The Battle of the Brand: CRO vs. Branding

The Battle of the Brand: CRO vs. Branding


It’s cold. It’s undeniable. It’s absolute. It’s infallible.

Or is it?

As CROs we tend to boil the world of human behavior, intent, and action into neat rows in a spreadsheet. We weave our assumptions together with formulas in order to break down complex interactions into absolute spreadsheet cells valued by the number of the digits they contain.

It’s math. We can’t be wrong!

But we are wrong. We’re wrong a lot. Our entire existence is built around being wrong.

If there were gurus who always knew the right answer, our jobs wouldn’t exist. We try things, we break new ground, we measure, and we fail all-the-time. The CRO management platform Experiment Engine reports that 80% of the variants tracked on their platform failed to beat the control (80% of B’s failed to beat the A’s).

With all this failure, why are we so sure we’re right when it comes to our analysis?

Enter the brand jerk

We all know the brand jerk.

He or she rolls in out of left field reigning in our ideas or making us update high-converting pages with topical campaign driven brand messaging. “But wait, that might hurt the conversion rates!” we moan.

Even worse, they’ll actually insist on removing site elements that improve conversion rates… on purpose!

“We don’t need that discounting messaging because it’s not aligned with brand,” they say.

“But, but, but… math,” we mutter.

It’s at this point that the epic battle of CROs vs. Branding begins.

Outward facing mindset

One of the principles we follow at WP Engine is to take an “outward facing mindset.” The fundamental approach is to understand the objectives of people you interact with or service. It’s a great way to improve the effectiveness of the work you do.

We use this philosophy extensively to make sure we provide mindful service to everyone from our entry level WordPress hosting customers to customers running huge enterprise WordPress sites like TechCrunch and Warby Parker.

Through this lens, I think it’s important that both CROs and Branding folks understand where the other is coming from.

As CROs, we know our existence is focused on the bottom line. We’re trying to pick apart the interactions of websites, mobile apps, and customer platforms in order to increase sales and conversions. We salivate over the next idea that will boost conversion rates and make the digits in our spreadsheets even bigger.

Our purpose seems undeniable and absolute. Everyone else is wrong. Math!

But what about that Brand person? If you steal a quick glance at a Brand person’s computer screen you might see mood boards with pictures of puppies and sail boats.


But, maybe there’s more going on.

The Brand person is focused on telling a narrative that customers can identify with and that helps paint the picture for your company’s future. They’re trying to convert minds.

See, a large part of branding is storytelling, something that consumers crave and something that is very effective when done well. As a Neilsen study showed, consumers “want a more personal connection in the way they gather information.”

It’s easier for us to remember stories than cold hard facts, because, according to Fast Company, “our brains make little distinction between an experience we are reading about and one that is actually happening.”

All this is to say that branding deals with memory, perception, value, and emotion in a way that CROs don’t usually measure.

Brand people obsess over stats like Share-of-Voice, Unaided Awareness, and Net Promoter Score. Their ultimate “conversions” however are hidden deep inside your potential customers’ brains and can be nearly impossible to detect with accuracy. There are no conversion pixels on a neuron.

But brand conversions are real. And they’re powerful. And when they happen in combination with your work, amazing things can happen.

Future Conversion Rate Optimization (fCRO)

If a stranger walked up to you on the street, would you let them take a picture of your credit card and promise to mail you a wifi router later?

Of course you wouldn’t, but people do something similar to this every day on millions of websites. Why?

The reason is because of branding. When people see brand logos they recognize they tend to have a positive emotional reaction and when they see brand logos they don’t recognize, they have a negative emotional reaction. The job of branding is to turn yourself from a stranger in the street into a trusted friend.

The top companies in the world don’t put this much money and time into logo design and branding for nothing.

Brand campaigns consist of several components that lay the foundation for your future conversion rates. The story behind your brand, cringeworthy “brand awareness” ad campaigns with very little tracked conversions, and continuity in messaging all create a framework of awareness and trust that eventually convinces customers to pull out their credit cards.

Simply put, the conversions you get today are the result of groundwork from the past and the conversion rates of tomorrow are the result of groundwork laid today.

As a CRO you can support fCRO efforts by accommodating brand campaign driven website elements into your testing schedule. Don’t look at your pages as static rows in a spreadsheet, but as dynamic organisms which support the ever-evolving story of your brand. A culture of experimentation is compatible with this. Converting neurons today will help fire conversion pixels tomorrow.

Also, look for ways to incorporate evolving brand messaging into your landing page approaches. By supporting brand campaigns in your landing page approaches, you’ll paint a consistent message for the customer which connects synapses in the potential customer’s brain leaving an impression that can help you convert immediately and in the future.

It’s quite clear that there is no real “either/or” decision to make here. Balancing and aligning branding and CRO is the real answer. As ChiefMartec wrote, “[branding vs CRO] is a false choice: you can — and should — do great on both dimensions.”

Remember, be nice to future you and make sure your brand campaigns and A/B testing are aligned.

“Intel Inside” doesn’t work

One of the more famous examples of branding success is “Intel Inside.” This graph shows the rise of Intel’s revenue after the launch of the now famous brand campaign.

I like to perform a thought experiment related to this example where I imagine I was a CRO working on the Intel website around the time of the brand campaign launch.

In my thought experiment, a brand person comes to me and asks me to start incorporating “Intel Inside” branding on my landing pages where I’m selling processors directly on an ecommerce page.

