and women. In this instance, the campaign, although relevant to the news and pop-culture agenda, was completely at odds with their long-term history and what they stand for as a brand. To create such a shift in brand identity couldn’t and wouldn’t be achieved by one TV ad aligning to one moment in time. It’s unsurprising therefore that they faced accusations of opportunism and purpose wash.

Don’t be tempted by low-hanging fruit

With short-termism in mind, logic would suggest you target those most likely to buy. Doing this urges you to play it safe, directing media spend towards the lowest hanging fruit. But as Byron Sharpe’s How Brands Grow suggests, the difference between leading and smaller brands is penetration. To grow your brand a degree of ‘chance’ and ‘wastage’ is required – you need to speak to those who aren’t yet interested as well as those who are. Brands like Aesop, for example, have dominated the lifestyle and beauty segment by refusing to exist and communicate to a single demographic: women of a particular age and income. Instead the focus of all communications is on the needs of skin – any type of skin – rather than those who were most likely to buy a beauty product in a given moment. Whilst cut-through took time, the results have been long-term.

Investing in brand building is not only an investment in your brand but also a potential ‘growth’ audience. As a fictitious example – imagine a family hotel brand who only targets those who currently have children and are looking for child-friendly holidays. By pigeon holing the low hanging fruit, this fictitious hotel brand has failed to seed their brand in the minds of those who one day might seek out a family holiday. So when this potential audience starts desperately searching for child friendly holidays, they are bombarded by offers with no affinity to a particular brand. In this instance, a fear of wastage and a desire to play it safe has detrimental effects on brand growth.


Be patient with good creative – it keeps on giving

In a world at the whim of the latest trends, good creative ideas have become disposable. If immediate results aren’t visible, they are goners. But this ignores the power of ideas to sustain long-term effects. Millward Brown Research shows that TV ads rarely fully wear out, with an exception for those that focus purely on product news. Rather than regarding ideas as ‘done’ or ‘complete’ we should acknowledge their ability to pay back over time, especially when they are rooted to attributes that aren’t going anywhere: your values, personality and character. Good creative should be an extension of these attributes and with some flexibility, should exist for the long-term.

As an industry, we need to part ways with our short-termist safety blanket and the temptation to yield short-term results alone. Instead we need to feel comfortable with the discomfort that comes with long-term thinking.


By Sophia Kay – Brand Strategist at Studio Black Tomato