The three stooges of marketing theory


For every time I encounter a marketer with awesome insights, distinctive positioning, the right brand architecture and disruptive execution, I have to struggle through multiple inane, flabby marketing presentations.

In particular, I’d like to emphasise three approaches that seem to crop up with frightening consistency and which immediately signal that a marketing plan is crap and the marketer presenting it hopeless. These approaches can crop up independent of each other. But like buses after half an hour’s wait in the rain, they tend to turn up simultaneously.

Let’s start with the most common of them – SWOT. For the few people left in the UK who don’t know what SWOT analysis is (and given it’s taught to GCSE students, it should be a tiny minority), let me quickly explain this ‘strategic’ approach. A marketer calls their team into a room and they waste three hours filling out four boxes marked Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.

The big clue to the utter pointlessness of the SWOT approach can be gleaned from its total lack of value to any marketer. Show me a marketer who can claim their successful launch began with insights from their SWOT analysis. Despite its ubiquity it has never actually had any strategic impact of any kind, ever. No one has completed a SWOT, turned to their team and exclaimed: “Crikey! Our competitor’s new product launch is a threat to future success. Change the marketing strategy immediately.”

Instead the completion of every SWOT always ends the same way. The manager in charge of the whiteboard asks if anyone else wants to add anything and the muffled silence that ensues indicates either that the job is done or, more likely, that it’s home time. It’s typed into a PowerPoint graphic and then presented the following week to a senior management team, who listen in baffled silence as the marketer responsible runs through a completely subjective, entirely pointless laundry list of issues, which may or may not prove to be relevant or indeed true.

The prevalence of SWOT in brand plans is a sad testament to the lack of conceptual knowledge that many marketers have. If the best strategic tool you can muster is SWOT then it’s probably time to try another career or obtain some real knowledge from a decent training programme – not the kind that spend two days training you on SWOT.

Next, I’d like to add Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which appears like clockwork in every half-assed marketing plan you ever see. It’s only there for one sad but simple reason – it sounds super-impressive. Maslow has a vaguely European, Frankfurt School sound to it. Hierarchy of Needs is also an imposing bit of quasi-theoretical language. And when you put them together: Bingo! Marketing magic!

But the reality of Maslow is that it has the dimmest possible theoretical contribution to make. Some of its insights conclude breathing is more important than self-esteem and that if you had to choose between excretion and sexual intimacy, you would opt for the former. That isn’t an attempt at satire. Those really are two key ‘insights’ from Maslow’s theory. And none of this, incidentally, has ever actually been empirically proven. In fact, all attempts to validate Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs have shown it to be a total fraud.

Even if it were true, it would offer zero insight. Yet it’s probably one of the most commonly used theories in marketing presentations.

However, I want to help our crap colleagues by inventing for them a few more theories that sound equally intellectual and have the same level of insight and validity as Maslow’s work – i.e. none.

How about Stromberg’s Bifurcation Theorem? Or Eisenstein’s Rhombus? Perhaps the next time you see Maslow presented – and let’s be honest it will be weeks rather than months given its ubiquity – you can assist me by giving the presenter a pensive look and saying: “Hmmm you went with Maslow. Did you consider Richthofen’s Trombone Theory?”

Finally, I’d like to reserve a special place in marketing hell for those who misuse brand projection. Not the method itself, which is among the most useful and valid approaches in qualitative research. I’m talking about the ones who use it incorrectly.

The theory of brand projection is fabulous. Consumers find it hard to articulate how they feel and think about a brand so you ask them to imagine the brand is a car or an animal or a person and then, through a 30-minute interview, explore why they made the choices they did. The subsequent qualitative data is a rich and valuable insight into brand associations.

But moron marketers get it all wrong. They end the research with the projection and skip the interview bit. Simply recording the fact that 23% of the sample thought your brand was a squid, or that 8% of them said you were a Mitsubishi Shogun is not the point and has no insight value whatsoever.

Thor, god of branding, give me strength.


Ruth Mortimer

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