Marketing ROI: Not So Black And White
Aaron Perlut | Partner

When we open our wallets to pay for goods or services, there is an expectation of receiving something of value in return.  It’s of course no different in marketing communications, where we are commonly asked about the value of our services as our clients expect a return on their investment — the almighty ROI.

“I have to justify everything I do,” said Chris Curran, vice president of corporate communications and brand marketing for WellCare Health Plans, a client that provides government-sponsored managed care services, primarily through Medicaid, Medicare Advantage and Medicare prescription drug plans to some 4.4 million. “It’s the right thing to do for the business and the only way you’ll get additional funding, build trust, gain credibility and speak the language of my (internal) clients.”

It’s a perfectly reasonable expectation. After all, if I purchase a bottle of Lagavulin 16 year Scotch for $100 and it tastes like a $2 can of Zima, I would be upset. However, if it tastes like the rich, smoky Scotch I’ve grown to expect — well then my friends, I’m thrilled, and perhaps a tad inebriated.

Many of us struggle with principal challenges of Marketing ROI. First, the target can be highly subjective and variable. Second, it can be awfully difficult to truly measure. Finally, getting a handle on ROI can be expensive.

“There are tangible and intangible returns,” said Dave Peacock, the former Anheuser-Busch North American president and now COO of Schnucks Markets. “At AB, we invested heavily in an NFL sponsorship which had huge customer benefits that we could quantify and we took it from a competitor. But we also were a year into the merger (with Inbev) and suffered from the image of being cost-cutters. Investing in the NFL sent a signal to our employees and wholesalers that we were actually investing back some of what we had cut.”

Peacock’s point is fascinating. AB sells beer to consumers. That’s typically where the rubber hits the road — beer sales to shlubs like me. But in the case of its NFL sponsorship, the company spent millions upon millions to burnish its reputation amongst two audiences which were not primary end-purchasers of its products. Thus the subjectivity.

As a baseline, one Harvard Business Review piece framed Marketing ROI (MROI) like this:

Great, but it’s not that black and white. With each client, we begin by working in conjunction with their team to establish a sound measurement strategy with the goal of aggressively pushing forward the KPIs that will most effectively measure the impact of the engagement. In some cases, this is sales or lead generation, in others it’s simply changes in brand awareness or changes in their reputation.

For example, we were recently engaged by the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership to lead social media strategy on the St. Louis region’s effort to recruit Amazon’s HQ2, as well as by the State of Missouri to create video content for the endeavor.

We had two very concrete yet different objectives in each case: regionally, to devise and execute a strategy that helps raise the volume of the region’s excitement and interest in bringing Amazon to The Lou; and statewide, to craft a video for the bids to support the respective efforts by both St. Louis and Kansas City.

On the St. Louise regional effort, we nailed the our objective. How do we know? As Reuters reported, “St. Louis, Missouri received the most Twitter mentions related to HQ2 over the last two weeks – more than 1,300 – according to social media monitoring company Brandwatch. Boston and Chicago were next.” While it is impossible to measure a true ROI — at least at this juncture — it’s clear that our mission was a success. We were asked to raise the volume and we had third-party attribution that we did it better than any of the other 237 cities responding to the RFP.  America working!

On the state-level, the ROI was both concrete and highly subjective. We delivered a video under remarkably tight circumstances considering the task, timeframe and are very proud of the product all things considered. But as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Who’s to say people aren’t panning it to no end? You can judge for yourself:


In theory, we achieved the ROI in each of these Amazon recruitment cases. The reality, however, is that we won’t truly know if we moved the needle until Amazon chooses where it will locate H2Q. That’s the ROI to me. Yes, our role might just be one small piece of the puzzle as there was a broad team involved in both the state and regional effort. But that’s the gig.

When I want an example of how we truly achieved a measurable ROI, I consider our engagement with tax giant H&R Block, which was increasingly thought of as stodgy and conservative among 21- to 35-year-olds. To counter those perceptions, we were charged with creating a digital and PR campaign to drive brand engagement and improve perceptions. What we created — The Million Mustache March — hit all the typical marks on media placements, online engagement and more as you can see in our case study here.

But what you won’t read on the surface, and what really signified we’d done what we were hired to do, came later during an analyst report for Block competitor Turbo Tax. In that, a digital marketing campaign by Block was cited as having nabbed market share amongst the key Millennial audience from Turbo Tax. And to me, that’s what we were hired to do. That demonstrated that we moved the needle and returned the investment Block made in us. That’s ROI.

Marketing ROI is very, very hard to prove out. It’s just not as black and white as we’d all like to believe and the challenges of proving your worth as marketer will never go away. The best you can do is set very clear expectations from the outset of any engagement, ensure all parties involved are on the same page as to what constitutes success, and measure like your life depends on it.


Aaron Perlut

Aaron Perlut is a cofounding partner of Elasticity with some 25 years of diverse experience in journalism, public relations and digital marketing. He is a former senior reputation management counselor at Omnicom company FleishmanHillard, as well as a communications executive for two of the nation's largest energy companies. Throughout his career, Perlut has counseled a range of organizations – Fortune 500s, state governments, professional sports franchises, economic development authorities, well-funded startups and large non-profits – helping manage reputation and market brands across a diverse channels in an evolving media environment.

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