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

“I’ve never heard of Jellyfish.”

When I told people I was starting a new job at Jellyfish, people asked loads of questions. The most common from creative agency people was ‘who are Jellyfish?’. From people who knew little more than the name, it was ‘why’s a brand person like you going to a performance agency?’. But from those in the know, there was a sense of intrigue: ‘Now that’s interesting – what are they planning?’.

So a couple of months in, I thought I’d share some answers, some observations about the fascinating new world I’m now in, and what it’s making me think about the future of the industry.

Intro’s and origins

I myself hadn’t heard of Jellyfish until someone senior at Google introduced me to Jellyfish’s VP of Creative. This Googler couldn’t have been more effusive, saying Jellyfish is the only company in the world they’d want to work at besides Google.

It’s undeniable that Jellyfish’s brand awareness lags its impressive business performance, which stands at +45% growth on average every year for the last 8 years. Word has spread via people in the know, and new clients have tended to come in more through referrals than through the inefficient business of pitching. And like many digital-first marketing companies, its output often doesn’t have brand fame as an objective, so can’t always be the shop window that it is for pure-play creative and media agencies. Which partly explains why Jellyfish is currently more ‘trade secret’ than darling of the trade press. Whilst plans are afoot to solve the brand awareness issue, it’s an approach that doesn’t appear to have held back growth to date.

Jellyfish was founded by a group of individuals from outside adland, with zero attachment to how agencies worked in the past, and who had nothing to do with the creation or maintenance of the increasingly creaky holding company model. Just smart, entrepreneurial business people, with an ambition to build, from the ground up, the kind of company clients and partners want to work with and people want to work at.

Appropriately for a company that’s in the business of digital marketing transformation, Jellyfish’s own origin story is itself one of transformation – from its roots as an IT consultancy in Reigate, UK, via its evolution into a performance marketing company, to its current incarnation, a new breed of global marketing services company with over 2000 people and 40 offices globally.

Jellyfish is injecting new DNA into the marketing services industry. The London agencies of the 20th century can mostly be traced back to a handful of Soho shops of the 60’s [1], but Jellyfish has no connection to Soho, or its US equivalent, Madison Avenue. It isn’t an adaptation of adland’s existing DNA; it’s a completely new bloodline. 

In fact Jellyfish’s growth has perhaps only been possible because of, not in spite of, its existence outside marketing’s establishment. And it’s growing fast – it’s currently hiring for 266 roles, has new offices opening all the time, and only a couple of weeks ago announced 5 new acquisitions of creative and content businesses [2].

Rob Pierre, Jellyfish’s CEO, doesn’t just want to build a better marketing services company – he’s on record as saying he wants it to be the blueprint for the world’s best organisation, full stop.

But what is Jellyfish really?

Because it’s part of a new category of company for which the industry hasn’t yet settled on a common descriptor, and because it’s evolving and transforming all the time, it can be hard to categorise. Jellyfish doesn’t call itself an agency or consultancy, instead describing itself as a ‘digital partner’.

When the Drum recently published a list of the most admired ‘digital agencies’ in the UK, Jellyfish was named No. 2. But the pure play creative agencies I’ve worked at also came out well (no. 40, 10 and 3 respectively), which shows the term ‘digital agency’ is too broad to be a useful descriptor today, now the majority of marketing communication is in some way digital.

Martin Sorrell’s definition of S4 Capital as “a communications business for the new marketing age” is also true of Jellyfish, and that’s helpful language as it points to a new category of company, of which S4 Capital and Jellyfish are two global front-runners, but this is also really broad.

Jellyfish plans and buys media, but it’s not a media agency. It does digital transformation consultancy, but it’s not a consultancy. It has serious expertise in the adtech platforms, but it’s not an adtech company. It makes creative content and advertising, but it’s not an ad agency. It does performance marketing but it’s not a performance marketing agency. (Performance agencies don’t tend to win Emmys, as our organic social creative team did last year for their work for Netflix [3]).

Importantly Jellyfish isn’t a holding company. It has one exceptionally unified organisational structure with a single global P&L, and every effort is made to make each acquisition or new hire feel like part of one global company from day one. Jellyfish only does things if they’re scalable – if it can’t productise a service and scale it globally then it won’t offer it. CEO Rob Pierre describes his vision for the growth of Jellyfish’s organisational structure and culture being ‘a vector image not a jpeg’ – so that regardless of how big it grows and no matter what your vantage point, every part looks and feels like Jellyfish, meaning no new component will add complexity, weaken its structural integrity or water down its cultural unity.

And whilst it’s not an agency, I’m told Jellyfish’s bar in the London offices on two floors high up in the Shard (which I’ve yet to visit but will be my home), has the best view of any agency bar in London. Which I suspect will make it pretty popular with agency types when word gets out.

So why am I at Jellyfish?

  1. To experience growth

I’ve worked in large network creative agencies for around 20 years. When I started at AMV BBDO in 2000 there were still Aston Martin’s and Ferrari’s parked in the basement car park, the last visible trace of adland’s glory days. But for much of this time, this part of the ad industry has struggled to adapt to the arrival of the adtech platforms. So despite being all about delivering growth to its clients, it’s been having trouble delivering growth for itself.

The big agencies of the 20th century got big by being the best at partnering with the big marketers of that era – P&G, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Ford etc. The big names of the 21st century will get big by being the best at partnering with the big platforms and brands of this one. In fact quite a few of the new platforms have themselves been early adopters of Jellyfish as clients – businesses like Google, Netflix, ebay, Uber, Spotify and TikTok.

Despite having huge love and respect for where I’ve come from, I’m not ashamed to admit to wanting to work in a company that’s growing fast – as fast as many of the platforms it partners.

  1. To learn & practice modern marketing strategy

I can’t claim to be an expert like many at Jellyfish in how to use the platforms to help brands grow, but I’m very excited to learn for my own personal growth.

Jellyfish has a significant digital marketing training business for both clients and partners (you can take a look at and even book courses here), with the first of its two floors in the Shard devoted to it. This world-class training capability is already helping ease my transition.

Strategy (or brand planning as Jellyfish call it) is a relatively recent but fast-growing capability. Alongside media strategy, we help connect up these specialisms and deliver unified marketing strategies across them. Strengthening our brand planning function means that, when the time is right for specific clients who want us to take strategic leadership on their business, we’ll be even more ready to do so. And as digital marketers are probably better known for their mastery of tactics than strategy, the brand planning team here are firmly committed to helping digital marketers up their strategic game, especially around helping people get back to basics and learn marketing’s fundamental principles. 

  1. To help bridge brand & performance

I wrote a blog post last year called the ‘Wrong and the short of it’ [4], which talked about the power of combining brand & performance, a theme which Mark Ritson subsequently termed ‘Best of Bothism’. It was written out of frustration with the persistent division between brand and performance marketing and a feeling that only by ending it will be able to unlock the full potential of the modern marketing toolkit.

Jellyfish is set up to do just this. It bridges all of marketing’s big divides and has all the components of the modern marketing machine sitting happily together under one roof: media & content, technology & creativity, brand & performance, data & ideas, agency & consultancy. Others may possess some of the component parts, but Jellyfish’s structure and culture could give it an advantage.

  1. To help make more effective digital marketing

We’re as aware as anyone of how bad a lot of digital marketing communication is creatively and therefore how poorly some of it works. While Mark Ritson, Bob Hoffman and others are fighting the air war against ineffective digital ads, we’re helping fight the ground war – trying to make them better in practice.

And we’re just as happy optimising creative assets made by a client in-house or by another agency as we are originating our own. Regardless of where it comes from we just want the work to work brilliantly across every platform. We know the brand and its objectives; we know the platforms and the algorithms; we know the audience’s behaviour on the platforms; we just want our clients’ brands to perform on them to their fullest potential.

  1. To be a part of the future

Whilst the holding companies may be finding it tough right now, small, independent creative agencies seem to be doing well. They’re getting on ever larger pitch lists and some are winning very large global creative origination briefs, for which they may not have the scale, technology or even inclination, to handle the creative asset adaptation, deployment and optimisation required. 

So perhaps in the future the marketing communications landscape could comprise two types of company: 1) Lead strategic partners who manage the on-going business of media planning, deployment and creative optimisation across the platforms; 2) Specialist creative agencies and studios whose role is to create new assets to challenge those currently being deployed. A ‘Champion vs Challenger’ model rather than ‘Media vs Creative’ model. A future where smaller pure-play creative agencies and larger companies like Jellyfish happily coexist in symbiosis.

So what exactly am I going to be doing at Jellyfish?

Two months here has confirmed much of what I thought was happening in the industry and is teaching me loads more.

Little did I know when I arrived that within a few weeks of arriving I’d have helped create a brand strategy and new video and display campaign for a new social networking app, been through a round of optimisations on it, helped revise the copy in the app stores in line with the new strategy to help it perform better with both humans and the app stores’ algorithms. I’ve written about bringing brand and performance closer together, and am now learning what that can actually mean.

I’m applying my existing strategy skills to client business. I’m trying to help bridge the divide between brand and performance. I’m trying to help make digital campaigns that are more visible, impactful and effective. And I’m going to continue to write about marketing and creative effectiveness, but from a fresh perspective.

If you’ve made it this far you may have picked up from this that I’m genuinely excited about the future – Jellyfish’s future, the future of marketing and the part Jellyfish can play in shaping it.

Please do get in touch if it’s a future you’d like to be a part of.

