December 08, 2019

Advertising's Untold Stories

Have you ever wondered why the highly touted marketing miracles never seem to work for you? Stick around.

In recent years, copywriters, "branding" experts, "strategic" thinkers, and advertising and marketing agencies have evolved a conceit in which they refer to themselves as "storytellers."

Although it is largely self-inflating bullshit, I enjoy this conceit. It puts an emphasis on the concept of "stories" and helps me explain and expose one of the great logical errors of our industry. I call it the "untold stories" problem. Here's how it works.

Most of the information we get about the success or failure of advertising and marketing activities comes in the form of a story:

  - A press release

  - An article in a trade publication

  - A feature in the business section or on a TV business report

  - A case history presented at an industry conference or event

The stories that reach us are often superficial -- they are mostly just headlines lightly dusted with a few specifics, some meticulously curated numbers, and a generous helping of spin. This is because marketing strategies are valuable trade secrets and keeping them confidential is crucial to business success. You don't just give 'em away. As a result, the stories we get are often devoid of some important specifics that are key to understanding the true nature of the activity.

Nonetheless, for every story we are exposed to, there are a thousand untold stories we don't get to read or hear about. These are the non-spectacular stories, created in non-spectacular fashion, by non-spectacular brands -- in other words, they are about 99.9% of everything that ever happens in  marketing.

I don't think it's terribly controversial to suggest that we are far more likely to hear success stories than failure stories. Ask any business reporter. The number of PR releases she gets about the brilliant new campaigns being launched will outnumber the releases she gets about the failure of campaigns by about a zillion to one.

After all, who wants to embarrass the CEO, alarm the Board, scare the shareholders, frighten the puppy dogs, and reveal themselves for the bewildered bumblers they are? It's a lot wiser  to be forthcoming about your successes and circumspect about your failures.

However, when this tendency becomes terribly dangerous is not when it is applied to a specific case history, but when it is applied to primary information we get about marketing fundamentals in general (not just particular brand campaigns.)

I would wager great stacks of money that the untold stories of the mediocre performance of virtually all marketing activities outnumber the widely told stories of success by a hundred to one. This is doubly true of (but not limited to) the shiny new object activities like social media, content marketing, virtual reality, native advertising, "personalization," blockchain, and whatever new marketing miracle happens to be trending this week.

The narratives we are exposed to about marketing activities, and the belief we have in these activities, are profoundly skewed by the bias toward trumpeting success, not failure.

This is perilous. It leads to conferences, books and, god help us, Powerpoints, extolling the efficacy of undertakings based on wildly unrepresentative samples. It gives our entire industry a false impression of the value of these strategies.

It leads us to throw money at expensive, wasteful tactics. And it reinforces the lemming-like attraction of naive marketers to the trendy fantasies that have dominated our industry for the past decade, often through widely read "success" stories.

It is not that the stories themselves aren't true. It is that the results being reported may be wildly divergent from the reality to be found in the total number of stories on the subject, the vast majoriity remaining untold.

Before you take any story about advertising or marketing as indicative of a general truth, you'd be wise to assume that just the fact that it is being told at all makes it likely that it is one or two standard deviations from normal. You should assume that the overwhelming number of stories that haven't been told on the subject aren't nearly as rosy.

In marketing, the untold stories are usually the real story.

December 02, 2019

The Problem With Bubba's Burgers

Let's do a little thought experiment.

You've been driving all morning on a two-lane highway and you're getting hungry. You come to the small town of Nowheresville and at the intersection there are two hamburger joints. One is McDonald's, the other is Bubba's Burgers.

It is highly likely that Bubba makes a better burger than McDonald's. But it is also highly likely that you will choose McDonald's. Why? I think the answer goes something like this. 

While you might like to have the better burger, it's more important that you have a burger that isn't risky. While you might like to stop at a place that is comfortable and relaxing, it's more important that you stop at a place that isn't icky.

McDonald's may not make a great burger, and it may not be the most lovely environment, but you have a high level of expectation that the burger won't make you sick and the place won't be icky.

In other words, Bubba's may very well make a better burger, but McDonald's is good enough and relatively risk free. The aversion to unknown risks trumps the likelihood of superiority.