Imaginary me complains, “But what is Intel inside of? That slogan is about our chips inside of computers and this page is selling the chip itself. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Begrudgingly, imaginary me runs an A/B test and the conversion rates are worse with the “Intel Inside” messaging.

Imaginary me was right! Math!

Of course, imaginary me didn’t realize that “Intel Inside” would be a rallying cry for consumers when buying computers and that continuity in messaging would lead to this effect. The “Intel Inside” rallying cry led to major computer manufacturers buying millions of processors from Intel and vaulting the company to superstar status.

Oops. Guess I was wrong.

Remember that brand campaigns can often be supporting the evolution of what the company will become in the future. Even campaigns that hurt conversion rates can set the stage for changes that can have insane impacts on the future of your company.

*Sometimes* being wrong is right.

Accomplish Negative Net Revenue Churn

If you’re super hip, you may be aware of Unconversion Rate Optimization (uCRO), the practice of A/B testing cancel and refund pages in order to plug up the bottom of your funnel and create “negative net revenue churn.”

Negative net revenue churn is when the revenue you get from existing customers grows instead of shrinks (even after accounting for customers who do refund/cancel). Accomplishing negative net revenue churn exponentially increases the LTV of conversions on your landing pages, boosting your CPA tolerance and your ability to dominate your competitors in ad channels.

Interestingly, when you include brand campaigns on your top of the funnel landing pages, you can actually influence the probability that your customers will upgrade or continue buying from you in the future.

Starting way back in 1879 German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus began documenting how the order and frequency of information affected a person’s ability to learn. It wasn’t long before groundbreaking marketers like Thomas Smith started applying these principles to advertising as made famous in his 1885 publication “Successful Advertising” which detailed his thoughts on brand effectiveness over 20 occurrences of exposure.

The application of order and frequency in advertising also led to famous rules of thumb like “a person needs to be exposed to a brand 5-7 times before they buy.” I wonder how many times a customer needs to be be exposed to a brand before they keep buying?

“80% of your company’s future revenue will come from just 20% of your existing customers” — Gartner Group.

The impression of your brand on the customer’s brain starts with wispy awareness campaigns, escalates to solution searching, cumulates on your landing pages, and continues on through their experience as a customer.

By ensuring brand continuity on your landing pages, you’ll be ingraining a narrative into the customer’s brain that can result in repeat purchases, lower cancellation rates, and lower unsubscribe rates.

Including brand continuity at the top of your funnel can help create negative net revenue churn which will make your conversions more valuable than ever.

“All things being equal, people will do business with a friend; all things being unequal, people will still do business with a friend.” — Mark McCormack.

Help make friends with customers you convert and keep your brand messaging consistent at the top of your conversion funnel.

Conclusion: So who wins the CRO vs. Brand war?

The answer is simple.

The only winners are those who realize it’s not a war between disciplines, but a war with your competitors. You’re on the same side.

Aim to work with branding to support a narrative throughout your funnel that fuels future conversion rates, increases repeat purchases, reduces cancellations/refunds, and evolves your company for the future.

The neuron that fires today is a pixel that fires tomorrow.

Related Posts

Join the conversation Add your comment

  1. Avatar photo

    Hey David, appreciate the article, I’ve thought a lot about the interplay you talk about here. Sort of a granular question, at WP Engine, have you guys done any tests on the video background on your homepage? I’ve wanted to do some testing on this type of setup with the hypothesis that video backgrounds are distracting, analogous to a slider. Thoughts? I’m wondering if it’s there as a branding decision?!

  2. Hey Ben. We haven’t tested the use of the video element specifically. The use of it was a branding decision, but when it was launched it was part of many changes. The first round of changes performed worse, but we tested some variations on the CTAs that ultimately made the new design perform better. The videos probably won’t have a place in the future site, but that could change.

    My main observation if you’re going to try something like this is to optimize the page load order of video elements. We had to do some trickery to get it to load in a way that wouldn’t interfere with render time of the page.

    As with anything, you just have to test it for yourself :)

  3. Hi David,
    Thanks for the article. While I agree with the main point, I think that branding can, and often does, little conversions overall. Think about the hamburger chain Wendy’s and their branding campaign of the ’80’s – the “Where’s The Beef?” – while it was widely popular, there’s no real way to prove that the campaign and brand growth were intertwined.

    While I agree that brand awareness helps in the long-term, it seems then that the efforts should still be placed on CRO. But that’s just my read on it all.

    Thanks again for the insights!

    1. I agree completely. While the article makes the case for the brand person (I’m a CRO btw), there are a ton of brand campaigns that fall flat on their face or have no effect at all.

      In CRO, we know right away if something fails. In branding it’s less obvious. This presents risk (e.g. ending a brand campaign too early or too long).

      In the end, revenue will always win, but the point of the article was to remind math driven CROs that immeasurable things can also have an influence now and in the future to the success of your ability to convert :)

  4. Hi David,

    Awesome article! I agree with your point that the brand converts the “mind” so that the brand becomes a trusted friend of a stranger over time. The CRO, on the other hand, converts the “behavior” of those who may already have the intent to buy. The brand may create a favorable preference when the choice is about to be made. However, as pointed out by David Throop, brand strategies and campaigns might be successful but conversion tactics could be executed poorly. That’s just how I see this.

  5. Great insights you have shared, Agree with your points the bad design of logo can hurt all branding efforts, logo should be simple and creative and clear convey message about the brands and its related products, but still, some business don’t focus on logos.


Comments are closed.

Current article:

The Battle of the Brand: CRO vs. Branding