The role brand plays in marketing success


The argument of brand building vs marketing spend.


When news articles started dropping this year about Tony’s Chocolonely spending nothing on marketing then, shortly followed by headlines about Airbnbs on brand building such as: ‘Airbnb Says Its Focus on Brand Marketing Instead of Search Is Working’ Wall Street Journal Nov. 3, 2022.


Some of our clients have questioned the nuanced difference between brand and marketing and whether they are investing in the right areas.

In this article, I take a mini dive into the above brands, which are both seeing growth analyse what they have done and highlight how you can learn from their strategies. I also tackle the brand building vs marketing silios to create a clearer picture for you to decide where to invest.



How did Tony’s Chocolonely grow without Marketing?


Tony’s invested early and heavily in their brand and have leveraged that power for some time. They are looking to scale and, as such, will need to (and I believe are planning to, if not already activated) invest in marketing spend to widen their reach; however, they have seen phenomenal growth by being a solid, well-designed brand thus enabling reduced initial spend on marketing activities.

For Tony’s, they have focused on brand building, meaning they have concentrated on setting who Tony’s Chocoloney are and what they believe in (brand strategy) and have used their product (for them packaging design) to communicate their brand – reinforcing who they are and what they believe in. As Nicola Matthews, Head of Marketing, explained to Marketing Week; they have a unique message.


We’re an impact company that makes chocolate, not a chocolate company that makes impact, and that’s quite an important distinction. The brand’s ultimate goal is to make the chocolate supply chain 100% slave free. We only exist to achieve this mission.

Nicola Matthews

Head of Marketing, Tony’s Chocoloney


To achieve their impact, the bars themselves have been at the heart of the message and, in return, have become a marketing tool. Here’s what I love about the brand’s solid positioning;

The size and weight of the bar feels unique in a world of skinny (and getting skinnier) bars.

The visual brand stood out from others, but there have been a few copycats since, unfortunately.

Odd-sized segments represent how profits from the chocolate industry are not fairly divided

A wrapper is used to reinforce the brand’s manifesto

Nailed brand extensions – the advent calendar in 2021 featured one empty square to represent the inequality in the industry is thought-provoking. I’m gutted that the idea didn’t survive into 2022 – but they had to publicly apologise to a swam of angry mums and dads who didn’t get it.


As they tick off best-in-class branding, the requirement for paid media has been minimal for a company of their size.


However, before the CFOs amongst you start jumping for joy at the potential cash savings. I must point out that to think they have ‘saved’ on marketing in this approach is not true. It’s simply that the budget allocation for marketing spend was moved into an investment in brand building, and they still require a team of strategic-thinking marketers and designers to build the brand.



Why has Airbnb invested in its brand and cut marketing spend?


Sensationalist headlines declaring Airbnb reduced spend on marketing have caused a stir.

Airbnb decided to introduce a strategy of reducing spend on search adverting, reinvesting more into brand-building marketing; this would focus on PR and communicating who they are – cue adverts with ‘belong anywhere’ centre stage. That positioning created back in 2014 is powerful.

Like Tony’s Chocoloney, they leveraged the brand at a time when people need to remember the emotional feeling about why they loved that much missed (due to the pandemic) desire for travelling.



Most tech companies say they care about the brand but when it comes to spending money, they only want to invest in the most measurable channels. Early in the pandemic, Airbnb decided to invest in its brand. Turns out, it was the right decision.


Nancy King

VP Marketing, Airbnb



I agree with Nancy, but I feel that multiple tech businesses don’t understand the power of brand vs marketing. Thinking that branding stops at the logo, set of values, and visual identity is a common misunderstanding. Great brands understand that investing in communicating who they are and what they believe in over the product is a different and underused style of channel marketing.

A recent article in the Wall street journal cites; Airbnb has made deep cuts to its overall marketing spending. In the first quarter of 2021, sales and marketing expenses fell 28% from the quarter a year earlier to $229 million, citing a decrease in performance marketing expenses—which refers to campaigns that directly generate consumer action—and an intention to use the strength of its brand to attract guests. See the article here.



Like Tony’s, Airbnb has invested heavily in brand evolution over the years, forming the backbone of current brand-building campaigns. If you feel you need to get the traction you want from marketing, why not look deeper at how you can leverage brand building instead?