Marketing does like to believe in its own power. Persuasion, conversion, fans, advocates, loyalty. The language reveals the fundamental assumption that marketing is a strong force.
Yet when one looks at actual purchase data, there is little evidence that advertising works by converting or persuading. The notion of creating passionate, committed and unwavering consumer devotion is nothing more than a marketing fiction.
As Professor Ehrenburg pointed out many years ago, if consumers had been strongly persuaded in the past, “there would be many near-100% loyal customers for each successful brand, and they would be important to its sales.”
But few people remain exclusively loyal to any one brand. Brands are largely composed not of loyalists, but of light buyers who brand the brand – as well as competing brands – occasionally. Which means there’s no such thing as ‘[insert brand] consumer.’ Just buyers of another brand who sometimes buy you.
These divided loyalties follow a predictable pattern. Brands share their customers with other brands, and do so more or less in line with market shares of those brands. Buyers of any brand in a category are most likely to also buy the biggest brands in a given category. And they’re much less likely to also buy the smallest brands in the category.
Marketers might like to imagine the consumer in permanent orbit around their brand. But the fact of the matter is that people are happily polygamous in their brand ‘relationships’ for the simple reason that the choice between one brand and another is not that important.
The understanding that customers regularly buy from a repertoire of brands highlights the fact that advertising isn’t a ‘strong’ force that persuades and converts people.
It doesn’t have to.
Instead, advertising works as a weak force.
It works through nudging, not through bringing about Damascean experiences of conversion.
So in place of advertising operating as a ‘strong’ force that converts consumers, we should be thinking of it as ‘weak’ one, nudging people’s purchase behaviours, keeping our brand in their repertoires, or nudging it into people’s repertoires to add it as an extra or substitute brand.
Obviously all this doesn’t happen in blissful isolation. Competitor brands also exercise this nudging effect. And that means there will be a need for sustained and active brand maintenance. People after all know that brands in any given category are broadly similar.
When so much of marketing is short-term in its horizons, understanding that the role of advertising is to keep nudging people, rather than convert them in a one-off act, reminds us that the real economic power of advertising is felt over the longer term. Advertising is not a one-off cost, as some would treat it. It’s a long-term investment in the health of a brand. For brands to survive and prosper, they require long-term commitment. They require long-term financial investment. And crucially, they require a sustained commitment to creative excellence.
While none of the above is at all new thinking (Ehrenberg was challenging the strong force theory of marketing decades ago), regarding advertising as weak force perhaps also serves to help us through some of the rhetoric that’s out there.
For we’ve been told by some that the alternative to ‘big idea’ marketing is ‘small idea’ marketing. That rather than the froth and the bluster of advertising that publicly seeks to arouse (allegedly) fervent devotion, we can deploy the humbler, and less public nudging effects of for example, behavioural economics. Or the harvesting of established consumer intent.
It’s a perspective that (perhaps unwittingly) is born of regarding advertising as a strong force. But the perspective that advertising’s primary role is as a weak force erases the distinction between strong and weak effects. And between so-called ‘big’ and ‘small’ ideas.
Whether it’s shelf space, coupons, pricing, advertising, sampling, product design… what marketing does is nudge consumer behaviour.
Seen from this perspective, the question becomes – what along the consumer’s path to purchase can marketing do to nudge people’s behaviour?
In other words rather than indulge in some largely self-serving ideological battle between advertising and ‘other stuff’, we should be building effective ecosystems of weak effects.
Those whose egos cannot abide the notion that advertising and marketing more broadly work through exercising a weak rather than a strong influence might find some solace in considering the workings of gravity.
Gravity is the weakest force in nature – just jump into the air. With your few kilograms of muscle you’ve overcome all 6 × 1024 kilograms of the Earth’s gravitational pull.
And yet this puny force is responsible for the Moon orbiting around the Earth, the Earth around the Sun, and the motion of the galaxies.
Weak does not mean without consequence.
