Are you addicted to (marketing) drugs? Find out with this handy guide!

Marketers are trend-aware people. It’s in the job description. If we’re not up on the latest movements in our markets, we’re not doing our job. But what happens when marketers become addicted to trends? No, not trends in fashion or restaurants, but trends in the way we conduct our practice? Management trends come and go in every field (scientific management and waterfall software development come to mind), but marketers seem particularly susceptible to the latest marketing management fad. How can we break the cycle of hype and addiction?


Marketing is addicted to drugs.


Not the chemical kind (we hope), but rather the latest marketing management fad. In the correct dose, these practices help us take advantage of new ideas and improve our performance. But marketers have addictive personalities. It’s so easy for us to slip into groupthink precisely because we don’t think we are vulnerable. In fact, our addictions ebb and flow in predictable cycles, afflicting us long before Gartner coined the “Hype Cycle”. Once modern marketing emerged from the aftermath of World War II, it has drifted from one drug addiction to the next. Oh sure, in the beginning, everything was great. We could handle it! We had it under control. But then we started to overreach. We hit rock bottom. We recovered…just long enough to try the next drug. The first sample was free. This time, it would be different.


But it’s never different. Only by understanding our history can we liberate ourselves from it. Let’s take a fun trip back down memory lane to help us see how far we’ve come…and how far we have yet to go. In the end, we’ll be better prepared to say no to drugs and refocus marketing where it belongs.


The 60s: Ego as the Marketing Drug

The 1960s were the Mad Men era, when slick hair and smoky rooms ruled the world of advertising. (The term “marketing” certainly existed, but it was advertising that drove the conversation—not product development, pricing strategies, or sales channels.) At the end of the second World War, pent up demand meant a growing market for all manner of consumer goods, from cars to cigarettes. The advertising industry exploded to meet the demand in the 1950s, but by the 1960s, organizations couldn’t get away with basic “features and functions” advertising. The market had become too competitive. The best of the best in the advertising world could command nearly any amount of money and get away with nearly any indiscretion…as long as sales kept coming. The real business was ego, and business was good.


What was good about “Ego Marketing”?


Creativity blossomed as competition between top talent and top firms pushed marketing to new heights. That era saw the creation of truly iconic and enduring imagery, shaping our perception of what advertising is to this day.


What was bad about “Ego Marketing”?


Advertising was the sole domain of privileged, white men. If that wasn’t you, you didn’t get a say. Advertising of all stripes reflected that reality. One could say marketing simply reflected the world as it was, but it is just as easy to say marketing shirked its responsibility to show us a better one.


How to tell if your company is addicted to the “Ego Marketing” drug:


  • Does your creative strategy begin (and end) with “Whatever the CEO says, goes”?
  • Is the chance your advertising or PR campaign will win an award more important than how it will influence your target audience?
  • Are you still running ads with racial slurs or gender stereotypes? Has your company hired … ahem … “models” to work at your tradeshow booth?



The 70s: Actual Drugs as the Marketing Drug

The 1970s were a weird time. Can we all agree that we made a lot of mistakes and that we’d rather let this decade go? Okay? Moving along…



The 80s: Creative as the Marketing Drug

The 1980s was the era of big hair, big colors, and big stars. For those of us who came of age in that decade, we remember it as a time of excess driven by optimism. The 1980s saw the earliest versions of database marketing, relationship marketing, Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software, pricing optimization, and multi-channel strategy. All the technology and ideas we take for granted today were born in the heyday of Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan. Marketing sophistication—especially as it related to audience segmentation—stood in sharp contrast to the zeitgeist of the era: Big advertising. A holdover from earlier times, this was the last time you saw unidirectional strategies. But oh, what a creative time it was!


What was good about “Creative Marketing”?


Marketing served a unifying purpose in society, helping to create a common experience. Coca Cola wanted to give happiness and harmony to the world, and Pepsi taught us all how to do the moonwalk!


What was bad about “Creative Marketing”?


Just like Michael Jackson’s infamous hair-catching-fire episode, the age of “big commercials” had reached its peak. Yes, we fawn over SuperBowl ads today, but the secret to driving return on investment is micro-targeting. Big ads get attention. Small ads get sales. Big creative strategy, without big follow up, is a good way to waste big money.


How to tell if your company is addicted to the “Creative Marketing” drug:


  • Have you been asked to “Do one of those ‘viral videos’”?
  • Have you ever bought the biggest ad in your trade journal? Secured the biggest booth space at your trade show? Rented the biggest building for your headquarters?
  • Are you obsessed with your partnerships with the “biggest names” in your industry because you are hoping for “halo effect”?


The 90s: Brand as the Marketing Drug

Business schools finally wrested control of marketing from its advertising and journalism roots. Yes, those fields still had a role to play, but “Promotion” was only one of the four “Ps” of marketing. Product Management, Pricing Optimization, and Place (Distribution Channel) Management balanced advertising and communications as part of a successful marketing mix. But studying and mixing the 4Ps was as sexy now as it was then: not very. We needed a way to combine what we remembered and loved about marketing with what marketing was in the process of becoming. Enter “brand”. While originally a simple idea to identify one manufacturer’s goods from another for taxation and regulatory purposes (see “The 1890s and before” in a future article) the concept of brand came to symbolize the entire experience of a company and its goods and services. It was easy for the average employee to understand – and act on – in whatever capacity they worked.


What was good about “Brand Marketing”?


Marketing filtered throughout the entire organization, unifying its strategy at all levels. Each employee could ask herself, “Is this ‘on brand’ or ‘off brand’?” and make a good tactical decision based on a defined strategy.