Or even apply for one of 266 new roles at Jellyfish here: https://apply.workable.com/jellyfish-group-ltd/


[1] The original agencies from the mid 19th century to the 1920s all grew up around Fleet Street and the Newspaper industry. The next wave moved to 1960s Soho with its connection to the film and TV production worlds following the advent of commercial TV in the mid 50s. So agencies tend to arrive in waves, following shifts in the dominant media industry of the age. The digital age unsurprisingly has fewer geographical ties, which means the next wave of agencies can start anywhere, even Reigate. https://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/history-advertising-no-155-soho/1373263

[2] https://www.jellyfish.com/en-gb/news-insights/jellyfish-acquires-5-companies-fueling-global-expansion-with-new-digital-capabilities

[3] https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/social-life-part-of-the-jellyfish-group-wins-first-emmy-for-work-on-netflix-series-big-mouth-301134971.html

[4] https://thetomroach.com/2020/11/15/the-wrong-and-the-short-of-it/

With apologies to AMV BBDO, The Economist, and the late David Abbott, perhaps the greatest British copywriter of all time, for the desecration of their ‘”I never read The Economist.” Management Trainee. Aged 42.’ poster, the first execution in their much-loved, long-running and highly effective campaign.

Scaling up without screwing up

When scale-ups consider using TV advertising for the first time, it’s a decision that can be riven with uncertainty. So here’s some advice and data to help, including a new analysis of the performance of 550 TV ads by 200 new-to-TV brands by System1 Group. It reveals some lessons for scale-ups and a worrying problem: techniques common in the production of online video could be limiting the effectiveness of new TV advertisers’ ads.

Deciding to use TV advertising for the first time can be a remarkably emotional decision. It’s often a natural next step for scale-ups needing to reach a much wider audience to take their growth to the next level. But concerns about TV’s cost, effectiveness, accountability, the need to hire agencies, even a marketing team’s lack of experience can come to the fore, making it feel like one of the riskiest decisions in a brand’s early life.

New brands can go through a phase when they see the success of their performance marketing level off. They may see increasing customer acquisition costs and decreasing efficiency of their acquisition channels as they reach saturation point. Layering in mass reach advertising can help them achieve a step-change in growth, as illustrated in the chart below by econometrician Dr Grace Kite and me.

Using TV at this point is not the only choice of course, and I’m not someone who believes no brand has ever been built without it. But I suspect many brands reach this decision point, consider the pros and cons, but choose not to go for it, for a whole host of reasons, some perfectly rational, some less so.

We’re all susceptible to our perceptions of TV as an advertising channel being shaped by what we hear in the mass and business media, which is often that it’s ‘dead’ or ‘dying’, and there’s not much any of us can do about that regardless of the hyperbolic nature of those kinds of claims. But a common problem that we can do something about is conflating our own media behaviours with our audience’s, resulting in that persistent fallacy, ‘no-one watches TV any more do they?’

Live TV viewing is certainly declining dramatically, especially amongst younger audiences, but the total reach of all kinds of TV – whether live, recorded, or broadcaster VOD, being viewed on devices and screens of every size and type, has actually remained remarkably stable over the last decade in the UK. In 2019 it was still reaching virtually everyone in the UK every week – 95.5% of all adults and 91% of all 16-34s every week, even when you exclude the subscription platforms[i].

And in terms of all the video advertising people are exposed to in a day, TV advertising still accounts for by far the largest proportion people are exposed to – 93% of the video ads that the average person sees in the UK, and 84% of the video ads younger people see, are TV ads. That’s 18mins of video ads a day in the UK on average, and 12mins for 16-34s. So TV advertising’s still very much alive, it’s digital, and it’s having babies.

You also hear people saying TV ‘doesn’t work anymore’. In fact, TV remains the most effective growth-driving channel overall, the most effective in the longer term, and the second most effective in the first two weeks of a campaign, according to ‘Demand Generation’, a study commissioned by Thinkbox and conducted by Mediacom, Wavemaker and the econometrics agency, Gain Theory, which looked at how different channels contribute to sales, and over what timescale their effects happen[ii].

And not only is TV still the most effective channel overall, but it can have the greatest incremental impact of any channel on all your other channels too – on average it can boost the impact of your generic search by +8%, your online video and VOD by +20%, and your paid social by +31%.

Monzo bank, for example, having at launch claimed not to believe in any kind of paid advertising, decided to use TV for the first time in 2019 to achieve a step-change its growth, and saw massive, instant uplifts in search, as well as ‘insane’ growth in app downloads and account openings[iii].

And whilst it’s sometimes the case that the cost of TV media can be the largest single bill of any kind that a digital native brand with no tangible assets has yet had to pay, it’s a fallacy that TV advertising is much more expensive than other channels. In the UK, TV’s cost per thousand is c£6 or 0.6p for a single impression, so not far off a typical CPT on Facebook. And a benefit of TV ads is the extra seconds of attention they typically get from viewers vs other video – around 4.5x the seconds of attention the average facebook infeed ad gets[iv].

In 2019 in the UK, over 900 advertisers spent less than £50k on TV advertising across the year. In the same year a total of 837 new brands advertised on TV, of which over 600 spent under £20k[vi]. At the other end of the spectrum, only around 250 brands spent over £5m. And to make it even more accessible, all the commercial broadcasters are experimenting with different ways of incentivising new brands onto their platforms, helping hundreds of brands make the step every year[v].

One specific area of concern can be from teams who are used to getting an immediate read on the customer acquisition costs of every channel. And whilst it’s perfectly possible to monitor TV’s immediate sales and other impacts, because TV has unusually long-lasting effects, with around c60-70% of sales being generated in the weeks and months following exposure, TV spend can appear inefficient if its full effects aren’t factored in. And to do that you will need the right data, marketing analytics partners, and crucially time and patience, which can be in limited supply for brands in a hurry. Fortunately, some providers of marketing performance analytics are innovating to help make their offerings faster, better, cheaper.

When a brand decides to use TV, it can also be the first time it’s engaged external agencies. And if founders are involved, hiring an agency can feel to them like they’re handing over their baby to a childminder for the first time, with all the potential for tension and tantrums that implies. In fact, there’s actually a neuroscience study which shows that founders react to a visual of their brand’s logo with the same emotional intensity as when they’re shown photos of their own babies.[vii]

Aside from media and agency costs, the cost of producing video assets to air on TV can also seem prohibitive and it’s true they’re usually greater than the cost of producing a video for social channels. But add up all the smaller individual costs for a year’s worth of videos, and you can easily surpass the c£50k entry level cost of producing a TV asset that will give you at least a year’s worth of use.

So hopefully that’s some useful context and data to help inform the debate for brands weighing up the pros and cons of starting to deploy TV advertising today.

So what can scale-ups learn from other scale-ups who’ve already taken the plunge?

As it’s such a significant moment, and one that can also seem so difficult creatively, I thought it would be interesting to explore the creative performance of scale-ups when they take their first steps onto TV.

Are marketers right to be nervous? Do ads by scale-up brands perform any worse than ads by brands who’ve been doing it for years? Do they get better with experience? Do their inexperience or lack of big budgets show? Are ads by new-to-TV advertisers better at driving short-term performance than long-term, perhaps because of the skew in their experience towards social and performance channels? Do they bring with them any good or bad habits from the channels they’re most used to creating video content for? What advice could help scale-ups get the most out of going on TV?

To try and answer some of these questions, I approached System1 Group, who test all the breaking TV ads in most categories in the UK and the US, so have data on the performance of thousands of ads including those by start-ups and scale-ups. They helped provide the data that follows.

Matching a list of c10,000 ads from System1’s ad testing database with BARB’s list of new TV advertisers from 2014-2019 in the UK, gave me a list of 200 new-to-TV advertisers for 2014-2019, and performance data for 550 ads, including 193 year1 ads, 120 year2 ads, and 86 year3ads.

This list of 200 new-to-TV brands covers every category. It reads like an A-Z of scaleups in the UK from the last 5 years, including Brewdog, Bulldog, Deliveroo, Drover, Fitbit, Funding Circle, Go Henry, Habito, Harry’s, Huel, iZettle, Marcus, Monzo, Pinterest, Starling, Tide, Twitter, Tyrrell’s, Weflip and Xero.

The first thing we found was that ads by new-to-TV brands tend to perform worse than ads by established advertisers. Their 1st year TV ads only average 1 star on System1’s 5-star scale which measures emotional impact and is predictive of long-term sales success, vs the 2 stars that the average UK ad gets.

When you look at the distribution of the scores, many more 1st year ads got 1 star on average vs established advertisers. Far fewer achieved 2 and 3 stars, only one achieved 4 and none achieved 5. For new-to-TV advertisers both the ‘floor’ and the ‘ceiling’ were lower than for established advertisers.

The only new-to-TV year 1 advertiser to achieve 4 stars was Elizabeth Shaw chocolates. And their first foray into TV was indeed hugely successful: they saw +268% sales uplift in the regions where TV was used[viii].

The 193 year1 ads by new-to-TV advertisers perform worse on average on all three of System1’s key metrics: long-term impact (their ‘Star’ rating), short-term sales impact (their ‘Spike’ rating) and branding (their ‘Fluency’ rating).

But to be fair they’re not much worse than established advertisers, and actually after 3 years they’re on a par with the average. Whilst new TV advertisers show no improvement in their 2nd year of TV advertising, by years 3 and 4 on average they have improved up to the level of established advertisers. So whilst some existing advertisers may have decades more experience, on average they only have a 3 year head start in performance terms.

Building lasting brand memories by making an emotional impact on viewers is one of the core strengths of TV advertising, and this is where the greatest improvement happens in years 3-4 for new-to-TV advertisers, perhaps as they improve the capabilities, creative and craft skills required to get the most from the medium.

The lessons from this for scale-ups are these: hire people with experience and/or appoint an agency, rather than attempting to go it alone; don’t expect perfection from the get-go; don’t imagine you’re going to see exponential growth like in your start-up days; keep what’s working from your initial attempts; aim to create a greater emotional impact; stick with it; and the commercial impact of your TV advertising should improve significantly by years 3 and 4.

To try and shed light on why the performance of ads isn’t as strong in the first couple of years we looked at the type of emotions they evoke. The results were clear: in years 1-2 they tend to cause too neutral a response from viewers and not enough happiness. It’s only by year 4 that they’re evoking good levels of happiness – the emotional response most predictive of long-lasting commercial impact.

