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Why Marketing Rules Are Useless

2010 January 26

We like to have rules.

Rules make it easy for us, they absolve us of responsibility.  With a little bit of work, we can learn the rules and apply them.  If we can show that we’re following them, we can prove that we’re doing our jobs.  Unfortunately, we won’t be doing them very well.

For a system of rules to be effective, it would have to be verifiable, internally consistent and complete.  Unfortunately, that is a logical impossibility.  Effective management isn’t about following rules, it’s about showing good judgment in the face of uncertainty.

The Verification Principle

I think everybody would agree that rules need to be logical in order to be followed.  We must be able to see that a situation fits a certain set of facts to do what the rule says we should do.  Logicians call this the Verification Principle.

To see how it works, let’s look at a set of basic statements:

  1. The President of the United States is the head of the US government.
  2. The President of the United States is Barack Obama.
  3. The President of the United States is black.
  4. The President of the United States is in Seattle.
  5. The President of the United States is a bad man.

The first statement is a tautology.  We are merely stating an identity.   The two entities are inseparable and can be used interchangeably.

The next three statements extend the definition, but are logical in that they can be verified.  We can check election results, travel schedules, go to the Oval office, etc.  In effect, we can determine whether they are true or false.

The last statement, however, is logically nonsensical.  It is certainly not a definition and doesn’t correspond to a specific “state of affairs.”  It is an opinion, not a fact.

Logical Marketing Statements


The above example isn’t very practical.  So let’s look at some statements that we would more commonly see in business and see how they would apply to the simple rule:  “increase the ad budget when awareness is low.”

  1. Our brand awareness is low.
  2. Our spontaneous brand awareness consistently trails our competitors by 5 percentage points
  3. Our aided brand awareness consistently trails our competitors by 10 percentage points
  4. The awareness that our products are “good quality” has fallen by 8 percentage points over the last three surveys.
  5. Our brand awareness is low because sales are low.

The first statement would allow us to follow the rule, but it’s logically nonsensical, it is an opinion rather than a fact.

The middle three statements are verifiable, but the rule doesn’t actually apply.  If we verify them, then we would still have to determine that they meet the definition of “low” and that would require making a judgment.

The last statement is especially problematic.  It is not a statement, but rather an argument based on two nonsensical statements.   You are not only stating two opinions, but also the opinion that there is a causal relationship between them.

Wittgenstein’s Paradox

Many would look at the above and just conclude that we need better rules.  However, Ludwig Wittgenstein famously argued that we will always have the problem.

He gave an example of a number series:

1, 5, 11, 19, 29…

One might conclude that we have a rule to follow: n² + n – 1. However, another might conclude that the rule is to subtract one from a series of even numbers, 2, 6, 12, 20, 20.   So who’s following the right rule?

In reality, we have no way of knowing whether a rule is being followed because any rule will eventually lend itself to different actions.  That’s Wittgenstein’s Paradox.

The Paradox in Action

Many would argue that it doesn’t really matter as long as they are getting the same answer, but if people are following different rules, we’ll run into trouble eventually..

Let’s take an example of a rule where when a manager gives an order and asks whether it is being understood, the subordinate nods and says “yes”.  Later, when the manager finds out that his instructions were ignored he’s furious.  He feels that the rule was broken.

However, the nod was meant to acknowledge authority, not understanding.  The rule of “nod if you understand” gave the same answer as “nod to acknowledge greater authority.” (This example is actually maddeningly realistic, especially when managing across cultures.)

The Unbearable Reality of Judgment

As professionals, our value is not in our ability to follow rules, but to show good judgment.  Computers can follow rules, but only people can make interpret value.  Unfortunately, sometimes people are right and sometimes people are wrong.

That’s the meaning of responsibility.

– Greg

15 Responses leave one →
  1. January 26, 2010


    Awesome piece! I love the “Paradox in Action” segment. Totally reminded me of my time I spent teaching in northern Namibia. The cultural “rule” is that you don’t question elders (authority). So when teachers asked students “do you understand”, after a lesson, they said “yes.” They didn’t understand A THING as it pertained to what was just taught, but they nodded their heads (as you mentioned) to acknowledge greater authority. Awareness of this for me was an invaluable lesson in understanding a symptom as to why “progress” wasn’t happening. I think your distinction is highly relevant and valuable. I very much agree with you on rules. My cousin who’s had his own marketing firm for years always says that each business’ issues and challenges are situational. Often you can’t just apply “marketing rules” on many occasions you have to make judgements. Again great post.

  2. January 26, 2010


    Thanks. Anyone who has experienced the nodding thing never forgets it.

    What I also like is Wittgenstein’s solution to the problem. He says that you just need to find a way to communicate (in his terminology – a new language game) and not try to codify it. Communication is in the eye of the beholder:-)

    – Greg

  3. January 26, 2010

    Hi Greg,

    As always, a great post! We’ve discussed before that it’s all about relationships. About listening more than talking, about asking questions that help define both the problem and the solution.

