Secret Marketer: The future success of marketing relies on content, not creative

One consequence of being called ‘CMO’ is that you get approached from all parts of the industry, asking for your opinion.

This week, I was contacted by someone doing a marketing and communications degree at university, who asked for help with one of her assignments, which sounded fun. But would my 25 years of practical experience align with what today’s academics are teaching?

The student was struggling with the question ‘can the success of a company’s brand be achieved solely by visual means?’. For me, the dilemma was why wasn’t the answer a simple ‘of course not’. Was there a trick to the riddle? The more I thought about it, the more I convinced myself that I was right.

So I responded with a definitive “no”. Customers are not that fickle and are far too discerning to be hoodwinked by a great creative idea and clever copy.

I argued that customers demand content and substance. They might be intrigued by a product’s features, but they are seduced by its benefits. They might like the cachet of wearing Christian Dior, but hanker for the comfort of Marks & Spencer.

Great creative that has visual impact can help to bring in a customer, and to stand out in a highly crowded market, but in the end if your product, service or brand sucks, you crash and burn.

As evidence, I cited the brand names WH Smith, Thomas Cook and John Lewis – hardly the sexiest names that a creative department would have got excited about creating; yet all successful in their own right.

In each case, the name had nothing to do with their business success – it was all about the quality of their products, and the reputation that that brought them.

I then pointed to the top three companies in the Fortune 500 (Walmart, ExxonMobil, Chevron) and the FTSE 100 (HSBC, Shell, British American Tobacco). All good companies and strong brands, but none that you would say were visually appealing. So why are they so successful?

I think most people would say their success is the result of great products, superlative service, and pretty neat leadership.

And those were the thoughts that I sent to the student who contacted me. I am, however, worried that her professor might draw a big, fat red line through my comments and ridicule the simplicity of the argument. If my fears are correct, then I worry about the future of our wonderful industry.

Marketing is so much more than advertising, but seducing our students with the excitement of the latter to the exclusion of the science that goes into the former does not bode well for the future of our profession.

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