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.