It’s possible that there is some survivorship bias at play here (ie with some better advertisers continuing to use TV but not improving over their initial years, and some worse ones dropping out, so taking the average up over time). But when we looked at the advertisers in the dataset who develop new ads in each of their first 3 years, they also improve, on average, exactly in line with the total picture.

When we explored the performance of ads from different sectors, we saw the greatest under-performance from new Financial Services, Automotive and Tech advertisers. Household and Food & Drink brands performed a bit better, albeit still under-performing vs established advertisers in their categories.

It’s possible that new FS, Automotive and Tech brands under-perform the most because it’s these categories that are responsible for the most disruptive and novel business models and propositions, and so perhaps new brands in these categories feel a greater need to explain their propositions in detail to the audience, which can limit their emotional impact. For many of these ads their TV scripts can seem like they’ve been copied directly from their investor pitch decks – essentially an explanation of the customer issue followed by an extended product demo. This is understandable but it suggests a failure to find creative ways to engage the audience emotionally, which new brands should see as an important outcome and not simply a nice-to-have.

Another thing we explored was whether new-to-TV advertisers perform better on short-term impact than on System1’s predictor of long-term commercial impact. One hypothesis here being that some new TV advertisers may perhaps intentionally sacrifice long-term performance to achieve maximum impact in the short term. It’s a common debate, with voices on the marketing team often arguing for creative with a short-term bias: “we need to be a little less creative, more focused on the product, to establish this new category and explain the proposition with consumers – we can get more creative and ‘emotional’ in the future once we’ve done that”.

The data suggests that’s a false choice. You’ll see from the chart below that a significant proportion of the ads (just under 20%) do manage to perform on both short-term and long-term impact. So you don’t have to sacrifice long-term impact in order to achieve short-term impact even if you’re a new brand trying to establish yourself. Interestingly you don’t get many ads in the extreme bottom right of the chart: if you do really well on long-term impact, you’re more likely to also perform well in the short term too.

So what can scale-up brands learn from this analysis about how to make better TV advertising?

In this analysis, ads by new-to-TV brands are weaker because they create less of a positive emotional reaction and leave people feeling nothing. Evoking strong, positive emotional reactions gains and keeps attention, making a brand more memorable, helping it to come to mind and get chosen long after the initial exposure.

To explore why more ads by new-to-TV advertisers leave people feeling neutral, we took a sample of 117 year1 ads[ix] and analysed the executional features in them. This included noting the type of music, the dominance of words on screen, and other video and story-telling techniques. We then compared this with a similar analysis of 100 UK TV ads and 102 UK Facebook ads[x].

We found something really interesting: year1 ads by new-to-TV advertisers appear to ‘look’ much more like Facebook ads in terms of the presence of some specific features than a random sample of recent TV ads.

Use of music The majority (67%) of the year1 new-to-TV ads featured a rhythmic soundtrack, and very few (only 9%) featured music with a melody. Whereas only a minority (30%) of UK TV ads featured a rhythmic soundtrack and a majority (55%) featured music with a melody, and 45% of Facebook ads had a rhythmic soundtrack and only 10% had music with a melody. So when it comes to their use of music, year1 ads (in pink below), are much more like Facebook ads (yellow), than the UK average TV ads (grey)

Music, proven to be a highly emotive feature of TV advertising and a major driver of creative effectiveness, looks like it’s being used far less effectively by new-to-TV advertisers. This could be because they’ve been prioritising it less for their Facebook and other videos where music is usually less of a feature, and have carried this habit over to TV. It could also be that new-to-TV advertisers are just spending far less on music – using more library tracks and generic sound-beds and fewer tracks with recognisable or familiar melodies.

Use of text

77% of our year1 new-to-TV ads featured prominent text on screen during the ad (and before the end-frame), compared to 67% of UK TV ads, and 91% of Facebook ads. So again we see ads by new-to-TV advertisers (pink) ‘looking’ more like Facebook ads (yellow) than the average TV ad (grey).

Here are some typical examples of this from the new-to-TV ads in our analysis, with text and graphics often being used extremely prominently:

Another common feature of the ads in our data is that a high proportion focus on someone (very often female) addressing the viewer face-on and making a direct pitch to the audience. On paper this may seem like a good way to get and maintain attention, but our data suggests it’s not.

Another extremely common and dominant feature of the new-to-TV ads is the all-pervasive shot of an app or website in use. Admittedly it’s good practice to include a strong role for the brand or product in a commercial, as well as to build recognition of a brand’s visual identity, which means this is an understandable executional trope. But even allowing for all that, it’s hard to believe that the lack of imagination on show here is a driver of overall creative effectiveness, rather than a drain on it. At the very least more creative focus and imagination could be applied to the treatment of these shots.

In Peter Field’s work ‘Crisis in Creative Effectiveness in advertising’ (IPA 2019), he noted “Instead of emotionally engaging human stories that seek to charm and captivate, we are seeing more didactic, literal presentations that seek to prompt us into action”. And that’s exactly what you see in our analysis of 117 year1 ads by new-to-TV advertisers.

In Orlando Wood’s book ‘Lemon’ (IPA 2019), inspired by the work of psychiatrist, neuropsychologist and author Iain McGilchrist, Wood reviewed hundreds of UK TV ads from 1990-2018, and observed a decline in the use of character, storytelling, real world contexts, cultural references and other creative and imaginative elements. Conversely, he saw an increase in use of wall-to-wall voice overs, text, graphics, products and other imagery in close-up and free of any context. We saw exactly the same picture in our analysis of new-to-TV advertisers.

In the analysis for ‘Lemon’, features in ads were grouped and labelled as ‘left-brain’ or ‘right-brain’, with ‘left-brain’ features broadly being more rational, informative and detailed (text, words, close-ups, graphics etc) and ‘right-brain’ features broadly being more human, creative and ‘big picture’ (character, storytelling, melody etc).

‘Left-brain’ ad features‘Right-brain’ ad features
Lots of words on screenCharacters acting
Someone talking to cameraA story unfolding
A noticeable voiceoverInteraction between characters
Flat backdrops, basic studio setsA recognisable place
Fast-cuts, split-screen effectsDiscernible melody

For ease of comparison in this analysis we grouped the executional features of our year1 ads in the same way. And whether or not you follow McGilchrist’s theories of brain localisation and how left and right hemispheres process things differently, you see a stark picture in terms of the way different ad features skew.

In our analysis, the average year1 ad contains 4.8 ‘left-brain’ features and only 1.5 ‘right-brain’ features, a skew to ‘left-brain’ features of 3.2. By comparison, established TV ads had a skew of 1.8, and Facebook ads had a skew of 2.7. So again on this measure, year1 ads (in pink) tend to have more in common with Facebook ads (yellow) than the average TV ad (grey).

It could be that the lower TV production budgets available to new advertisers have a negative impact on creative effectiveness (I’ve long suspected there’s generally a correlation between TV production budget and effectiveness).

But it could also be that our data is picking up something more problematic in the long run: that techniques (including a heavy use of text and lack of music with melody) used by teams with more experience at making video content than making TV ads, are influencing TV creative and having a negative effect on effectiveness.

So what can scale-ups take away from all this?

TV and video advertising have an unparalleled ability to evoke emotion, attracting and maintaining attention and building long-term memories, which generate long-lasting sales effects.

But just putting any video on TV does not guarantee its emotional impact and these long-lasting effects. So approaching the development of TV creative in the same way you do your social or other video content could be a missed opportunity to unlock TV’s unique strengths – and growth.

The best TV and video advertising is executed in a way that can attract and hold attention and get a reaction from people. And the best ways to do that have been known for thousands of years: stories set in recognisable places, characters that interact with each other, stories that unfold in dramatic and surprising ways, music to amplify the emotional impact and drive the action.

In the early days of social media, the advice for advertisers was ‘don’t just put your TV ad on social’.

As social media and video content marketing reach maturity, and TV becomes the obvious next step for brands looking to scale, the converse of that advice seems to hold true: ‘don’t just put your online video on TV’.


[i] Thinkbox. This weekly reach figure excludes subscription VOD like Netflix and Amazon.

[ii] https://www.thinkbox.tv/research/thinkbox-research/demand-generation/

[iii] https://www.marketingweek.com/monzo-tv-ad-campaign/

[iv] Chart from Dan White’s Smart Marketing Book using data from ‘The Cost of Attention’ by Lumen Research https://www.lumen-research.com/blog/p653k3atys5ubp58jcydxoyn0d0wik

[v] Thinkbox https://www.thinkbox.tv/getting-on-tv/is-tv-advertising-right-for-me/tv-advertising-is-for-everyone/#:~:text=In%20terms%20of%20investment%2C%20over,over%20250%20spent%20%C2%A35m%2B.

[vi] e.g. ITV’s initiative ‘Backing Business’ https://www.itvmedia.co.uk/itv-backing-business

[vii] ‘Why and how do founding entrepreneurs bond with their ventures? Neural correlates of entrepreneurial and parental bonding’, Lahti, Halko et al, The Journal of Business Venturing, May 2018 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/325341076_Why_and_how_do_founding_entrepreneurs_bond_with_their_ventures_Neural_correlates_of_entrepreneurial_and_parental_bonding

[viii] https://www.thinkbox.tv/case-studies/elizabeth-shaw/#download

[ix] We cut the full list of 193 down to 117 because we had a full dataset across all of System1’s metrics on this subset. [1] Lemon (IPA 2019, Orlando Wood), Achtung (IPA 2020, Orlando Wood).

[x] Lemon (IPA 2019, Orlando Wood), Achtung (IPA 2020, Orlando Wood).

The Wrong and the Short of it

Short-termism and long-termism are both just wrong-termism. So let’s end the false choice between long and short-term marketing tactics, maximise the compound effects of getting them working together in harmony, and start to close the value-destroying divide between ‘brand’ and ‘performance’ marketing. It’s limiting marketing effectiveness and brand growth, when we’ve never needed them more.

