Is appliance of science enough?

British marketing isn’t what it used to be, says a recent article in the Economist. A series of misfortunes engulfing such Eighties bellwethers as Saatchi & Saatchi, Unilever and J Sainsbury has exposed them as City idols with feet of clay.

It might seem nit-picking to question the misfortune afflicting J Sainsbury, which has seen off discounters rather smartly, continues to make huge profits and has expanded its presence greatly in the DIY sector. But the general drift of the article is a provocative one. Is it not true that what passes for British marketing flair rarely stacks up in the longer run against the superior “scientific” knowhow of American companies?

Let’s take a topical example of the American breed, Mars. A marketing-driven company if ever there was one, with field operation skills second to none and a handful of the world’s most famous brands to boot. Incredibly, however, it’s losing share in US and European markets, in petfoods as well as confectionery. The company has conveyed the idea that creative strategy is at fault. This has been a useful pretext for sacking Bates and Saatchi (Zenith, it seems, has escaped the purge). The problems run much deeper. New product development has been abysmal over the past few years; and distribution in its traditional markets not all it might be.

Mars is not a typical US corporation. It is privately run by two autocrats – “mad scientists” as opposed to “scientific” principles – who are its inspiration and limitation. But even the sparkling performance of more typical members of the breed needs to be treated with caution. Procter & Gamble may have severely damaged Unilever’s credibility as a detergent manufacturer through a brilliant PR campaign. But examination of P&G’s detergents in Europe shows they have lost share – to own label.

Similarly Coca-Cola, for all the glitter in its recent year-end figures, has little room for complacency about its main brand. Especially in the UK, where Sainsbury’s Classic Cola has ploughed a furrow.

Finally, while it would be foolish to portray “Cordiant plc” as a recovery stock, a rather more convincing case can be made for that other UK-based global marketing services group WPP, whose preliminary figures have just come out.

If British marketing really is in trouble, the evidence is far from clear.

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