‘Humaning’ and the greatest marketing bullshit of all time

Mondelēz’s promise to “stop marketing and start humaning” is a new entry into the all-time marketing bullshit top 10, an exclusive list only the most delusional, out-of-touch and supremely earnest can hope to make.

And there I was thinking 2020 was already as shitty a year as anyone might imagine. But just when I thought it could not get any worse, the marketers at Mondelēz shouted, “Hold my beer” and lowered the bar even further with their ‘Humaning’ concept.

It’s hard to know where to start with ‘Humaning’, the new verb (I guess) from the global snack foods giant. “Today,” a suitably millennial voice announces in the new corporate video, “we need to stop marketing and start humaning”.

No, I don’t know what it means. And after you watch the intro video (shown below) I’ll bet you are none the wiser either. I strongly suspect most of the marketers at Mondelēz are pretty perplexed about it too.

But that is not going to stop their employer from making a complete ass of itself for the six months it will take to realise its new approach/philosophy/word makes them look very foolish.

Sadly, but very wisely, Mondelēz has turned off the comments on YouTube under its humaning video. But it has not been able to shut down social media, which has been filled with gleefully critical comments ever since humanism was launched last week.

As a renowned lover of brand purpose and all things associated with corporate vision, I have been asked by several marketers for my own thoughts on Mondelēz’s new direction. Is it, as one colleague enquired over the weekend, the biggest piece of bullshit in marketing history?

No, I assured her, it is most definitely not. In fact, it barely scrapes into the Marketing BS Index (copyright pending) I maintain up in my ivory tower. I use a highly scientific formula to assess every major marketing pronouncement and award it a BS Index Score from 1 to 100.

That number is based on how nonsensical the core idea is on a scale from 1 (smart) to 10 (asinine) and then how much damage the idea has had on the broader marketing community as a result from 1 (none) to 10 (thermonuclear).

As you can see from the table below, Mondelēz and its humaning nonsense make it into the Top 10 – but only by a whisker – dethroning PwC after many years in the upper echelons of marketing bullshit.

The All-Time Marketing BS Index

Rank

Bullshit source

Nonsense factor

Damage score

Marketing BS Index

1 Abraham Maslow 7 10 70
2 Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s first advertising 7 9 63
3 Peter Arnell and Tropicana 7 8 56
4 Rosser Reeves and the USP 6 9 54
5 Brand archetypes 8 6 48
6 Seth Godin and storytelling 6 8 48
7 Howard Schultz and ‘Race Together’ 8 5 40
8 Fred Reichheld and NPS being ‘the only number you need to grow’ 6 6 36
9 Kasper Rorsted and TV 6 5 30
10 Mondelēz and ‘humaning’ * 9 3 27
* new entry

A word on marketing bullshit and where it comes from. Clearly our whole industry is knee-deep in the stuff but to make it into the Marketing BS Index you need something special.

Extensive analysis on my part reveals there are three key contributory factors that need to be in place for total marketing BS to be achievable.

First, you need a very out of touch – one might even say – slightly deluded outlook. You need to be so internally obsessed that any and all exposure to reality and actual consumers has become all but impossible. Only then can true marketing BS occur – free from the gravity of normal people and their everyday take on things.

In the case of Mondelēz, for example, for all the talk of being consumer oriented it would have taken just one focus group with 10 random consumers to reveal humaning was abject nonsense and had nothing to do with buying a bar of Dairy Milk or putting a dollop of Philadelphia on your crackers.

Second, you have to be earnest. I don’t just mean serious, I mean solemn to the point you are unable to see what you have just done or said is total bollocks.

Everyone gets a bit up themselves every now and again but most of us have partners or good mates – occasionally we might even have both – who are able to point out we are totally full of shit. And we suddenly become aware of it.

According to the company’s launch materials “humaning is when storytelling becomes storydoing”. That does not make it any clearer and the general consensus is this new corporate strategy is fantastically bad.

But not the earnest marketers among us, oh no. For them any rejection or piss-taking is a signal we are unenlightened and they – and only they – can see the way.

Finally, you need a fair old slice of ego to pull off proper, world-class marketing BS. It’s not enough to be confident. You need to really fancy yourself to come up with most of the stuff that makes it into the top 10.

