Has marketing failed? Or has it still never really been tried?

Has marketing failed? Or has it still never really been tried?
Opinion: Strategy Leaders

Where marketing principles have been followed, they seem to work. But there are still too many instances today where it has never been tried.

Maybe one can tell the state of the art in any subject by analysing the themes of its conferences.

Not my words, but those of the godfather of planning, Stephen King, in his 1985 article Has marketing failed, or was it never really tried? Over the past few weeks, having attended the Festival of Marketing and following the output of the IPA’s EffWorks, I was reminded of King’s words and drawn to re-reading his article.

King discussed four routes to failure and four essential aspects of “Real Marketing” that lie behind success. And even though the world has changed quite radically over the last 40 years, I believe King’s insights continue to be relevant today and are worth re-examining as we develop strategies for what will be a challenging 2023.

So let’s begin by first looking at the routes to failure, but through a contemporary lens.

Routes to failure

1. Thrust Marketing

“Thrust Marketing is what happens in companies when the sales manager decides to change his title to marketing manager, though not his function. Thrust marketing’s only weapon is price and price cutting. It assumes that what people are looking for is cheapness; it fails because what they are really looking for is value.” 

As the cost of living crisis continues to bite it’s clearly tempting for businesses to simply price cut in order to maintain appeal, sales and penetration.

However, during IPA EffWorks, Les Binet, group head of effectiveness at Adam&EveDDB, referred to price promotions as the “crack cocaine of marketing”, and warned marketers to be careful when using them to generate sales. None of us wants to get stuck in a discount spiral of doom.

Afterall, a recent study by Nielsen found that 84% of price promotions are not profitable; and continually setting them increases a brand’s price sensitivity, reduces pricing power and erodes margins.

2. Marketing Department Marketing

“Marketing department marketing recognized the importance of the final customer and started studying consumers’ behaviours, attitudes and buying habits. But all too often they were given little real authority…they couldn’t get through to the production men who knew what they wanted to make.”

The recent growth of startups and scaleups has witnessed a narrowing between marketing and product. However, in larger organisations the division still holds true, and it can be problematic.

For example, a few years ago during a pitch, I presented a solution which encompassed utilising a product which was already in market that served an emerging consumer need but had simply never been marketed. It was supported with forecasts modelled on past success with the product in other markets.

Yet, although the marketing team admitted it could certainly answer the question of turning around growth, they actually lacked the authority to make it happen. In the end they simply wanted a more effective media plan.

3. Accountant Marketing

“As companies get bigger through M&A…gradually the accountants drift to the top of the organisation. The results have been that objectives have increasingly been set in simple terms as the bottom line figure on a profit and loss statement. They have been made to feel that their personal progress depends on turning in good quarterly profit figures.” 

More than twice as many FTSE 100 companies now have a chairman or CEO with an accountancy or finance background (58%) than in the mid-1990s (24%), according to recruitment firm Marks Sattin. Meanwhile, fully-qualified accounting chairman or CEOs, account for 40% of FTSE100 company leaders.

However, this creates a problem, because it is more common for accountants to operate in short-term environments, and thus with short-term financial mindsets, rather than thinking longer-term with broader strategic and visionary aims.

Accountant Marketing is also more likely to be rule-driven — being based upon statutory reporting, accounting standards and auditing — rather than rule-breaking, which is a problem because the latter often leads to a competitive edge with its outside-the-box strategies.

Moreover, the accountants’ world view is more likely to be based on the certainty of past numbers and performance rather than the “what if” uncertainty of the future, competitor actions, technological shifts and visionary propositions.

4. Formula Marketing

“It is much safer to be static than dynamic…marketing managers do not like to take risks and are unable to approach problems in an innovative and entrepreneurial fashion. The trouble about formula marketing is that it tends to produce safe middle-of-the-road brands.”

Today, the growth and availability of audience data and media technology is leading to the unthinking pursuit of the same strategies and tactics regardless of the company or industry. The result? Too many brands are being pushed towards averageness (something I’ve lamented before).

Simply, marketers are looking at the same data, in the same way, and reaching the same conclusions. As a result, everyone is chasing the same people, with the same messages in the same channels — focusing budgets on extracting efficiency at the bottom of the funnel.

This feeds into the recent debate around differentiation and salience, but in the end, both in combination will deliver the best results.

Routes to success

Now, let’s examine King’s work outlining the benefits of Real Marketing, but try and bring it up-to-date with modern thinking.

1. Start with the customer

Beginning with and aiming to satisfy the customer is the converse of Thrust Marketing. That means we must see the brand from the point of view of the customer, and acknowledge that in most instances just how insignificant it actually is to them.

Today, that means marketers need to leverage consumer research, brand tracking, social media usage, shopper data and sales results to their full potential. And by combining different data points brands can begin to understand channel dynamics and customer needs across different touch points, resulting in profitable, customer-centric strategies.

2. Work over time

In contrast with Accountant Marketing, Real Marketing sets out to work over time.

I’m sure readers are familiar with Binets and Field’s The Long & the Short of it: Balancing Short and Long-Term Marketing Strategies.

But the most important part of that title is the ampersandMarketing Week columnist Mark Ritson has raised a key point about the impact of short-term sales activation and long-term brand building: it’s about time. We need to realise that this isn’t over 12 months, but over three to five years. If we get trapped in 12-month planning cycles we’ll never realise the long-term effects.

No one is immune to this. Indeed, Joan Colletta, senior director for global brand marketing at McDonalds, said at Cannes Lions this year: “We were an icon brand that forgot we were an icon. We were stuck in a cycle of short termism.”

And for those brands that do it well, such as Cadburys, which won the Grand Prix at the IPA Effectiveness Awards, success is in-part due to tenure.

3. Use all company resources

It becomes increasingly clear that Real Marketing cannot be thought of as a department activity. It is a matter of harnessing everything a company can supply.

This is, in fact, so crucial, it also impacts agency structures today — and a reason why Hearts & Science is modular and built around client problems and creativity rather than legacy structures and processes. A recent study by Dentsu found that 85% of clients think the agency model is not keeping pace — and 78% condemn it as no longer fit for purpose.

Silos aren’t working like they used to, and Real Marketing today means horizontality.

4. Innovate

Real Marketing can never be safe and static. It is always fighting against competitors and an ever changing consumer landscape. It’s therefore essential to innovate – something the UK has always been good at, even if it’s not always so good at maximising its potential.

During EffWorks, Sir John Hegarty, perhaps our most celebrated ad exec, delivered an impassioned talk on how brands are failing to connect with consumers and build long-term relationships. Hegarty argued that increased focus on digital technologies has shifted focus away from inspiring audiences — and with creativity delivering its lowest effectiveness in 24 years, he urged marketers to be bolder and braver with their creative innovation.

However, part of the problem has been business has been seen as separate from creativity, when in actual fact creativity drives business, and is an essential component for effectiveness. But change that perspective, and perhaps — as with so many other marketing issues first outlined by King — we can do something about it.

So as much as we can obsess over the future, whether that be the Metaverse or Mastodon, it can be just as important to look into the past.

So, has marketing failed? What emerges is that where it is followed it seems to work, but there are still too many instances today where it has never been tried.

Simon Carr is chief strategy officer at Omnicom media agency Hearts & Science and writes a monthly column for Strategy Leaders.

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