As a former researcher turned agency planner I’ve worked both in research and with it. So as a gamekeeper turned poacher, I’ve always held rather strong views on research. I got a chance to air some of those this week, having been invited by Ipsos ASI to their seminar ‘Research as fertiliser, not weed killer’ in London this week.
It’s fair to say that what this presentation does not cover far exceeds what it does cover. The subject of research and effective creativity after all is vast. So working on the basis that the essence of strategy is sacrifice, it felt helpful to restate some simple principles to work by. More specifically to share Wieden+Kennedy‘s beliefs about the best use of research.
Of course for some these will seem breathtakingly obvious. After all, the likes of Stephen King, Stanley Pollitt, and Alan Hedges were saying the same things forty years ago. The necessity of restating them might justifiably depress us, but perhaps it should not mystify us entirely. For as Voltaire once had cause to lament, “the trouble with common sense is that it is not very common.”
Good research can and does happen. And it can and does contribute to the development of great, effective ideas. In both the APG Awards and the IPA Effectiveness Awards we have plenty of evidence for that.
But too much research is still done for the wrong reasons, in the wrong way, and arguably by the wrong people.
Too much research has wholly outdated assumptions about the human mind, let alone how advertising works.
And too much research defines itself by its methods, rather than by the relevance and usefulness of its outputs.
My gripe then, is not with research per se (who would not want an understanding of the context for their efforts?) but with bad research. Of which there is still, far too much.
Enough with the preamble. First, here is the work I began with - a selection of work from Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam and Portland:
And here is a slightly expanded version of the presentation that followed:
My very sincere thanks go to IPSOS for inviting me to join conversation, and for having the fortitude and broadmindedness to allow me to share some unedited (and occasionally inconvenient) points of view.
And a very special thanks goes to a wonderful gent and a fearsome talent – Ignasi Tudela Calafell here at Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam, who designed the awesome Salmon vs Lamposts poster.
The IPA kindly invited me to speak at their 44 Club last night.
The argument I shared was a simple one:
“The limits of my language” opined the philosopher Wittgenstein “are the limits of my world”. The rhetoric and metaphor of modern marketing – ‘community’, ‘relationships’, ‘fans’, ‘loyalty’, ‘love’, etc. – fundamentally misunderstands how people really feel and behave towards brands. Facing up to people’s general indifference to what we make, putting aside our egos and letting go of our personal need to feel significant is creativity’s best chance.
This was a slightly reworked version of a theme I’ve banged on about before – this time with additional data illustrating the gulf that exists between marketing’s bouts of hubris and the consumer’s reality.
It is worth noting that this is not an argument for dispensing with the metaphor of human relationships altogether. Remembering what makes for good communication between humans beings is probably one of the best bulwarks against producing stuff that merely bores or shouts at people. But that is something very different from conflating habits, preferences and satisfactions with what makes for a human relationship.
Nor is this an argument in favour of some kind of brutal, soulless utilitarianism. After all, most human decision making is intuitive, instinctive, judgmental, emotional and works just below the level of consciousness. And most people aren’t ‘maximizers’, conducting elaborate cost-benefit analyses in the supermarket aisles and seeking the very best their money can get them.The relative insignificance of brands in people’s lives, does not diminish the necessity of building and sustaining rich, enduring, vivid, emotionally-packed and easily-accessed memory structures in people’s minds.
Anyway, the slides are here if anyone is interested:
And here’s the one piece of work I shared:
My thanks to the IPA for the invitation and for being such generous and lovely hosts. And of course thank you to everybody who came along.
This morning the IPA is launching the 21st edition of Advertising Works - comprising the winners from the 2012 Effectiveness Awards. I was very kindly invited by the IPA to provide a few paragraphs to this latest volume on what we have to learn from these cases. These are they.
While some might have predicted (and perhaps even wished for) its death, for many good reasons – most notably, that it works – TV advertising isn’t going away. So it is not entirely surprising to see TV dominate these stories of effectiveness.
