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Knee jerk marketing

Too many marketers are fond of making fashionable statements without thinking them through
Decide what it is you stand for, and live up to it, in everything you do, every day that you do it
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

These are the MKJs (marketing knee-jerk statements) that I hear at pretty much every workshop and brainstorm that I moderate. They are harmless in their way, and occasionally some even make sense, but they can also be a symptom of an insidious malaise: creeping obfuscation.

In these tough times, marketers need all the clarity of thought that they can muster. So let’s make an early resolution to resist MKJ s next year – or at least to think before we speak.

MKJ one: We want to be a challenger brand

This was Adam Morgan’s big idea back in 1999, with the publication of Eating the Big Fish, and what a monster it turned out to be. Back then, it was about the little guy out thinking the big guy, but today, marketers of brands of all sizes want to be challengers. Many don’t know what it involves, but they love the way it seems.

The problem is that if they all succeeded, there would be no one left to challenge. What’s wrong with gravitas, leadership and scale? If your brand has those qualities endemically, no amount of’ ‘challenger’ narrative is going to make it seem fashionably alternative, sassy and ‘street’.

MKJ two: We don’t want to be just a problem/solution brand

Someone must once have shown that ‘negative’ branding is bad, and somehow that spilled over into squeamishness about the P-word. If your brand can solve one of life’s problems – colds, breakdowns, stains, pains – then it is a knight in shining armour. Far better to write it large than go all fey and build a positioning around undifferentiated ‘positive’ notions such as ‘liberation’.

MKJ three: We’re looking for a ‘Marmite’

Translation: we are feeling bold and outrageous and want a positioning that, frankly, is going to turn off as many people as it seduces, and we REALLY DON’T CARE about that, in fact we are going to shout it to the hills.

Polarity is much-loved in our industry. However, some of the most successful brands – Ford, Coke, John Lewis – succeed through precisely the opposite strategy: inclusiveness.

MKJ four: We want to be the ‘Apple’ of…

Everyone wants to be Apple. No matter that they make fish fingers, lubricants or face-wipes, the darling of Silicon Valley is the only one to emulate. Trouble is, no one wants to be as crazily obsessive about the micro­detail of product design as the late Steve Jobs. Except, perhaps, the next Steve Jobs. And he/she is unlikely to show up in the fish-finger category.

MKJ five: We want to ‘own’ this concept

What is your brand essence? Freedom? Curiosity? Care? Here’s a tip: don’t try to ‘own’ it. You never will. It is hubris to imagine that a mere commercial fragment such as a brand can ‘own’ pieces of human mental space that have been shaped by a million years of evolution.

Just try to live up to it. In fact, that’s a pretty good mantra to face the future with, no matter how tough things get: decide what it is you stand for, and live up to it, in everything you do, every day that you do it. Better that than a life of worshipping the latest fashionable dictat, on your knees.

Marketing fads and fashions

60s Despite the publication of Levitt’s seminal Marketing Myopia, which called for firms to lift their gaze and reverse-engineer from consumer needs, marketers’ focus was still on selling produced units.


Stationery renamed as ‘office solution’

70s Marketers began selling product benefits rather than attributes; cue the renaming of every piece of stationery as an ‘office solution’.

80s As marketing seeped throughout the firm, and every department’s goal became the addressing of customer needs, an emotional approach gained traction. Brands weaved themselves into consumers’ identities, as Belk’s work highlighted. ‘I shop, therefore I am’ was the consumer’s take on Descartes’ adage.

90s ‘Relationship’ became the new marketing buzzword as high consumer acquisition costs – shown by Kotler to be about five times more than for retention – made the idea of ‘settling down’ with incumbent customers more appealing to brands. Customer lifetime value was suddenly the metric on every manager’s lips.

2000s The social decade: triangular interaction between consumers, other consumers and brands was fostered by the internet and social media. The rise of user-generated content and intrinsic values deepened the relationship to become a fully immersive, all-encompassing brand experience.