Why marketing is averse to new thinking.

I had a fascinating conversation this morning with Guy Dauncey, a futurist and big brain in the sustainability field. Guy is writing his latest book, a novel that projects us into the Vancouver of 2040. His vision isn’t apocalyptic – it describes how we as a civilization finally came around to embrace ‘new’, and turn it into post-fossil-fuel prosperity. Inspiring stuff, especially when the vision is supported by the science Dauncey painstakingly assembles.

I’m a marketer with a penchant for projects that, more often than not, trumpet new and sustainability. I’ve come to believe my field has a surprisingly uncomfortable relationship with new.

Why is this?

In a nutshell, new thinking scares big clients. It scares them because it may scare their consumers, and that may drive those consumers to the competition.

To avoid freaked-out consumers, big clients planning a communications campaign go through exhaustive research to gauge consumer reactions to insights, copy, layout, finished ads, everything.

Marketing has an uncomfortable relationship with new.

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Three things come out of research.

First, you get ads with all the interesting, pointy bits sanded off. If you’re testing for approval with the largest possible number of people, you’re going to have to delete things that could offend anyone. That’s a lot of cutting. What you’re left with is about as exciting as, well, 90 percent of the boring ads you ignore on your screen.

Second, research generates a stack of information the CMO can cover his or her butt with in case the campaign tanks. And, yes, they do tank on a regular basis. Remember, you’re ignoring that 90 percent of boring ads on your screen.

And the final thing that comes from big research? A big paycheck for research companies. Go figure.

This culture of caution makes big advertising feel out of touch and irrelevant. Natalie Zmuda of Advertising Age described it best in her story “Ad Campaigns Are Finally Reflecting Diversity of US”. Zmuda profiled a raft of new commercials by big brands like GM and Coke that aired during the Sochi Olympics and 2014 Super Bowl. These spots showed mixed-race families, same-sex couples, people in wheelchairs, and even, yes, Muslims.

Zmuda’s point is that while these images of diversity might be perfectly “so what?” for consumers, on Madison Avenue they were trumpeted as a great leap forward, an “All New!” in a flashing starburst. As Zmuda writes, “Marketing experts say this is the moment that historians and social commentators will likely declare a tipping point for advertising enlightenment in the years to come. But, in truth, adland is late to the game, and plenty of progress is still to be made.”

Diversity is “so what?” for consumers, but in ads it’s seen as revolutionary.

Unfortunately, despite the upheaval threatening the ad business, big agencies and their big clients aren’t going to stop the vanilla messaging madness. If anything, the more the palace gates are stormed by new ideas, the more big brands will draw the velvet curtains and retreat to the salon of low-risk thinking.

Of course, there’s a bright side. For every dinosaur, there are dozens of mammals scurrying underfoot. Upstart companies that don’t have the budget to research their communication into oblivion. Companies that have little to lose and everything to gain. Companies that are letting their fans do the communicating for them, instead of entrusting the message to big agency bureaucracy. Companies that don’t care if they alienate a few folks, as long as the consumers they want are crazy happy.

Big brands may be dabbling with diversity now. Benetton was splashing it on billboards around the world with its United Colors of Benetton campaign…in 1986.

This excerpt from Didn’t See It Coming, Marc Stoiber’s new book, first appeared in Sustainable Brands January 21st, 2015.

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