Mark Ritson: Five marketing clichés that make me scream

Some marketers can’t help but regurgitate made up ‘facts’ and nonsensical slogans, so next time you hear somebody utter one of these phrases, stand up and shout them down.


There is a hoary old list of marketing clichés that get trotted out with remarkable frequency by crap marketing professors and hack marketers. You can’t go a week without one of them cropping up and infecting us with its dreadful ennui-laden awfulness.

You know what I’m talking about: “Half my advertising is wasted, I just don’t know which half.” That kind of stuff. The next time someone says that at a conference and attributes it to Lord Leverhulme (who didn’t actually ever say it) I recommend standing up and suggesting, at the top of your voice, that anyone that incompetent should be fired. Then stand in silence and wait and see how the dreary presenter responds.

And don’t stop there. “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” What a total load of rubbish. There is. It’s called ‘bad publicity’ and it regularly wreaks havoc on brands around the globe. Try selling the “no such thing as bad publicity” idea to Jack Dorsey and his band of bearded losers at that digital Flying Dutchman known as Twitter. Almost every piece of publicity they are getting at the moment is about how screwed they are, why no one will buy them and how they cannot grow their user base or monetise it enough to make a profit, ever.

The combined effect of all that bad publicity? Nothing. In fact, Twitter shares are up 50%. No, I am shitting you. Its shares are down by a third in the last year because of – you guessed it – all the bad publicity.

Then there are the constant inane predictions that a new product will end up being the “next New Coke”. I was reading an article this morning about the iPhone 7 and, sure enough, down there in paragraph eight some hack starts suggesting that the iPhone 7 could well prove to be Apple’s “New Coke”. First of all, it’s not. The iPhone 7 is going to sell like the clappers and the stupid pre-launch parallels to New Coke will quickly fade. But even if it does flunk (and it won’t) it’s not going to flunk like New Coke, which was the result of a set of one-in-a-billion circumstances. Nothing is like the New Coke saga – not even Coke, and they really are screwed.

Here’s another: “Steve Jobs didn’t do research.” Every time I teach market research some bozo in the back row puts up his hand and mumbles the same old tired nonsense about Apple being successful without any research. It has become so common that I don’t even bother asking the bozo to verbalise it any more, I just acknowledge him and say: “Yeah, Steve Jobs, I know. Wah, wah, wah. It turns out he did a load of research,” and move on. I do that because it’s true. When Samsung and Apple started suing each other over patent infringements five years ago, the court sequestered around 800 metric tonnes of market research from inside Apple HQ going back for years and covering almost every major market. It turns out Apple knew more about Samsung customers than Samsung did. Jobs didn’t hate research, he hated telling anyone what he was really up to.

And then there is the worst one of them all: “Reputations take a lifetime to build but only a few seconds to destroy.” Brand reputations take months, maybe years, but rarely lifetimes to build. Only four years ago Michael Dubin was complaining to a family friend at a Christmas party about what a rip-off the razor blade business was. Since then he has set up a razor company, made inarguably the best ad of the last decade, grabbed a 15% share of the American razor market and sold the company – Dollar Shave Club – for a billion dollars. And he’s only 38.

The other side of the cliché is equally preposterous. Reputations don’t take seconds to destroy. I defy anyone to invent a more reputation-shredding incident than the one that Volkswagen’s engineers have been cooking up over the past few years. Poisonous gas, evil technology and an international cover-up. Yet VW is still enjoying a 7% market share in the UK. That is down from 10% but it’s hardly a reputation reduced to tatters in seconds.

So down with marketing clichés. I propose we start a movement specifically aimed at drumming these stupid statements out of our discipline forever. The next time you encounter any of them – and it won’t be too long – I want you to stand tall and utter these three magical, cliché-busting words at the top of your voice: “absolute marketing bollocks”.



There are 34 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Lizanne Byrne 14 Sep 2016

    Very funny. and unfortunately too true. Forgot to add the other one
    about Sony Walkman researching its new way to listen to music on
    the move. Consumers thought it was a rubbish idea apparently.

    that might actually be true but real point is that you need a really
    good researcher to look at innovation ideas and uncover whether the
    insight behind them is motivating even if the product execution is not.
    And speak to early adopters who are willing to try new things rather than the masses who wait to follow 5 years later. Rant over.

  2. “Nobody knows anything” is one of my favorites.

  3. Gary Keogh 15 Sep 2016

    Brilliant, escpecially ‘bad publicity one’. Another one is ‘no such thing as a bad idea’, usually uttered by a sunshine yellow overly optimistic workshop facilitator at a Cotswolds venue in their intro, there are loads of rubbish ideas.

    • Let a thousand flowers bloom, then take out the sharpest pair of secateurs you can find.