What was bad about “Brand Marketing”?


While the broad application of marketing was positive, in many organizations, that breadth diluted its role. Everything was “brand”, which meant that nothing was brand. The word became a running corporate joke to symbolize everything wrong with image over substance.


How to tell if your company is addicted to the “Brand Marketing” drug:


  • Does your company talk about its “brand” without a clear definition of what it is? And more importantly, what it is not?
  • Are the only people in the company who understand “brand” your communications staff? If you asked people on the shop floor what it was, could they tell you?


The 00s: Social as the Marketing Drug

If the business schools took over marketing in the 1990s, the communicators took it back in the first part of the new millennium. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this revolution was led by the Millennial generation, who saw the potential in new social media—at first MySpace and AoL, and later Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, YouTube, and LinkedIn. Seemingly in an instant, all other marketing seemed decidedly old fashioned. Using social media, marketers could bypass traditional media channels (newspapers, radio, outdoor and television) and reach individual people, directly, one to one. This was a revolutionary idea. Up to that point, one-to-one marketing had a different name: sales. Marketers reached “audiences” and sales reached “people”. But this revolution in social media marketing meant those lines blurred or disappeared.


What was good about “Social Marketing”?


In the era of social media, marketers could engage with their audiences directly, unfiltered. This led to surprising two-way and multi-way conversations, increasing the speed and efficiency of interactions. In the early days, you could accomplish what you needed to with sweat equity, not hard cash, loosening marketing budgets and providing real-time flexibility.


What was bad about “Social Marketing”?


Many organizations couldn’t understand the key idea behind social media—increased, authentic engagement—and misinterpreted it as a technical revolution. They saw social as “free” and “tangential”, and hence, allowed their most junior employees to “manage” their “social presence”. It should have been precisely the opposite; the most senior marketing professionals should have been the ones to own social, leaving their less experience colleagues to manage the well-running ship in their stead.


How to tell if your company is addicted to the “Social Marketing” drug:


  • Is your most experienced marketer in charge of the day-to-day social interactions? Or your most junior?
  • Do you think social media is “free”? Are you discounting the time invested by staff?
  • Are you truly engaging in two-way and multi-directional conversations with real people? Or do you “broadcast” or “schedule” your social media posts through some “automation system”?


The 10s: Data as the Marketing Drug

It was engineering’s turn with marketing, and while they weren’t exactly against creative approaches, their nature meant they gravitated to things they could measure: impressions, leads, form submissions, retweets. With sophisticated software and rigorous A/B testing, engineers and data scientists tore down a wide variety of faulty assumptions and “gut feel” that still dominated some corners of marketing. As the decade ends, the data-centric approach that used to be the sole purview of only the largest organizations may be found in even the smallest. Data democratized marketing effectiveness. But in the rush to quantify marketing, this decade has undervalued qualifying marketing. Just because something isn’t (easily) measurable doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. What’s more, as access to technology democratizes, it also commoditizes. When everyone has access to the tools, they lose their ability to provide meaningful differentiation.


What was good about “Data Marketing”?


The age of “gut feel” is officially over. Effective marketing will never again fall prey to unmeasurable objectives and “Herding Cats” advertising. At least, successful marketing won’t. Data science has become a prerequisite for all graduating college seniors, freshly minted MBAs, and continuous education.


What was bad about “Data Marketing”?


Quantification without ethical restraint is a recipe for abuse…and that is precisely what happened. Audiences are rebelling against the unfettered and unrestricted use of their data to manipulate their emotions, opinions, and votes. As they take power back, they risk destabilizing the media marketplace. The EU’s GPDR regulations are the canary in the coal mine. Fancy dashboards don’t work without access to consumer data.


How to tell if your company is addicted to the “Data Marketing” drug:


  • Are you obsessed with fraction of a percentage differences in email response rates…when you’re only sending out 200 emails per month?
  • Is data the “last word” in your marketing decision making? Is it more important than your mission? Than your customer relationship? Than your ethics? Will you do whatever it takes to get that last percentage point?
  • Does everyone use terms such as “statistical significance”, “P-values”, and “multi-variate testing” without being able to define them?


Marketing’s Recovery Plan: Say no to drugs. Start putting people first.


It’s fun to play with a new toy. We think we grow out of that when we become adults, but we don’t. Anything new tends to capture and hold our interest better than the same old thing. What makes it difficult is that each of the marketing “drugs” — ego, creative, brand, social, and data — had their place. They all pushed marketing forward. In their own way, each of them remains important to a successful marketing practice. Even more challenging, our world continues to evolve, with new drugs tempting us from dark alleys. What is to say that in 2020, we won’t simply become addicted to a new “drug”? Maybe it will be “voice” or “AI” or “VR” … or something completely unknown right now? After all, that’s been the pattern.


But smart marketers will say no to drugs, no matter what anyone else does. They won’t buy into the hype. They’ll stave off addiction by reminding themselves that a focus on people is what makes marketing special. If we start with a human being, we’ll stay centered and select the right tool from a full set of options.


People are the only marketing drug that matters.


Jason Voiovich has more than 20 years of experience in both agency and corporate roles. His clients ran the gamut from startups to global Fortune 500 organizations. Jason received his B.S. in Communications from the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, his M.A. in Strategic Communications from the University of Minnesota, and Executive Education in data analytics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Do you feel good about focusing on people, but need a little more guidance on exactly HOW to do that? That’s why I wrote the upcoming book Rehumanizing Marketing. It’s for smart marketers who want to get off the decades-long treadmill of fads and follies and create sustainable careers, delighted customers, and a better world.

Jason T Voiovich

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