So the question is, why do you believe McDonald's is good enough and safer? I think the answer is simple. McDonald's is famous. Fame creates many advantages.

In all the jabbering about marketing, and all the strategic gymnastics that marketers put themselves through, the simplest and most obvious objective of marketing should be to create fame. Brands that are famous have an enormous advantage over brands that aren't famous.

The world's largest, most successful brands -- the Apples, Nikes, Cokes, Pepsis, Toyotas, McDonald's, Tides, Budweisers, Doves, et al -- all have one thing in common -- they're famous. Does that mean that fame guarantees success? Absolutely not. But it makes the likelihood of success massively greater.

Those of you looking for holes in this argument will say it's circular. It's not the fame that's causing success, it's success that's causing fame. That argument is good for about 30 seconds until you realize that each of these brands spend billions every year to stay famous. 

There are several ways for brands to achieve fame. Some get lucky. The press falls in love with them, follows them everywhere, and provides them with zillions of dollars of free exposure -- Google, Uber, Amazon, Tesla -- are examples. With very little marketing activity these brands became enormously famous. Others become famous through imaginative PR initiatives, clever stunts, or the charismatic personalities of their leaders. Or a combination of these things. There are many ways to achieve fame.

Sadly, the likelihood of the press falling in love with you is one tick above zero. Imaginative PR is wonderful to have but very rare to come by. And charismatic leaders are one in a thousand.

The most expensive way to become famous is through advertising. It is the most expensive, but also the most reliable. It is the only avenue to fame that you can buy your way into.

Those of you who know me probably know where I'm going next. Online advertising has not been very impressive at creating widespread fame. While there are certainly some brands who have achieved a level of fame through online advertising, after 25 years there are no Apples, Nikes, Cokes, Pepsis, Toyotas, or McDonald's. 

The philosophy behind online advertising is deeply flawed. "Experts" tell us that highly personalized, precision targeted, one-to-one advertising is far more capable of performing successfully because it reaches “the right person, at the right place, at the right time.” This may be true if you have the least ambitious marketing goal -- to generate a click. However, if you have the highest marketing goal -- to build a successful brand -- I have seen no evidence that this is true. In fact, I have seen considerable evidence to the contrary.

Mass-media advertising is demonstrably more effective at brand building than precision targeted, highly individualized advertising. Personally targeted direct response advertising certainly has its uses. But the number of exceptionally famous brands created by direct response advertising is somewhere between zero and nothing. The number of exceptionally famous brands created by mass media is enormous.

Highly individualized advertising makes advertising a private, rather than public, experience. Online, we all live in our own little personalized, precision-targeted digi-world. This is not an environment that is conducive to growing a brand. 

To a substantial degree, mass media advertising is public advertising and online media advertising is private advertising. It's hard to become famous in private.

November 27, 2019

No App For Gratitude

Today I am repeating my annual Thanksgiving post which I have run for many years. And, yes, that crack about Trump was there years before anyone could have imagined...

Thanksgiving is my kind of holiday.

It doesn't require gods or miracles or tragedies or victories or angels or kings or winners or losers or flags or gifts. 

All you need is some pumpkin pie, a big-ass flat screen, and a comfortable sofa to drool on.
Oh, and a little gratitude.

Gratitude, by the way, is a commodity in very short supply. Regrettably, we seem to have mountains of expectation but not much in the way of appreciation. It's a socially transmitted disease.

So this Thanksgiving let's put aside harsh judgments for a day or two. Thank a fireman. Give a bum a buck. Kiss an in-law.

I don't like Puritans of any stripe, but I like the idea of them having the Indians over for dinner. I know the detente didn't last too long, but any day you're eating sweet potatoes instead of shooting off muskets is a good day.

Be grateful that you have shoes. Be thankful that your cat is healthy. Compliment someone's posture. 

If you can't do any of that stuff, then at least give thanks that you won't be dining with Whoopi Goldberg or Donald Trump. That alone should be enough.

Finally, do yourself a favor -- quit whining. That's my job.

And have a Happy Thanksgiving.