Customers are more savvy and demanding than ever before, and efficiency-driven marketing continues to deliver low returns.
No matter how your business has endured the uncertainties of the past few years, it’s clear that these changes have taken the importance of every organization’s marketing to an entirely new level.
The fallout from COVID-19 has put the importance of marketing and marketing-led thinking at the top of most business owners’ agendas. Regardless of how world economies adjust in the immediate future, the coming decade will see a resurgence in the importance of more creative, emotionally-driven marketing. Why? Because the way we’re currently doing it isn’t working.
Well before the pandemic, there was a growing body of thought that what most people currently call marketing needed a radical change. Business owners and marketers need to start thinking differently, with the goal of reinventing customer experiences for the next decade and beyond.
Don’t be under any illusion: the way most of us have been marketing over the past 15 or so years has to change.
Many marketing and sales efforts have been generating smaller returns for a reason: the vast majority of marketing produced today fails to engage at any emotional level.
Let’s start with that first point. Many CEOs and virtually all CFOs have an inherent distrust of marketing. Not because they think marketing doesn’t work; I believe the reason so many board-level executives have an issue with marketing is because of how it works.
Let me explain.
Logic-based, rational thinking governs the overwhelming majority of most business decisions. There’s an easy-to-define ROI argument for any expenditure, and finding ways to reduce costs or effort (or increase productivity and efficiency) is a constant underlying goal.
While this may be how most business units work, what rationalists fail to understand is that effective marketing does not operate in this way.
Reducing the cost to manufacture a widget usually has no detrimental effect on the efficacy of the widget itself (unless it’s no longer fit for its purpose). However, reducing the cost of marketing “manufacturing” invariably also reduces its effectiveness because the arbiters of effectiveness are much more than its constituent parts.
Business processes based on rationality and logic presuppose a fixed, rational target. But marketing is about influencing the behavior of humans who aren’t always rational and rarely static.
Effective marketing involves out-of-the-box thinking and creative experimentation. Because such ideas introduce the possibility of being wrong in one’s hypothesis, people in finance roles see this approach as superficial and irrational (which scares most of them to death).
Some people working in finance roles live in a world of quantitative fallacy. Everything has to make rational sense. Everything has to be measurable, and everything has to be quantifiable. This is based on the assumption that life is like science.
With something like physics, the important metrics that determine the outcome of something are numerically available and attainable. You have all the information required to understand a condition, and it can all be expressed in defined units of measurement.
But many aspects of human behavior don’t have a quantifiable, measurable unit. There isn’t an SI unit of irritation, regret, or fear, all of which can influence our decisions and lead us in a certain direction. The idea that you can create a totally rational, logic-based model of human behavior, as though humans behaved like atoms, is clearly ridiculous.
If human beings all thought and acted in a certain way, regardless of their environment and devoid of any emotional-based influence, marketing would simply be a list of bullet-points. We wouldn’t need a multi-million dollar ad of a supermodel walking through a field of flowers to sell perfume, for example. Scribble the main ingredients on a cheap plastic spritz bottle and your job would be done.
Marketing used to be primarily about persuading people; to influence their behavior in order to deliver a commercial result. As a result, the best marketers of the day were familiar with concepts such as human behavior, human insight, or psychology.
Today I have the feeling that 99% of the marketing we see as consumers, especially in the online space, has been created to be more concerned with efficiency than effectiveness. It’s as though marketing is seen as a branch of logistics.
Too many businesses conflate ‘efficiency’ with ‘effectiveness’ when, in reality, they mean very different things.
Effectiveness can be defined as how well you’re doing in achieving your goals. It’s a measure of how successful you are in delivering on what you set out to do. If you’re chasing effectiveness, you’re about maximizing the outcome of a particular marketing tactic or combination of tactics. Effectiveness is about achieving the biggest success you can.
Efficiency, in contrast, is a ratio. It’s about how much input you invest in order to deliver a particular output. If you’re manufacturing something and can reduce production costs while maintaining quality, or even increasing productivity, that’s universally seen as A Good Thing.
But marketing doesn’t work that way. It never has, and it never will.
Efficiency-driven businesses are not looking to get the best result from their effort or investment. They’re looking to get the most positive result from the least amount of effort or investment. That’s a very different thing.
By chasing efficiency metrics, marketers don’t differentiate their own product from the next—and, as a result, have exorcized the creativity element out of the equation. This is why marketers resort to things like tracking cookies, remarketing tags, programmatic advertising, and why we have to have things like GDPR and CCPA. Privacy legislation came about in part because marketers couldn’t be trusted.
Businesses today have created a data-driven, repeatable marketing process based on efficiency. But it’s one devoid of creativity, salience, or resonance. As a result, it’s less effective. It’s no wonder they moan that their marketing isn’t working!
Cutting budget to maximize efficiency – in both effort terms and monetary terms – actually has the reverse effect on the business. Over the longer term, it actually means less growth and less market share.
Instead, if you focus on the effectiveness of your marketing, you’re not just maximizing revenue – and profits – in the short term. You’re building brand awareness, visibility, reach, and engagement. These reduce the cost of new customer acquisition, reduce pricing sensitivity, increase existing customer loyalty, and strengthen your market position against the competition.
Instead of actually doing their jobs — customer and industry research, positioning, segmentation, messaging, and all the rest — many marketers and agencies have become lazy.
Fewer and fewer marketers seem to bother with the basics of marketing and move straight to tactical execution. There’s precious little thought or foresight about the only thing that actually matters in the grand scheme of things: the customer. Today, most marketers care more about what happens in analytics dashboards than what happens inside people’s heads.
Of course, tactics are important. No one’s saying otherwise. But without having done your homework, you’ve no idea whether the mix of tactics being delivered bears any influence on driving customer behavior.
For example, many people who call themselves marketers will argue that every brand needs to have a social media presence. But there are plenty of businesses out there who are killing it (take Lush for example) without a Twitter feed or a Facebook page in sight. Not only is marketing much more than simply tactical execution, but not all marketing is online. Depending on the customer, there may be other channels that are better suited to the task at hand. Many marketers will never know how effective they could be because they’re too myopic in their approach.
I’m not saying closing your social media accounts is what you should be doing. What I’m saying is that blindly following the zeitgeist of perceived wisdom without consideration or empathy of the types of people you – and only you – are looking to attract is plainly bonkers.
Instead of doing what they should be doing, much of marketing execution is being outsourced to MarTech – marketing technology platforms that seek to target, automate, and measure efficiencies faster and better than us mere mortals. It’s a world of data-driven marketing, where customer insights, contextual influences, and behavioral drivers are decided by algorithms.
Does that mean MarTech should be avoided? Not at all! Quite the opposite, in fact. The problem with what we’ve come to know as ‘data-driven marketing’ is that decisions are being taken based on the wrong data (available to Gartner clients).
I think there is enormous value in data and measurement. Our agency, like many others, relies on data all day, every day. But data only tells you WHAT people are doing. It doesn’t explain, or allow you to generalize, WHY they may be doing it. And understanding WHY is a much more beneficial field of activity.
What’s missing from most marketers’ toolkits is the implicit and fundamental understanding of human behavior. Some people call this “Behavioral Economics”, or “Behavioral Science”, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing more than psychology: the study of human behavior in context.
The point of all this data isn’t to determine next steps. It’s to provide pro and contra arguments, to allow marketers to make more informed decisions. Data isn’t truth. Data is evidence.
Over the years marketers have been told time and time again that we’re a cost, and we’ve come to believe it. The reason sub-par marketers are doing all of the programmatic stuff, boring advertising, or banal social media posts is because they’re desperate to justify their existence.
The reality is our job is about business growth. Marketing isn’t just marketing anymore. Marketing is sales. Marketing is operations. Marketing is customer support. Marketing is finance. It’s time for those in charge of disparate business units to rally around this mental model.
What are the implications of this shift? Number one, marketers need to be able to speak the language of the boardroom – the language of finance. I think it’s increasingly important for marketers to have the skills the business needs if we’re ever to be taken seriously. We need to abandon all of the marketing geek-speak, all that vernacular we love and understand among ourselves, and start to communicate the way the business expects. The unfortunate reality is more marketers can explain what VR is than can explain what EBITDA is. It’s little wonder why so few marketers ever make it to the boardroom.
Marketers must evolve to take on more strategic responsibility for the businesses within which they operate. That means having business skills within the marketing department is going to be more important than ever. A business acumen, an idea, and a sensitivity to the customer and the customer’s experience, to become the partner that stakeholders across the entire enterprise can lean on to help drive important business initiatives.
As an industry, we need to reform marketing by getting people to accept that value is subjective, context-dependent, and meaning-dependent. We need to reassure the rationalists’ furrowed brows that emotional marketing is every bit as crucial to the value creation process as manufacturing or sales, even if its methodology is seen as unconventional to logic-based minds. Finally, we need to educate from within. We need to lobby and evangelize to peers within the organization that value is actually formed in the mind of the customer, produced as much by the singer as it is by the song.