That said, while the ‘traditional’ and the ‘digital’ have at least in some quarters regarded each with suspicion (and occasionally outright hostility), in this latest collection of effectiveness stories, we’re seeing smart agencies and clients harnessing what happens when TV and digital come together. Crucially, for demonstrable commercial gain.
John Lewis for example, led its unlocking of the nation’s tear ducts with TV. However what might have been deemed a good ol’ fashioned campaign plan (and there’s nothing wrong with that) was deliberately orchestrated with an eye on social channels, with the advertising running in highly social programmes, i.e. those that generated a high amount of twitter conversation.
In contrast, Walkers led its bid to get us to eat more crisps at lunchtime with live events designed to produce on- and offline news content and conversation. Judicious use of TV both fueled the intrigue around these stories and joined the dots, revealing the story behind the news reports.
Examples such as these should encourage us to explore the whole spectrum and variety of TV/digital combinations.
Moreover, instead of the tired, clumsy, unhelpful blanket labels of ‘traditional’ and ‘digital’, they encourage us to be much more imaginative and specific in defining the role of different campaign elements in shaping people’s attitudes and behaviours.
Rather than just think of TV as being the primary vehicle that we ‘blow out’ in secondary channels, we can for example, think about TV:
as SIGNPOSTING… directing people to other destinations and interactions.
as IGNITION… for a longer experience or programme.
as FUEL… intensifying interest in content experienced elsewhere
as EXPLAINER… elaborating the purpose or motivations behind other interactions.
And we can get more specific about the contribution and role of digital interactions:
as PROPAGATING… giving people things to SHARE.
as INVOLVING… giving people things to DO.
as INFORMING… giving people resources that answer QUESTIONS.
as AMPLIFYING… giving people things to further EXPLORE.
as FULFILLING… giving people the means to turn their interest into PURCHASE.
‘TV’ and ‘digital’ are quite clearly not mutually exclusive opposites. The IPA’s own DataBANK has already demonstrated that campaigns that utilize both online and TV achieved a 10 per cent increase in effectiveness success rate. And with these cases we have yet more evidence for the power and (crucially) the effectiveness of ‘and’.
This feels like progress. Though as the ancient Sufi wisdom advises, “You think that because you understand ‘one’ you understand ‘two because one and one make two. But you must also understand ‘two’ ”.
Nonetheless, whichever end one starts at, the fact of the matter is that we’re still starting with channel bias. It is still a perspective that asks – what can digital add to TV? Or vice versa.
So perhaps it is time to erase the increasingly unhelpful distinction between ‘TV’ and ‘digital’ and focus on what really travels across platforms, channels and touchpoints – ideas.
These winners remind us that while they by no means have the monopoly on the outcome, digital interactions can help make our ideas properly three-dimensional ideas. That is, they can extend the physical and mental real estate an idea occupies in people’s lives, they can extend the life of that idea across time, as well as the depth it has:
And perhaps that’s the question we should be asking not of channels and touchpoints, but of our ideas. In other words what – in the light of the business challenge and audience – can we do to give our ideas more relevant Time, more Space and more Depth?
“That’s what we’re teaching people about the business.
Bluff, jargon, and vacuity”
Stephen King – the father of all planners – resisted any suggestion that there was one, universal, all-encompassing theory or model of how advertising worked. Rather, he argued for dealing with the specific, understanding that clients’ business circumstances and needs were specific.
His “useful, if perhaps a little over-simple” Planning Cycle would still seem to be an eminently sensible approach to thinking about addressing any client’s business needs:
Crucially, rather than pre-judge it, it leaves entirely open the nature of solution.
Poor Stephen King. He must find himself rolling in his grave a great deal.
Because it would seem that swathes of both marketing- and adland would rather practice ass-backwards strategy.
Ass-backwards strategy is easy.
First you making a sweeping generalization:
Interruption is dead.
Advertising is the price you pay for having an unremarkable product or service
Campaigns are dead.
