Brand Debt

Brand Debt

Every so often the human mind takes two dissimilar things and, through its native pattern recognition abilities, makes a new correlation. Sometimes the results are hilarious and irreverent (e.g., fun distractions that make us wonder how things are truly connected; but every so often we make a correlation that gives us a deeper understanding of how these underlying factors combine into a new principle. Recently, this process of discovery occurred to me from two things that I long thought on separately but had never before brought together. 

I recently decided to sell my house and engaged with a fantastic real estate agent. She of course brought up the topic of staging the space to make it more attractive. As she succinctly put it, “clutter destroys equity.” A recent surge in the popularity of KonMari method ( would lead to you conclude less is definitely more. 

As I was preparing to de-clutter, I couldn’t help but think of the amount of ‘digital debris’ I had accumulated on an old computer. After years of service it had collected a distinguished patina of documents, messages, and abandoned downloads. It had become my digital attic of things forgotten.

The second theme that would contribute to my discovery is the concept of technical debt, ( ) a topic that comes up during most of my developer and scrum meetings.  But the short definition is when a development team knowingly sacrifices the future maintainability of a codebase to complete the project more quickly. 

Anyone that has been to a technical conference in the last ten years is nearly certain to have sat in a keynote session that discussed the horrors of technical debt: technical debt will ruin your project; technical debt will ensure your job is horrible; technical debt will turn the sky dark and cause the end of days. More often than not, these discussions on technical debt devolve into a conversation about how all engineers know how to do things properly, so the fact technical debt even exists is obviously the fault of the business team that created the requirements and schedule. The executives and product managers are conspiring to ensure the engineering group’s continued misery. The discussion will then end with a rally cry and a pep talk to goad the world of engineers to push back against the foul demon known as technical debt. “You must immediately start paying down your technical debt; your loan is being called!”

Technical debt is certainly a real occurrence that does indeed make the lives of an engineering team difficult. A functional project team with a healthy feedback loop, such as that provided by Agile methodology ( ), is empowered to prevent technical debt from overly seeping into a codebase by constantly discussing expectations. When technical debt does find its way into code it almost certainly ensures that the project has a future of refactoring or abandonment. 

And that’s when it hit me: technical debt usually results in abandonment and by extension ‘digital debris’. It creates the problem of possessing unmaintainable and forgotten code. At first glance this seems like a simple problem of storage management, which it is to an extent; however, when you then apply this principle to your web properties and then by extension to your brand’s online presence you end up with a perfect storm, which I call brand debt. 

Brand debt happens quite often - the larger the brand, the more likely brand debt occurs; the more digital history behind the brand, the more likely brand debt occurs. Brand debt is a function of most marketing groups failing to maintain a product lifecycle: microsites for events and campaigns don’t get taken down after their expiration date, there is employee turn-over, side projects become abandoned, one-off projects live on hosted in eternity. File and asset audits at the web host rarely occur unless spurred by a more pressing situation, usually a near failure of a hardware component or an unexpected cost overrun. It’s easier to keep maintaining and expanding existing structures than it is to audit them, so the debris collects and collects.

This type of debt is damaging in such a multitude of ways that it’s not nearly possible to list them all here, but here is an example inspired by real events: 

A young marketing executive comes up with a brilliant cross-channel strategy that drives traffic to a campaign microsite which then proceeds to generate more leads than any other campaign in company history, it’s a great success. Shortly after the young marketing executive leaves the company to pursue new challenges, over time most of the team forgets about this program and it stays up and running. Many years later the company decides to rebrand and ensure that all digital communications follow new brand guidelines, the project focuses on the core site and user experiences, it’s also a great success, and customers love the new user interface and content. As part of the new site launch the developer team dynamically creates a new Google sitemap XML file, the XML includes paths to the long-forgotten campaign site so Google indexes it. A user interested in the company performs a Google search via some combination of keywords and receives the campaign microsite as a top result. It’s totally off-brand, off-communication, and off-experience. The site doesn’t quite meet the user’s need, so they go to the main domain and get the rebranded homepage. The two experiences are so far apart that the user basically visited the websites of two completely different companies. 

Not only does digital clutter destroy your brand equity, it is also likely working against any search engine optimization work your teams are performing.

It’s never easy to perform audits but every so often they are required. A good audit serves its purpose when it creates a set of expectations for everyone involved. To get to a good audit, especially of your marketing materials, you need the right tools and processes. 

  1. Maintain a true lifecycle and retire old assets and programs. Be it a spreadsheet or enforcing unpublish dates in your CMS and Marketing Automation Systems, at the very least make sure you have means to control publicly released information.
  2. Think about implementing a Digital Asset Management platform to assist in inventorying and managing creative assets. As a benefit you also get better version control and workflows for your team.
  3. Don’t be afraid to take sites down, retire servers, or remove out of date material. You can archive it elsewhere if necessary.
  4. Make sure after making adjustments that you update sitemaps and any dynamically generated sitemaps. Also make sure to request a re-index with major search engines.

Your brand will be stronger, more focused, and able to put customers at ease when the clutter is gone.


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