What is Brand Activation and Why Marketers and Consumers Should Care

By William Rosen and Laurence Minsky

Marketing, along with the market and all its innovations, is also imperatively evolving. In this article, the authors elaborate on brand activation and show how CEOs, CMOs, and others can align marketing disciplines to better drive prospects toward transaction; leverage data to develop more effective strategies and creative; and design solutions that improve business results and marketing ROI.


While traditional marketing’s concentration on the positioning of a brand relative to its competitors is still absolutely critical, it is clearly no longer sufficient. To drive trial, increase visits to a store or website, incent trade-up, increase purchase frequency, propel greater sharing and advocacy, inspire consent for data collection or usage, or enable other outcomes that build business, marketers need to activate specific behaviours by their consumers.

Once it is understood that the true challenge and opportunity for marketers to build business is behaviour change, the need to utilise a wider range of tools, tactics, channels, and approaches beyond simply creating brand awareness becomes clear. What becomes equally clear is the need to understand what consumers are doing when and why along their paths to purchase, so the marketer can create welcome opportunities for engagement that not only demonstrate the brand’s essence, but also help advance the consumer toward transaction.

Fortunately, today’s marketers have a robust suite of tools to drive engagement beyond simply trumpeting a brand’s essence. Socially shared interactive videos, digitally delivered content, and in-store events are but a few. These increasing opportunities, however, also increase complexity for the marketer.

The unique strategic, creative, and technological skills, insights, processes, and people required by state-of-the-art digital, social, mobile, database, sponsorship, and shopper marketing have driven increased specialisation. Each discipline requires its own constantly up-to-date expertise in the latest technical innovations, legal requirements, strategic shifts, and tactical opportunities. As a result, it makes complete sense why the partner or department that is clear on the implications of an algorithm change in a social media platform may not be aware of a shift in priorities of a key retail partner, the latest content marketing approach, or the newest sponsorship opportunities.

What becomes equally clear is the need to understand what consumers are doing when and why along their paths to purchase, so the marketer can create welcome opportunities for engagement.

Even when efforts are executed at the highest level within one or all of the marketing disciplines, it is a tremendous challenge to coordinate each with what is happening in all of the others to maximise their collective effectiveness and ROI. This fragmentation and disconnection, unfortunately, is occurring at precisely the same moment when uniting these disparate efforts is more critical than ever, as consumers expect more seamless experiences across channels and are moving more frequently and fluidly between them.

So the question becomes how to most effectively utilise and connect the disparate marketing disciplines to activate behaviours that build business while also building brand in a best-in-class way. 

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Welcome to The Activation Imperative Method

Because activating a brand means stimulating key behaviours in the brand’s target prospects that help move them toward transaction, the most effective brand activation targets the key inflection points along the path to purchase where there are barriers to overcome or opportunities to accelerate progress toward the ultimate goal.

As a result, the process of brand activation begins by developing insights into individuals’ new, multiple, and increasingly non-linear paths to purchase. E-commerce, T-commerce (transactions via smart television sets), social, and mobile have enabled a greater variety of routes by which people can move toward transactions. Using quantitative and qualitative research, and database modelling, marketers can identify critical obstacles or under-leveraged triggers that impact key audiences’ movement toward purchase.

Once these behavioural inflection points are identified, and the potential to address them clear, marketers can deepen their understanding of the interests and motivations of the audience in order to facilitate delivering the kind of value that will engage them at those moments and create branded opportunities to inspire behaviour change. Depending on the insights gleaned, the range of what individuals value can extend well beyond the merely monetary to include opportunities for self-expression, personalisation, experiences, entertainment, access, and even social good.

With that high-level roadmap delineated, it is important to highlight two foundational principles at the centre of the Activation Imperative Method1 (or AIM):

• That the various specialised disciplines must no longer be thought of separately, or in parallel, but instead as complimentary components of an interconnected marketing “ecosystem”, in the same way that the neurological, respiratory and digestive systems are specialised systems with unique requirements and capabilities, but work together synergistically to power a healthy human body.

• That fully embracing each discipline’s unique strengths and capabilities can provide a framework for leveraging the best practices of each more broadly to enhance and more effectively reap the benefit of the unique capabilities of the others.


A Few Examples Please

Apple utilised several of these tools when they engaged Michel Gondry2 to create a short film. Known for such titles as The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this Oscar-winner shot the film Détour3 entirely on an iPhone. Apple placed the film on their French website4, and French and UK YouTube channels, just in time for the summer holidays, a key inflection point when consumers plan the technology to best capture their vacation memories. The 11-minute movie was also screened at Apple’s Marche Saint-Germain store, where Gondry attended to answer questions and generate additional earned media. The film’s story – of a family on vacation and their tricycle’s quest to reunite with them – showcased iPhone capabilities including time-lapse, stop motion, slow motion, and night scenes. Six separate “behind-the-scenes” videos continued the engagement by showing viewers how to utilise these capabilities themselves. As a result, Apple not only delivered entertainment value and education, it reinforced their easy-to-use brand promise and engaged prospects with sharable content and experiences.

McDonald’s in the UK, drawing on insights that consumers value choice and experiences, built store traffic, increased spend per visit, and increased brand affinity through their 2016 reboot of the Monopoly programme5. The most successful outcome in their eleven-year history with the game, the effort focussed on building awareness of the programme – and its choice of prize feature – at the key inflection point when customers are selecting between restaurants. They accomplished this by giving customers choices they value, including enabling radio listeners to choose upcoming playlists (for a chance to win their choice of prize), TV viewers to choose outcomes of commercials, and social media users to choose sides in polls and share related GIFs, images, and videos. Additionally, Monopoly Moustaches were placed in restaurants, enabling customers to choose how to create their own sharable content for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and more. Finally, daily digital displays updated the number of winners and identified the prizes selected. As a result, McDonald’s experienced its highest guest count in its 43 years in the UK, increased average cheque, and improved brand image by 32%.


