If there is one thing guaranteed to relegate a marketing to both ineffectiveness and obsolescence, it is the belief that its primary form of influencing consumer behaviour is through messaging.
Messaging doesn’t reflect how people consume advertising and make sense of brands.
We know that the brain is not some rigid filing system in which memories reside as fully formed recordings. It is something altogether more dynamic and malleable.
Indeed it’s more accurate to think of memory as a process, not a thing. Our brain’s networks of nerve cells or ‘neurons’ are not fixed entities, but rather, are dynamic and continuously modified by experience. What people experience results in new connections in the structure of our brains.
While parts of marketingland still believe we’re in business of transmitting of information, of ‘communicating’ abstract, intellectual ‘messages’ or propositions, advertising doesn’t work through filing verbal messages and propositions in people’s mental filing systems.
Memory actually works through the creation of connections. A brand is simply a set of connections and associations in the brain. We form and access memories of brands by creating and activating these networks of associations.
So people don’t consume and file away abstract ideas and propositions. They consume (as Robert Heath has shown, they often with fairly low levels of attention) all the visual, verbal, audible, tangible characteristics of our content – and these create new connections and in the brain.
Judith Williamson in her wonderful, essential, hostile and demanding book Decoding Advertising: Ideology and Meaning In Advertising demonstrates how advertising’s real work lies in its aesthetic wholes, and how it operates larges silently, through its codes and signals, rather than messages:
What an advertisement ‘says’ is merely what it claims to say; it is part of the deceptive mythology of advertising to believe that an advertisement is simply a transparent vehicle for a ‘message’ behind it. Certainly a large part of any advertisement is this ‘message’: we are told something about a product, and asked to buy it. the information we are given is frequently untrue, and even when it is true, we are often being persuaded to buy products which are unnecessary… a criticism of advertising on these grounds is valid, and I would support it. However such a criticism is in many ways the greatest obstacle of all to a true understanding of the role of advertisements in our society, because it is based on the assumption that ads are merely the invisible conveyors of certain undesirable messages, and only sees meaning in the overt ‘content’ of the ad rather than it its ‘form’ – in other words, ignoring the ‘content’ of the ‘form’.”
So the consumption and decoding of marketing content is something altogether fuzzier than we often allow for. As Stephen King in JWT’s Planning Guide noted back in 1974:
An advertisement as a stimulus is a combination of medium, words, pictures, movements, symbols, associations, tones of voice, etc. The stimulus is received as a totality; the receiver does not separate content and form. The individual elements of an advertisement have no meaning on their own. They can only be judged in combination.”
Feldwick has similarly done much to remind us that advertising, like art does not work through reductionist concepts, but through the experience of aesthetic wholes.
So the What and How are inseparable. We exercise brand impressionism – rather than ‘taking out messages’, we are left with general impressions from what we’re exposed to.
Treating creativity merely as a means of tricking or bribing the viewer into paying attention to the message within it profoundly undervalues and undermines the both the nature and the value of creativity.
Creativity isn’t some kind of distraction tactic, bait or bribe. It isn’t a wrapper or envelope for a message.
It IS the content.
But there is another pressing issue with the idea of messaging.
For aside from the fact that the marketing-as-message model of influencing consumer behaviour doesn’t reflect how people consume communications, it’s singularly ill-suited to adapting itself to people’s digital interactions.
Searching, browsing, searching, tagging, uploading, downloading, sharing, linking, commenting, buying, playing, liking… To varying degrees of involvement and intensity, these are behaviors.
And messaging in an environment characterized by behaviours obviously struggles.
It either gatecrashes, misses out on vast opportunity, or is simply rendered impotent.
Small wonder then, that those charged with creating and leveraging digital behaviors should regard those who believe they are in the business of issuing messages with such bafflement or suspicion. And indeed vice versa.
The messaging school of marketing misunderstands the human mind, misunderstands the nature of creativity, and opens up a deeply unhelpful schism.
It really is time to let get out of the message business.
We need, to borrow the words of Jaron Lanier, a palette cleansing, a broadening of horizons.
