The recent discussion of the importance of brand to CPA network survival generated a fair amount of feedback. For an industry rooted in performance, where everything is measurable, the idea that product functions and features aren’t all important is a hard one to accept.

But it’s true. Let’s look at exactly why that is.

We’ll use Adam Viener’s post on WiseAff as a starting point.

Adam knows his stuff, and he suggests that not brand, but differentiation is the answer for struggling networks. He specifically suggests that networks should create exclusive distribution partnerships with the top 5% of publishers who drive 95% of sales. If they could only do that, then our hypothetical network could “secure their place along the sides of Commission Junction, Linkshare and the likes.”

It’s hard to argue with that. It sounds like a winning formula.

The only problem is that it would take the resources of a ValueClick or a Rakuten – and their associated brands – to achieve that goal and to attract a critical mass of exclusive publishers. A small, struggling CPA network using an off-the-shelf tracking platform is just not going to be able to do it.

And if somehow they manage to get some exclusive publishers? Well, it’s likely they’ll lose them again when someone with deeper pockets and better offers comes along. Without a brand to make and maintain an emotional connection and a feeling of loyalty, the effort will ultimately be a wasted one.

But Adam isn’t wrong in his argument, it’s simply that he has things reversed: brand isn’t a “small piece of the puzzle,” it’s the whole puzzle. And the reason is that brand incorporates everything. Differentiation feeds into brand, not the other way around.

Starbucks’ brand isn’t a small piece of the buying-a-cup-of-coffee experience, it is the whole deal. The coffee itself is part of it sure, but the ambience, the music, the funny cup names, the staff greetings – these elements are why Starbucks have killed your local coffee shop. Not because they have better coffee (Peets!).

Product features and functions are a key part of success, of course. But a network could have the best exclusive distribution network in the world and still not win if they don’t have a good reputation with advertisers, for example. Or if their tracking is inaccurate.

Focusing on brand is what makes the difference. And focusing on brand means focusing on customer service, on product quality, on consistent messaging, on website design, on staff training, and on all the other elements that affect what people think of you.

If you want an example in the network space, think about MediaTrust. Peter Bordes lives and drives that company as a brand. He constantly pushes the ideas of reputation, quality and the need to battle fraud. They have a consistent message, and everything they do supports it. It wouldn’t work without them having the products and services to back it up, naturally, but Peter’s focus on the qualities of the brand are what sets the direction.

So, what do we think CPA networks should be doing to survive right now?

Tune in next week!