Everybody wants their eCommerce brand to increase in relevance and influence. But that takes money. Where do they get that money? Conversions.

But yikes, aren’t branding and conversions mutually exclusive? Isn’t the CRO team going to overload the site with pop-up banners and a whole bunch of tactics in an attempt to create urgency and nudge the consumer into buying? That’s not why any founder launches a brand.

The world of eCommerce is rife with false dichotomies, and I could write a treatise on them. But there’s one that I think is particularly detrimental, and it’s the false dichotomy of branding vs. conversion. Or, said simply, eCom metrics don’t have to be at odds with The Brand.

There’s actually quite a bit to unpack here, so grab a cup of coffee and let's go.

Why does our eCommerce vocab dictate our posture?

The way we think of the world is directly influenced by the language we use to talk about it. It’s hard to think about ideas and concepts if we don’t have words for it. 

This phenomenon is absolutely the case with eCommerce. Our vocabulary—conversions, CAC, CTR—encourages us to focus on making every possible sale, when in fact, we need to focus on what our brands stand for. No one launches a DTC (or any other business) without a burning passion for their products and the people who will use them. Branding is about nurturing that passion, and it should dominate conversations. Sadly, it does not.

As a first step, eCommerce brands can adopt the language of founders who launched business outside of the digital sphere -- creating products, flagship brand experiences. It’ll go a long way in easing the tension (or perceived tension) between optimizing for conversion and building brand equity. There is no need to be so binary in our thinking.

Brand motivates conversion. Conversions don’t necessarily build The Brand.

A great in-store experience is one that showcases a brand’s core values. Walk into Saks in New York City, or any Apple Store anywhere, and you can just feel the power of branding.

But here’s the thing, Saks and Apple have storied histories, and what you experience when you go through their doors is the cumulative effect of their storytelling through the years. This is their secret sauce: great brand stories and compelling communication are what drive conversions, and it’s as crucial for an eCommerce brand as it is for a bespoke retail outlet.

So why are eCommerce brands so challenged with balancing branding and conversions? There are a few reasons, I think. First, hyper-specialized teams within the brand and the agencies that serve them create a silo mentality, even though silo busting has been the mantra of the industry almost since the beginning. Second, eCommerce demands that entrepreneurs become less visionary and more technology-oriented. The pundit class literally expects this of them, with their utter belief in digital transformations. Who has time to focus on branding when there’s optimization of the tech-stack to be had?

Dennis Maloney, VP of multi-media marketing at Domino’s epitomizes this concept, and was praised to the sky when he said his company had morphed from a pizza company that took orders online to an eCommerce company that sells pizza. 

Um, no.

I’m not opposed to digital transformation or any kind of optimization, BTW. I just think those initiatives should be in service of branding and building brand equity. They’re not end goals in and of themselves. What’s the point of Domino’s opening every conceivable channel for ordering when even the CEO said their pizza sucks

In fact, Maloney’s comment was a tad disingenuous. Prior to embarking on its tech makeover, Domino’s figured out how to make pizza people will actually want to eat.

Everyone Should Learn to Speak Brand

People who like branding are the ones who go into branding, and those who like CRO or UX tend to focus on them. We figure out which line of work best suits us and then join those teams. Daily interactions reinforce the importance of our work in our own minds.

Silos are a tough challenge. eCommerce organizations, and the digital agencies that serve them, divide themselves up by responsibilities. At the highest level there are people who understand the interplay between branding and revenue, but go down a tier and priorities become hyper focused. 

What’s more, each team has its own KPIs and goals, and in the absence of an overarching branding goal to unite the forces, we end up with a bunch of eddies of confusion.

Aligning around top level initiatives by quarter and by year can be helpful, as long as people understand how their activities roll up to, and work to promote, those initiatives This is easier said than done. A company can call everyone into a conference room to hear about the new goals with which they must align, but are they actually empowered to change their daily jobs in order to do so? Is it okay for the CRO team to miss a goal? Is it even okay to think beyond the literal conversion when setting goals for the CRO team?

It’s possible to have an active conversion rate optimization pipeline that is applied as a subprocess on all the other production processes, such as campaign style activations or website optimization. In this scenario, branding is the strategy, the big pillars (aka starting assumptions about the market’s reaction to its products) that prop up the house, and all other functions are tactics. 

For instance, the conversion team uses the pillars as ingredients to make different concoctions based on those items that are validated or invalidated by the results. Conversion optimization will try different tactics and strategies against those pillars and refine them over time.

Put another way: Brand is a push model; conversion is a pull model.

For a lot of brands, deviating from traditional eComm structure can feel risky. Michael Bower, Founder of Nyla, was my guest on the season finale of my podcast, Infinite Shelf, and he told the story of a brand that decided to forgo reviews altogether, even though this goes against CRO orthodoxy. 

The brand manager was pretty quick about it too. When Michael explained that reviews can increase conversions he was practically cut off mid-sentence. I asked Michael if he thought it was a smart move and he absolutely felt the brand had made the right decision.

Now that we see it’s possible to build brand equity without sacrificing conversions, it begs the question: who takes on the role of orchestrating all the moving pieces --  CRO, Dev and UX and design -- so that they’re serving the same purposes? Brands with deep pockets and hundreds of sub-brands have successfully deployed Centers of Excellence (CoE), made up of people who step outside of their specific roles and look at the big picture. 

A CoE isn’t particularly feasible for many of DTCs, however. The job of engineering alignment on brand will likely fall to the founders or leaders, but they won’t be able to do that without some specific help from the tech providers. Essentially, we need to get founders out of the tech business so they can focus their attention on brand building. 

A challenge: founders need to get out of the tech

Technology makes founders extremely risk averse as they’re all too aware that the wrong decision can be business ending. Michael Bower, in our conversation, mentioned a company that went under attempting (and failing) to implement an ERP system. “If your tech is not in support of, and in service, to the company and the brand, that it should not have that tech. I don’t care what it is,” he warns. His dream is to create a seamless eCommerce platform that brands can unbox, plug in and it works.

“The main reason why eCommerce companies struggle today is that their tech is 10 years old, and it blocks them. The future belongs to those brands that make smart tech decisions.” 

Let’s say he succeeds and founders do have truly out-of-the-box eCommerce stores, what does that mean to the future of eCommerce? Michael believes that founders will be freed to home in on what their companies do best and amp it up by several factors. It doesn’t matter what it is -- storytelling, cool marketing schemes, activism -- as long as they ratchet it up a few notches.

“The age of the cool DTC is over because just to survive, you have to be a cool DTC brand,” he says. This kind of bums me out, because when DTC companies were trying new stuff, it was thrilling. It broke through the sea of sameness. I’d hate to think of it coming to an end, with every DTC brand copying what Dollar Shave Club or Parker Warby did rather than forging their own path.

Maybe we can usher in a new age of the cool DTC brand by helping teams become less reliant on black boxes and complicated sounding acronyms by providing them with the basics, but with better solutions.

“Founders have great intuition, that’s why they launch brands. Tech companies need to follow brands. We need brands and merchants need to get back into the driver's seat,” Michael told me.

I couldn’t agree more.

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