Winning Creative Strategy: How to Balance Brand and Performance in Mobile Advertising

By Kyle Sausser | March 15, 2021

Kyle Sausser is Growth and Partnerships Manager at Acorns, a leading saving and investing app. Tech sales and strategy consulting lured Kyle for the first decade of his career, but he later discovered entrepreneurship and helped launch an e-commerce DTC startup called Ready, Set, Food. Ever since, Kyle fell back in love with marketing and now tenaciously helps the up-and-coming make saving and investing easy, attainable, and automatic at Acorns. 

Learn more about Mobile Hero Kyle. 

Have you ever heard the expression “drive sales overnight and brand over time”?

When customer expectations are lofty and competition is fierce, sticking to this mantra by creating an authentic, sustainable brand is one of the most highly-valued aspects of mobile marketing. However, the reality is most performance marketers are evaluated on quantitative metrics, such as Return on Ad Spend (ROAS) or Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) that do not account for contributions made towards brand building. 

This presents a problem as you approach creative design, especially if a potentially winning creative comes at the expense of long-term brand image. For example, accentuating a paid feature of a freemium app in an ad might deliver a great CAC but could lead to a negative experience if the feature is costly and the customer feels deliberately misled. In my experience working with brand-first, mission-driven startups with a keen eye toward performance marketing, it is possible to have creative that delivers both robust KPIs and brand affinity. Here are my top four tips for designing a winning ‘performance branding’ creative strategy:

1. Build the right team and processes

I strongly recommend having members of your acquisition, brand, product, and creative teams involved in the ideation, review, and execution process. Each team has slightly different perspectives and can provide balance as you seek to develop high-performing advertisements representing the brand and product.

Every Monday at Acorns, we submit new ideas to a cross-functional panel. From there, we collect feedback to understand the user journey from ad > install > conversion > onboarding. Afterward, we iterate throughout the week if any team believes we are departing too far from our brand identity or product UX.

When there are instances where an ad performs exceptionally well, despite not aligning perfectly with brand characteristics, we use data to gain consensus from the different teams. Does your ads’ performance outweigh the potential drawbacks of how a user might perceive your brand? There is usually a transparent line you do not cross, but that line can be subjective depending on who you ask. Establishing a KPI with your colleagues ahead of time on the brand and design teams can help guide your decision-making process. For example, an 85% improvement in CAC elicits a different type of conversation than one about a 5% boost.

2. Create a checklist for each creative concept and campaign

Develop a scoring system and checklist for creatives that your teams can reference throughout each phase of the process. This checklist must be updated as you release new features, expand brand positioning, and evolve design guidelines. Here are a few of the checks and balances I have used successfully in the past:

  • Does your ad represent your brand’s values and mission?
  • Does your ad highlight one or two specific, differentiating features of your brand and/or product?
  • Is it clear what job(s) your product aims to accomplish for your audience?
  • Does your ad elicit a strong emotional response?
  • Is your brand identity (i.e. logo, app icon, key art, typography, color palette) consistent amongst all existing and new ad concepts?
    • For legacy top-performing ads, do you have a cadence established for updating the brand elements?
  • Is the user experience consistent within the ad, app store listing, product onboarding, and actual product?

Would your founder(s) and/or CEO stand behind the ad? You must be confident in this last one, as I believe certain controversial ads might have been avoidable if the brands had asked themselves this ahead of time.

3. Use creative segmentation to reach new audiences

Given the increased prevalence of automation in targeting (i.e. Facebook’s Automated App Ads), you must design ads reaching your desired audience and not solely existing customer profiles. 

For example, say you have a customer base that’s predominantly male, but you believe there is an opportunity to reach more female users. In this case, design ads with a higher likelihood of resonating with a female audience. This is counterintuitive to the days of building lookalike audiences; however, it is crucial to have high engagement ads if you want an automated campaign budget allocated to them. 

We validated new ideas through focus groups and rigorous experimentation around testimonials, lifestyle imagery, grammatical gender, and different ad copy to appeal to a more diverse group of targeted users.

4. Develop a weighting system for KPIs

Clear KPIs are instrumental in advertising, but brand marketing metrics must also be represented when evaluating an ad or campaign’s performance. Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) and Lifetime Value (LTV) can be your north star but Click-Through Rate (CTR), Engagement, growth of direct website traffic, and app store Share of Voice (SOV) can also play a role. 

I tend to use a combination of direct and indirect metrics and weigh them according to the campaign objective, spend, and channel(s) used. For example, we will assign a weighting of 85% for the payback period (LTV / CAC), 10% for engagement versus our benchmarks, and 5% for incremental growth of search traffic during the campaign flight. It goes without saying that multi-touch attribution is another valuable method, albeit something that is rapidly changing as we venture into the post-IDFA world.

I’ll leave you with a quote by author Seth Godin, “A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories, and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.” Whether you are growing a mature, multi-billion dollar brand or launching a new company, understanding how to balance brand and performance marketing is instrumental to success. A performance branding philosophy allows you to tell a powerful story over time, deliver the ROAS necessary to generate income and reinvest in the business.

Now you are armed with the tips to drive brand and performance in mobile. Want more helpful resources from Mobile Heroes? Read the latest blogs or join the Mobile Heroes Slack Community and chat with over 2,000+ mobile marketers.