You have to not only think ‘humaning’ makes some kind of sense but that it is a visionary new idea. And to get to that stage of delusion you need to not only be out of touch with consumers and supremely earnest, you have to fancy your chances too.

In reverse order, starting with the hot new entry from Mondelēz, here are the 10 greatest examples of marketing BS of all time.

10. Mondelēz and ‘humaning’

“We started to think: What is so unique about our brands and categories?,” explained Mondelēz CMO Martin Renaud last week. “That is where this idea for connecting to people and connecting with humans came from and that is how we arrived at ‘humaning’.”

According to the company’s launch materials “humaning is when storytelling becomes storydoing”. That does not make it any clearer and the general consensus is this new corporate strategy is fantastically bad.

Renaud told PR Week that he hopes for more criticism of his new concept so he can “grow together” with the critics. His hopes are about to become true if social media is any measure.

9. Kasper Rorsted and TV

To his credit, Kasper Rorsted has proven to be a rather good CEO. But the Danish-born head of Adidas made headlines in 2017 with one of the greatest bits of marketing BS. Rorsted noted that “you don’t see any TV advertising anymore” and that “the younger consumer engages with us predominantly over the mobile device”.

Rorsted was apparently intent on moving his brand to a “digital only” approach. But then Simon Peel – the brand’s director of global media – gave one of the great marketing talks of the last decade at the IPA’s Effectiveness Week, Peel confessed the brand had been too short term, had focused on the wrong metrics and underinvested in TV.

Rorsted’s bluster was in direct contrast to Peel’s more measured expertise. Adidas continues to advertise on TV.

Ritson: Adidas’ CEO is failing his brand with his exclusively digital mindset

8. Fred Reichheld and NPS being ‘the only number you need to grow’

I remain a fan of Fred Reichheld’s Net Promoter Score. What’s more, I regard anyone that tries to disprove the value of NPS to be an impractical buffoon. But there is no doubt that when the ex-Bain consultant started to promote his newly-minted marketing metric he turned the BS lever up to 11.

First, there was the highly specious claim that your relative NPS score versus competitors could predict future business growth. Then there was the even more pneumatic promotion of NPS as “the ultimate question” and the “only number you need to grow”. Neither claim was accurate.

NPS was, and is, a lovely little question to add to your survey especially when it is followed with a qualitative follow-up question. But the idea this single metric represents a complete knowledge system is magical thinking.

You still have to hand it to Reichheld. It’s highly likely that without the BS, his little metric would not have become the de facto measure of customer satisfaction in the boardroom. The only room that matters. But it was BS nonetheless.

7. Howard Schultz and ‘Race Together’

Inspired by the race protests engulfing the USA, Starbuck’s then CEO made the decision to use his coffee company to do something about it. Apparently, Howard Schultz came up with the idea himself of asking his baristas to inscribe ‘Race Together’ on each and every coffee cup that Starbucks dispensed and engaging in conversations with customers about race.

Schultz recalled that the volume of negative feedback the move garnered was “like nothing the company had ever seen”.

African American consumers were particularly pointed in their criticism of the move with hundreds taking to Twitter to note they did not have time to debate racial issues with a “20-year-old barista” and they “just wanted their Cappuccino”.

To his credit, Schultz realised the error of his ways, later calling the idea “sloppy, not properly sequenced and too swift”.

Ritson: If ‘Black Lives Matter’ to brands, where are your black board members?

6. Seth Godin and storytelling

Seth Godin is a bit of a marketing enigma. On his day he can produce startling moments of marketing clarity. But a lot of the time he sounds like he has been replaced by a slightly faulty random slogan generator operated by a distracted chimpanzee.

His lowest point (or highest if you are looking at the Marketing BS Index) came over a decade ago when he declared: “Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell.” There might only be 16 words in that sentence but arguably you could not create more marketing BS if you tried with a thousand.

It’s a quote that reinforces the dangerous message that marketing is dislocated from product design and functionality and is now just about communications. And it’s probably the reason why hundreds of perfectly good marketers ruin their reputations, LinkedIn home page and chances of a decent role by putting “storyteller” in their job title. For fucks sake, storyteller?

5. Brand archetypes

Total bollocks but incredibly prevalent. The idea originates with Carl Jung who claimed there were four main human archetypes. Marketers then got hold of the concept and expanded the list to 12 ‘brand archetypes’ and travelled the world bamboozling clients with the revelation that their workwear clothing brand was the ‘Jester’ or that a sofa company was a mix of the ‘Outlaw’ and ‘Sage’.

