Modern Marketing Myopia: is marketing losing perspective?

If ‘Marketing Myopia’ was an over-focus on products vs consumer needs, its modern variant is an over-focus on the present vs the past, present & future, that puts us in danger of losing sight of the bigger picture for our brands.

In 1960, Harvard Business School professor Theodore Levitt’s article ‘Marketing Myopia’ described a damaging problem in business: a nearsighted focus on selling products rather than taking a bigger picture view of what customers really want. He argued for organisations to define their categories and competition more broadly around customer needs, famously summing it all up in the mantra “people don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole”. His article became an HBR classic, perhaps the most influential marketing article of all time [1].

Since then customer-orientation has become a central tenet of marketing. You can see it in subsequent big ideas such as ‘product-market fit’ and Clayton Christiansen’s ‘jobs to be done’. It’s there in every bland statement of corporate values, and writ large in Amazon’s vision “to be Earth’s most customer-centric company”. Everyone claims to be customer-centric now.

High profile business failures like those of Blockbuster and Kodak often have marketing myopia as a cause.

But whilst marketing myopia, with its roots in the manufacturing age, hasn’t been eradicated, the ubiquity of the idea of customer-centricity has probably helped reduce its mortality rate over the last sixty years.

Now, though, we may be suffering from a new, and maybe more prevalent strain. Let’s call it Modern Marketing Myopia. If the first strain originated around the production lines of the industrial age, the second originated around the lines of code of the digital one.

What is Modern Marketing Myopia?

Marketing today has got vastly more myopic than Levitt could possibly have imagined. If marketing myopia is an over-focus on products vs consumer needs, modern marketing myopia is an over-focus on the present vs the past, present and future. A narrow, inward-looking and apparently precise view of the now, that blocks out bigger views encompassing broader horizons. A focus on the microscopic that means we’re in danger of completely missing the bigger story for our brands.

It means obsessing over the data, spreadsheets, dashboards, and slack channels immediately in front of our noses, the apparatus and busyness of the modern working environment, at the exclusion of the less visible, harder to quantify and predict, but more real worlds of our customers. 

Having modern marketing myopia means not lifting your head up to look out at the real worlds and lives of real people. It means a blindness to or lack of curiosity for the real human stories behind the data. It means seeing numbers in spreadsheets as ends in themselves, not as signals and proxies for the behaviours, thoughts and feelings of living, breathing people. It means not even questioning whether the data actually represents real humans or real activity, despite the vast amount of ad fraud happening today. It means overstating the value of information immediately in front of us and understating the value of information that’s harder or slower to get hold of, including qualitative, ethnographic, brand or econometric data. It means not looking ahead by defining a north star for your brand or a compelling vision of the future. It means not thinking about how to enable that future by investing in the right people and training, especially in marketing’s history and fundamentals.

File:It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong. John Maynard Keynes, 1883-1946 -en.svg

John Maynard Keynes famously said “it is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong”. One danger with modern marketing myopia is that it reduces the chances of us being roughly right, and massively increases the chances of us being precisely wrong.

But its greatest danger, just like the original strain, is that it limits growth potential because it blinds us to future opportunity.

How did we get here?

By not learning the fundamentals

There’s not enough training going on in the core marketing principles today [2]. New, specialist tactics tend to get a much greater share of training budgets and time. Technology has opened up new creative and media tactics to everyone. The democratisation of marketing in this way is hugely exciting, but it places more and more of our focus in terms of training on tactical capabilities at the expense of the fundamentals.

By prizing agility over strategy

The methods of agile software development have made their mark on every corner of modern business including marketing. It’s a way of working that, when applied to marketing, often seems to favour trial and error over long-term, top-down strategic planning. It’s led to a world where marketing and communications strategies are less likely to be defined and agreed upon, and that’s a world where people will focus solely on their specialisms, rather than connecting what they do up to a bigger, more macro strategy, with bigger, longer term goals.

By marketers thinking they’re in sales 

Marketing’s primary responsibility is influencing saleability, creating the conditions for sale, not being responsible for the sale itself. But many marketers today seem to fixate on the precise moment of sale at the expense of thinking more broadly about their role in influencing saleability in the weeks, months and sometimes years up to (and after) that point.

By over-stating the sales-driving role of digital ads

We tend to over-state the role digital advertising plays in directly driving sales, and under-play its role in driving saleability. Brand search often gets more credit than it’s due, when it can be more of a navigation aid for sales that were likely to happen anyway [3]. Attribution modelling can massage digital channels’ direct contribution to sales, and longer term, bigger picture measurement like MMM remains rare. We’ve always been guilty of thinking advertising is a strong, rather than a weak force [4], and we’re continuing to make that mistake with digital. So the brand-building, longer-term role it plays is under-measured, under-reported and under-valued. Digital has in some ways been mis-sold as a sales tool, when it’s really a marketing tool.