Perhaps if we all thought of ourselves in the business of creating connections, then we’d find ourselves better adapted to the new environments and possibilities of our age.
And perhaps we’d begin to see how absurd are the solios that we’ve insisted on operating in.
For if we we wish to be effective, we are about creating connections.
Connections in the mind.
Connections between people, companies and brands.
And connections between people and other people.
In an age defined by its relentlessly blooming connectedness – people to people, people to things, and things to other things – that seems a far more accurate and useful perspective on what we all do.
“Only connect”, as E.M. Forster wrote.
Very few people can look a wholesale social, cultural and psychological transformation taking place on an unparalleled scale steadily in the eye…
McLuhan’s point is that when it comes to the impact of new media on the human consciousness – both individual and collective – content is an irrelevance; we have to look not at what is on the screen, but how the screen is used. McLuhan saw in the early 1960s that all the brouhaha about what imagery was shown on television and what words were spoken was so much guff; the transformation from what he termed “the linear Gutenberg technology” to the “total field” one implied by the instantaneity of electricity was all that mattered, and this was a change in the human mind as well as the human hand. McLuhan’s global village is indeed all about us now, and it already exhibits social, psychological and cultural behaviours that are entirely different from those implicit in the technologies of mass broadcast and individual, concentrated absorption…
For those who think that narrative art forms are in a state of crystalline stasis it’s worth taking a slightly longer view: film is only just over a century old, the novel as we commonly understand it a mere two centuries old – the copyrights that protected them are about 150 years old. At the moment, the wholesale reconfiguration of art is only being retarded by demographics: the middle-aged possessors of Gutenberg minds remain in the majority in western societies, and so we struggle to impose our own linearity on a simultaneous medium to which it is quite alien. The young, who cannot read a text for more than a few minutes without texting, who rely on the web for both their love affairs and their memories of heartache, and who can sometimes find even cinema difficult to take unless it comes replete with electronic feedback loops, are not our future: we, the Gutenberg minds have no future, and our art forms and our criticism of those art forms will soon belong only to the academy and the museum.”
How can we better help our clients (and indeed ourselves) look this transformation in the eye?
How can we help ‘Gutenberg minds’ make the transition?
What are we doing to trace and understand these new social, psychological and cultural behaviours?
And what will it mean to produce content for a ‘post-Gutenberg’ world?
The need for more (and better) problems
When did creativity become a pseudonym for producing advertising? And when did strategy become a means to a message?
At a time when technology enables boundless creativity, when digital interactions are blurring the line between product, product experience, and marketing communications, and changing how people search, choose, and buy, we are all – clients and agencies alike – in danger of limiting the scope and potential of creativity. As Lawrence Green has put it:
The task of any imaginative agency, any creative company, is to understand and serve it client’s business problems. Too often, our business has sliced and diced its tasks in the style of a sub-prime mortgage bundler. A corporate task set by the chief executive, reframed as a comms task by the marketing director, refined by the brand consultancy and reduced by the ad agency to the stuff advertising can do: Grow awareness, nurture engagement. Too many links, too indirect and weak a connection between commercial possibilities and creative resolution.”
Elsewhere, away from adland, others have argued that we need to be ‘growth hackers’. Josh Elman has described growth hacking as describing “a new process for acquiring and engaging users combining traditional marketing and analytical skills with product development skills.” According to Elman:
In the past, marketing and product development departments were often at odds where marketing groups would be spending significant amounts of money to acquire users but couldn’t get any development resources to build something as simple as new custom landing pages. And on the other side, product development teams would often build what they think users want and will attract users without deeply measuring and understanding the impact of their changes. This concept of “growth hacking” is a recognition that when you focus on understanding your users and how they discover and adopt your products, you can build features that help you acquire and retain more users, rather than just spending marketing dollars.”
Of course what Elman is describing is not new at all. It is simply good marketing. It just probably doesn’t happen as often as it should.
So all this begs some questions:
How can we look beyond what advertising can solve?
How exactly do we expand the scope and value of creativity?
How can we identify opportunities for growth?
How can marketing properly shape itself around the consumer?
How can marketing define itself by what it solves, rather than by what it makes?
