Marketing is a bunch of B.S.
Last month Adobe launched a campaign to promote the re-launch of Creative Suite with ads in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times with the provocative headline “Most marketing is a bunch of B.S.” They supported the statement with a poll they had commissioned that found that 53% of 1,250 adults, including 250 marketing decision-makers, agree with the statement.
As a marketer, my first reaction was to feel defensive. Marketing is not B.S. It is an essential company function. But after reflecting on the matter for a few moments I can understand why a majority think that most marketing is B.S. Much of what I read and hear about marketing is indeed B.S.
Recently I attended a conference on Digital Branding. Normally I am invited to speak at conferences like these, but on this occasion I went to support a friend who was moderating and decided to sit back and learn as much as I could from the eight presenters. Towards the end of the day I asked a young lady sitting next to me, a digital communications manager at a non-profit, if she had found the conference valuable. “It has been a complete waste of time,” she said. “The only consolation is that my employer paid for it, not me.” I had to agree with her. I too had not learned anything of value.
Why was that? The speakers were senior creative and account people from leading agencies and all were accomplished in their respective fields. They were well intentioned, articulate and knew what they were talking about. Nonetheless, everything they presented amounted to nothing more that the usual marketing B.S.
Most started by outlining gee whiz statistics showing the exponential increase in the number of people using social media and mobile devices. They used lots of jargon, including newly coined words like SOMOLO. Several of the presenters explained that no longer is it true that “content is king,” now context is king. A few reiterated the basic concepts that before you start a project you have to be clear on the objectives and also you have to “know your target consumer”. One described how “impressions” are not a useful measure of media strength; instead the goal should be “expressions” that take emotional engagement into account. Several mentioned the importance of tracking online metrics. On a few matters the speakers contradicted each other. One speaker said it was an open industry secret that banner advertisements are completely ineffective. Another recounted some impressive results his company had achieved using online advertising – including banners. Another presenter said that some brands, like Apple and Dyson, do not need to use emotion in their advertising because their products are so good.
All the presentations made easily digestible points that were entertaining – but they were generalizations. The specific details of the personalities, the strategies, the programs and their results were missing. And without the details there was little to be learned.
I am not meaning to be disparaging. If I had been giving a speech at the conference I would not have been able to offer anything much better. One hurdle we all have to deal with is confidentiality. We are not at liberty to divulge the specifics of campaigns we have run for our clients. If results are disappointing we prefer not to talk about them, regardless that more can be learned from failures than successes, and if results are superb there is little to be gained by educating our competitors on how to copy them.
But the issue of marketing B.S. pervades more than conferences like these. It also relates to what one finds in marketing textbooks. Marketing theories are always generalizations. The theories are correct in most circumstances but invariably they do not apply in others. One marketing tenet is that you need to “understand the consumer” and tailor the product or service to their wants and needs. However, in situations where a major account like Costco is stocking your product you only need to convince the buyers of its merits. When they feature your product you can sell large volumes. If you follow the theory and put the consumer ahead of the demands of your immediate customer – you will be less likely to succeed. This reality doesn’t just apply to retail products it also applies to many business-to-business products that are sold by distributors or that are specified by consulting engineers. In other words, making the sale is paramount – not adhering to marketing theory.
The deeper challenge with marketing is that it is too complicated and too nuanced to be taught using superficial generalizations. Marketing relates to every aspect of a company’s capabilities, products, technologies and customers and how they fit in the culture at large. An approach that is effective in one situation will be a waste of money in others.
The problem is compounded because marketing looks easy. If marketing is mostly concerned with creating advertising messages for familiar consumer products then how difficult can it be? Most marketing students can write a strategy and create an advertisement. With some effort they will be awarded a high grade. And with high grades they will consider themselves competent marketers.
What the students are not taught is that good marketing is like good leadership. It looks easy when it is done well but to do it successfully requires dedication and a diversity of skills. Apple got to be the biggest and most successful brand in the world through extraordinary marketing. But its branding efforts extended far beyond what many consider “marketing”. The company’s most powerful form of communications are the beautiful products themselves and their software interfaces. Apple’s groundbreaking marketing extended to the geometry of the packaging, the supply chain, the software ecosystem and the retail stores to name just a few. Apple became successful because of Steve Jobs’ appreciation of music, design and the art of words and his extraordinary leadership that wove all the parts together with stunning attention to detail.
Marketing has always been a demanding discipline and now, because of the power and complexity of digital communications, it requires even more knowledge and skills. Every day the landscape changes and new opportunities arise. There is so much new to learn.
A conference on digital branding should be an opportunity to learn about new approaches. However, for it to be useful it needs to address the specifics. Sure, SOMOLO (social mobile and local) is growing, but for one of the attendees, a manager responsible for marketing a chain of casual dining restaurants, he needs to address the challenge of how to capture a customer’s social media profile when they pay their bill. But how? It is a big opportunity but it also pushes against limits – technologically, operationally, socially and legally. Details like these are not B.S. They are crucially important, fact-based and nuanced. However, they are too specific to be of interest at a conference on digital branding that is broadly targeted.
Marketers suffer from poor credibility. According to a poll conducted by the Fournaise Marketing Group, 80% of CEOs admit they do not really trust and are not very impressed by the work done by marketers. The public sees the contributions of marketing and advertising managers as having the same value to society as the contributions of dancers.
So it is not surprising that marketing managers suffer from a lack of confidence. Marketing just like leadership looks easy and is dead simple to criticize. And just like good leadership, when it is done well the results cannot be disputed; sales and profit increase.
We see how accountants are not thought of as pedaling B.S. and we want to be taken just as seriously. But profit and loss statements are affected by many factors – like the economy – that cannot be controlled by marketers and so we are inclined to latch on to various metrics in order to make the discipline science-like and quantifiable. We measure clicks, followers, klout scores and “engagement”, as well as report the results from dubious surveys. Ironically, this has the opposite effect than we desire because these metrics divert our attention from the big picture and that marketing works best when it is holistic and not siloed. The only metrics that really count are financial – for most organizations that means increasing sales and profits.
How can we change the status of marketers? There are no simple solutions but one approach is to be more open in sharing the details of what we are achieving and learning.
One small contribution we have made is to launch a wiki-like strategic marketing showcase called integratedbrands.org. We hope it will help marketing managers and agencies showcase and discuss their successes and failures.
Most truisms and generalizations about marketing are indeed B.S., however, the discipline is becoming more demanding and more high skilled than at any time before. What can you do to help change the negative perceptions?