What is inbound marketing? The concept, pioneered by Hubspot 15 years ago, is defined by them as:
“Inbound marketing is a business methodology that attracts customers by creating valuable content and experiences tailored to them. While outbound marketing interrupts your audience with content they don’t always want, inbound marketing forms connections they are looking for and solves problems they already have.”
When you dig into their formal definition and strategies, Hubspot’s inbound marketing basically boils down to SEO and content marketing. Amusingly, despite the definition above, ads forms a core component of inbound marketing, later in the page.
What’s missing here?
The reason why the customer would be attracted to your content and experiences on an ongoing basis. Think about what inbound is supposed to mean. If you’ve done your job right as a marketer, inbound marketing should be attracting the customer to you, not you going to chase them. So, what brings customers to you, new and returning?
If we go with Ze Frank’s definition of brand – an emotional aftertaste of a series of experiences – then your brand’s power is the driver of inbound marketing. Let’s demonstrate with a few examples.
Quick, think of a coffee shop brand.
Good or bad, probably one of three major brands came to mind, yes? Do I even need to list them?
Quick, think of a smartphone brand.
You almost certainly thought of a leading international brand named after a fruit, and probably the brand of the phone you own.
Quick, think of a search engine.
I’d be willing to bet you a non-trivial sum that there’s only one that came to mind.
Now, these brands have spent enormous amounts of both time and treasure to build these mental associations in our heads, such that when we think of the category, we think of them. We lead ourselves to them.
The power of brand brings us as customers… inbound. Inbound to the brand. They don’t necessarily have to create a ton of content so much as create a ton of mind share, such that as soon as we have a need in their category, we almost automatically go to them.
Brand is the true inbound marketing.
It brings back our existing customers if we’ve done a good job creating a positive emotional aftertaste. Equally true is that we keep away customers if we’ve done a good job of creating a negative emotional aftertaste. But beyond those direct connections, our brands create associations such that new customers also follow strong brands, even if they themselves aren’t customers yet.
For example, Toyota sold more than 10 million cars in 2020. Tesla sold 5% of them, 500,000 vehicles. Yet ask someone for a brand of electric car, and there’s only one name on their lips a good amount of the time. More than that, it’s an aspirational brand for many. SpaceX is an aspirational brand for almost everyone; there’s probably no likelihood we’ll be able to afford a trip on one of their vehicles unless you’ve got millions of dollars to burn, but the brand is incredibly powerful.
And yet… brand is utterly absent from the core definition of inbound marketing. Why? For a few reasons. First, building a brand is difficult. We humans only have so much space in our brains to store information, and for any given category, we can only remember a few things at a time. Thus, companies must spend a lot of resources on a regular, frequent basis to keep their brand in our heads. It may not always be money, but it is always effort and investment of some kind.
Second, measuring a brand is difficult. It’s absolutely possible – and even straightforward – to measure a brand’s strength. But doing so is resource-intensive, deploying techniques like in-market surveys, focus groups, 1:1 interviews, and extensive data gathering and analysis. It’s much easier and less resource intensive for marketers and companies to measure simpler but less informative measures like search engine rankings than it is to truly measure brand.
Third, building a brand takes a long time. There are very, very few overnight brands; many take years, if not decades, to build and secure share of mind in consumers’ heads, B2B or B2C. Why? If we go back to Ze Frank’s definition, an emotional aftertaste of a series of experiences, customers need to have those series of experiences. That’s not something you can force quickly; like a slow cooker, it takes time for those emotions to set in.
However, just because something is difficult and time-consuming to build and measure doesn’t mean it should be absent from our strategy. In fact, it should be central to our strategy so that all the work we do helps boost those long-term efforts. Brand building should be central to inbound marketing, should be the raison d’etre for it, as well as the primary beneficiary of it.
So, here’s the key takeaway for you: is brand building central to your inbound marketing strategy? If it’s not, it might be time to rethink what inbound marketing means to you.
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