    • Kriss Akabusi 18 Sep 2016

      Context is everything Gary, of course it would be a “bad idea” for anyone to walk in front of a number 9 bus doing 40mph on a high street but I don’t think that is the context our “Sunshine Yellow” is thinking of when encouraging delegates to contribute to the discussion on said, “workshop at a Cotswolds venue!”

      • Gary Keogh 18 Sep 2016

        Kriss context is very fair, and I should have given more to my point. Just think it is a lazy throw away cliche that is simply not true. Encouraging ideas, challenges to these and building on them is exactly what we are looking for, so facilitator’s responsibility is to create this secure environment, but to suggest there is ‘no such thing as a bad idea’ is simply wrong and consequences of this can be time wasted on unrobust thinking. Statement can also make the ‘sunshine yellows’ (which I am one!) look less credible in front of colleagues who possess the great attribute of healthy scepticism to balance us off.

        • Kriss Akabusi 18 Sep 2016

          I’m assuming here now Gary that you actually do facilitate discussion with diverse groups? Sessions will not last long if every comments needs to be put through the prism of Robust thinking. Those most apt for such “Cool Blues” will be very happy pontificating on what they know but might find it futile amongst a group of people who are less than experts on the subject matter, Fiery Reds will be bored with the line of enquiry any way unless it gets straight to the point, Earthy Greens will wondering how this effects the people in the room and are likely to shut up and say nothing, while your sunshine yellows (of which I am one) will be happy doing emails, flicking things at each other and thinking about the evening schedule. You correctly point out that it is the facilitators role to create the right environment for discussion, hopefully this is inclusive and s/he as the skill to negotiate the more purile notions without alienating the delegate while building towards the direction they intend for the conference to take. Whatever it will be important to get all the voices in the room & such a statement as, “there is no such things as a “bad idea” is one such piece of rhetoric designed to do so. Thank you for debating

          • Gary Keogh 18 Sep 2016

            Kriss I love the Insights Discovery work, have done it previously and has really helped working relationships, we are about to undertake it for our UK business, 140 of us, also watch outs for myself, going from yellow to red when pressure is on etc. Facilitate groups from my team to mixing with other functions/businesses. Perhaps could discuss further with you some time, wondering if my original comment came from the fiery red zone or chimp taking over! Thank you too for debating.

          • Kriss Akabusi 18 Sep 2016

            Yep love insights discovery too Gary which I’ve been on to since 2008 but I have recently qualified as a business partner with Clarity4D which is based on exactly the same principles but more affordable than the competitor. WE are linkedLn so would love to discuss the work you are doing with your team and also how “colour works” works with you. I tend to go Yellow/Blue when defensive & quite Green/Blue in a learning environment, but in everyday scenario’s I’m Yellow/Red as you’ve already experienced on here. Clearly all the colours reside in us but we have a ‘preference” for a way of interfacing with the world most of the time.

            Great talking with you, have a super week


  4. The owner of a tanning salon in my hometown was asked how her business was faring after a man fried himself to a crisp on a sunbed and died. “Jasus business is booming” she said. “How so?” asked the incredulous interviewer. “People are saying to me that if them feckin’ beds are good enough to kill yer man then they’ll be good enough to do a brilliant tan.” True story.

  5. Andy Vale 15 Sep 2016

    My favourite one, which will be used in a marketing lecture somewhere in the world today, is “our brain processes images 60,000 faster than text.”

    Bullshit. Firstly, people have searched long and hard to find the source of that research and all avenues lead nowhere.

    Secondly, put it in practice. Here’s a picture of a face 🙂

    Did it take you 60,000 times longer to read+understand the word “face” than then little picture next to it? Of course not.

    The underlying point is probably a fair one, albeit not revolutionary, but anyone taking and presenting the stat at face value needs to be questioned.

  6. Ville Porttila 15 Sep 2016

    All these come from the same root – a lack of critical thinking. People accept information because it kind of sounds like it might be true, and make no effort to verify what they are hearing. Witness the pathetic state of political discourse these days

  7. jbyrne 15 Sep 2016

    Brilliant stuff – is it a stretch to say the Twitter and VW examples are a little contradictory?

  8. Lizanne Byrne 15 Sep 2016

    Sorry rant not over. Forgot to add the best research cliche ever. ‘Research is like looking in the rear view mirror’ consumers have no idea what they want in the future. Mmmn…..not so sure that is true otherwise why would we have a research industry worth billions. Those silly consumers can’t be right can they?

    Best bit is that I have heard CEOs use this quote on innovation projects and then demand minor packaging changes are researched to death in case the brand is harmed. Say no more!

