Marketing’s Moment of Truth

Inventor James Dyson could have a point. Just as he was lambasting the poor innovation record of British companies in a speech at Tuesday’s Marketing Society Conference, Unilever seemed to prove his case by announcing 240 job cuts in its new product development division.

Britain’s biggest advertiser (Unilever increased its adspend 7% last year to £208m) may have created some memorable ads in recent years for its Sure and Dove brands, but the company admits that it doesn’t perform so well when it comes to creating new products. A spokesman says it is seeking better delivery from its food development arm and is putting in place a slimmed-down structure of ‘innovation centres of excellence’ to achieve this.

This would appear to lend weight to Dyson’s view of Britain’s marketing-led culture: ‘Too many businesses give priority to the ad campaign rather than getting the product right,’ he told some of the UK’s top marketing directors.

The designer of the no-suction-loss vacuum cleaner added: ‘Marketers have become immensely powerful, influencing what new products should be built and what they should include.’ He accused marketing of damaging new technology by making false claims and called for tighter regulation of advertising. ‘We’ve become more concerned with the cerebral process of communication rather than actually making things,’ he said.

Strictly speaking, he was talking about the field of technology rather than FMCG, though the two areas are becoming hard to tell apart these days. Food giants are increasingly looking to technology boutiques located on science parks for the latest functional superfoods and they are investing seed funding to develop food technology. It should be remembered, however, that in a world where natural, organic, unprocessed foods are rapidly increasing in popularity, the idea of ‘food technology’ could appear out of step with contemporary trends.

Even so, Dyson’s point about Japanese companies putting British rivals to shame in developing new products amply applies in the case of Unilever. Some of its recent new products such as Flora Omega 3 pro-biotic min-drink are a belated attempt to enter the booming pro-biotic drinks market originally created by Japan’s Yakult. Meanwhile, Unilever’s first new major brand launch in 12 years, the soya-based AdeZ range of fruit drinks, is viewed by some as a ‘me-too’ in the bourgeoning health drinks sector.

Let’s be charitable and imagine that the new innovation structure at Unilever lives up to expectations and delivers some exciting new developments. In the world according to Dyson, marketers would then come along and ‘neutralise’ any genuine advances with their specious claims. ‘The winner has the cleverest marketing campaign. And not necessarily the best product,’ he told the conference.

There may be examples where this can happen, but marketers have an unshakeable belief that real quality will win out in the end. ‘Clever’ marketing (for which read ‘misleading’ marketing) only works where there is no real difference between products.

The most striking thing to come out of the conference was the mismatch between Dyson’s view of marketing and the perspective of marketers themselves. The biggest applause of the day came when Marketing Society president Andrew Marsden (marketing chief of Britvic Soft Drinks) said that far from being powerful players, marketers are under-valued in many companies. They have to fight to prove their worth to sceptical finance directors. And, it seems, to sceptical product designers like Dyson.

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