The fascinating world of marketing paradoxes — and how to tackle them
Reach or targeting? Choice or Sustainability? Strategist Simon Carr explores some of the paradoxes affecting media and marketing, and offers strategic resolutions.
A paradox is a situation where conflicting elements exist simultaneously, creating a unique kind of tension.
They exist all around us, with famous and often mind bending examples in mathematics, physics and philosophy. They can often possess logical inconsistencies, but also an underlying truth, or even challenge our interpretations of the world.
Paradoxes certainly exist in media and marketing — in fact, they’re more common than you might think. I’ve no doubt readers would have come across a number of interesting (and/or headache-inducing) examples.
Dealing with these paradoxes isn’t just an intellectual exercise; it’s a necessity for strategists operating in an increasingly complex and inconsistent world. So, let’s look at some examples of marketing paradoxes, along with some ideas about how to navigate through them.
The paradox of choice…
Of course consumers value having options, but too much choice can overwhelm us and this runs the risk of decision paralysis. This well-established psychological phenomenon highlights the importance of finding the right balance between offering variety and keeping the decision-making process simple (enough).
Strategic resolution: One way to tackle this problem is to create a sense of urgency. This can be done by offering a limited number of products for a short period of time. Doing so encourages customers to make a choice before the opportunity goes away.
For example, you can offer special discounts within a small window — Black Friday is coming up this month… of course. Another option is to release new products in small quantities, or as limited-editions. Adidas’ limited run sneaker collaborations, for instance, feel both exclusive and collectable.
Alternatively, simplifying choices can offer benefits over the longer term. Work we have done for Ocado, which has the largest product range of any online supermarket, removed the friction from decision-making by allowing shoppers to simply scan a recipe QR code — which then put all necessary ingredients directly into their online basket.
…and the unique paradox of green choices
As evidenced in Hearts & Science’s Forces of Change report, there is a striking inconsistency when it comes to green choices. While the majority of people assert their commitment to making environmentally friendly decisions, their actions often betray their intentions.
This is a big disconnect: 70% of individuals say they are willing to pay extra for sustainable products, yet only 20% actually do so. This paradox highlights the tension between short-term personal needs and long-term collective responsibility.
Strategic resolution: To bridge the gap between public values and private behaviours, we need to take a multi-faceted approach.
Firstly, make sustainability real by quantifying our choices. Brands could increase awareness about the environmental footprint of their products by labelling them with an ‘environmental impact’ score.
Where possible, make green choices more affordable and easily accessible. When the barrier to entry is lowered on sustainable choices, it becomes much easier for people to align their actions with their values.
Green nudges can also encourage sustainable behaviours that foster social norms. This can be as simple as repositioning green choices to avoid the appearance of premiumisation, perhaps by sharing a more expensive choice alongside it, an approach that is increasingly seen in the energy sector.
The paradox of modern luxury
The luxury market has always thrived on the concept of scarcity. A Rolex watch or a classic Jaguar car were once coveted items, partly because they were so hard to come by. This made them symbols of exclusivity and desirability. However, the landscape of luxury is shifting.
In today’s world, luxury brands are caught in a paradox between scarcity and availability. While they still need to maintain an aura of exclusivity, they also have to be accessible to a broader audience to sustain their business.
Last year Mulberry partnered with rental platform Hurr to encourage people to look at more responsible ways of reinvigorating their wardrobes while simultaneously reducing the high barrier of entry to luxury goods.
Tiffany & Co. has disrupted its classic image to appeal to younger audiences through ‘brand vandalism’ and Supreme mastering the balance of accessibility and exclusivity through ‘drop culture’, fostering a high demand — and long queues — for their products (all examples showcased here).
Strategic Resolution: Balancing scarcity and availability is no small feat for modern luxury brands. Adopting a multi-tiered product strategy is a sophisticated approach, where brands like Chanel have excelled by creating a hierarchy of accessibility within their offerings. This begins with Chanel’s fragrance and beauty lines, which act as the initial touchpoint for new consumers, offering a taste of luxury and the promise of more, and progresses towards high-ticket value items.
Chanel’s marketing reflects this approach. Its fragrance and beauty campaigns are designed for broad appeal, whereas its haute couture marketing is focused on exclusive environments that reflect its premium nature, thus maintaining the brand’s essence of exclusivity and luxury.
Central to all audiences, however, is the role of storytelling. By weaving compelling narratives around both their exclusive and accessible offerings, brands can maintain a sense of aspiration and allure, irrespective of the price point.
The reach vs. targeted paradox
The paradox of mass communication versus personalised communication has long been a topic of debate in adland. Much has been written on the subject but it has widely been accepted that broad, continuous reach with the widest possible audience is optimum to grow a brand.
Yet this is an expensive approach where 75% 1+ weekly reach is out of reach of the majority of brands and thus more targeted approaches need to be developed. This leaves us in a paradoxical situation where trying to meet both objectives can risk compromising the effectiveness of each.
Strategic resolution: Almost all brands will grow more off the back of light and non-buyers than heavy ones, as outlined by Byron Sharp et al. In light of this, brands should embrace an approach of continuous reach with all potential category buyers, but in combination with a more data-driven, segmented approach to specifically bring in key audience subsets whether that is more diverse groups, regional areas or communities of interest. The increasing sophistication of 1PD strategies and the innovative use of audience and contextual data mean that this can also be a highly effective part of a media plan.
Allevia in the hayfever sector highlights how developing a sophisticated pollen model worked to drive the effective mass deployment of media in key targeted areas — effectively balancing the reach and targeting paradox and making it one of the most successful pharmaceutical launches in history.
Share your paradoxes
I could keep on going, but I’m also aware of the paradox of time so hopefully that’s enough to stimulate some more nuanced thinking about our increasingly complex world.
Certainly there are many other examples, such as the Catch-22 of needing to advertise but not having the budget for it, the delicate balance between taking risks while needing certainty, or the personalisation paradox, whereby consumers increasingly expect hyper targeted marketing — until it gets too close to home.
Perhaps readers have their own paradoxes to share — hopefully with some creative solutions to manage them… I’d be keen to hear in the comments section.
Simon Carr is chief strategy officer at Hearts & Science.