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Let’s ladder down

Basics matter – but we will never put them right with our heads in the clouds
What will ensue from this will not be a report, but action: a multidisciplinary programme of improvement so far-reaching and demanding that we will call it ‘extreme basics
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.

Of all the questions marketers and planners routinely ask consumers, the most impertinent has to be: ‘And why does that matter?’

The rudeness stems in part from the fact that those consumers will have diligently answered at least one direct question already. What’s the thing you most look for in a kids’ cereal or indigestion remedy or current account, we ask, in our chosen research setting. And when their answers round on taste, speed of relief and friendly service we duly nod and note and acknowledge.

But we don’t stop there, do we? Because we’re engaged in the marketer’s fetish for laddering up, and this is merely the dull old bottom rung. We’re not really interested in those primary answers. So we probe further: ‘And why does that matter? Why is that important to you, do you think?’

A little slower now, with a bit of shifting in their seats and furrowing around the brows, consumers search their subconscious for the reasons for their reasons and – if only to break the awkwardness of the silence – tentatively begin to offer some. ‘Well, my eight-year-old won’t eat it unless he really loves it, so…’

Ah! And why does that matter? Are you kidding, says the look on the faces. But no, we’re not, we’re heading up the ladder – from taste, to child nourishment, to growth, to being all they can be. From speedy relief, to getting back to my best, to taking on all-comers, to changing the world. From friendly service, to reassurance, to getting on with the things I really care about, to… well, you know where this leads.

We’ll leave the slight absurdity to one side. We’ll park the obvious drawback of convergence – the bottom rungs that all start out different and the top rungs that all end up the same, whether you make silicon chips or oven chips.

What really makes the principle of laddering – with its core ‘why does that matter?’ question – impertinent is the assumption at its heart: that the first, most basic consumer demand has been met. Because the entire conceit is predicated on that, often absent, precondition.

Let’s stick with the metaphor for a little, and see the obviousness of this point. Saw away the first couple of rungs of a real ladder and now try to climb to the top. Or simply render those bottom rungs a bit shaky and see how comfortable you feel making the ascent. The marketing discipline of laddering makes the assumption that all is well down there, and that we have licence to explore the more ‘inspiring’ heights that our brand makes possible.

But is it? Do we? Excuse me while I take a look:

  • The business bank that tries to persuade me that ‘The UK is not an island’ while ensuring I remain grounded when it repeatedly rejects online payments for flights, despite sufficient funds and a healthy credit limit.
  • The mobile service provider that enjoins me to ‘Be unlimited’ but provides no signal in my downstairs home office.
  • The rail company that talks about ‘The great adventure’ and in fact lives up to that claim – but not in the way intended – by keeping me and my fellow passengers guessing not just when, but if, its accursed 08:13 will run today.
  • Or the high street book chain where I recently tried to spend a £50 voucher given to me as a present by my parents. I’m not aware what their higher-order shtick is but, given that what they sell amounts to the sum total of all the poetry, knowledge and literary insight of humankind, they should be able to ladder up to something the size of the universe. But they couldn’t process my book token, so it’s irrelevant. ‘Nope, machine’s not reading it. You’ll have to call the service number on the back.’ Guys, guys – basics.

It’s time for marketers in all categories to embrace the discipline of laddering down. We gather consumers together and start at the top of the ladder, inviting them point-blank to comment on our higher-order proclamations. When faced with their ridicule, bemusement or plain rejection, we’ll ask: ‘And why might that be?’

And down the ladder we’ll come. ‘Because it’s not relevant. It’s got nothing to do with my life.’ ‘And why might that be?’ ‘Because it’s not about giving me what I want, what I look for in products like this.’

And on we’ll go with our downward probing. ‘And why?’ ‘Because the brand’s standards have slipped. Because they’ve not invested enough in ensuring adequate service levels. Because on a daily basis they’re driving me quietly mad.’

And we’ll reverse the normal timings, whereby researchers get through the basics and the gripes as quickly as decently possible to spend more time in the ethereal heights. Instead, we’ll shimmy smartly to the bottom end and deliberately, painfully, settle there, getting the low-down from consumers on each and every one of the niggles, lapses and if-onlys of our current brand offer.

What will ensue from this will not be a report, but action: a multidisciplinary programme of improvement so far-reaching and demanding that we will call it ‘extreme basics’.

Every practical manifestation of our brand will be audited, assessed and put right. From ingredients labelling to call holding; from delivery mechanisms to showroom interiors; from ethical sourcing to real-time servicing. The changes we marketers drive through will be the kind that send shivers down the spines of operations, finance, IT and HR.

But we’ll make our own sacrifices too, both in the exhaustive energies we devote to the programme and our own budgetary contribution: there will be no expenditure on communications or brand development until we are happy that the fundamentals – all of them – are strong.

Only then can we begin the process of laddering up again to life’s great themes. But chances are we won’t want to. Because by then we may already be gaining commercial reward for providing our consumers – possibly for the first time in their lives from our category – with the things that really, basically matter.