How can product development and marketing be reunited once more?
In all of this, theory and rhetoric will not help us. We need something more practical.
I am no a fan of templates and processes. We create after all, bespoke solutions for the unique challenges faced by each client. But I am a fan of anything that gets us asking better questions. And it is at this point that we must step back to the future. For Stephen King gave us just the sort of questions we need. They are oddly neglected in the compendium of his best work – A Masterclass in Brand Planning, and are worth revisiting.
King’s Consumer Buying System
King’s model – the ‘consumer buying system’ – appeared in his Manual of Tools of the Trade for Advertising Planners that he developed for JWT in the late 1980s.
It is by no means a panacea. And it certainly cannot solve the systemic dysfunctions of both agencies and client organizations that prevent us from a broader application of creativity. Nonetheless, it can encourage the well-intentioned and the ambitious to ask new, and better questions.
King had developed his model principally as a means of shaping and guiding a communications plan. His focus was largely on both the role and the choice of communications channels.
However, in as much as his model was largely a means of understanding consumer behaviour, its application and value goes far beyond that. As King wrote in his introduction to the model:
The objective is to take your brand, examine the stages in the [Consumer Buying System] and ask, ‘How can we move the consumer through the process?’”
I make no claim for uniqueness in any of what follows. There is many a good marketer who employs their own version of King’s model.
(That said, and by way of a pedantic aside, King’s model predates McKinsey’s model by decades. Thus demonstrating that those who are unaware of history are doomed to repeat it).
Below are the phases of the model, as described by King.
It is worth noting that King was a big opponent of the one-size-fits-all approach, and recognized that the path to purchase varied depending on the category. Buying a bar of chocolate is different from buying a Picasso, or breakfast cereal, or a pair of trainers, or a holiday, or a car.
And so, by way of a preface, it’s worth bearing in mind, as he wrote:
The time frame for this process will vary enormously from category to category, for example, buying a car could take the consumer a year, whereas buying a box of cereal, from running out of the previous box to the next purchase, could take just hours. Thus some stages are less relevant to some categories, and not all consumers within one specific category may pass through all the stages. For example, when “buying” a new long-distance phone service, some consumers are simply stimulated to change their phone company by an advertised offer, whereas others will collect and evaluate information on long-distance providers to improve their comfort level with the company.”
At each stage we should be asking – what exactly is happening?
New questions, new solutions
If we must, we can call it a framework for ‘growth hacking’. Certainly the sort of thinking, questions, and the types of solutions that King’s model encourages is instructive. As soon as we start unpacking people’s behaviours, we start inventing all manner of stuff that isn’t advertising:
If we in adland only ever see ad-shaped problems, we’ll only create ad-shaped solutions. But if we see people, all manner of new and exciting stuff starts to happen. As ever in marketing, progress lies in asking better questions and more imaginatively examining the lives, habits, needs, wants, desires, frustrations and dissatisfactions in people’s lives.
As King said of his model:
Since all marketing activities are aiming to reinforce or modify people’s sequence of ideas and actions, the buying system really is the starting point for all marketing and planning activity.”
That said, client organizations and their marketing departments too must assume their share of responsibility. Often, it seems, they are divorced from product development, isolated from IT, embroiled in turf war standoffs with other functions, unwilling or simply unable to provide agency partners with real business issues to solve, and more comfortable passing off ad requests and ‘insight’ babble as bona fide client briefs.
King, ever prescient, identified the need and opportunity for thinking more broadly about brand building:
Marketing companies today… recognize that rapid response in the marketplace needs to be matched with a clear strategic vision. The need for well-planned brand-building is very pressing. At the same time they see changes in ways of communicating with their more diverse audiences. They’re increasingly experimenting with non-advertising methods. Some are uneasily aware that these different methods are being managed by different people in the organisation to different principles; they may well be presenting conflicting impressions of the company and its brands. It all needs to be pulled together. I think that an increasing number of them would like some outside help in tackling these problems, and some have already demonstrated that they’re prepared to pay respectable sums for it. The job seems ideally suited to the strategic end of the best account planning skills. The question is whether these clients will want to get such help from an advertising agency. What agencies, and the account planners in them, would have to do is above all, demonstrate that they have the breadth of vision and objectivity to do the job”
If we can only grasp the necessity of beginning our thinking with real consumer issues and needs, rather than what type of creative product (social, viral, advertising, content, POS, etc., etc.) we will make, or what line of fashionable rhetoric we will subscribe to, then we might stand a better chance of unleashing the true potential of our collective creativity.
