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Cargo Cult Marketers

2009 November 1
by Greg Satell

As markets become more competitive marketers’ jobs become more complex.  New categories are created while old ones add more segments.  Novel marketing channels compete with traditional media outlets. Marketing has never been harder or more abstruse

There are those, however, that offer a false solution to all of the drudgery.  They have a simple formula that explains everything.  I call them “Cargo Cult Marketers“ and they are people to avoid.

What is a Cargo Cult Marketer?

Such marketers are very much like the “Cargo Cult Scientists” that Richard Feynman described in his famous speech.  He came up with the name from island people in the south Pacific.  These “Cargo Cultists” built mock airfields after World War II because they thought the airports attract precious cargo.

They did have some basis for their thinking.  During the war, valuable cargo really did arrive at improvised airfields regularly.  The islanders were convinced that building airfields would cause the cargo to start appearing again.  Nevertheless, planes never came.  There were other forces at work than airfields alone.

The cargo cultists were falling into a fallacy of induction.  They had some facts on their side – planes really had previously landed and they did contain cargo that the islanders wanted – but their belief in their mystical powers of insight led them to ignore facts that would disprove their theory (i.e. that the cargo was somehow connected to those who built the airfields, not the act of building them).

Correlation is often confused with causality.  It’s an easy trap to fall into, because facts devoid of context can easily create an airtight argument.  Anecdotal evidence can be extrapolated to a universal principle. Voila!

As Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

A Cargo Case Study

Our Cargo Cult friends usually work in the following way:  They think of an inspired idea; for instance developing snowboarding equipment for senior citizens.  This is a true “Blue Ocean” with no strong competition.

To the doubtful non-believers, they will proudly say that they have just returned from Aspen, Colorado and visited the Senior Center, where a snow sports program for the elderly is offered.

Moreover, they will quite accurately point out that the elderly population is an exploding demographic with extremely attractive economic attributes.  These are facts, and can’t be argued with.  The homework has been done.

Or has it?  Are there no facts to the contrary?  Are senior citizens unhappy with the equipment they have now?  Do people who are active and healthy enough to pursue snow sports into their ‘70’s and ‘80’s want to pursue their activities using equipment made for old people?

In the internet age, we can always find support for any case with a few quick Google searches (like I just did).  However, it requires a great deal of emotional effort to try and find evidence to the contrary for an idea you fell in love with.

Just because something might be true, doesn’t mean it will be.   Great success rarely is born out of one idea from one person; rather it is usually the result of collaboration, modification and persistence. (See How a Successful Digital Business is Really Built)

Cargo Kool-Aid


Cargo Cult Marketers seek to “think out of the box” and don’t want to do the same old marketing stuff.  Marketing, for them, is about the pursuit of difference for difference’s sake.  They are out to break all of the rules (except of course, for the 22 which are immutable).

They can find justification through reading books by the likes of Al Ries and Jack Trout, who have built great personal brands in the field of marketing (although it is not clear what brands the pair have built in the field of commerce).

Cargo Cult Marketers don’t seek to do any harm; in fact, they put much effort into plying their craft.  They actively seek out “Blue Oceans” and avoid the counterproductive competition of the “Red Oceans” (where, presumably, there are either fish that bleed red underwater or the mafia dumps a lot of bodies).  With laser-like focus they target “the hill they want to own.”

Cargo Cult Marketers are also eager to instruct others.  To the uninitiated, they will quote General von Clausewitz and instruct them in the inspired strategies of “Marketing Warfare.”  For them, war is the continuation of marketing by other means.

They seek to inspire followers because they know exactly where they are going.  Doubt is for the weak and small-minded.

They know about people like Phillip Kotler, the famous professor at Kellogg, and think “all that” is just fine, although a little bit out of date.  Cargo Cult Markets want to go beyond the ordinary and achieve a transcendental plane of strategic development.

I Think, Therefore I Market to the Masses

What Cargo Cult Marketers lack is not energy, or even talent.  They do, however, suffer a serious deficiency in discipline and rigor.

Although they know about the latest marketing trends reported in the popular business press, very few know how to use even basic statistical functions in Excel.  (See Less Numbers-More Math)

When shown research they don’t like, they are sure to ask about sample size, yet never learned how to calculate sample error.  (For those who care, a quick short-hand way to do it is just to compute 1/√N  where “N” is the sample size, which will give approximately 95% confidence).

Coming up with ideas isn’t enough, to be an effective marketer one has to search for truth even if the truth is unpleasant, or worse, dull.  Becoming married to one’s own ideas will inevitably end in disaster, even more so if one lucks into initial success. (See How Companies Fail)

Why Good Marketing Is, and Should Be, Hard

Many Cargo Cult Marketers are nice people.  Yet, I have to admit, their inability to take marketing seriously irks me. The hardest part of marketing isn’t coming up with facts or even ideas or even finding people to believe in your ideas.

What’s most difficult and what really takes effort, is to take pains to disbelieve your own ideas – to try to disprove them by finding evidence to the contrary and applying unyielding, rigorous analysis.

This isn’t always fun.  Yet marketing, like any profession, is a job.  It has responsibilities.  Marketers have an obligation to uncover and present all of the relevant truths that it is within their ability to ascertain.

Don’t believe everything you think.

