More targets almost always delivers fewer sales

Every step in a truly successful marketing plan requires a marketer to explicitly choose not to do things.

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My face obviously gave the game away immediately. The marketing director I was working for told me later that I had the look of a man whose wife had just bought the winning lottery ticket, ten minutes after our divorce papers had come through.

I have been working with a large services company to build more robust marketing plans. We are half way through the development process and I have all the company’s various brand teams conducting research and doing market segmentation.

When I met up with the group last week I was looking forward to learning about the qualitative and quantitative research they had each conducted and the segmentation they had built as a result. The good news was that each team had discovered clear, distinctive segments. The whole market was now divided into behavioural segments with names and populations and values and market share figures. I was delighted. The bad news, and the bit that caused the look of abject horror on my face, was the targeting decisions that followed.

Each brand team had, with a flourish of PowerPoint arrows, gone on to target every single segment they had uncovered. Marketing textbooks might instruct students to target multiple segments with different positioning strategies but practical experience, at least the experience I have had, suggests that focusing on a minimum number of target segments produces a superior result. It might look good on paper to target as many customers as possible but in reality the resource stretch and resulting piss-poor execution ensure that more targets almost always delivers less sales.

And as I get older and more exhausted I become less and less sure that successful marketing can be learned from marketing professors like me, and more and more certain that it is strategy professors that should be leading these training sessions. Strategy, rather than marketing, is what is needed.

I’m not talking about the usual complex, overwrought jargon that often passes for strategy in British companies. I am talking about the pure, simple logic of professors like Michael Porter and Roger Martin. Porter might be most famous for inventing the “five forces” model of competition but it is his more general thesis on strategy that I find constantly revelatory. “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do,” he has famously and repeatedly observed.

How right he is. Every step in a truly successful marketing plan requires a marketer to explicitly choose not to do things. There is the targeting decision, which my current brand teams are murdering with multiplicity. You see this all the time. Take a look at the new Marks & Spencer women’s clothing campaign. It has everyone from Annie Lennox to Rita Ora to Baroness Lawrence. It’s a fabulous expression of British femininity in all its divergent glory. We have different ages, different races, different professions and different sizes. The only thing we don’t have is strategy. M&S is desperately trying to target every woman with its fashion but by doing so will appeal specifically or demonstrably to none of them.

M and S Leading Ladies
Marks and Spencer has unveiled a new ‘Leading Ladies’ brand ambassador line-up, featuring Emma Thompson, Rita Ora, Annie Lennox and five other ‘influential’ British women.

And targeting choices are merely the prelude to the strategic challenge that follows with positioning. Most marketers are physically incapable of defining their brand’s essence in tight, meaningful terms. They need brand values, brand pillars, brand essence, brand characters, brand this and brand that. One of the dirtiest tricks I play on brand teams that I start to work with is asking them, individually, to write down what their brand is meant to stand for and then revealing the enormously divergent jungle of contradictory words being used across the team. If the brand team can’t agree what the brand stands for, I helpfully point out, what hope have the consumers?

It’s one thing to be a technically adept marketer who understands the need to follow the classic path of market orientation to research to segmentation to targeting to positioning to tactics. It’s quite another to navigate that journey with the kind of focused bloody-mindedness that Michael Porter stresses as a pre-requisite for differentiation and breakout success.

So my challenge to any marketer keen to improve themselves is to put down the marketing books and study a bit of strategy. Then, and this is the tough bit, stop celebrating what you have done in recent years and start focusing on all the things you didn’t.

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