Indeed we might at last start actually living up to the theory, claims, and promise of marketing.
Judie Lannon & Merry Baskin, eds., A Masterclass in Brand Planning: The Timeless Works of Stephen King
Josh Elman, ‘What Is “growth hacking” really?’
McKinsey & Company, The consumer decision journey
It is human nature to extrapolate from our own, personal experience of the world.
And sometimes it is a useful place to start.
But as these exhibits from Thinkbox demonstrate, we would do well to remember that in some of our media and technology habits, we are very different from people in the normal world.
So next time you hear somebody claim that “everybody” is doing this, or “everybody” is doing that, take it with a grain of salt.
The chances are that they’re talking about themselves.
(If anybody has similar comparisons for other markets, do please share).
The age-old tension
The tension between the long-term and the short-term has always been one that marketers and communicators have had to grapple with.
We’ve long observed and bemoaned the tension that exists between the corporation’s short-term reporting practices, performance goals and incentives, and the fact that branding’s biggest rewards are realized over the long-term.
Many of us will have raised an eyebrow at the discrepancy between the average time spent in a marketing role and the time required to see financial payback on marketing communications.
We’ve all had to try to reconcile the tension between a consumer and pop culture environment characterized by speed, novelty, and fad, and the need to build and sustain long-term memory structures.
And of course we’ve all from time to time encountered the tension that exists between the need to build and sustain those long-term memory structures, and the impatience and occasional fickleness of creative imaginations.
The risk of digital immediacy
The tension between the long-term and the short-term is an old and familiar one. But the lure of the short-term is now being exacerbated by the possibilities of digital interactions.
The glory and thrill of all things digital for normal people in the real world is (amongst other things) that they make things immediate.
Immediate communications. Immediate information. Immediate answers. Immediate purchasing. Immediate feedback. Immediate consumption. Immediate gratification.
But when it comes to marketing communications, these digital interactions and the new forms of marketing communications they enable, bring real and enormous risk if not managed well.
For digital interactions encourage a prizing of immediacy and a thinking in the short-term that is fundamentally at odds with how branding builds real, significant, and sustainable growth for businesses.
Digital immediacy brings with it immediacy of data. Whether it’s views, likes, shares, +1s, pins, comments, tweets, retweets, downloads, linking, following, clicking… however measured, that data invariably measures people’s exposure to and interaction with communications content.
The lure of this data is not only that is it immediately available, but that by its very nature it is highly responsive to communications activity. It is relatively easy to track. And relatively easy to attribute it to communications activity.
But it is short-term data. And short-term data leads to short-term perspectives, short-term objectives and short-term strategies. As Heisenberg taught us, what you choose to measure is what you see.
Digital interactions have also made possible new approaches to connecting with consumers. Real-time responsiveness, ‘always on’ communications, ‘content marketing’, brands as ‘publishers… by their very nature all encourage, if not demand, real-time monitoring.
And with that comes the infrastructure of social media ‘command centers’, ‘dashboards’, monitoring tools, and all the new job titles that come with them.
Again the focus is on the Right Here, Right Now.
The necessity of long-term effects
But for all the opportunities that digital immediacy makes available to us, there is a very real tension between what it is possible to make, and what actually works. Between digital’s culture of immediacy and how communications actually grows a business.
This conflict between digital immediacy and long-term business-building was brought home to me recently on reading The Long And Short Of It – the latest report from the IPA. Published last week and authored by Peter Field and Les Binet this is the follow-up to Marketing in the Era of Accountability.
In The Long And Short Of It Field and Binet build on their last round of analysis, incorporating a wealth of new data. Most significant, is the new data on how campaign results develop over time, and the differences between short-term and long-term effects.
