Colin Firth has an effect on me. He makes me want to be better. A better man. A better dresser. Better at being English. Better at being nice. Better at everything. The only other person that has a similar impact on me is Marina Hyde, the Guardian columnist. Unlike the inestimable Firth, she has a more specific but achingly more exaggerated impact on my self-worth. Hyde makes me want to be a better writer.
She’s easily the best columnist in the UK and rarely does a month pass without her stuff being shared around my social media contacts, because she’s so funny and so spot-the-fuck-on. And last week, during the extended funeral arrangements of our dear departed monarch, she dedicated her efforts not to the death of the Queen, but to brands and how they were responding in hilarious fashion to it.
She cited Morrisons solemnly announcing that it had reduced the beeping volume of its tills “out of respect” for the fallen queen. Cash converters announcing it would abstain from all social media during the funeral week because it was what she would have wanted. And, of course, Center Parcs attempting to evict its holidaymakers from its properties for a day of mourning, then backtracking provided they “remain in their lodges” genuflecting.
It was a “great showing-of-the-arses” and a “reminder that we really shouldn’t submit to our brand overlords, because they know very little and matter even less”, Hyde concluded. “The important things in life are nothing at all, ever, to do with retailers and brands.”
— Domino's Pizza UK (@Dominos_UK) September 8, 2022
It’s unusual to cite someone from outside the marketing sphere in Marketing Week but, in this particular instance, essential. Essential because most of the people who inhabit our world cannot see the existential trees for the branding forest. Too many marketers are so addled about the importance of their brands that they actually thought a statement or a gesture in light of the passing of Elizabeth II was essential activity.
Marketers lost touch long ago with the world of the customer they are meant to understand. The eight hours a day of devoted, unobstructed, idealised focus they pay to their brand blinds them to its fundamental unimportance to even the most loyal of customers. And most miss the prime directive of marketing: that of market orientation.
All truths derive from the market, not the marketer. Your brand might be your focus, your salary, your ambition, your path to greater things. But to the consumer it’s just vegetable spread. One of the several spreads they consider when they look for something to put on their toast. If they think about that at all.
I tell clients all the time to do ‘a 180’ and to change the way they think about marketing. Marketing is not the brand team waxing lyrically about the power of their brand in the lives of customers. That’s entirely arse-about-tit. They must tilt that definition 180 degrees. Rather than looking at customers, turn things around and see the brand from the customer’s perspective, in its tiny, partial, superficial form and how it is lost, almost as soon as it appears, as an ocean of more important things appears and submerges our target customer.
And I say this not to be a wanker – well, not just to be a wanker. I say it because understanding the utter lack of importance a brand plays in the life of its customers is the beginning of better brand management. Marketers, as Sarah Carter the unstoppable truth machine puts it, “should have Post-it notes on their desks saying: ‘Consumers don’t give a shit. People’s indifference to brands and advertising should be the starting point’”.
When you perform a proper 180 and see your brand truly from the market’s perspective, a multitude of marketing things change. Forever.
It is with great sadness that we acknowledge Her Majesty the Queen's passing. For 70 years, she stewarded us through our darkest and brightest days. Thank you Your Majesty. RIP https://t.co/uxF192OlSR pic.twitter.com/iuHGVw55Jb
— British Kebab Awards (@KebabAwards) September 8, 2022
Not just the utter pointlessness of taking a position on the death of the monarch, but a whole basket of marketing chestnuts that occupy our industry tremendously, yet which matter not one fuck to customers. Here are just eight from what could be a much longer list.
1. Brand purpose
Stop being a marketer for a few moments. Steal yourself away from Twitter. Scratch your arse and open the fridge. Look upon everything contained therein. How many of these brands truly got there thanks to their POV on cultural matters, on environmental footprint or the DEI approach of the parent company? And how many are there just because?
I say this not to challenge worthy business objectives. I say it to challenge whether any of them matter in the manner we think they do and everyday customers think they don’t.
2. Fonts, Pantones and a ‘consistent look and feel’
Break it gently to Derek in creative, but no one cares if it’s Nimbus or Helvetica. He could drink a bottle of gin after lunch and choose an entirely random font and not one customer would notice. That afternoon he spent on Photoshop aligning all the reds to ensure the RGB matched the hex are four wasted hours, too. Nobody gives a fuck Derek. Nobody.
