It’s time to drop the branding iron

If marketing is in crisis (which it is) the solution is not to push ever harder, but to apply the same value criteria used for other products. By Alan Mitchell

It’s become a commonplace in marketing circles that today’s marketing models are “obsolete” and “broken” (Procter & Gamble chief marketing officer Jim Stengel’s words). But how obsolete or broken is marketing, and what opportunities could be created by fixing it?

To get a handle on this issue, let’s go back ten years to the publication of The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, by masters of positioning Al Ries and Jack Trout.

Law number four was the law of Perception. It went like this: “There are no best products. All that exists in the world of marketing are perceptions in the minds of the customer or prospect. The perception is the reality. Marketing is not a battle of products. It is a battle of perceptions.”

That was followed by the law of the Mind: “If marketing is a battle of perception, not product, then the mind takes precedence over the marketplace.” So the secret of successful marketing is to “blast your way into the mind”. Yes, “blast”. Why? Because “people don’t like to change their minds.” And that’s what marketers have to do: change people’s minds so that they will choose one brand over another.

Is the word “blast” a tad too aggressive for you? Well how about “burn”, then? Burning has its own law – the law of Focus. But it’s all the same, really. Successful marketers, the gurus told us, “own a word in the mind of the prospect… You burn your way into the mind by narrowing the focus to a single word or concept.”

So, farmers assert their ownership of cattle by branding them: burning a mark into their hides. And marketers also assert their ownership of consumers by branding: burning a perception into their minds.

Please note two things about this theory. First, it defines the purpose of marketing communications: to allow for zero consideration of the interests or goals of the consumer. Like cattle, consumers’ minds are simply to be corralled and directed to suit the marketer’s purposes. It’s said that marketing is all about identifying and meeting consumer needs. But that’s for the product only. Marketing communications is not about meeting consumer needs at all. It’s about meeting the needs of the company: getting the consumer to do what the company wants him to do – buy our brand!

Second, marketing communications’ processes leave the consumer wholly passive, like those poor dumb cows. Branding is something that is done to consumers by marketers: the consumer’s mind is burned and blasted by the marketer. The process is entirely one-way and top-down.

Just ten years later, this fabulous concoction of breathtaking arrogance, stunning naivety and cavalier contempt for other human beings probably makes most of us feel uncomfortable. But is this because it’s wrong? Or because it’s honest? What is the modern marketer’s obsession with measures such as spontaneous and prompted awareness, opportunities to see and GRPs, sales uplifts and pre- and post-campaign attitude shifts if not an obsession with blast effectiveness – how well we’ve managed to burn messages into consumers’ minds? Do we really feel uncomfortable with Ries and Trout’s underlying theory, or just the language they used to describe it?

Well, ten years ago, their philosophy might have had some validity. But today’s crisis in modern marketing communications – and it is a crisis, reaching right down to the very roots – means it doesn’t any more.

For a start, the usual suspects of media fragmentation and proliferation mean that the economics of blasting and burning are going AWOL. The tenfold increase in the volume of advertising messages over the past few decades has also created a huge structural problem. While it makes perfect sense for individual advertisers to push their message as hard as they can, the net effect of many different advertisers doing the same thing is to generate a marketing cacophony. From the consumer’s perspective, marketers’ quest for ever more efficient and effective blasting and burning is part of the problem, not part of the solution. For the consumer, the answer is not to turn up the volume, but to switch off. Which is exactly what they are doing.

Meanwhile, “positioning” has fallen foul of Ries and Trout’s own 11th law: that “the long-term effect of your actions are often the opposite of the short-term effects”. Spin may be highly effective at generating sales increases in the short term, but its long-term effect is a continual erosion of trust. If brands don’t produce trusted information as well as trusted goods, why on Earth should we believe anything they say?

Besides, if the communication is focused solely on the interests of the company and is irrelevant to consumers’ purposes, why should we see it as anything but an interruption or intrusion?

Meanwhile, the ongoing digital revolution is slowly but surely transforming consumers’ go-to-market behaviours. The Google generation is turning increasingly to search mechanisms rather than interruption advertising when it wants information. And the same technologies are giving consumers an ever-increasing ability to screen and edit marketing messages (according to research consultancy Yankelovich, 69 per cent of US consumers positively want these services). We’re moving from “push” environment to a “pull” one.

So the crisis is complete, embracing the purposes of marketing communications, its structure and processes, relationships with consumers and their attitudes to marketing, marketing communications’ ability to create consumer value and its underlying economics. As Yankelovich president J Walker Smith puts it in his new book Coming to Concurrence, “the way consumers want to hear from marketers is not the way marketers talk to consumers.” We are faced with “the utter structural irrelevance of traditional marketing”.

So what is the answer?

There is only one answer. To re-invent marketing communications as a win-win exercise: to treat every campaign and communication as it were one of the company’s products in its own right. Does it pass the test of consumer value? Given the choice, would consumers buy it?

The first acid-test of value is price. If a campaign does not offer value for time and return on attention, consumers are unlikely to spend time and attention on it.

The second test of value is content: does it meet the need in question? Successful products create powerful win-wins by aligning companies’ production processes to consumers’ consumption needs. Successful marketing communications can be equally powerful, by aligning companies’ go-to-market processes with consumers’ go-to-market needs. In a particular product and category, what does the buyer need to know and do? How can companies use their skills, knowledge and information to help buyers obtain maximum value from the category and achieve their desired outcomes, saving them time, relieving stress, easing workloads and giving them more control along the way? Or else, how can they enrich people’s lives via relevant events, entertainment, and experiences?

For decades, marketers have taken it for granted that successful marketing generates superior mutual wins. But while they’ve applied this philosophy to what they sell – their products and services – they have never really applied it to marketing communications. It’s time to start changing. Now.

Alan Mitchell,

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