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  • Writer's picturePaul McCabe

Does Marketing Have an Image Problem?

Marketing people, departments and agencies serve as the primary source of creative problem-solving ability for most organisations.

That is not to say every marketing project achieves such a big impact, or even that all those that do make a net-positive impact on the world. Like any powerful force, marketing can be used for good or for evil, but what’s undoubted is its ability to make something out of nothing.

Marketing: A powerful, but misunderstood force

Brand reputation makes up 84% of the market value of S&P 500 businesses. The companies behind the most awarded marketing campaigns every year average +26.1% stock market growth vs the +7.5% average. Different strategies in the domain of marketing can multiply profitability by 12x (creativity has the largest effect). There can be no doubt that good, creative, well-executed marketing works.

Out in the wider world, marketers aren’t particularly popular. In 2018, Brits ranked Advertising Executives as the least trustworthy profession behind politicians, estate agents and bankers.

In the news too, mentions of marketing are mostly negative. These range from the banal – such as Facebook passing off an ALL CAPS logo change as a rebrand – to the more serious, like VW Germany drawing accusations of racism. Then you get to the downright sinister world of political advertising, where Cambridge Analytica and accusations of Russian bots on Facebook impacting elections came to the fore.

How did this happen?

How did an industry whose sole job it is to build and promote reputations end up so distrusted? How did marketing get to the stage that it only hits the headlines when a minority get things very wrong?

Part of it might be that ads simply aren’t as good as they used to be. Since the 90s, consumers (in the UK at least) have been telling us that ads are getting worse all the time.

But that can’t be the whole story. For one, we know from the stats that there is still plenty of creative, well-liked and effective marketing going on out there. For another, if the work is getting consistently worse, there must be a reason.

The psychology of playing it safe

The science of how marketing works is counterintuitive. In the corporate world, it can take some real brass to forgo any product messaging and create a marketing campaign that is just a gorilla playing the drums (Cadbury) or some moody black and white imagery of people surfing (Guiness). Even though, as Cadbury and Guinness have demonstrated, that’s often the best way forward. If you do that and it doesn’t work, you’ve got to explain to your boss why you didn’t put a single explicit reason to buy in your campaign.

Guinness’s ‘Surfer’ ad by AMV BBDO is generally lauded as one of the best adverts ever and contains no product claim whatsoever.

On the contrary, if you create an ad that rationally explains how great your product is and that doesn’t work very well, it’s much easier to put the bad performance down to other factors. Logically, it seems like you did all the right things.

Marketing is a business not of communication, but of telling-you-why-you-should-do-something. That’s much narrower and ignores a whole load of value that professional communicators could add to a business (or even Government health guidance during a pandemic).

There has been a renewed focus in marketing on figuring out exactly how what we do works and challenging conventional wisdom in the name of making our work more effective. We’ve never known as much about how to make great marketing as we do now.

Unfortunately, rather than pushing the discussion around evidenced-based marketing (or just getting on with making great work), some marketers seem intent on clinging to old or unhelpful ways of thinking.

Let’s not go back to normal

The world is hopefully starting to leave COVID-19 lockdown, no longer in the depths of the crisis, but not out of it either. Talk throughout has been about ‘normal’. When will we go back to normal? Will we ever have our same ‘normal’ ever again? All of it assumes that our old normal was a good thing, the best we can hope for. But we should do better.

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