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Brand control through affiliate marketing: is it an oxymoron? Maybe. A bone of contention with affiliates? Probably. A real concern for brands? Definitely.

In this post I will look at how to ensure that you retain brand control when working with affiliates...

Let us begin with the facts. Brands spend inordinate amounts of money in ensuring that they are communicating with their consumers in the correct way, spreading the right message and encouraging those customers to think about the brand in a positive way and transacting with them.

Conversely, affiliates are not necessarily worried too much about what the consumer thinks of the brand, as long as they still buy something from them. The affiliate has to use their own ingenuity to encourage consumers to click on their links and ultimately buy something.

Therein lies the conundrum. Brands wish to control the messaging that goes out and affiliates wish to adapt it to suit their own means.

I can understand the argument from both sides. On one hand, brands are spending a lot of money on developing their brand image and want their marketing partners to adhere to this.

However, are you denying the entrepreneurial spirit of the affiliate by cutting back their ability to interact with their target audience as they desire? Not only that, are you restricting the ability of the affiliate to make money by imposing regulations on them? The way that the deal is structured, the affiliate takes all the risk and so therefore you have to give them a bit of leeway to market as they see fit.

I'd now like to break it down into two distinct areas and examine it from that point of view:

Should brands control the content that affiliates use?

Clearly, affiliates should not be able to lie about products or services, but I firmly believe that there does need to be a level of flexibility in what affiliates are able to say.

Marketers will adapt messages dependant on the channel and audience that they are targeting. You wouldn't use the same ad copy in a magazine aimed at young urban youths as you are in National Geographic. Affiliates must be given the ability to do likewise, within reason.

While I understand that this idea of ceding control of your brand to an unknown third party can cause some marketers to break out in a cold sweat, this is something that they will have to get used to. The rise of blogging and social networking means that consumers are more connected and empowered than any time before and brands have less control.

My recommendation would be that brands set a rough set of guidelines for affiliates to use and then allow them freedom. Common sense must be prevalent on both sides but as the goals of both sides are to sell products, this should be an easy one to make right.

Do certain types of affiliates inherently damage brands?

The second, and perhaps more controversial question is whether specific types of affiliate models paint brands in a bad light simply by being on the website in the first place?

I am speaking here about models which encourage consumers to associate the brand with discounting activity, for example cashback, loyalty and voucher/coupon sites.

A small number of large brands in the UK have pulled out of this space as they feel that they do not want their business to be associated with offering discounts over which they do not have complete control. I can see the rationale here; they do not offer any discounts in store and protect their reputations as a premium retailer very fiercely. Therefore, why should they allow a third party the ability to discount on their behalf?

The issue seems to be around the fact that brands lose control of their ability to discount and the messaging that they portray. In addition the loyalty and positivity from the discount or rebate sits with the partner instead of the brand, which causes discomfort.

My view is that this attitude is down to a lack of understanding rather than any particular issues with these types of sites. If managed correctly then working with these types of sites can drive great sales volume and incredible value, all of which can be tangibly measured.

However, the perceived damage to the brand is not a tangible thing and therefore brands have to decide whether they want to appear here. In my opinion, you can't ignore consumer behaviour and therefore the question should not be whether to appear, but how best to manage your appearance on these sites.

So does affiliate marketing damage your brand?

It certainly can do, but by managing your campaign proactively and asserting your objectives from the outset you can negate the danger and control how your brand is portrayed.

I would recommend either ensuring that you have internal resource or utilising an agency to oversee this. It seems foolish to close yourself to a large number of sales over something that can be managed so easily.   

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Published 14 July, 2010 by Matt Bailey

Matt Bailey is Business Director at 7thingsmedia and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

2 more posts from this author

Comments (5)

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Geoff Slaughter

I think this is perhaps the most important issue facing the brand/affiliate relationship today and the outcomes of this continual debate will have a significant impact on the future of affiliates.

I also think it is one of the most misunderstood arguments and that both brands and affiliates (if we consider them as communities) are perpetuating the confusion.