Long term ‘VS’ short term is probably the most commonly cited false choice in marketing.

And that’s saying something, as we love false dichotomies in this industry: brand vs performance, emotional vs rational, creativity vs technology, intuition vs data, art vs science, to name just a few that we constantly debate.

A summary of most of the binary debates in marketing tweeted by Martin Weigel

And of course the answer to most of these is ‘&’ not ‘Or’.

It may seem a little unnecessary for yet more words to be written about the long and short-term in marketing given two industry legends have literally already written the book on it [i]. But whilst the theory says we should all try to achieve a balanced approach in order to maximise both saleability and sales simultaneously, there’s a massive gulf between the theory and the actual practice, which is increasingly divided between practitioners of ‘brand’ and ‘performance’ marketing.

And it’s even quite common for people to overlook the central importance of the theme of balance in Binet & Field’s most important work, and to think of them as ‘the high priests of the long term’.

SHORT-TERMISM

Short-termism rightly gets a lot of criticism, and there have been plenty of brilliant critiques of it by other people, so I won’t do that here [ii].

There are irresistible pressures pulling marketers towards the short term [iii]. And there’s also a huge asymmetry in terms of accessibility to ‘performance’ channels vs ‘brand-building’ channels. Google, Facebook, Amazon and other platforms have given millions of businesses of every size and type, easy, self-service access to a giant direct response advertising eco-system [iv]. And this universal accessibility is also ensuring there’s a ready and growing supply of ‘performance’ marketing specialists and a dwindling supply of ‘brand’ marketing specialists – a factor that further exacerbates the divide.

LONG-TERMISM

Too many people though, especially on the ‘brand’ side of the divide, also wrongly assume that because short-termism’s a bad thing, long-termism must therefore be a good thing, despite the potential for it to be just as damaging in different ways.

There’s always been a lot of magical thinking about the long term in advertising. That you can just do something big and expensive as a one-off, then close your eyes and cross your fingers and hope no one commercially-oriented asks any awkward questions for six to twelve months, until future sales start magically happening.

But communications that are successful over the long term don’t work by activating some kind of ‘sleeper cell’ in buyers’ minds which suddenly bursts into frenzied commercial action after many months of lying completely dormant – communications need to achieve some level of short-term sales success as well as improving a brand’s mental availability if they’re also going to achieve long-term growth.

And whilst short-termism may give people a bad name within certain corners of the marketing world, it may actually be long-termism that gives some marketers a bad name within their organisations and amongst the rest of the business community, perhaps because some marketers appear to act like selling’s a dirty word to them (for example by getting evangelical about certain marketing approaches that appear purposefully designed not to sell stuff).

WRONG-TERMISM

And whilst they’re quite different, it’s possible to simultaneously see short-termism and long-termism as equally bad practice – wrong-termism, if you will.

Wrong-termists get it wrong in two different ways: short-termists restrict the long-term growth their marketing can achieve, and long-termists restrict its short-term sales impact.

THE LONG THROUGH THE SHORT OF IT

It’s never been more important to make every marketing $ work as hard as it possibly can. We’ve never been more aware that without short-term success there may not even be a long-term for some of our brands. And the best way of securing both will be to embrace the fertile middle-ground that lies in combining the power of short and long-term effects.

Long-term growth always has its roots in the short term. The two are connected, influence each other, and if you get the two working perfectly in harmony together, you’ll achieve the strongest, most sustainable growth possible.

But we so often miss out on maximising growth in this way because of our binary belief systems, the organisational siloes we inhabit, the different job titles we have, the different channels and formats we tend to use and the different metrics we try to optimise.

It’s important to say that long-term growth isn’t just achieved by adding up a series of short-term effects. It’s more complicated than simply being additive: it’s a multiplicative, compound effect, which starts slowly but strengthens over time.

And whilst all long-term growth actually has roots in the short term, only some kinds of short-term activity also lead to long-term results.

So the roots of long-term growth are there in the present if you do the right kind of marketing communications.

The two are always happening simultaneously, to some degree, in the same marketing campaign and in everything a brand communicates about itself. Les Binet’s chart below shows two kinds of sales impacts from a single exposure to a single execution. A short-term sales spike and a longer-term tail.

The two lines are interrelated. If you try to push the red spike higher, you’ll reduce the length of the black tail (e.g. a promotion or offer would push the red spike higher but massively reduce the black tail; an ‘our brand stands against toxic masculinity’ message would hugely reduce the red spike). Which means to achieve equilibrium you’ll need a balance across a campaign and across your entire marketing plan (although not necessarily within an individual execution) [v].

It’s practically the law that any discussion of the long and short-term in marketing must include Binet & Field’s classic ‘steps’ chart illustrating the two different ways in which communications can drive sales – through short-term sales activation and long-term brand-building, so here it is:

And what follows are some new and never previously published illustrations by Les Binet that build on this, but this time rather than separating the short and long-term effects, they show the combined effects of doing ‘brand-building’ and ‘sales activation’ together in different combinations. They’re just theoretical, they knowingly exaggerate the effects for clarity, and there will of course be real world exceptions.

Scenario 1 is what could happen if a brand that had been heavily biased towards sales activation shifts its balance in favour of brand-building activity. It could see lower initial short-term sales peaks, but base sales would begin to rise and the short-term sales peaks could start rising too as the strengthening brand helps improve the impact of sales activation.

Scenario 2 shows what could happen if that brand switched back to being heavily biased towards sales activation from a more balanced plan. Short-term sales peaks could get lower and base sales could drop over time. It’s a cautionary tale that you may have witnessed, for example with the arrival of a new CEO or CMO who ‘doesn’t believe in doing brand marketing’.

But charts like these don’t always totally reflect the real world options available to modern marketers, for example where performance activity is usually ‘always on’ rather than pulsed, and where the idea of scaling it back dramatically or even switching it off could feel like instant career suicide.

So below is an illustration by econometrician Grace Kite and me building on the classic ‘steps’ chart from the perspective of a common real world scenario, that of a digital-first brand whose initial strong growth from always on performance activity has levelled off, after which point brand-building activity is successfully deployed in order to take growth to the next level. It’s based on the econometric modelling Grace has done for a wide range of brands facing similar challenges.

It shows growth initially being driven by always on activity in performance channels, and the impact of that activity reaching a plateau which often happens when saturation point is reached. Then it shows the impact of a successful decision to layer in ‘brand-building’ activity. Note that this brand activity both delivers its own short and longer-term sales impacts, as well as improving the sales generated by performance channels. It also shows the compound effects of all this marketing activity working together and becoming stronger over time as the brand-building activity is further optimised.

‘All models are wrong, but some are useful’ of course, but hopefully this shows ‘performance-first’ brands the growth potential of adopting a more balanced approach that includes layering in brand-building activity, and gives brands like these a little more confidence when taking the big step into doing ‘brand-building’ communication.

A PROMISING METRIC FOR MEASURING THE LONG THROUGH THE SHORT?

The long-term growth potential of campaigns should be measurable in the short-term, even if you’re not currently set up to monitor it. So you may need to start thinking about boosting your existing measurement (which would ideally already include a balanced scorecard of long and short-term metrics), with new kinds of short-term measures that can also predict long-term performance.

A number of companies have metrics aiming to do this, but one that’s emerging as a strong contender is a brand’s ‘share of google search’.

Millward Brown have seen that search volumes can strongly reflect how salient or famous a brand is [vi].

And Google believe ‘share of search’ may reflect brand health and market share for brands in some categories [vii].

Les Binet is doing some great work looking at whether a brand’s share of google search can predict its market share (initial findings in several categories are extremely promising).

Further research is needed, but monitoring a brand’s share of search could also help narrow the divide that exists in marketing between ‘brand’ and ‘performance’ marketers: it could be a rare example of a metric nearly everyone can get behind. Because ‘brand’ marketers instinctively know that brand search behaviour is often reflective of a brand’s fame and mental availability, and know that investing in mass reach communication can be an effective way to improve it. And ‘performance’ marketers of course know brand search is a hugely important source of traffic and conversion.

I believe it’s never been more important that we start closing the artificial but growing divide between brand and performance marketing, and to do what’s most effective for our brands collectively.

For some brands it will be a huge task, but if anything shared here helps a single team begin to break down the barriers in their business it will have been worth it.

Brands should be aiming to create long-term communications engineered for immediate success. Advertising that, in the words of the great Jeremy Bullmore, sells ‘both immediately and forever’ [viii].

Let’s all make that our ambition too.


[i] Buy Binet & Field’s classic work ‘The Long and the short of it’ here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Long-Short-Balancing-Long-Term-Strategies/dp/085294134X

[ii] Martin Weigel is simply the best, most persuasive writer against the shortcomings of short-termism in advertising:

https://www.martinweigel.org/blog/the-tragic-horizon-resisting-marketings-drift-towards-the-business-of-value-destruction

[iii] For a brilliant analysis of the factors leading to short-termism read Gareth Price’s IPA Excellence Diploma prize-winning paper here: https://medium.com/@g_price/thinklong-b069e0f8bed9

[iv] I don’t subscribe to Bob Hofmann the Adcontrarian’s view that no offline brand has ever been built online, but do think it’s much harder to do so than it should be within the current media eco-system which is plainly better at direct response than brand-building: http://adcontrarian.blogspot.com/2015/05/take-refrigerator-test.html

[v] Les Binet is always keen to stress that it’s best not to attempt to optimise an individual execution to try and make it do both simultaneously and equally. He says that ‘Our research suggests that while all ads do both jobs to some extent, trying to do both equally in every ad is inefficient. Rather, it’s better to have a 60:40 balance of ads that (primarily) focus on the brand job and ads that (primarily) focus on activation. Making every ad a ‘brand response’ ad is a poor compromise’.