– Greg

15 Responses leave one →
  1. November 2, 2009

    Another great post Greg. Thanks!
    I agree that great marketing is hard, but suggest that doing anything complex well is difficult, whether it be the latest campaign to sell one’s products or services, or designing an elegant User Interface. And yes, the thought process for most of these difficult tasks does involve a lot of tackling one’s assumptions and verifying them. It’s always easy to make an assumption (as you point out, easier than ever when you want to believe the assumption itself), and it’s never easy to take on your own mind and make it prove the statement before you work with it.
    Ah well, if it were all easy, we’d all be really good at it (whatever it is), and then there would not be any experts.
    Keep the great content rolling…

  2. November 2, 2009


    Thanks. That’s very kind of you to say.

    – Greg

  3. November 3, 2009

    I think I agree! Generally speaking, whether it is Trout or Godin, etc, there is always some interesting perspective as to the problems but rarely a solution that can be applicable to all readers.

    Take 25 individuals who suffer from hypertension and you’ll find that few, if even two, are taking the same medication. I feel that way about the marketers who profess one prescription to treat everyones’ (business/marketing) problems.

    I share your insight!

  4. M L Castellanos permalink
    November 3, 2009

    Very good opinion post. It’s utterly amazing the amount of marketeers out there that have not only fooled others once, but twice! And it keeps going. and going, and going…

  5. November 3, 2009


    Thanks. It’s an excellent point. A similar example is that if you have 100 monkeys flipping coins, a few will have exceptional success. Are they “exceptional coin flippers?”

    However, I actually put Seth Godin in a different group. He seem to focus on the marketer rather than marketing as a discipline. I don’t think he sets down rules to follow and doesn’t even try to pass himself of as an academic. There is a very clear subtext of “Hey! This is what I think and it works great for me!”

    Moreover, he actually is a success in the field of commerce so what he thinks is of more interest. He is his own case study. As far as I know, he doesn’t profess to be an expert of anything besides his own experience. His writing is clearly personal and, at least to my knowledge, doesn’t proclaim to have done any serious study, but is merely voicing his opinion.

    Ries, Trout and others I have a bigger problem with. They certainly do profess specific marketing expertise and exude a pseudo rigor. They not only proclaim, “do what I say” they also suggest that they are writing about more than their opinions.

    Jack Trout’s web site touts him as “the world’s premier marketing strategist.” Al Ries web site dubs him a “legendary marketing strategist.” Based on what products other than their books?

    However, if you look a bit closer you’ll notice their is an appalling lack of rigor. All “case studies” are appallingly one sided – no alternative explanations are discussed or other views considered. The examples are clearly chosen to support their argument.

    Moreover, I am not aware of one marketing success that that either one can claim. They do give examples where they had proposed strategies but, tellingly, they are followed by “and if they would have listened to us.”

    Even worse are the “Blue Strategy” guys who wear their academic credentials on their sleeve, but don’t seem to hold themselves to academic standards. They selectively pick out examples that fit their argument and don’t even attempt to explain evidence to the contrary.

    Where would Apple be if they followed a “Blue Ocean Strategy?” Certainly not in the business of selling music players or mobile phones. What is even more irksome is that while they are clearly advocating disruptive innovation, they don’t reference serious thinkers on the subject.

    Contrast them to Clay Christensen, who coined the term “disruptive innovation”. He not only has done serious research, he shares his data and the reader is free to draw his own conclusions. He shows his work and one can’t read “The Innovators Dilemma” without being impressed as much by his rigor as by his conclusions.

    Moreover, he points out the strategies he proposes apply in some cases but not others and clearly explains where they do not. He takes great pains to stress that he is making a prescription for specific situations.

    Finally, he describes not only successes, but also failures. He shows how blindly following his prescriptions can lead to serious problems if they are not applied in the proper context. There are no “simple solutions,” but rather techniques for understanding complex and difficult situations.

    – Greg

  6. November 3, 2009

    Excellent point. Moreover, they give the impression that marketing is about fooling people, which is not only wrong, but repulsive.

    – Greg

  7. November 3, 2009


    Thanks. Although I don’t think the “digital age” has much to do with it. Ries and Trout were publishing crap long before personal computers.

    – Greg

  8. Chris Hill permalink
    November 3, 2009

    Are we just pointing out how difficult it is to read the tea leaves and how some “marketers are liars.” haha

    So what is the short message here?

    Digital Tonto is great.

  9. November 3, 2009


    Tea leaves? I thought you were a Starbucks guy?

    – Greg

  10. November 5, 2009


  11. November 28, 2009


    I didn’t know about the writing thing and didn’t think much about the imitation without thinking angle.

    Thanks a lot for great insight!

    – Greg

  12. December 17, 2009


    Although it might be easy to categorize marketing in such a fashion as “Cargo Cult Marketers”, it might also be a disservice to characterize more than just a few folks like that.

    I agree with your premise that marketing isn’t always so straightforward but those that might fall into the “cargo cult” might be “formula” or “template” driven people. In other words, they always use the same paradigm or model to try to explain or exploit the market.

    Unfortunately, with resources so dear and product life cycles so swift, those kinds of approaches are not as flexible or relevant in today’s market drive society. Are their cargo cult marketers? Of course, but they may the novices. I hope the more seasoned a marketer is, the better able that they can avoid such logic traps.

  13. December 17, 2009


    I didn’t intend to characterize the entire industry. Most marketers, in my experience, are thoughtful and data driven. However many try to take the easy road and there is no shortage of gurus to encourage them.

    – Greg

  14. Anjuli permalink
    February 3, 2016

    I’m surprised after all these years that no-one corrected your french… “Voila!”

    Viola, is a musical instrument.

  15. February 6, 2016

    Good catch. Corrected now:-)

    – Greg

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