Ritson: Creativity is distracting marketers from what matters

According to Mark Ritson, marketers have “overstated” the importance of creativity and in doing so taken their eyes firmly off the 4Ps.

Confusion distraction
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Is an obsession with creativity distracting marketers from what matters, namely product and price in the 4Ps?

That was the argument made by Marketing Week columnist and Mini MBA founder Mark Ritson, whose session at Cannes Lions yesterday (18 June) focused on the idea that investing in creativity alone is not enough for marketers to succeed.

“You learn a lot about creativity from being at this year’s sessions, right? You learn that creativity is the great connector. You learn that creativity is your superpower. A branding imperative. That creativity is the most important factor. You’ll also learn that it’s a marketer’s last legal unfair advantage,” Ritson pointed out.

“Creativity is great but it’s inherently product oriented. You know what product orientation means, yeah? It’s kind of the enemy of good marketing in many ways.”

Focusing on product orientation means marketers lose sight of market orientation, said Ritson, which requires businesses to turn 180 degrees to see how consumers truly view their brand. At the crux of successful market orientation is understanding you are not the customer.

Clearly creativity is important, but equally clearly we have overstated it. We have reified it and we’ve over promoted it, while other things, more important things, have been neglected.

Mark Ritson

“Market orientation is the most important concept in marketing and it basically means you don’t know anything because you’re making the thing. You’re producing it, you’re marketing it and as a result you are not the consumer and everything you think is biased and wrong,” Ritson argued.

Once marketers engage in market orientation, he explained, aspects of the role come sharply into focus, such as salience. Making your brand come to mind in buying situations is the biggest job for a marketer, Ritson argued.

Under a market-oriented lens, brand purpose becomes “hilariously pointless”, he added, claiming we now live in an era post-purpose”.

“That’s good news. You can have purpose, but let’s get rid of the undergraduate, non-sensical belief purpose will bring us more money. It’s hilariously stupid,” said Ritson.

As an example of the persistent lack of marketing orientation within marketing, he pointed out that if you asked most advertising people in the room of a certain age from the UK ‘What’s a great ad?’, a significant proportion would say Guinness’ ‘Surfer’.

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However, instead of being a high watermark of creativity, Ritson described the ad as a “massive pile of indulgent wank”, that is both “ineffective” and “completely forgotten” by consumers.

This adoration of the Surfer ad, he argued, points to the problem of creative awards, which feeds into marketers missing the point of market orientation and failing to grasp the 4Ps.

“Clearly creativity is important, but equally clearly we have overstated it. We have reified it and we’ve over promoted it, while other things, more important things, have been neglected,” he argued.

On this point, Ritson claimed that while creativity is very important to the promotion part of the 4Ps, it is “not very important” to the others. The same cannot be said of product.

“I see tweets all the time: ‘It’s not the best product or service that wins in the market, it’s the best marketing that wins with a business that’s good enough to deliver.’ See what’s going on here, right? This is doubly stupid. The product doesn’t win? Of course it does, product is the most important factor,” said Ritson.

Using the example of US canned water brand Liquid Death, he argued some businesses are all creative style over product focused substance.

“You’re all fucking obsessed with Liquid Death. It’s a little brand with questionable profitability and a short-term future,” said Ritson “It’s tap water in a cool can.”

Acknowledging that most marketers cannot lead the product development process, he explained that once products are launched marketers can engage in something far more interesting – existing product improvement. Using a ‘jobs to be done’ framework, proper touchpoint analysis and NPS, Ritson suggested marketers can make the product better.

Price and positioning

The other P the industry is failing to get to grips with is pricing. Arguing pricing is the aspect of marketing that delivers profit more than any other, Ritson drew a distinction between the notion of price and pricing.

“There’s a big fucking difference between the noun and the verb. Price is just the thing we stick on our products. Pricing is something everyone in this room should get involved in. Before the price arrives, what we should be doing is price research,” he said.

“If we don’t do price research, your company is going to do what most dumb companies do and set their price on two stupid things – the competitor’s prices that are also stupidly set, or some simple cost of goods with a crazy mark up. Yeah, equally as stupid.”

Instead, Ritson suggested marketers should focus on the perceived value of the product and use that as a basis for setting price. Once set, marketers have a responsibility to frame and anchor the price message.

Positioning is so fucked up. It’s the most fucked up thing in the whole of marketing, which is incredibly fucked up.

Mark Ritson

“Imagine a sentence where the font is more important than what the sentence says. Take that into pricing. In all my travels it is incredibly apparent that the way we present, communicate, change, frame the price is more important than the price itself,” Ritson noted.

Describing the 4Ps as tactical levers, he urged marketers not to forget the role of strategy and diagnosis, which should always come first. Within all of this is the need to nail your targeting. Ritson encouraged marketers to follow the work of effectiveness experts Peter Field and Les Binet, and invest in brand building for the long term alongside micro messages targeted at smaller audiences in the short term.

These problems around targeting are eclipsed, however, by issues around positioning.

“Positioning is so fucked up. It’s the most fucked up thing in the whole of marketing, which is incredibly fucked up,” argued Ritson.

“You have right now a deck or a book, or a deck and book, with your brand positioning and inside that book there’s a brand personality, a brand essence, a brand purpose, brand features, brand benefits – and it’s a total fucking waste of time.”

Describing such attempts at positioning as a “giant clusterfuck of meaning”, Ritson claimed marketers have become slaves to creating positioning docs for presentations and forgotten about their true purpose.

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“The purpose of positioning is the consumer and two outstanding, crucial goals. Number one, salience. Your first job. Three-quarters of your job is ensuring your brand comes to mind in buying situations. You’re 75% of the way to success just with that, irrespective of what else happens,” he said.

Ritson argued marketers should then pick one or two things they want the consumer to remember when thinking about their brand and focus on these aspects for 10 to 20 years to achieve relative differentiation.

“Most brands don’t because it’s not possible. They’re just not good enough to do it,” he said. “Positioning is not throwing shit against the wall to see what sticks.”

These one or two things should be defined as something the brand can own relative to the competition. However, getting to this position takes “guts, expertise and focus”.

Ritson cited KitKat as an example of a perfectly positioned brand centred around four distinctive assets – the logo, the Pantone shade of red, the chocolate bar’s design and the JWT-inspired slogan ‘Have a break, have a KitKat’.

“Behold tightness. Behold simplicity. Behold choicefulness,” he added.

On the basis that diagnosis, strategy and tactics are roughly equally important in fuelling a brand’s success, the role for creativity starts to be diminished significantly.

“[Creativity] is a key driver of ad effectiveness, no doubt, but it’s a lesser input into marketing and sometimes it can be a distraction from other marketing issues that, frankly, we have to start investing in,” Ritson concluded.