[vi] Millward Brown ‘Digital Behavior Analytics: what can search and social behaviour tell you about brand performance?’ 2016

http://www.millwardbrown.com/mb-global/what-we-do/media-digital/digital-behavior-analytics

[vii] ‘Measuring Effectiveness Three Grand Challenges’, Matthew Taylor, Google, 2019 https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/intl/en-gb/consumer-insights/measuring-effectiveness-three-grand-challenges/

[viii]Jeremy Bullmore’s essay for WPP’s Annual Report 2017: https://www.warc.com/newsandopinion/opinion/jeremy_bullmore_a_20th_century_lesson_for_21st_century_brands/2701

Brand purpose. The biggest lie the ad industry ever told?

I was asked recently to give a talk answering the question ‘does brand purpose really drive profit?’. My very short answer to it was ‘yes it can, but mostly it probably doesn’t’.

And the slightly longer answer to it was ‘it really depends, but on balance brand purpose is over-used in marketing today and its power over-stated, and it’s actually best used as a business tool by companies that are genuinely committed to conscious capitalism, rather than as a bolt-on by marketing teams looking for a quick sales fix’.

I suspect no robust data analysis will ever prove conclusively that it’s better for brands to be ‘purposeful’ than for them not to be. By cherry-picking case studies, you could probably make whatever argument you wanted for or against it: whether that’s highlighting examples that show purpose can drive profit or by cherry-picking examples of brands getting it wrong, in order to suggest it can’t. Or if you want to undermine the whole concept of purpose entirely, pointing to brands pretending to be purposeful, or even highlighting the many highly successful non-purposeful brands.

So it’s quite easy to cherry-pick examples to make whatever case you want. In fact one of the people who made purpose so popular in business and marketing was ex-P&G Global Marketing Officer, Jim Stengel, whose book, ‘Grow’, was founded on essentially a big cherry-picking exercise where he took the top 50 performing brands on a measure of brand strength and claimed that what linked them, and so accounted for their success, was that they all had a brand ideal to make the world a better place in some way – I recommend you look up Richard Shotton’s article and talks on this as he rips apart the data behind Stengel’s book in a way that I’m not going to do justice to. But it’s a very compelling case.

I will pick two cherries of my own though just to show you I’m not actually a purpose sceptic, just a sceptic of certain types of supposedly ‘purposeful’ brand communications. A personal favourite example is Timpsons, a UK shoe repair chain, who do amazing work employing ex-prisoners, and repeatedly get listed as one of the top 10 best companies to work for. They don’t even use the word ‘purpose’, and you’ll never see them running empowering TV ads humbly bragging about the good they do, but by most definitions they look pretty purposeful. An example close to me is Barclays, which has been on a journey of internal transformation since the Libor scandal, that has helped it discover for itself a more positive role in society via fantastic initiatives like Digital Eagles and LifeSkills. Barclays saw a return on investment from its advertising about these societal initiatives far stronger than the ROI for ads talking about current accounts and mortgages. It’s a kind of marketing alchemy that Barclays ‘purpose-led’ advertising about them helping young people with job interview techniques sold hundreds of millions of pounds worth of mortgages. That’s clearly a win-win. But for every Barclays, there’s a handful of other brands with pseudo-purposeful ad campaigns that are clearly just cynical attempts to jump on board a societal issue in order to grab some headlines and turn around flagging sales.

So overall I think there are probably 3 broad types of brands that define themselves as having a purpose that we see in the marketing world. Imagine three concentric circles containing three types. At the bullseye we see brands that are Born Purposeful, often founder-led, often small, niche, usually founded with a societal purpose and where purpose goes across the whole business operation. Toms and Patagonia are perhaps the most often-cited examples of this. No one ever seems to argue about brands like this – very clear purposes, and business models designed to balance purpose and profit. In the middle concentric circle we see a second type, which tend to be Corporate Converts – often larger businesses which have adopted the concept of purpose more recently. They usually seem to genuinely want to make a positive difference to the world alongside making money, sometimes to correct past wrongs or just to become a better corporate citizen. They’re by definition on a journey of transforming themselves and are often more complex businesses, and because of that they may have to make pragmatic decisions that favour profit over purpose in certain instances. They may not have a business model that’s built around their purpose. They may have certain voices internally who are more committed to their purpose than others, and they’re likely not to have a founder present who’s committed to keeping the business permanently in line with its purpose in all its decision-making. So they’re naturally a greyer area. Purpose often becomes a new type of business vision or Northstar for these kinds of brands – they will typically need to find a space at the top of their strategy pyramid for their new purpose.

And there’s a third kind, on the outer circle, which I would call Pseudo-purposeful brands – these are the ones for which purpose is just a new ad campaign claiming to try and solve an issue like gender or racial equality, or toxic masculinity or whatever the most resonant topic is that their social listening data says is trending with their demographic that month. This is the kind of purpose that’s least likely to become embedded across every function of a business, it was probably cooked up in the marketing department, and so is far less likely to take root within an entire organisation, be taken seriously and gain long-term investment. And so it’s far less likely to be profitable in the long-term.

So there are probably three types of purposeful brand: 1. Brands that are Born Purposeful, 2. The Corporate Converts, 3. The Pseudo-purposeful brands doing what’s recently been labelled ‘woke advertising’. And the likelihood of purpose driving a profit probably decreases from type 1 to 3.

And whilst it’s fairly obvious that, like most things, brand purpose sits on a spectrum, the debates about purpose in marketing always seem to be hugely divided, with the industry’s biggest beasts all coming down firmly on one side or the other. Unilever’s Keith Weed and Tesco’s Dave Lewis are believers. But two of marketing’s most well-known Professors, Byron Sharp and Mark Ritson are non-believers, who tend to see marketing’s obsession with purpose as a sign that marketers have lost confidence and pride in their core task – to sell.

The simplest, most no-nonsense view, is this, expressed by Jenni Romaniuk of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, who when asked about brand purpose said simply: “A brand’s purpose is to sell stuff.”

Mark Ritson, says this: “Brand purpose is mostly nonsense talk. There are a couple of brands, like Ben and Jerry’s…they were founded with purpose first. But for most of the brands in the room, the banks and telcos, these noble purposes that all sound the same – they are not differentiated, customers don’t give a shit.” Ritson tends to see Purpose, with some specific exceptions, as bad marketing practice, unlikely to lead to brand differentiation and lacking in relevance for most consumers. He sees most purpose marketing as failing to help brands create relevant differentiation, help them stand out from the crowd in a way that motivates consumers. He also attacks purpose as a layer of bullshit applied to pull the wool over the eyes of gullible consumers. Writing about Starbucks he said this: Time and again we encounter the lofty, admirable sheen of brand purpose only to discover it flakes off with even the slightest scratch to reveal a darker, more commercial sub-surface beneath. Starbucks’ famous mission ‘to inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time’ is about as lofty as it gets. But it contradicts mightily the company’s abject inability to align its tax responsibilities accordingly”.

Byron Sharp not only sees deception and duplicity going on with marketing’s obsession with Purpose – but also spots something a bit deeper – a level of self-deception, even self-loathing going on here amongst marketers. He says “[Brand purpose] is almost like an apology as we feel marketing is so disrespectful and evil that we have to do this other stuff. I think that’s terrible. If marketers don’t stand up for marketing, who will?

Very few people in marketing seem to disagree with the importance of brand purpose when the examples cited are companies built on progressive business models that successfully share the proceeds of growth in order to help alleviate a societal problem. But when advertising becomes a significant part of the conversation about purpose, things tend to go awry. In fact, my view is that if being purposeful means doing ads to you, then you’re probably doing it wrong.

So that’s where I stand. But how did we get here? How did we get to a place where brand purpose became simultaneously the most pervasive yet divisive concept in marketing? How can we explain the rise and dominance of brand purpose in early 21st century marketing?

My answer to that last question is this.

The dominance of brand purpose in marketing is perhaps the inevitable consequence of advertising people being told by everyone else, for about 150 years now, that they’re liars. That what they do is deceitful, that it’s of little or no positive value to society, that it doesn’t matter. Constantly hearing this view has helped give many advertising people a feeling of self-doubt about the role they play in society.

An Ipsos-Mori poll from 2018 found that ad execs are the least trusted profession in the UK, with only 18% of respondents saying they trust ad execs to tell the truth. That’s worse than estate agents, journalists, even politicians. A long-running study with over six decades of data, suggests that around 70% of the public tend to see advertising as untruthful – and that this number has stayed more or less stable for all of that time. This tallies with a finding from the Advertising Association that trust in the ad industry overall was around 30% in 2018.

And my theory is that perhaps advertising people have subconsciously sought in response – through their eager adoption of the concept of brand purpose – to prove they can be of value to society and that their work can do some good. The great irony here being that a response which has resulted in advertising people pretending, for example, that a brand of carbonated sugar water can solve some of society’s biggest issues, will actually have the opposite of the intended consequence: most of the pseudo-purposeful advertising out there just makes ad people and their output seem even more deceitful.

Advertising people have always sought to present themselves as respectable, responsible corporate citizens in the face of the strong suspicion that they’re not. You only have to look at the agency names DDB, BBDO, WPP, Ogilvy & Mather, J Walter Thompson, to see agencies trying to present themselves as respectable, professional people, to sound like lawyers or accountants. David Ogilvy’s schtick was to present himself as the refined aristocrat of advertising amongst the sharks and hucksters of New York. Despite or even because of the legalistic name, the New York agency BBDO, was nicknamed, by none other than President Harry S Truman, as ‘Bunco, Bull, Deceipt and Obfuscation’. Bill Bernbach built his agency DDB’s reputation on the idea that he was selling ‘the truth wrapped in wit’, in order to stand out against the deceitful salesmanship expected of the time, with ads that themselves told extreme versions of the truth like ‘Lemon’ for the VW Beetle.

‘The Adman’s Dilemma – from Barnum to Trump’ is a fascinating book by the cultural historian Paul Rutherford, which for me goes some way to explain why advertising has always been and remains one of the least trusted professions, and why advertising is seen by so many as a kind of licensed deception. It chronicles the prevailing anti-advertising cultural narrative since advertising’s early days in the mid-19th century from PT Barnum right up to the present day. Rutherford starts with Barnum whose skill deceiving a gullible public helped him achieve a reputation as the king of false advertising, ‘the uber-Huckster’.

