The illusion of control

Formulating our marketing and advertising activities from a real world perspective may lead to startling insights and revolutionary strategies. Or it may convince us that our current efforts are on the right track. Or, most likely, it will lead to a little of each.

The illusion of control
Capital Thinking | The illusion of control

Capital Thinking · Issue #806 · View online

Kurt Vonnegut wrote,

Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.”

This got me thinking. First it got me thinking about politics, economics and society. Then it got me thinking about marketing.

I’ll spare you the political, economic, and social part, but I think I may have something worth thinking about when it comes to marketing. This will be a very small dissertation with a very large ambition — to change every marketing plan in the world.

Of course, it won’t.

But if I’m right — and I think I am — it really ought to.

-Bob Hoffman


Bob Hoffman | Type A Group:

1. What If We’re Wrong?

The marketing and advertising industry, like every other industry, operates on a set of principles and assumptions. But what if some of the key principles and assumptions are wrong?

I want to present you with the thesis that some of the most widely believed tenets of our industry are wrong, and that there is an alternate way to think about what we do that may be far more productive. I believe we marketing people have created a fantasy world and have structured our endeavors, our strategies, and our activities as if the fantasies were true.

In other words, some of the principles and assumptions that we have constructed about our discipline are suspect, and consequently may be highly wasteful and misguided. This is an audacious assertion, but before you dismiss it out of hand, I hope you will hear me out.

Let’s start by defining the fantasies.

I think we have constructed a fantasy land in which brands are far more important to consumers than they actually are. In our fantasy land, consumers want to “join the conversation” about brands; they want to have “relationships” with our brands, and if we’re lucky, they experience “brand love.”

Also in our fantasies consumers want to engage with our “content,” they are hungering for “more relevant advertising,” they are attracted to advertising that is “more personalized.”

My work in the advertising industry has convinced me of the opposite.

It seems to me that most people are perfectly happy having the shallowest of connections to us. They are quite satisfied just to buy our products from time to time and then forget about us. They focus their passions on their lives, not peanut butter, pop tarts, or paper towels.

The facts of consumer behavior back this up.

The segment of a major brand’s customer group that engages with the brand in any but the most transactional way is tiny. In fact, it is infinitesimal. They buy, and move on.

For the most part, nobody cares very deeply about our pickles, our half-and-half, our mayonnaise, our cookies, our tires, our pencils, chewing gum, toothbrushes, umbrellas, dishwashers, napkins, toasters, gasoline, horseradish, dental floss, paper towels, golf balls, shoe laces, pillows, deodorants, nail clippers, furniture polish, frozen chicken strips, lamps, potting soil, bathing caps, glassware, clocks, fungicide, dish towels, cat litter, sun block, cookie dough, motor oil, light bulbs, ironing boards, fire insurance, coffee filters, pillow cases, mouthwash, vacuum cleaner bags, and shower curtains.

I’m sorry. They just don’t.

Most marketers have a hard time recognizing that while their brand is vitally important to them, it is of little consequence to their customers. If you’re a marketer and you believe people love your brand because they happen buy it, you’re kidding yourself.

As Byron Sharp has demonstrated, much of what we call “brand love” and “brand loyalty” is simply habit, convenience, mild satisfaction or easy availability. Are some consumers strongly attached to a few brands?

Sure they are. But remember, we each participate in hundreds of product categories and are strongly attached to maybe a handful of brands.

I promise you, if Pepsi would disappear tomorrow, most Pepsi “brand lovers" would switch to Coke with very little psychological damage.

Nike loyalists would throw on a pair of Adidas without having to enter rehab.

Big Mac lovers would cheerfully eat a Whopper without the need for counseling.

If your brand is not available, most of your customers will be quite content to buy another. In fact, a study by Havas Group reported that consumers would not care if 75% of the brands they use disappeared.

Your deepest desire is to be loved. But most of your customers don’t love you and never will.

Sadly, spending time and money trying to get them to love you is largely a waste of energy and resources. Even if they do “love” you, they probably don’t buy your product any more frequently than your customers who don’t “love” you (once again, see Prof. Sharp.)

Nonetheless, striving for “brand love’ is the centerpiece of many expensive marketing strategies and activities.

2. What’s Wrong With Having A Fantasy?One of the most pernicious effects of operating in fantasy mode is that it gives us the illusion that we can control things that we can’t really control.

In our fantasy land we are not just sales agents, we are “brand architects” and “cultural anthropologists” and “relationship scientists.” It seems that the more ineffective marketing becomes the more preposterous our job descriptions become.

When we believe there are large swathes of the population with whom our brand has a “personal relationship” and who are “joining conversations” about our brand because they have an emotional commitment to it, we are entering a world in which we believe our influence is far greater than it actually is.

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*Feature post photo credit: Erik Kroon on Unsplash