I’ve met scores of companies who have asked me to explain what they are meant to do with this stuff and I’ve always given the same advice. Bin it.

The whole point of a brand is it is the opposite of a generic. That makes this kind of clumsy positioning-by-numbers approach entirely antithetical and completely without merit. But awesome bullshit.

4. Rosser Reeves and the USP

These three little letters have been doing damage for decades. Rosser Reeves, who has the greatest profile pictures in the history of advertising, built his reputation on the idea that all brands needed a unique selling proposition in order to be successful.

According to Reeves this meant an ad needed to make a specific proposition to the consumer, one competitors could not or would not offer and one that would motivate people to buy in their millions.

What appeared to be common sense back in the 1950s was actually total bullshit.

Almost no brand could achieve the impossible and find a unique proposition and if they could it did not last long.

But Reeves’ mantra resulted in half a century of failed quests to discover the undiscoverable. Perhaps worse, the impossibility of finding anything unique became the argument against any form of differentiation when – in truth – it was always possible to achieve relative difference from rivals if you knew what you were doing. Reeves has a lot to answer for.

3. Peter Arnell and Tropicana

Peter Arnell was once the world’s most lauded brand designer. But he met his Waterloo with a violent redesign of Tropicana’s famous juice carton.

Tropicana’s distinctiveness was destroyed and within weeks the company’s parent company PepsiCo withdrew the new design and reverted back to the old pack.

But what made the saga so very special and such a big hitter in the Marketing BS Index is the acres of nonsense Arnell came out with to first explain, then defend and finally account for the redesign.

Everyone has their own favourite quote but mine has always been: “The notion of squeezing the orange was implied ergonomically everyday when you went to the actual carton…the reason why that’s all-important is that squeeze retains a certain level of – I guess – power when it comes to this notion of emotionally about what squeeze means. My squeeze. Give me a squeeze. The notion of a hug. The ideas behind the power of love. The idea of transferring or converting that attitude between mum and the kids”.

There might have been dumber decisions in marketing, but no-one had more bullshit than the great Peter Arnell. Unparalleled nonsense delivered with total deadpan belief. A master.

2. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s first advertising

Back in 2007 when Facebook invited most of the world’s biggest agencies and advertisers to New York City there was much discussion about what was in store.

What they were about to get was one of the all-time greatest exemplars of marketing BS.

Zuckerberg began by announcing Facebook was about to allow advertising on its platform. This was, the founder noted, “a completely new way of advertising online”. “For the last hundred years media has been pushed out to people, but now marketers are going to be part of the conversation”. It was all nonsense of course. Facebook quickly worked out that the same advertising “push” that had worked for many millennia was actually better than any of the half-brewed horseshit about organic conversations with customers it was trying to sell.

Facebook quickly moved to display and video advertising, aka print and TV. But the damage was done and for more than a decade a series of addled advertisers tried to argue that talking to consumers was dead, and talking with them was the way forward.

1. Abraham Maslow

Utter bollocks from the moment in 1943 when Abraham Maslow first published his ‘theory of human motivation’ in Psychological Review.

Maslow built his model from qualitative research on the Native American inhabitants of the Blackfoot reservation who later pointed out that his whole theory was entirely incorrect when applied to their culture and identity.

The hierarchy has subsequently been criticised on the basis of missing stages, putting stages in the wrong sequence and the fact stages change according to circumstance, culture and geography. So basically everything.

But the dreaded hierarchy proved a hit with marketers who had no formal training but wanted something scientific-looking and faintly European-sounding to beef up their empty marketing plans.

Its prevalence across every crap marketing plan (along with the equally redundant SWOT analysis) serves only one positive: to identify badly trained marketers and crappy marketers at 50 paces.

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Comments

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  1. Grant Simmons 17 Nov 2020

    “Today every human on earth will wake up hungry for connections.”

    Guessing, apart from us vegetarians, those of the Jewish faith, followers of Islam and Seventh-day Adventists (to name but a few), most people wake up hungrier for bacon than connections.

    From a snacking company you’d expect more ‘connection’ to people’s eating habits than their “humaning” leanings – whatever that means.

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