Rutherford’s book chronicles the public outcry, and subsequent regulatory response, to the advertising of the patent medicine moguls in the US – who for several decades from around the 1880’s used mass communication to deceitfully claim their medicines could cure people of almost every medical problem. The most famous patent medicine born in this era of course being Coca Cola which was introduced in 1886.

The book goes on to discuss how the 1950’s and 60’s saw one of the most famous moments in the anti-advertising movement when a series of bestsellers including ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ by journalist Vance Packard caused a moral panic about the nefarious and deceitful psychological techniques supposedly being used by the newly ubiquitous TV advertisers. There are clear parallels I think between the scares of the ‘50’s and the scares we have now about the use of our personal data by Facebook as well as the use of psychometric targeting for political advertising in elections. Whatever side you’re on in the debate about Facebook, the demonization of Mark Zuckerberg clearly has parallels with this trope of the adman as public manipulator and arch-deceiver.

Perhaps the most relevant anti-advertising episode for a discussion about brand purpose is Naomi Klein’s 1999 global bestseller ‘No Logo’. Klein’s book was an unashamedly anti-capitalist attack on the negative societal impact of advertising, which pointed out the hypocrisy of many of the global brands appropriating social and moral values whilst also engaging in questionable employment and environmental practices, in a fore-shadowing of the critiques of some of today’s more obviously pseudo-purposeful advertising.

By highlighting some of the worse behaviour of global brands, No Logo played its role in subsequent efforts by big businesses to clean up their acts and become good corporate citizens. Which in turn is leading to many businesses becoming more purposeful and taking on the philosophy that’s now called conscious capitalism.

To Rutherford, Mad Men’s Don Draper is the archetypal sufferer of the ‘adman’s dilemma’, of whom he says ‘whatever success he found, he found his life empty, hollow, he searched for some experience more real, more authentic’, and quotes Don Draper’s Stepfather saying to him “You’re a bum, what do you do, what do you make? You grow bullshit.”

So given the way advertising has always been portrayed in culture, it’s not hard to see why ad people would jump at the chance to show they’re respectable professionals whose work can have a positive impact on society. But in choosing to jump so fulsomely onto the brand purpose bandwagon we may just be making matters worse for ourselves.

When what we really need to do to prove our value to society, is to prove our commercial value first and foremost – to have pride in the value we create and so demonstrate the role we play in driving the economy, and therefore society, forwards. There’s plenty of genuine virtue to be had in that.

In the final scene of the final episode of Mad Men, we see Don Draper meditating on a clifftop, and as if in a eureka moment in his meditative state, we cut to the famous 1971 Coke ad ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing’. So we see a fictionalised advertising genius dreaming up a real celebration of peace, love and harmony, an idealised depiction of hippie culture, and appropriating it for a genuine commercial for the world’s most famous and valuable brand. It’s a fittingly brilliant blend of fact and fiction, authenticity and artifice.

It’s simply the most perfect ending for the show to have Don Draper, the archetypal, self-deceiving adman, whilst himself searching for a more authentic, more purposeful existence, dreaming up for a brand of carbonated sugar water, what may well have been the Patient Zero of all the pseudo-purposeful advertising that would follow in the decades ahead.

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect representation of advertising’s complex and uneasy relationship with truth, lies and brand purpose.

The brand: the most valuable business tool ever invented

A brand can be a company’s most valuable commercial asset, but persuading CEOs to invest in theirs has never been harder. In an open letter to all CMOs, everywhere, I set out some key data to help them.

[first published 22.03.18]

Dear All CMOs, everywhere

Hope you don’t mind me writing to you all like this but here’s a brief note and some data to help with an issue more and more of us seem to be having these days.

Have you got a CEO or CFO who just doesn’t seem to ‘get’ brand? Are they happy to allocate budget to performance activity but likely to run a mile before giving you what you need for brand-building? Are you confused about why they devote so little attention and resources to your company’s most valuable commercial asset, its brand? Maybe you even get people saying things like ‘we don’t talk about BRAND here’?

Well you’re not alone. Whilst many of us believe that brands have never been more important, successfully making the case for investing in them has never felt harder.

There are of course loads of reasons for this (quarterly reporting and short-termism chief amongst them) but it’s also partly because, to quote Jeremy Bullmore, ‘brands are fiendishly complicated, elusive, slippery, half-real, half-virtual things. When CEOs try to think about brands, their brains hurt’.

Brands are probably the most powerful and versatile business tool ever invented. And yet there’s a growing breed of business leaders who behave as if creating a famous, preferred, distinctive brand is an unnecessary luxury. Who think it’s enough to pay for PPC, optimise the SEO, create content, build a digital eco-system, communicate one-to-one with existing customers ‘for free’, or re-target prospects who’ve signalled some level of intent. Of course there are individual businesses that seem to be ok doing things this way, but if there’s a large body of evidence (not simply a few case studies) that proves the above approach can be used to drive long-term profitable growth across a range of categories, without investment in brand-building, I’d love to see it.

If businesses aren’t investing in their brand, maybe it’s our fault? I suspect we haven’t been selling the idea of brands as a business tool correctly. Marketers have tended to dwell on the mental and emotional side of brands (the hard to value stuff in people’s heads like memories, associations, feelings, values and personality). We’ve forgotten to give enough emphasis to the stuff that really matters to CEOs and CFOs: the rational, commercial stuff about what brands do to drive commercial value. We’ve been selling the magic but forgetting the logic.

Millions of words have been written on what brands are. So let’s not go down the ‘what’s a brand?’ wormhole – that’s mostly an internal marketing debate. Let’s just agree for now that a brand is something like what’s in people’s heads about a business, product or service. And then let’s focus on what’s most important for now: what brands do to create value.

So here’s a simple briefing document, free from marketing bullshit, explaining why brands are worth investing in:

A strong brand is a business’s most valuable commercial asset. It increases the chances of customers choosing your product or service over your competitor’s, attracting more customers, at a lower cost per sale, who are happy to pay a little more, and will buy it a little more often. A strong brand will deliver more revenue, profit and growth, more efficiently, year after year, and so generate more shareholder value. It can help attract, motivate and retain your second most important asset: your people. And can work as a barrier to entry for future competitors, creating a legal ‘monopoly’.

Here’s some of the evidence:

  1. By 2015 around 84% of the value of all businesses was intangible value, of which brand value is a key component, according to Ocean Tomo LLC[1].
  1. On average brand value accounts for about 20% of the total market capitalization of businesses according to an analysis of data from all the major brand valuation companies[2].
  1. Strong brands far out-perform the average business in terms of shareholder returns, with the BrandZ portfolio of strong brands growing by 124.9% from 2006-2017 vs 34.9% for the MSCI World Index[3].
  1. Strong brands can capture on average 3x the sales volume of weak brands according to a large study analyzing shopper habits by Kantar Millward Brown[4].
  1. The same study showed strong brands were commanding a 13% price premium over weak brands, and 6% above the average brand.[5]
  1. And it found that strong brands are 4x as likely as weak brands to grow in the following 12 months[6].
  1. According to Gain Theory, on average a +1% change in brand health (specifically brand consideration) can drive an uplift of 0.5-1.5% total annual sales[7].
  1. And a 10% increase in share of voice can decrease people’s price sensitivity by from 5% to as much as 20%[8] according to the same study. People are willing to pay more for strong, familiar, popular, visible brands.
  1. Brand-building activity drives much stronger sales growth over periods of 6+ months than the temporary uplifts driven from by short-term sales activation[9]. Brand-building activity leads to long-term improvements in base sales that short-term sales activity cannot.
  1. The optimum split in investment between brand-building and sales activation is on average 60% brand-building, 40% activation[10]. Invest less than 60% in brand activity and the brand equity required to generate future sales will not accumulate.
  1. 58% of the sales impact of all marketing communications activity is delivered in the long-term[11]: if you’re only looking at the short-term impact (ie via attribution modelling) you won’t see the full value of your investment.
  1. Online businesses in the UK now spend more on brand-building advertising than any other industry sector, £700m on TV alone in 2017[12]. When Google, Amazon and Facebook are amongst the biggest spenders on TV, it’s a pretty big clue that they’re deeply aware of the limits of the digital channels and formats in their own armouries to help them build their own brands.
  1. For our last data-point let’s turn to consumers themselves. A CEO’s 1 task is ensuring their company is trusted, according to respondents in the Edelman Trust Barometer[13]. In other words your consumers believe your CEO’s no.1 task is a brand and reputation-building task.

But let’s give the final word to the Sage of Omaha himself, Warren Buffett. A long-term advocate of the power of famous brands to keep the shareholder returns rolling in, he’s been very clear on what he believes is the key measure of a strong business, and it’s closely related to one of the most powerful things a strong brand can help do: give your business pricing power.

Good luck.

Yours faithfully,

Tom Roach

——————

[1] Ocean Tomo LLC

[2] Jonathan Knowles, Type 2 Consulting, analysis of data from the annual brand value league tables published by Brand Finance, Eurobrand, Interbrand and Millward Brown for the 6 years 2010 to 2015.

[3] Kantar Millward Brown, BrandZ, 2017.

[4] The Meaningfully Different Framework, Millward Brown, 2013.

[5] The Meaningfully Different Framework, Millward Brown, 2013.

[6] The Meaningfully Different Framework, Millward Brown, 2013.

[7] Thinkbox, Ebiquity, Gain Theory, ‘Profit Ability: The business case for advertising’

[8] Thinkbox, Ebiquity, Gain Theory, ‘Profit Ability: The business case for advertising’

[9] ‘Effectiveness in the digital era’, 2016, Binet & Field, The IPA

[10] ‘The Long and the Short of It’, 2013, Binet & Field, The IPA.