If we split it into two distinct areas, we can make sense of the issues and challenges more clearly:

1) The "visual" execution.  If affiliates don't follow the guidelines (a further comment on this in a moment), then Brand "owners" should rightly be concerned.  Distorted, recolored, incorrectly resized and/or space incursions do no good for the relationship or the perception of affiliates in general.  Many companies invest heavily in creating a visual identity and to have it bastardised by an affiliate for whatever reason, is inexcusible (and it still happens today in big and small affiliate businesses).

2) The message.  Much of what a brand means to the consumer, is defined by their experiences of it.  And that usually means what the product and service/delivery "quality" are like in real life; this sets a future expectation and then we associate an emotive response when we see the brand in name or visual execution (see point 1). 

Clearly the lion's share of responsibility in the affiliate/brand relationship sits with the brand owner, but when an affiliate becomes part of the journey (the review and selection for example - (especially when the affiliate's own brand is muted to support a particular tactical acquisition route), then they have a duty of care to the brand; the boundaries can, as we know, get pretty blurred in consumer minds.

This doesn't mean affiliates should show undue bias in how the brand is communicated (this approach won't wash with many and can be detrimental), but it DOES mean that we should respect the factual positioning of the brand/product (beraing in mind the visual representation triggers the feeling of expectation).

Conclusions:

There is a responsibilty on both parties to do the best job for a brand that they collectively seek to market.  Brand owners should share their brand guidelines and support affiliates in understanding them (much of the "message" is embedded in the detail).  And affilates should act on as much as they can, and be prepared to push back on issues that they feel would compromise them.  This kind of collaboration encourages brand owners to evolve and become more inclusive and understanding of their affiliates and partners.

It remains up to brand owners to determine whether voucher codes or cashback offers will truly devalue a brand, but with careful and considered  execution it may not have to.

about 6 years ago

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Angela

Agree Matt, great article, some brief thoughts from our experience at Red Letter Days:

-Clear guidelines for affiliates reduce uncertainty for everyone and having those in place means we find that very few of our affiliates represent us in a way that we wouldn't want to be represented. Providing easily accessed and clearly labelled creative in a good variety of sizes is also key. Basic I know but sometimes hard to get right.

- We have found tactical campaigns with voucher code sites very beneficial; and when working in close partnership we haven't experienced any 'loss of control' due to both parties knowing exactly what's involved. I'd also add here that special product offers for all types of affiliates, relevant to their audience and well timed, are also a high priority for us - as those familiar with our new deal-based technology would know.

- Brands should recognise that their affiliates are brands too with their own audiences to cater for. An understanding of how to most effectively target those audiences yields positive results for everyone involved.

about 6 years ago

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Bhuvan

Absolutely, there is not second point to disagree on the above topic. The brand can be maintained only by accurate communication among affiliates and affiliate team/merchant.

Not only the information about the brand but products need to be supplied to affiliates in detail. This will helps  to understand the brand more clearly.

If possible merchant should run a campaign or tranning to introduce their brand correctly every year among the affiliates. There they can even focus on USP of their products and brand in general.

Affiliate Channel is one of the most attractive channel in order to create a brand awareness and it should obviously be rightly communicated. Same thing happens in conventional marketing : training is provided to marketing team in order to help them understand the product and brand closely so that they can rightly promote the brand and products to the right customers/prospects. Same applies to affiliate marketing channel as well.. Affiliates are business partners and they have very right to know the information about the brand and products in order to promote them correctly.  

about 6 years ago

Steven Underwood

Steven Underwood, Head of Client Services at Silverbean

Great article Matt, yet another area of affiliate marketing that I believe is still not addressed pro-actively enough but can have long term implications on the perception of affiliate marketing as a viable marketing channel, if brand protection is not managed correctly from the launch of a new affiliate program.

I believe all parties involved in the affiliate marketing sector (including affiliates) have a long term responsibility to ensure that brands are promoted correctly on affiliate sites, as problems and bad experiences in this area will ultimately impact upon the reputation of affiliate marketing as a serious revenue generating channel for companies

about 6 years ago

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Voucher Code

Excellent post and something that both the affiliates and merchants need to take a closer look at as there is no barrier to entry for affiliates and very little in the way of review post sign up.

about 6 years ago

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