Too many marketers get competitive with the wrong competitors. They think they know who their rivals are but never stop to do a 180 and realise four things:
One, that the true competitors aren’t the ones they are focused on, they are the ones that the customer considers. Two, that these are often from totally different categories. Three, different customers often consider completely different sets of competitors. And four, even the term competition isn’t correct because, when you see things from the customer’s perspective, competitors do not exist; there are simply alternatives.
That’s important because, and I hate to be the kind of columnist that quotes himself, as Mark Ritson observes: “The competitor that fucks you is the one that you never thought could fuck you and by the time it’s fucking you it’s too late to do anything about the fucking.”
We bang, bang, bang on about this difference as if it exists. Look around you! Digital media is now traditional – Google is a quarter-century old and offers TV and outdoor as part of its offer. Traditional media is now digital – radio is two-thirds digital in this country and every ‘newspaper’ left in business makes more money from digital subs than selling paper.
— Heinz (@HeinzUK) September 8, 2022
But even if this distinction were still valid, try explaining its importance to consumers. Unlike an industry apparently unable to coalesce these two pointless silos together, every British household does it on a nightly basis. Watching TV, looking at their phone, reading the paper and integrating it all into a single information feed, almost as if the whole digital/traditional distinction were totally meaningless.
And while we are at it, whether it’s digital or traditional, advertising in general is massively overrated too. Sure, most marketers think it’s the making or breaking of their brand. Indeed, the dumb half of the marketing populace think marketing is just advertising. But, when you do that 180, you quickly realise not only the broader scope of customer experience, but that the other touchpoints massively overshadow it on every level and for almost every brand.
Service. Price. Product performance. Word of mouth. Availability. Visual presentation in store. Salesperson input. Add all that up and then throw in two or three decades’ worth of prior brand experience.
Advertising is a tiny thing we make too much of in our profession. “What’s your favourite ad?” elicits a tearful 10 minutes from most marketers and a blank “Do you think I’m mental?” stare from most consumers.
I don’t want to go too far down this path, lest I start developing Ehrenberg-Bassian tendencies, but the Institute does have a point with its ongoing critique of loyalty. Two shags does not make for a loyal, long-term and meaningful relationship. In the same way, buying something several times in sequence does not equate automatically to consumer love, deep reliance or exiting the category until your beloved brand comes back into stock. When was the last time you did that? Seriously, think about it. Me neither.
Show me a manager carefully curating their heartfelt response to the Queen’s demise last week and I will show you someone who does not get salience. The whole point of seeing the world from the true viewpoint of customers is to realise that your brand is not ‘top of mind’ most of the time. It fades quickly and often does not come to mind when the need arises.
Indoctrinated marketers assume, because they think about the brand all the time and look at the logo 12 times an hour, their customers must too. This fatal assumption means they undercook their presence as a result. Brand salience fades in the market because it is so strong and unquestioned among the marketing team.
The most important rule of branding is ‘first, they must know that it’s me’. The second-most important rule is to remind them that ‘they still need to know that it’s me’.
Brands are little things. Enormously central to the marketers in charge of them. Tiny and inconsequential to the customers that pay for everything. Understand that contrast and make it a mantra for better marketing. Escape the befuddled, indoctrinated world of dumb marketers who think the market thinks like them. Think instead like a customer.
Don’t imagine yourself in their shoes – such things are impossible. Instead, borrow their shoes through research. Listen and learn. Adjust your thinking to revolve around the ‘sun’ of the market. Revel in the absolute inanity of your brand and your category. Because when you truly grasp the pointlessness of brands and achieve the humility of a great marketer, you are ready to build a brand properly. To have realistic goals, tight positioning and to succeed in the enormous challenge of keeping this little, little thing alive and prosperous.
God save the King. God help the brands that thought they had anything of value to say last week.
Mark Ritson is no Marina Hyde but he is PPA Columnist of the Year (again) and teaches how to do 180-degree thinking and the management of “little, little brands” on his award-winning Mini MBA courses.