Their effectiveness data is derived from the IPA Effectiveness Databank – the product of 301 years of the IPA Effectiveness Awards covering more than 700 brands in over 80 categories. At the time of the analysis, the Databank held data from 996 campaigns entered into the biennial national and international effectiveness competitions from 1980 to 2010.
Never mind all the fashionable stuff that our industry trumpets and that populates the business sections of our bookstores. This is one publication that every marketer should have read.
It is worth briefly highlighting their key findings on the differences between short- and long-term effects. For they carry with them fundamental and indeed urgent implications for us all:
Long-term effects effects work differently from short-term effects
“The way in which long-term effects are generated is fundamentally different from how most short-term effects are produced. Although long-term effects always produce some short-term effects, the reverse is not true and long-term effects are not simply an accumulation of short-term effects.”
Long-term effects aren’t just built out of short-term effects
“A succession of short-term response-focused campaigns (including promotionally driven ones) will not succeed as strongly over the longer term as a single brand-building campaign designed to achieve year-on-year improvement to business success.”
Long-term effects work through both volume and margin gains
“Pricing improvements are more likely to drive profit growth than volume growth. Most profitable of all are campaigns that drive both volume and pricing… Their principle characteristic is that incremental volume is achieved whilst strengthening margin, in marked contrast to many short-term campaigns, where volume is achieved at the expense of profitability.”
Profit growth takes time
“Profit growth is a product of volume and pricing increases, so the pattern of profit effects over time is also gradual”
Long-term effects demand brand-building
“The optimum campaign strategy is radically different if success is measured over the short term versus the long term. Achievable short-term goals will be volume-based and favour a direct approach in which immediate behavioural triggers such as discount pricing, an offer or incentive, new product features or some other promotional event, are central. Longer-term goals such as share growth or reduction of price sensitivity favour a ‘brand-building’ approach in which the strengthening of the esteem of the brand is key.”
Digital immediacy versus brand building
For many of those counting social media metrics and short-term communications responses, as well as those advocating marketing programmes characterized by immediacy of interaction, these conclusions should make for some disquieting reading.
For profit growth isn’t achieved in the short-term. Nor indeed, is it built out of joining up of a series of short-term successes.
Views, likes, shares and all the myriad of other possible interactions with communications content count for naught unless they are shifting brand responses. As Byron Sharp has written, what matters are the long-term memory structures in the mind that branding builds, sustains, and refreshes.
Of course we want people to be exposed to and respond (emotionally and /or behaviourally) to our communications. But ultimately what matters are brand responses, not communications responses. And brand responses take time to build and shift.
What all this means is that digital content cannot escape the strictures and rigours of long-term objective setting.
By all means we should be asking ourselves how our marketing content will generate short-term conversation, social currency, sharing etc., and be monitoring it accordingly.
But we should also be thinking through how that activity will build, sustain, and refresh long term memory structures around our brand. Since it is that – not mere communication exposure and interaction – which is the engine of growth.
So when it comes to monitoring these brand responses, we should be evaluating them accordingly – over the long-term.
Certainly we should recalibrate all those costly tracking studies to report on brand responses on an annual basis, rather than pretend they are valuable as real-time monitoring tools.
Fighting the good fight
Resisting the temptations of short-term thinking and action has always bedeviled our industry. Surrounded as we are by the supply of immediate data, that task is harder today than it has ever been.
In Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, the novelist and cultural observer Douglas Rushkoff has argued that immediacy is more and more the central defining characteristic of our culture:
“Our society has reorientated itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always-on. It’s not a mere speeding up… It’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now – So much so that we are beginning to dismiss anything that is not happening right now – and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.”
The world of marketing it would appear, is not immune from this phenomenon. And however much hard work it might be, we must resist the gravitational pull of immediacy.
For marketing’s biggest contribution is felt in the long-term, not the short-term. Nothing that has happened in the last thirty years has done anything to overturn that truth.
However exciting it undoubtedly is, we cannot let digital’s immediacy take our eyes off that prize.
Les Binet & Peter Field, The Long And Short Of It: Balancing Short and Long-Term Marketing Strategies
Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now
Byron Sharp, How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know