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6 Marketing Myths

2011 November 27

“I waste half of my marketing money, I just don’t know which half,” is an often repeated, mostly untrue, quote attributed to a number of people.  Nevertheless, it’s cute, so it resonates.

That’s common in marketing.  We’re good at making catchy soundbites and passing them on.  After all, we sell sizzle, not steak.  Why ruin a good story by being true to pesky little facts that just get in the way.  Boring!

Unfortunately, truth has a way of sticking around and rearing its ugly head at the most inconvenient of times, like when businesses actually expect results rather than just fast talk and snazzy PowerPoint decks.  So here’s a guide to some of the most prevalent marketing myths.  They, as well, are often repeated yet untrue.

Myth 1: Differentiate or Die

The importance of differentiation has long been taken as gospel among marketers.  You have to show a clear difference or else why would people buy your brand?  Therefore, no marketing program would be complete without a “unique selling proposition.”

Really?  How many “unique” products do you own?  Do you go out looking for products that are truly different or do you simply want to hire a product or service that will get the job done at a reasonable price?

As marketing professor Byron Sharp argues in his book, How Brands Grow,  it’s not so important to be different as it is to be distinct and recognizable.  In truth, consumers find very little difference among the brands they actively purchase. Rather, they trade off among favorites and vary their choice based on accessibility, price and whim.

This is not a new idea, but is based on on research done decades ago (and reproduced many times since then) by Andrew Ehrenberg and is called the “duplication of purchase law.”  Who woulda thunk it? They even have a law for things like that.

Myth 2: Brands Grow Through Loyal Consumers

Another prevalent misconception is that the best way to grow a brand is through consumer loyalty.  Why spend money for a one-off, so the thinking goes, when you can sell to the same customers over and over again.  Why waste money on mass media when you can have those same customers go out and proselytize for you?

Well, there is something to be said for having a product or service that people love and there’s also value in helping those consumers tell their stories through advocacy efforts. However, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to grow a brand through loyalty.

The reason is something called the double jeopardy law which says high penetration brands have higher loyalty rates, while so called “niche brands” have less loyal customers. Although somewhat counterintuitive, it is been amazingly consistent across categories for decades.  If you want to increase share, you need to build your consumer base.

That doesn’t mean that loyalty isn’t a good thing, nor does it mean that you can’t buck the curve somewhat.  What it does mean is that to grow your business, you can’t rely on the faithful, but need to find new consumers by broadcasting your message far and wide.

Myth 3: Traditional Media is Failing

With digital gaining traction, it’s become fashionable to talk about those bumbling, fumbling traditional media fat cats.  Slow and stupid, so the thinking goes, they are sure to get run over by nimbler, smarter digital upstarts.

Again, the truth is far different.  Traditional media companies remain profitable and are continuing to grow (and, as I explained in an earlier post, the much publicized red ink during the crises was due to investment write- offs, not operations).  Even the newspaper focused News Corp.’s stock is up 10% this year.

Traditional media continues to prosper for several reasons.  Firstly, 85% of marketing budgets still go to traditional media, so cash flows are still strong.  Secondly, they own powerful brands and have the experience and expertise to create content that resonates with consumers.  Finally, it turns out that those assets are just as powerful on digital platforms.

So don’t cry for those poor media moguls.  They’re doing just fine.

Myth 4: Brainstorming and SWOT Analysis

When there’s serious thinking to be done, marketers inevitably turn to the old and trusty – brainstorming and SWOT analysis.  These are time honored techniques which have been used for decades.  Surely, they must have some merit.

Well…actually not.

As this article shows, there has been longstanding evidence that brainstorming isn’t particularly effective.  As for SWOT, this article by  J. Scott Armstrong at the Wharton school cites research that shows that the method is more likely to do harm than good.  In both cases, studies refuting the methodologies has been reproduced many times, while support is non-existent.

In any case, there are much better, ways to unlock creativity.  One key aspect is focusing on and framing the problem at hand.  As Einstein said, “if I had 20 days to solve a problem, I would spend 19 days defining it.”

Myth 5: Influentials

Okay, this one is interesting.  Apparently, there are mythical people who influence everyone else.  If we can reach them, or so the thinking goes, they will go forth and multiply our marketing efforts.  Sounds great!  Unfortunately, it’s hogwash.  There is no evidence to prove that such people exists and a number of studies refute the Influentials myth.

That doesn’t mean influence doesn’t exist, there surely are people who influence us, like celebrities, doctors, investment advisers and so on.  However, if that’s what the idea was we could just call it “celebrity endorsement” or “trade marketing” and avoid the confusion.

Influence, in reality, is a function of one’s position in the network and it’s not so easy to target by individual traits. As an example, let’s take smokers.  In a number of organizational studies, smokers have been found to be a somewhat more influential than others in an office setting (if you think about it, it does make sense).

Now, in what way would you go about targeting smokers with a business proposition? Would you print ads on packaging, just above the cancer warning? Would you do away with conventional business meetings to go hang outside with the puffers? Of course not.

Interestingly, there are some good ideas about how to take influence into account, such as big seed marketing, the friendship paradox and social network analysis.  Unfortunately, they get short shrift because of all the silly talk about “Influentials.”

Myth #6: Marketing is a Science

There are many who believe that, in order to cleanse marketing of superstitious beliefs, we should treat marketing as a science and act only on what we can quantify and prove.  As I’ve written before, that is also a myth.  We work in a rapidly changing context and therefore must make judgments based on limited information.

However, it shouldn’t be a cult either, in which we blindly follow charismatic gurus without taking a modicum of effort to check our facts.  Marketing is a profession and should be informed by science whenever possible.  It’s not enough to tell a good story, we also need to get our story straight.

What’s striking about the previous five myths is how easily they are debunked, some were disproven decades ago.  Nevertheless, they’re still around and probably will be for decades to come.  In scientific terms, it’s as if we still believe in a flat earth.

However, as Albert Camus argued, the only acceptable response to the absurd is revolt.  We can help dispel myths by bringing them to light.  Please feel free the share the myths you love to hate (along with the evidence that refutes them) in the comments below.

– Greg

4 Responses leave one →
  1. November 28, 2011

    Thanks Greg – insightful as ever… And particularly relevant this morning as I start work on two new client campaigns!

  2. November 28, 2011

    Thanks Simon. Have a great week!

    – Greg

  3. November 29, 2011

    Sadly, I still observe a lot of waste in marketing by virtue of inappropriate choices. For example, I’ve seen a restaurant ad on a trash can (a connection I’d prefer to avoid) and on a grocery store register tape. Really? Why didn’t you speak to me *before* I forked over all this money at the grocery store?
    BTW, that quote is from John Wanamaker, a late 1800s department store mogul. He said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” It was actually on my website until I put a temporary page up while I redesign.
    Thank goodness today we have ways to track ROI. It’s a shame more marketers don’t employ the tools available to do so.
    I enjoy your intelligent, thought-provoking posts!
    Carole Holden
    “The Media Fairy”
    Gelmtree Advertising

  4. November 29, 2011

    Thanks Carole. Yes, I’ve heard John Wanamaker among others. Who really knows?


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