[11] Thinkbox, Ebiquity, Gain Theory, ‘Profit Ability: The business case for advertising’

[12] Thinkbox, ‘TV viewing report 2017’

[13] Edelmann Trust Barometer 2018

Most marketing is bad because it ignores the most basic data

Despite data being one of marketing’s obsessions, most brands aren’t extracting value from 11 of the most basic data-points available to everyone.

[First published by BBH Labs 04.12.17]

‘How did Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data-points…somehow not make the connection that electoral ads paid for in roubles were coming from Russia. Those are two data-points. You put billions of data-points together – you can’t put together roubles with a political ad.’

[Sen. Al Franken to Facebook’s General Counsel at the Senate judiciary subcommittee hearing 31.10.17]

The tech giants not spotting Russian involvement in the 2016 US election shows that even for the most advanced, data-driven businesses, the ones involved in the really deep drilling, there’s still a load of important data lying close to the surface, ignored and untapped.

Marketing suffers from a similar problem.

Only a minority of brands make highly creative and highly effective marketing communications. That’s distinctive, well-branded, emotional, fame-driving, maybe even award-winning. That will drive sales today, sales for years in the future, and deliver returns far beyond what the CFO would get if she kept the money in the bank.

And far from needing terabytes of data – the big data that so many marketers now talk such a good game about – it’s perfectly possible to make highly effective communications that do all the above with the help of just a few kilobytes of data.

So here are some of the simplest, most basic, but most fundamental data-points that could transform the effectiveness of any brand’s marketing, if only they were more universally known and used:

1. Start with the number 0 in mind, or start wrong.

For most brands, the biggest opportunity for growth comes from taking people from buying it zero times to buying it once in a typical purchase cycle[1]. Starting with zero means you’ll start from the right place – a place which assumes most of your customers don’t often buy your brand, don’t think much or care about it and certainly don’t give a s**t about your advertising.

2. Start wrong and you’ll end up making some of the 84% of advertising that doesn’t even get past the first hurdle of being noticed and remembered.

Only 16% of advertising is both recalled and correctly attributed to the brand (according to a study by the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute of 143 TV ads[2]) suggesting 84% of ad spend could be going to waste if that’s replicated in the real world. It’s another sobering reminder that your audience don’t care about your advertising, so you’d better make it distinctive enough to make an impact and well-branded enough so people remember who it’s from.

3. Don’t expect customers to notice you, remember you and remember more than message.

An analysis by Millward Brown of their Link test database[3] provides evidence of something advertising people have always known instinctively: the more messages you try and communicate, the less likelihood there is of any single message being communicated (‘throw people one tennis ball and they’ll catch it, throw them lots and they’ll drop them all’). And remember this is from people who are being forced to watch your ads in pre-testing research: real people in the real world will remember even less.

4. Emotional campaigns are 2x as likely to be effective as rational ones in achieving all this.

According to Binet & Field’s work, emotional campaigns are twice as likely to be profitable as rational campaigns, more than twice as efficient at driving market share, and work especially well over the long-term[4].

5. Campaigns that aim for fame work 4x harder than the average.

Fame-driving campaigns are 4x as efficient as the average campaign, driving 4x the market share growth per 10 points of extra SOV[5]. Fame is a magic ingredient that can massively enhance the performance of your campaigns.

6. Creative execution matters a lot: it’s the 2nd biggest driver of ROI.

Market and brand size are together the biggest driver of advertising profitability, but the 2nd biggest factor is the quality of creative execution[6]. In fact it can impact ROI by a factor of 12. Creative execution is not ‘colouring in’: it matters more than nearly everything else.

7. Highly creatively-awarded work can be up to 16x as efficient.

Creative awards aren’t important. But Binet & Field’s work suggests that highly-awarded creative work is dramatically more efficient at driving market share growth than non-awarded work[7]. It’s more likely to get talked about, be remembered and most importantly, deliver a much stronger commercial impact.

8. For maximum effectiveness you’ll need to find the right balance between brand-building and sales activation, which is on average 60:40[8].

Getting the balance right between long-term brand-building and short-term sales activation, between creating memories and activating them, is important for maximum commercial effectiveness. You’ll have to experiment to work out what’s best for your brand, though.

9. Perhaps the most often ignored data-point is this: 10%pts of excess share of voice drives 0.5% market share on average.

All of this theory has essentially boiled down to an argument for ‘doing bloody good work’ so far. And obviously that’s not enough: if you don’t put decent money behind it, it can’t work. The data supporting this comes from various IPA studies linking share of voice with market share. On average, a 10%pt difference between SOV and SOM leads to 0.5% of extra market share growth[9].

10. Once you’re seeing an impact on brand consideration, you’ve got to keep going as it will drop 15% per week on average following a campaign.

A study by Mediacom business science modelling suggests that on average improvements in consideration will begin to drop at the quite alarming rate of 15% per week, and will be back at pre-campaign levels after 4 months[10]. Don’t be tempted to blow your media budget in ego-boosting bursts: reach your audience as continuously as possible.

11The good news is the impact you can see from even tiny shifts in brand consideration can be enormous: a +1%pt shift is worth on average 0.5-1.5% total sales according to Gain Theory’s analysis[11].

These 11 numbers take up just a few kilobytes of data. But employing the principles behind them could help transform the effectiveness of any brand’s advertising.

The average UK advertising campaign delivers £1.51 of short-term profit and £3.24 in long-term profit for every £1 spent, according to Thinkbox’s latest study of 1954 campaigns across 150 advertisers[12]. And the strongest short-term profit ROI recorded for a single campaign in this analysis was a massive £12.96.

With potential returns like this on offer, even for merely average marketing, it seems unbelievable that any brand would choose to either not advertise, not spend enough, or to not make good work.

Because making bad work is a choice: a choice that too many marketing teams make all the time by focusing on fashionable marketing buzzwords and ignoring the basics.


[1] Byron Sharp, ‘How Brands Grow’, Chapter 4

[2] Ehrenberg-Bass Institute study, quoted in ‘How Brands Grow’

[3] Kantar Millward Brown analysis the Link ad test database

[4] Binet & Field, The IPA, The Long and the Short of It

[5] Binet & Field, The IPA The Long and the Short of It

[6] Paul Dyson, Admap, Sept 2014,  ‘The Top 10 Drivers of Advertising Profitability’

[7] Binet & Field, The IPA, Selling Creativity Short

[8] Binet & Field, The IPA The Long and the Short of It

[9] Nielsen, Budgeting for the upturn does share of voice matter

[10] Mediacom Business Science Modelling

[11] Thinkbox, Ebiquity & Gain Theory, ‘Profit Ability: The business case for advertising

[12] Thinkbox, Ebiquity & Gain Theory, ‘Profit Ability: The business case for advertising

The stupidity of sameness and the value of difference

The case for the importance of difference & distinctiveness in business, brands and marketing communication. [First published by BBH Labs 20.03.19]

Sameness is commercial suicide – whether your chosen way of being different is differentiation or distinctiveness[1] or like me you’re a cakeist and would ideally want both. Yet there’s a growing ‘sea of sameness’ out there, and the sea levels seem to be rising.

The idea of competitive advantage is intrinsically linked to difference. Which is why the marketing sections of business books always say the same thing – difference matters – and no marketing professors ever advocate sameness as a winning strategy.

This goes back to 1933 when Edward Chamberlin’s seminal book ‘The Theory of Monopolistic Competition’ first introduced the idea of product differentiation, suggesting that real or simply perceived differences, however slight, help pair buyers with sellers according to their preferences. It came to be accepted orthodoxy that emphasising differences between your brand and others could increase people’s appreciation of your offer, make it hard for people to make direct comparisons, make them less sensitive to features of competing offers, and more willing to pay a premium for your brand.

But differentiation has taken a beating in the last decade from Byron Sharp and the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, who, whilst acknowledging that it exists and matters to a degree, believe its role in consumer choices is less pronounced in practice than the textbooks would have us believe and that brands tend to be much more substitutable than previously thought. They advocate an alternative strategy, ‘distinctiveness’, which is about increasing the visibility of the brand in its competitive environment and making it look more recognisably itself.

Here’s my view, for what it’s worth. The central importance of brand differentiation has probably been over-stated historically, and the importance of distinctiveness had been under-stated until recently. But seeing the two as unrelated, alternative strategies rather than potentially complementary ones means we may be missing out on deploying the full power of difference at a crucial time: a time when both differentiation and distinctiveness have never been less evident in actual marketing practice.

Because on marketing’s frontline, the differentiation vs distinctiveness debate can seem like an irrelevance when brands being different in any way is getting harder and harder to spot in the wild. In fact, if you want to be really critical, sameness, not difference, seems to be becoming the common denominator for many brands today, and whilst this seems true in many categories, it’s especially so in the world of digital service brands.

Although it’s fair to say, this is nothing new – BBH Labs spotted this in 2017 with its discovery of at least 27 brands using the construct ‘Find your X’ in their communications:

The sameness we’re all witnessing is the combined effect of brands being too similar in their offers, poorly differentiated in their branding, and undistinctive in their communication.

Is the value that business, as a whole, places on being different declining? If so there are probably multiple causes rather than a single smoking gun. In this world of agile product development, genuine differences in products can now be eroded faster than ever. Differences tend to be smaller, less tangible and more fleeting. What makes a company different in its totality could be a combination of thousands of tiny differences, rather than larger, more singular, more permanent points of difference. Perhaps these many small differences are harder for marketers to get a fix on, distil and build their brands around. Perhaps in a world where ‘pivoting’ is all the rage, the notion of pinning down what’s enduringly different about a brand and distilling that into consistently distinctive brand assets and communication is falling out of fashion. Perhaps it’s a symptom of the fact that so many marketers now learn on the job in specialist siloes rather than getting formal marketing training where they’d have the big over-arching theories like differentiation and now distinctiveness drummed into them.

Whatever the reasons for the decline in the pursuit of difference, rather than arguing about the relative importance of differentiation vs distinctiveness, let’s aim our fire at an enemy that should unite us all: sameness.

