Time to get out of the message business


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.


  1. Miguel

    SIR, after reading this post I got a weird thought I couldn’t escape. I think it might be of use as an analogy of sorts. Messaging is chess and connection building is go.
    Allow me to explain, from a strategic point of view, positioning/messaging is about creating a proposition so unique and powerful that other propositions cannot claim any attention. This is a zero-sum game (like chess) with only one winner, but as every brand is playing the same game (despite their differences in distribution, costs and prices), the pace of the game becomes faster, less cost-eficient, and frankly, more annoying for everyone who is exposed to their advertising. Market strategies in this scenario are about obliterating the opponent’s army and finding a position where my brand can exert control over the market and its consumers, we marketers do that through distribution and positioning.
    Connection building is like go because when we play go (I am an aficionado who is still learning the rules of the game) we are looking to obtain the biggest chunk of the board. The game is won by the player with more territory rather than the player who kills the opponent. As both, Dr. Heath and Dr. Sharp, explain in their respective books, we build brand asociations through memory cues that are holistic in the sense that we create relationships between the brands we use, purchasing and usage experiences, exposure to advertising and how that brand relates to our social circles. The best strategy in this case is to build as many memory cues between our brand and the category customer and frecuently reinforce them through advertising and product development.
    Finally I do believe, as you and Mr. Trott have already pointed out, that most of our battles are against indifference rather than our direct competitors in the market, which is good and bad news. Good news is brands have demand inertia, they get bought even if they don’t do anything (they do lose momentum thou) and the bad news are, I’m afraid, that inertia can be used as evidence that brands are not important in people’s lives, therefore we do not care.
    Once again, sir, that was a extremely good post. Hope to read you soon.

  2. Stefano

    I see a widespread awareness among many ad folks that we should reconsider our focus on messaging, even among those who are not so familiar with the science: not because it’s always wrong, as we have all worked on successful campaigns based on “I tell you x” (of course in context – the How), but because it’s partial. And after you previous post I thought you’d make the same point: we shouldn’t dismiss messaging, but we should know when it’s the right time to use it and when it’s not.

    I’m not convinced that the replacement is “connections”: while “message” was the mean to a “perception” outcome, “connections” are the outcome, so what is the mean we’re in the business of that can help us build them?
    In practical terms, if I’m thinking of what box I want in a creative brief to replace “What is the message?” I’d suggest “What is the trigger?”: it may be a certain message, a certain choice architecture, a certain opportunity to do something or a certain cultural stance. In all cases, it seems like a good starting point it we want to focus on instigating behaviour.