AIM for The Target

To fully understand the power of the AIM applied, it is helpful to consider the entire marketing process as akin to the endeavour of shooting an arrow at a distant target. When one considers today’s marketing planning cycles and the complexity of coordinating its required technologies, channels, and partners, an even more accurate metaphor may be launching a spacecraft to a distant planet.

In either case, the analogy fits because there is an ideal outcome – the arrow striking the centre of the bull’s-eye, the spacecraft landing at the desired location on a distant planet, or the right message reaching the right prospect at the right time – that is a great distance away in both time and proximity from the initial launch point. Even on an abbreviated timeline, most marketers are beginning their planning process months (and in some cases more than a year) before a programme will actually be in-market and have the opportunity to reach the target audience in the desired way.

What the arrow (or spacecraft) analogy can help illustrate is how the tiniest imprecision at the point of launch becomes magnified over time and distance as the arrow (or spacecraft) travels toward its destination. An arrow pointed just a fraction of an inch off target at the point of release will be several inches off target once it has travelled 10 feet, and several feet off target once it has traveled 50 yards, resulting in not just missing the bull’s-eye, but the entire target. In the case of a space launch, a tiny error in initial trajectory can result in hundreds of miles of correction once the spacecraft has reached a distant planet.

If a marketer is able to be even just 1% more effective in who is reached where along their path to purchase, 1% more effective in how they are reached, 1% more effective in engaging them, and 1% more effective in the subsequent messages and actions, the compounded effect can be substantial in final results and marketing return.

The purpose of the Activation Imperative Method is to bring a more methodical and precise approach to the process of aiming at a desired outcome that is a great distance away; in this case, an ideal experience that engages an individual we may never actually see many months in the future. By making sure we solve the right problems in the right order, we can make incremental improvements in decision making that have profound effects on the final result; just as that one tenth of an inch correction in archery means the difference between striking the bull’s eye or striking an observer.

If a marketer is able to be even just 1% more effective in who is reached where along their path to purchase, 1% more effective in how they are reached, 1% more effective in engaging them, and 1% more effective in the subsequent messages and actions, the compounded effect can be substantial in final results and marketing return. When all of the fragmented marketing disciplines are more effectively coordinated, and each of their best practices more widely leveraged across the others, the increase in effectiveness can be significantly greater.

Now for what the AIM is not.

The AIM is not an attempt to entice people to buy things that they do not need or want, or deceive anyone into transactions or engagements that they perceive as anything less than valuable and desirable. The AIM, quite the contrary, is an attempt to put people at the centre of the experience to make sure that they only receive the most relevant information and content at the most appropriate points in their journeys, and that every interaction is experienced as so clearly valuable and meaningful that they choose to continue to engage with the brand. The AIM will not and cannot make inferior products or brands seem superior, irrelevant products or brands seem relevant, or products or brands of no value to an individual appear valuable. The AIM is specifically designed to ensure that people’s time is valued, by delivering only the most useful information at the most relevant places and times; that their desires and interests are valued, by offering the right content to the right person when it is most helpful or desired; and that brands and products of value and relevance are brought to the attention of consumers who will value them as efficiently and effectively as possible.

The AIM is designed to put an end to the useless and irritating “carpet bombing” of messaging that barrages people with unwanted information and sales pitches that are only relevant or interesting to a few. The AIM is designed to bring precision, care, respect, and value to every point of contact so that great brands find their audiences, audiences find their brands, and marketers and consumers find maximum value in every effort.

The key to all of the above is an ethical, high integrity approach to the business of marketing that also improves effectiveness. The critical steps in this process, which are all fully detailed in our book, The Activation Imperative6, include:

1. Clearly defining quantifiable KPIs (key performance indicators) linked to real business drivers.

2. Identifying key inflection points in the target’s path to purchase from the transaction back

3. Identifying the optimal opportunities and channels to reach the target at key inflection points.

4 Determining how to create value in a branded way for the target to engage at points of contact.

5. Identifying the next best action (content, message or offer) following the initial engagement to move the target closer to transaction.

6. Executing all of the above in a best-in-class way by channel, measuring, and optimising

When all of the marketing disciplines are united through this process, the value is increased for both brand and consumer – and in today’s marketing environment, with its increased emphasis on ROI, this kind of activation is no longer optional. It is imperative.


About the Authors

William Rosen is Chief Executive Officer of VSA Partners, one of the world’s preeminent branding and marketing firms with clients including AB InBev, Google, Nike, P&G, IBM, Allstate, Hyatt and McDonald’s. He is also co-author of The Activation Imperative: How to Build Brands and Business by Inspiring Action.

Laurence Minsky is Associate Professor, Columbia College Chicago, and a marketing consultant helping agencies and brands across the globe. He is also co-author of The Activation Imperative: How to Build Brands and Business by Inspiring Action and Audio Branding: Using Sound to Build Your Brand, among other books.



1. https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442257047/The-Activation-Imperative-How-to-Build-Brands-and-Business-by-Inspiring-Action
2. http://www.michelgondry.com
3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KrN1ytnQ-Tg
4. https://www.apple.com/fr/detour/
5. http://tms.agency/casestudy/mcdonalds-monopoly-prize-choice/
6. https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442257047/The-Activation-Imperative-How-to-Build-Brands-and-Business-by-Inspiring-Action



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