Discovering that science can never provide all the answers

The trouble is, marketing is a lot more complicated than many people (especially consultants selling formulae for success hidden by “black box” methodologies) would admit.

There is no simple equation to ‘prove’ effectiveness – marketers must accept the impossibility of measuring the ‘unmeasurable’ consumer

The trouble is, marketing is a lot more complicated than many people (especially consultants selling formulae for success hidden by “black box” methodologies) would admit.

Complexity is one reason for this situation. The real world of marketing has countless variables. A marketing campaign may include dozens of separate sub-initiatives such as TV, press, outdoor and internet advertising, sponsorship, public relations, sales promotions and direct marketing. Each one of these sub-initiatives will be affected by countless other variables such as content, spend, timing and placement. And each one of these initiatives will have a different impact on millions of individuals, each of whom has his own personality, preferences and priorities, accessing the different media for different purposes, and so on. What’s more, each one of these millions of individuals is being exposed to hundreds of different stimuli each day from thousands of different sources – including rival campaigns, the media and friends and family.

The scientist’s ideal of isolating one particular variable to identify its particular causes or effects is impossible in this context – as it is in a wide range of real-life scientific contexts. When the first sequence of the human genome was published in 2001, for example, many people expected an explosion of discovery: we would find the “gene for this” and the “gene for that” in no time. But most genetic effects don’t work like that. A gene that is switched on may also switch some genes on and others off in a vast, feedback loop with multiple effects. This level of complexity means that – with 34,000 genes in our bodies – we are approximately 216,000 times (that is, a 1 followed by 4,800 zeros) more complex than the round worm Caenorhabditis elegans (which has 18,000 genes, and which scientists love for its relative simplicity).

But marketing’s complexity doesn’t stop with multiple feedback loops. Basic physical and chemical reactions are the same around the world. If you put sodium in water in Beijing it will react in the same way as if you do it in Buenos Aires or Brussels. But consumers in these different countries are different. What’s more, if you put sodium in water ten years ago, and then repeated the experiment today, the reactions would be the same. But over that period, consumers and markets might have changed dramatically.

A learning process

This change is constant because people are always learning. If you did a brilliantly successful marketing campaign last year and then tried to repeat it this year, the second time round it might not succeed. Why? Because, in the meantime, a host of other people have copied you, and your competitors have responded. As Bristol Business School researcher Alan Tapp noted in a recent paper: “The weather is easier to try and model than human, corporate or market behaviour. At least the weather doesn’t wake up one day, spot the trends it has set, and deliberately set out against them.”

But our difficulties don’t stop even here. It’s not certain that the categories marketers use to describe the world are the ones we need to grasp what it is really going on. For centuries, people accepted Aristotle’s theory that the world was made up of four core substances – earth, water, fire and air – and it took an intellectual revolution (that of chemistry and the periodic table) to get past this roadblock. Are categories such as “advertising”, “consumer” and “market” really any more useful than Aristotle’s theory?

The air we breathe has eight constituent elements, each with its own attributes. The blanket term “advertising” includes as many different functions: “remember me” awareness which challenges existing perceptions; “badging” which generates emotional associations; the announcement of opportunities (such as price promotions) or news (such as product launches); the education of audiences (think of the difficulty of explaining the benefits of HDTV on old-fashioned TV) and so on.

Likewise, the blanket term “consumer” includes many different people with different purposes, preferences, priorities, moods, modes and occasions. Considering the broadness of these categories (and the vast variety of contexts in which consumer advertising is carried out) what exactly does advertising effectiveness mean at this level of generalisation?

Let’s go even further. Deep inside the quest to “prove” advertising effectiveness is a questionable assumption: that marketing initiatives and campaigns are “causes” which have “effects” on consumers, and that the consumer is a passive, inert body that only does something in response to a stimulus. In this version of events, anything that happens as a result of the marketing campaign – whether it is a success or failure – must be attributable to the qualities of the campaign itself.

But what if the consumer is an active ingredient in its own right, doing its own thing regardless? Sometimes, as a result of the consumer doing its own thing, something good happens for a company. It then attributes this outcome to effective marketing. Sometimes, as a result of the consumer doing its own thing, something less than good happens for the company. It then attributes this to ineffective marketing.

In both cases, the company is busy attributing success and failure – measuring results and learning appropriate lessons – on the basis of an assumed causal relationship that does not exist. Perhaps many companies’ metrics don’t measure what they think they are measuring.

Decisions already made

If the world really worked like this – if consumers pretty much did their own thing regardless of what stimuli marketers threw at them – it would be much better for companies to align themselves as best they can to what consumers have already decided to do. Effectiveness would relate to the degree of alignment, and not the particular contents, creativity or media strategy of the campaign.

This is not a counsel of despair. Quite the opposite. It’s about learning and discovery. If we make dodgy assumptions, or create off-beam expectations of what marketing can do, we are setting ourselves up for a fall. The question is: where do you think you are in the learning spectrum? Are you applying the well-established “science” of marketing? Or are you at the very beginning of a learning journey? If you think you are engaging one, when in fact you are doing the other, then you will always have a problem.

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