So if you think your brand could be in danger of heading into a sea of sameness, here’s some data that could help:

  1. BEING UNIQUELY DIFFERENT IS MORE PROFITABLE

Operating in uncontested market space is far more profitable than competing for a share of an existing market. A study of 108 business launches from 2004[2] showed that the 14% competing in uncontested market space (‘Blue Oceans’), achieved 38% of the total revenue impact and 61% of the total profit impact. Whilst the majority of 86% business launches were competing in existing markets (‘Red Oceans’), only achieved 39% of the total profit impact.

  1. BEING SEEN AS DIFFERENT CAN DRIVE BRAND VALUE

Over a three-year period from 2015-2017 brands that were perceived to be both highly disruptive and different increased in brand value by 28%, whereas brands that were perceived as both low in disruption and differentiation declined by -5%[3].

  1. BEING SEEN AS DIFFERENT CAN PREDICT SALES GROWTH

Brands which people score strongly for both meaning and difference grow sales around 8.2% better in the following year than brands which score poorly, with difference being responsible for at least 50% of the predictive power[4].

  1. PEOPLE WILL PAY A PREMIUM FOR BRANDS THEY THINK ARE DIFFERENT

An analysis of actual prices paid (from the loyalty card data of 2400 shoppers for 79 brands) showed that shoppers paid 22% more for brands they find different and meaningful vs those they didn’t, with difference alone accounting for 40% of this on average[5].

  1. ADS THAT MAKE BRANDS SEEM DIFFERENT ARE MORE LIKELY TO DRIVE SALES

The top 1/3 ads for ‘make the brand seem really different’ in Kantar’s Link database achieve +90% vs the bottom 1/3 on Kantar’s measure of an ad’s likelihood to drive short-term sales[6].

  1. DISTINCTIVENESS IS HIGHLY MEMORABLE

In 1933 psychologist Hedwig von Restorff showed that distinctiveness drives memorability[7], giving her name to the ‘Von Restorff Effect’ (aka the ‘The Distinctiveness Effect’ and the ‘The Isolation Effect‘), which predicts that when multiple similar things are presented, the one that differs from the rest is more likely to be remembered.

Similarly, ‘The Bizarreness Effect’ predicts that incongruent or surprising things are more memorable than expected and common ones as they’re more distinctive. Researchers from the University of California[8] measured the brain activity of respondents, who whilst wearing EEG caps, read a series of sentences of which some contained semantically incongruous words like “Turtles are not as smart as mammals like socks or dogs.” The data showed a large spike in brain activity when participants read the incongruous word in the sentence, suggesting these words resulted in a significant degree of involuntary attention and processing.

  1. DISTINCTIVE, HIGHLY CREATIVE ADVERTISING SLOGANS ARE MORE MEMORABLE

Research into the von Restorff effect in creative advertising found that highly distinctive ad slogans are much more likely to be recalled, but only if they’re judged to be high quality and not if they’re substandard. The slogan ‘The beer that made Milwaukee jealous’ was remembered by 85% in the study but the marginally more distinctive but substandard slogan, ‘Ya hoo, that’s some brew’, was only remembered by 45%.[9]

  1. DISTINCTIVE BRAND ASSETS DRIVE AD RECOGNITION

Advertising featuring known distinctive brand assets achieved an average +34% higher advertising recognition in a study by Jenni Romaniuk at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute[10].

9. DISTINCTIVE BRAND CAMPAIGNS ARE MORE PROFITABLE

‘Distinctive brand campaigns’ featuring recognisable brand ideas & assets achieved a +62% stronger short-term profit ROI vs campaigns which didn’t in an analysis of 1300 campaigns by Ebiquity[11].

  1. DISTINCTIVE ADS CORRELATE WITH SALES GROWTH

Audi’s measure of the distinctiveness of their advertising correlates with increased media-driven sales (relative to total volume sales) between 2015-2017[12].  Audi has also found that when an ad has strong cut-through, it is three times more efficient at driving orders.

More research may be needed on the relative importance of differentiation and distinctiveness before the academic debate can move on, but hopefully this data will help more marketers on the frontline fight the onslaught of sameness wherever they see it.

And perhaps one day differentiation and distinctiveness may be seen as two useful and complimentary tools in the marketing armoury rather than entirely opposing schools of thought.

Clearly there’s no point magicking up distinctive brand assets or distinctive advertising from nowhere. So identify your strengths and differences and build your brand around them. Use them to inform the development of distinctive brand assets and truly distinctive communication. Deploy them consistently. So that everything you do and say makes you look more like you and less like others.

Being different from others and looking recognisably like you works.

Difference is playing it safe, sameness isn’t. Sameness is playing it stupid.

Or as they say at BBH, when the world zigs, zag.

Could feelings trump facts once again in the U.S. election?

System1 Group have used their ‘Fame, feeling, and fluency’ methodology, mostly applied to brand and advertising measurement, to predict the outcome of the 2020 US Election.

It predicted Brexit, Trump’s win 10 months out from the 2016 election, picked Boris to win the leadership of the Conservative party and to go on to win an election, and Biden winning the nomination earlier this year. And although it’s very, very close, it’s predicting…

Another Trump win.

System1’s data suggests it’s much closer than most of the polls are predicting. Their data is on a knife edge, but it comes down on the side of Trump. They also got the same results in the swing states. It predicted the same result 10 months ago, but that was perhaps less of a surprise then than now, given the extraordinary events that have happened since and the direction the polls have taken more recently.

Clearly this is massively counter to what most of the polls are saying. They’re not political pollsters, haven’t done any fancy modelling, and it can’t account for the vagaries of the US electoral college, so we have to treat it as we should any single number score predicting anything – with a level of caution and objectivity.

But this data from a brand measurement company is worth pondering. Their method is based on how people make instinctive, automatic decisions when choosing brands. It asks people to make quick choices between options, so factors in the power of emotion and the cognitive biases which affect people’s choices in ways other methods can’t:

  • Fame: if a brand comes readily to mind, it’s a ‘good’ choice
  • Feeling: if I feel good about a brand, it’s a ‘good’ choice
  • Fluency: if I recognise a brand quickly, it’s a ‘good’ choice

The thing about this method is that it can reveal people’s actual preferences vs their stated preferences – which is possibly why it’s historically proved capable of getting closer to predicting people’s genuine preferences, especially when there may be social pressure not to reveal them, which traditional polling and market research has problems with.

Trump’s obviously more famous, he has stronger ‘distinctive brand assets’ (or ‘fluent devices’ if you prefer their jargon to Prof. Byron Sharp’s), and no matter how we in marketing’s liberal bubble feel about him, he makes millions of people in the US feel good about their lives.

And let’s not forget that even the experts like those at Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com acknowledge that the pollsters could get things wrong even with whatever adjustments they’ve made to the models. Nate Silver also points out that even a chance of 12 in 100 is still a meaningful chance:

“A little worse than the chances of rolling a 1 on a six-sided die and a little better than the chances that it’s raining in downtown Los Angeles. And remember, it does rain there. (Downtown L.A. has about 36 rainy days per year, or about a 1-in-10 shot of a rainy day.)”
Source: https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/2020-election-forecast/

I’ll admit that when I first saw System1’s data yesterday I was surprised. In fact I felt a miniature, scaled-down version of the feelings I experienced, along with many others, twice in 2016.

Then the rational thoughts kicked in. Questioning the polls. Asking how it is that pollsters get things wrong. And when they do get it right how we often don’t believe them because they don’t conform to our own world views.

And then I remembered what everyone in the marketing world said back in 2016 about how we all had to learn lessons from the Brexit and Trump votes. About how we all had to get out of our Soho and social media bubbles, into the real world, begin to listen to how ‘real’ people really feel, and re-orient ourselves and our marketing towards them.

This is a useful reminder that despite our good intentions back in 2016, most of us, including me, perhaps haven’t spent the last four years doing that as well as we might. Have we really listened as hard as we could? Have we tried new, innovative ways to unpick how they really feel? Or have we just retreated back into our bubbles like 2016 never happened?

On a professional level, System1’s very close prediction is a useful reminder of some marketing fundamentals.

We are not the audience.
We have only one master and it’s our consumers.
They have only one true master and that’s their feelings.

As David Ogilvy famously said, “People don’t think what they feel, don’t say what they think and don’t do what they say.”

We have to stop paying lip service to this ever-green wisdom. In marketing we’re still mostly asking people to tell us what they’ll do. We have to get serious about listening to how they feel.

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Look out for my next piece coming soon:

Scaling up without screwing up: when a scale-up brand makes its first foray into TV advertising it can be a nerve-wracking time for the team involved. So here’s a practical, evidence-based point of view on this critical moment, including new analysis of the drivers of creative effectiveness of 550 new ads by 200 new-to-TV brands vs established brands.

The Greatest Hits of Binet and Field

I compiled the most important and useful charts in the work of advertising’s ‘Godfathers of Effectiveness’, Les Binet & Peter Field, in this piece, first published by the IPA in 2018.

Please download them, use them, share them.

No two individuals in the history of advertising have done as much to uncover its overall commercial impact as Les Binet & Peter Field.

For people who care about advertising effectiveness, doing our jobs without their work is inconceivable. They have provided so much evidence of so many fundamentals: the strong relationship between share of voice and share of market, the causal link between levels of creativity and advertising’s effectiveness, the need to balance long-term brand-building with short-term sales activation, the exceptional commercial impact of emotional and fame-driving communications, to name just a few.

But if I had one wish, it would be that their work was even more famous, could make even more of a difference to even more marketers and their brands, especially to people who are specialists in performance marketing and social channels, who may not have been brought up on their work.

Which is why I wanted to select my own ‘Greatest hits’ from their huge back catalogue. These are the charts that have proved most popular with strategists, and most enduring and useful in persuading CMOs, CEOs and wider stakeholders of the commercial value of brand-building communications. Here they are: