There's something I've been thinking about since last month's planning conference.
We've all been talking for some time now about how traditional marketing thinking - fixed, linear, reductive, rational, word-based, brand-centric and so on - isn't working anymore. It's not descriptive of the real world, and limits our ability to build effective brands.
We've also all been talking about new ways of working - acceptance that both brands and markets are complex and constantly in flux, importance of collective behaviour, the need to experiment more - that seem to work a lot better. They're more descriptive of the real world, and more helpful to building effective brands.
Over the past couple of years there's been lots of smart discussion about these points. And yet the marketing world isn't exactly flocking to change its models and ways of doing business. So why is it proving so hard to change? I'm sure much of it comes from the natural human tendencies towards habit and resistance to change until something breaks completely.
But at its core, I think the problem comes down to this: the old model may be wrong, but it provides a powerful sense of control, predictability and safety. By contrast, when we talk about complexity and nuance and flux, it sounds uncontrollable, unpredictable and terrifying.
The thing is, we need to accept that control & safety are illusions that are really attractive and hard to shake. I don't fault anyone for wanting safety - it's a core human driver in any situation, but especially given the stakes in business. If you're charged with spending millions of dollars of your company's money, of course you want to be able to control and predict what happens. Of course you want to feel safe and reassured.
It's not really surprising that most people would rather have a faulty prediction than an accurate picture of an unpredictable world. Things like brand onions and creative pre-testing may not reflect reality very much, but if they make you feel safer and let you avoid blame for failure then heck, why not?
The illusion of control is particularly hard to challenge because it's rarely called into question later. It's often really hard to tell what's actually happening in the marketplace, so when what was predicted would happen doesn't happen (an ad that pre-tested well does poorly in market, for example), it's easy to blame one of the myriad external factors (competitive activity, poor support from the sales team) rather than question if the assumptions leading to the prediction were wrong. Ironically, the complexity of brands and marketing is probably keeping the simplistic assumptions and models in place.
All of this reminds me a bit of Russell's line (from William Gibson's definition of cyberspace) that a brand is a "consensual hallucination." The traditional marketing assumptions could also be described as consensual hallucinations. Everybody kind of knows they're wrong but they're useful and convenient so they persist as "something illusory that only exists because sufficient numbers of people are willing to pretend that it's real."
So how do we get past that?
For marketing to move forward, I don't think demonstrating that the traditional models are wrong is enough. I think we need to change the conventional wisdom that they're safe.
We need to create compelling arguments for two things:
- That the control & predictability offered by traditional marketing assumptions is illusory and actually unsafe.
- That the world of complexity is actually safer and more manageable than it seems.
Over the next few posts I'm going to take a stab at some ways to do that.