I mean, maybe it is if you’re a small business or you sell commodities. In those cases your market is well-defined and your opportunities limited. That’s not to say that marketing isn’t important for businesses like these – it definitely is – it’s just that getting the job done resembles something more like a checklist than a universe of possibilities. It’s like the difference between Super Mario Brothers, where the imperative is to simply move forward and kill the bad guys, and a game like Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto IV, where it’s the player’s job not only to play the game, but to figure out how to play it.
This is what makes our work so exciting, but it’s also what makes it so dangerous. Marketing – more than just about every other function within an organization – is capable of charting its own destiny. But the enormity of that task makes us susceptible to heuristics and groupthink that provide mechanisms for simplifying the vast array of choices marketers must make every day.
How does this work in practice? Well, we’re told Demographic X are the hot new spenders in our category, so we create a plan to capture them. We’re told that Channel Y is what all the cool people are using, so we launch a brand presence right away. And so marketers end up focusing on change rather than levels; on the first derivative rather than the function at hand.
The Ad Contrarian – one of my favorite bloggers on marketing and advertising topics – has a decent example of this in his latest post. The USA’s biggest group of spenders on consumer goods – by far – is our Baby Boom generation, and yet they are a target for a small percentage of advertising. The reason usually given for this is that older consumers are, for various reasons, less effective as advertising targets (they’re more or less brand loyal, they’re more price conscious, they spend less money, etc.). Marketers also believe that marginal dollars are better spent on youth as these dollars will have the greatest impact on lifetime value. But a new study shows that beliefs and preferences remain just as transient in older folks as younger ones – potentially telling us that the dollars of older people are as up for grabs as any other.
In the Ad Contrarian’s telling, this giant market remains untapped because of heuristics and mental shortcuts that are fundamentally misinformed. Boomers are as willing to spend as everyone else, he says, but no one wants their money.
I don’t want to endorse everything he says – for instance, it appears as though the study he cites might have some serious limitations – and I also don’t believe marketers and advertisers are stupid. But the point remains the same: because of the tremendous complexity of our jobs, we’re likely embracing heuristics and shortcuts that cause us to ignore giant growth opportunities, and we should try really hard not to do that.
In addition to the New Years’ Resolutions we’ve already listed, seeing more forest and fewer trees might be one to add.