Advertising is dead.
Marketing is dead.
Permission marketing is the new marketing.
Content not campaigns.
Interruption marketing is a race to the bottom.
Utility trumps image.
Traditional advertising is passé
People trust people, not marketing.
The big idea is dead – you need lots of little ideas.
It’s all about the interest graph.
Be in beta.
It’s about fans, not consumers.
It’s about communities, not consumers.
Word of mouth trumps messaging.
Be mobile first.
Make products that communicate.
If it’s not participative, it’s not an idea.
Content is where it’s at.
You have to have a cultural purpose.
Passive consumption is dead.
It’s all about the social graph
Lightweight social interactions are the future.
Mass-marketing is dead
You’ve got to aggregate and curate
It’s about transmedia narratives
Always on content is essential.
Do, don’t say.
Light lots of little fires.
Take your pick.
Then and only then do you ask:
“Now what’s your problem?”
In other words ass-backwards strategy works like this:
It relies on making specific recommendations based on very general – and more often than not entirely superficial – evaluations: “I read some half-baked research supporting my prejudice and given my lack of interest/skills in rigorous data analysis I’m inclined to believe it.”
Or it indulges in the fantasy that there is a formula for success: “Whatever the nature of your particular and unique business and marketing needs, this is the template for success.”
Or it assumes the standards and rigour of cheap and lazy journalism: “Hey, let’s not allow lack of evidence and real enquiry get in the way of a good headline.”
Or it denies uncertainty and forgets that business performance in any competitive marketplace is relative, not absolute: “Do this and you will succeed. Never mind the competition and what they are doing.”
Or it argues backwards from channel, technology or platform characteristics to a client business issue: “This is what people can do with our channel/platform/technology. And that’s the key to solving your problem.”
Or it assumes that correlating factors are causal factors: “Company A is doing X. Company A is growing. Therefore X is the reason.”
Or it puts vested interest ahead of real analysis and problem-solving: “I’m from a design/word of mouth/social media/advertising/mobile/activation agency. The key to solving your business problem is design/word of mouth/social media/advertising/mobile/activation.”
Or it puts doing what’s fashionable ahead of doing what’s right: “I read about it in Contagious/saw it on some guru’s blog/heard about it at SXSW/it’s what everybody else is talking about/it’s won lots of creative awards/my resume needs this to be credible.”
Ass-backwards strategy can most certainly make for fun (and sometimes thought-provoking) conference and blog fodder.
It might provide agencies with the comforting illusion that they have a unique ‘positioning’ in an over-supplied marketplace.
It can provoke entertaining pub arguments.
More helpfully and importantly, it can help stimulate real and genuinely valuable debate and speculation.
And it certainly can make for some tediously self-regarding and shamelessly self-promoting books that succeed only in robbing Shakespeare’s language of all its elegance.
But it is not strategy.
It hardly goes without saying that technology is opening up all manner of new and exciting ways of connecting with consumers, so of course we should be exploring, testing, prototyping, discussing and evaluating their potential. There can, after all, be no creativity without innovation.
But we’d do well to distinguish between speculating (however valuable a role that might play) and legislating.
For I’d like to think that we’re able to approach our client’s business needs with a genuinely open mind as to what the solution might be. Rather than just an open mouth.
Perhaps we could more frequently recall that our task is to find the right (i.e. effective) thing to do. Not advocate the most fashionable.
And in doing so, we might perhaps recognize that sometimes the most fashionable thing we could do might well turn out to be precisely the wrong thing to do.
Dave Trott for planting the seed: http://davetrott.campaignlive.co.uk/2012/05/22/whats-thye-story/#ixzz1wS4uirM9
Paul Colman, whose brain I have plundered.
Judie Lannon, Merry Baskin eds. A Masterclass In Brand Planning: The Timeless Works Of Stephen King (the one don’t-apply-if-you-haven’t-read-it, mandatory piece of reading for every planner)