On the positive side it means there’s still a huge opportunity to explore the role digital channels can and do play in brand-building. There’s a huge need for a robust body of cross-platform evidence on this, rather than just case studies or single platform studies.

By making the media landscape so complicated 

The complexity of the modern media landscape and the proliferation of platforms and channels means we need more specialists than ever to understand and deploy them, which inevitably means more spreadsheets and dashboards and more silos. We need more generalists to balance things out, to represent the macro view in this increasingly micro world. One of the roles played by brand and media planning at Jellyfish is exactly this: to connect up the huge variety of specialist tactics we have available, help paint the bigger picture, and to help brands navigate the platform world our brands now operate in.

By becoming addicted to data

We have a huge amount of data available today, especially real time data, and we’ve developed an addiction for it. The instant gratification and addictive rush of dopamine when you receive likes in your personal social media is well-known; real time marketing data is bound to have a similar effect on us in a professional context. Seeing immediate results is now easy and highly rewarding; having the patience to wait a few weeks or months for slow gains in brand metrics or for an econometrics debrief is hard in comparison.

And perhaps the ‘availability bias’ is kicking in here, which means if something is more readily recalled, our subconscious assigns it extra significance [5]. So regardless of how much it actually matters to the success of our brands, the easy availability of certain kinds of data means our minds confer on it a greater importance than it may actually deserve. Combine this with a decline in marketing strategy and I suspect this all leads to a focus on speed rather than on velocity – speed in a specific direction – direction towards a bigger goal.

Someone asked me recently if marketers are using enough data in their decision-making. For me the issue isn’t quantity, but quality of data and quality of interpretation. It only took 4kb’s of data to put humans on the moon, so I’m pretty sure we don’t actually need the vast amounts of data we now have at our disposal to nudge people to choose our brands. We just need more people who can see the human stories within it and do smart, creative things with it.

How do you know if you’ve got it?

Ask yourself or your team these 10 questions. The fewer yeses you get, the higher the chances:

Do you or your team get training in the marketing fundamentals, and have you read any Sharp or Kotler?

Do you really know your consumers, the worlds and their needs (and not just from what a tiny % post online)?

Do you have a north star that your team and everyone beyond marketing are aiming towards?

Do you stick to your guns even when the numbers don’t look right from one day to the next?

Do you know how your campaigns work to drive both sales overnight & brand over time?

Do your creative people think in terms of ideas and campaigns, or are they just ‘filling in rectangles’?

Does everyone on your team actually know all the ads you’re running, and where?

Do you know how many people actually see your campaigns and how often?

Do you know what people think and feel as a result of your marketing activity (not just what a few do instantly)? 

Do you know the 3-5 ‘metrics that matter’ from the tonne of data you collect?

Prevention & treatment

We all need to look back more, look up and around us more, look forward more. We need to make deliberate attempts to rebalance the importance we assign to data that is less easily available and less frequently collected. We need to put firmer stakes in the ground around the metrics that actually matter. We need to evaluate activity across every time horizon, not just the shortest. We need to train people better.

And what if we in digital marketing companies actually also have Levitt’s Marketing Myopia?

Digital marketing companies often suffer from the modern variant. But what if we’re also suffering from the original strain? Defining ourselves by the products we sell (technology, media, analytics, content, creative) or worse, promising to deliver them faster, better, cheaper?

As a category we need to recognise we’re not in the digital or technology business, and make sure we frame what we do in terms of what our clients, the brands, actually want, which is growth. Then there’s a better chance our own impressive growth trajectory will continue.


[1] https://hbr.org/2004/07/marketing-myopia

[2] Mark Ritson’s Mini MBA courses are a brilliant exception https://mba.marketingweek.com/

[3] Here’s a great article by econometrician Dr Grace Kite founder of Magic Numbers, on the signposting role played by some search ads http://magicnumbers.co.uk/articles/the-two-tasks-for-online-ads/

[4] Here’s a great article on how advertising is a weak not a strong force by the brilliant Martin Weigel of Wieden+Kennedy https://www.martinweigel.org/blog/2013/04/08/weakness-with-consequence-why-marketing-is-like-gravity

[5] Availability bias or heuristic https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Availability_heuristic

6 replies on “Modern Marketing Myopia: is marketing losing perspective?”

Great insights as always Tom. “Believing” in brand sometimes feels like a religion vs the “science” of digital data. So what we need is “scientific” short-term data points which show that the brand-building efforts are having an effect – leading indicators. What would you recommend? Share of search?

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Great article/Synopsis. Several good points. Makes me think about how many marketers in the digital world focus on eyeballs/QUANTITY, and not more so the QUALITY of interaction with end consumer.

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