    Too many advertising and marketing folks think it’s about the next best thing or the “cool” tactic of the month. It’s not. It’s about really wanting to help the client reach their potential while understanding how to reach their customers. That’s why we call it micromarketing. At WDFA Marketing we pare down to where the client’s customers live, work and play. We don’t make assumptions, we use real data and our client’s experience to figure it all out. Rules? Don’t have many here – Be honest, be reliable, be present.

    It’s working for me.


  4. January 26, 2010


    Nice to see you again. Great points!

    – Greg

  5. January 26, 2010

    Regardless of the role that we are charged with in an organization, rules are the justification of our existence. As Rasul stated, business is situational and a “cookie-cutter” approach does not apply. While I understand the need for rules, I also understand the importance of drilling down to firmly understand the problem(s) and the appropriate solution(s), rather than applying a punch list that was created to address all situations.

    I had to laugh when you referenced nodding and our assumption that it was a gesture of understanding. When I was in an international role at a previous Firm I learned the hard way that not everyone communicates the same way! Great post 🙂

  6. January 27, 2010


    Good points. Even in purely mathematical systems, rules can either be complete or consistent – not both.

    – Greg

  7. January 27, 2010

    Dear Greg,

    Refreshing article. I liked the way you presented your points.

    There is one rule that, I think, you did ignore:

    Your links should open to another tab/page and not replace your page. Example are the links to ‘Ludwig Wittgenstein’ and ‘Wittgenstein’s Paradox’ pages on Wikipedia. I should be able to click those links without leaving your page.

    Your article highlights the essence of the paradigm: ‘There are three types of lies – lies, damn lies AND STATISTICS’.

    Most poeple choose to interpret statistics in a way that resonates with the point they are trying to pass accross (which may or may not be correct) or to tickle the ears of their audiences (bosses inclusive).

    I believe that some marketing rules are useful. I also believe that, in marketing, one has to be streetwise and seek to learn more about what works… and what works better. This is where technology plavs a big role.

    Unfortunately. some marketing people are not awake to these realities and some of such people are still calling the shots in some organizations.

    Please do I have your permission to reference your work in my blog?

    (Another) Greg

  8. January 27, 2010


    Good point about the links. I’ll work on that (but for now, right click).

    Guidelines can be useful, but at the end of the day you have to use your judgment.

    Thanks for your comment, both here and on LI.

    – Greg

  9. January 27, 2010


    Thanks for getting me off my ass. The links are fixed and I now know how to do it for the future:-)

    – Greg

  10. March 14, 2010

    Hi Greg,
    Great article. In my opinion,the only place for rules – aka “Street Lights and Stop Signs” is when driving a car.
    In business, I think the successful are the ones who broke the rules – just a little!
    The “nod” is a tough one because it is very hard to say to an adult -“can you please repeat what I just said so I know you understand me” without insulting them.
    But after-all, my husband broke every rule and won me – lucky guy!:-)

  11. March 14, 2010

    Yes, he is:-)


    – Greg

  12. March 23, 2010

    Greg- this one is a head scratcher for me. Aren’t rules simply useful? For example one of my rules is “trust the numbers” because I have found that we all tend to make excuses to explain away numbers we don’t like and we tend to allow anxieties and wishful thinking to color our judgment – I have seen “judgmental factors,’ particularly in forecasts more often lead to larger margins of error than consistently applied rules. I am trying to see how Wittgenstein’s Paradox would help me design a bridge for instance.

  13. March 23, 2010


    Designing a bridge takes an enormous amount of judgment and you wouldn’t want to build one by rules alone. That’s why bridges are built by novice engineers but experienced ones and are stress tested.

    – Greg

  14. walter daniels permalink
    July 30, 2010

    One of the reasons that rules don’t work, is an inadequate understanding of the basic laws behind the rules, or in how to apply the rules. A number of years ago, while on the Internet advertising list, I suddenly understood how Advertising, Marketing and Sales actually work together, after studying them for a long time.
    It took me a few more years of dealing with pain and medication, to finally put it on paper. Of course, being rear ended by a PU truck doing 30 MPH on 12/4/2000, severely injuring my back, had something to do with it. Now, I have a book in final stages, explaining how to use my insight.
    Basically, Advertising is the process of announcing to the world that you have a solution to a very general problem. Example, Ford makes cars, trucks and vans, for transportation.
    Marketing is being more selective in what solutions are being offered. The Ford dealer usually offers car vans, or rarely cars and trucks. This is a the more specific solution to the transportation need.
    Finally, Sales is a specific solution to the transportation need. Here the customer is offered the specific answer, whether it’s a car, truck, or van. Completed by choosing the particular color, options and type that fills the need.
    Once these connections are understood and properly applied, they can all work together more efficiently. By understanding that it is not a series of discrete choices, but points along a continuum that have to work together.

  15. July 30, 2010

    Thanks, Walter. Best of luck with the book!

    – Greg

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