  9. Surely the truth is that marketing is absolute bollocks?

  10. Spencer Garner 16 Sep 2016

    Anyone with a brain understands that cliches are bollocks, or a way for the unimaginative to start a conversation. I guess that says a lot about people that keep sprouting cliches! Anyway, must go as the early bird catches the worm!

  11. Kriss Akabusi 18 Sep 2016

    Sorry Mark, Bozo or not I’m not having that last one, reputations do take a while to build and can be destroyed in a fraction of the time. VW is not a good example to gain say the observation due to many factors including the ubiquitous nature of the product & the fault line in the industry sector that sees many of the brands competitors guilty of the same issue. I’m not a marketing professional but I do love the profession and was one of the modules I enjoyed most on my MBA program. Thanks for the post

    • Richard 18 Sep 2016

      Whoa, hold on a second – are you the actual Kriss Akabusi of the 4×400 squad in the 1991 Worlds??

      • Kriss Akabusi 18 Sep 2016

        Yes Sir

        • Richard 18 Sep 2016

          Running down Pettigrew at his peak was one of the best things I’ve ever seen. (The second best was the look on his face afterwards). Unbelievable race.

          • Kriss Akabusi 18 Sep 2016

            Thanks Richard, that was a long time ago now (25years) but a memory that will stay with me the rest of my days assuming my cognitive facilities remain in tact. Appreciate the shout out. Kriss

          • m ritson 19 Sep 2016

            To be honest getting international athletes to comment on my columns has been a constant issue over the years. Akabusi is merely the latest in a long line of legendary Olympians and World Champions to pick holes in my writing. Who can forget the time Steve Ovett found fault with my definition of CRM? Or the blazing row that erupted when Sally Gunnell pulled my argument about transfer pricing apart? Its a constant issue.

          • Richard 19 Sep 2016

            I hear you. I once got a really irate email from some bloke who felt that a piece of direct mail I sent was questionably structured and failed to really communicate the brand essence. Turned out to be Pele.

          • Andi Jarvis 19 Sep 2016

            Black, Redmond, Regis and Akabusi. One of my earliest memories of athletics. Anyway, back to the thread. I want to kill people who espouse that technology has never changed quicker than it is today… Shaddaup.

  12. I’d like to add the following cliches:

    – “Content is king.”
    – Anything having to do with “growth hacking.”
    – Taking software development terms and applying them to marketing — “agile marketing,” and so on.
    – Saying that anything is “dead.”

  13. Marc Medios 19 Sep 2016

    God bless you.

  14. Mr Corbett 20 Sep 2016

    I’m with you on most of this Mark but I don’t agree with the “50% of my ads…”
    There is no truly proven attribution model that clarifies what return you are getting on what activity. Lot’s of people saying they can do it but no one has cracked it successfully. It’s getting close on digital but it’s nowhere on offline really. So not knowing what half of your advertising is (genuinely) working is not necessarily the sign of a numpty. Just someone being honest.

    • m ritson 29 Sep 2016

      Yes, this is a good point. I dont buy the attribution / regression crap either. But that said, its one thing to not be able to correlate each media spend to impact and not knowing what is working and not working. I’m all for a marketer saying they cant attribuet everything perfectly and never will. But if anyone stood up and said at a conference “Look, I literally dont know whether the 50% I spent on TV ads is working or the Facebook stuff I spend the ther 50% on” I probably shout something rude from the back of the room.

    • Jason Tamara Widjaja 3 Oct 2016

      I hear you that attribution is difficult in many contexts, Mr Corbett. But I would counter it is not too difficult to get to ‘good enough’ with proper statistical treatment, experimental design and good data. Even offline. I lead a data science team, and this comes up as a problem to solve a few times a year. My colleagues in other companies deal with such cases likewise. We politely show market research firms the door if they try to stand up their weak correlation style analysis.

      However, consider that if it works well enough and we are in-house, there is – absolutely – no way that any marketing article or white paper will get wind of it. If it gives a real competitive advantage, we’ll get sacked if we share it.

      As in any field, marketers talking to other marketers can have an echo chamber effect. Don’t miss out on what is happening ‘outside’ 🙂

      • Mr Corbett 4 Oct 2016

        yes we have a full time data scientist in the agency. And we are well capable and proven at scientific methodology such as logistical regression to try and identify the contribution that media and marketing makes over and above the base line. It is – as you say – likely good enough. But it is still fairly inaccurate and cannot truly assign attribution to a specific channel. Offline i think it pretty impossible in reality. Who knows of all the ATL advertising that was done what had a more significant impact on a consumer than others??

  15. aqdnk 27 Sep 2016

    But Twitter is currently being considered by the likes of Disney and other big players. So where’s the bad publicity now?

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