Marketing, the tragedy of the commons and cold turkey

After a panel session on Direct Marketing I wonder if we should stop looking for miracle cures for ailing brands, and instead encourage them to go cold turkey, prolong their confusion, and keep asking searching questions - to find a real sense of purpose to outlast the easy gimmickry of the admen.
Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

Alongside fellow blogger, Chris Lawer, and several industry luminaries I took part in a panel session at the Direct Marketing Show yesterday. The theme was the Nuisance Factor – the increasingly negative image Direct Marketing has among an irritated public.

It was a good debate and most people acknowledged the problem for DM: that’s it’s getting harder and harder to get results from a sceptical public, and the industry’s activities put its practitioners even lower in the public perception than estate agents.

What I see is a sort of tragedy of the commons. Each attempt by marketing to break through the noise sufficiently to engage customer attention just adds to the level of that noise, increasing the irritation and reducing future effectiveness. I might add that the crass nature of many mailshots hardly helps (see this article I penned a few months back: Taking the Gloves Off)

A common response – one we saw in the session – is for marketers to throw their hands in the air and say “but how else can we sell our service?”. The trouble is, for as long as marginal economics encourage them to keep churning out direct mail, they’ll never really ask the question with genuine interest in an answer – as opposed to just asking it rhetorically.

Anyone for Cold Turkey?

I guess that many alcoholics would say “Yes, I know booze is bad for me, but I won’t give it up until I have a substitute!”. There is a (perfectly human and understandable) fear of stepping into the unknown. The temptation is to try to offer DM-aholics the examples of brands that succeed without clumsy push-branding. (And these tend to be the usual suspects… Pret a Manger in the UK, Southwest Airlines, Patagonia blah blah blah).

But I wonder if that is too glib. After all, one of the most interesting characteristics of these brands is that they have been extensively documented and rarely replicated. I think perhaps that failing organisations may have to do the cold turkey, brave the unknown, and ask themselves some searching questions about the value they offer before they can escape the collective dive to the bottom of the barrel.

Yesterday, Chris made the excellent suggestion that one way to differentiate would be for a firm to make a public announcement that it would forswear all advertising and direct marketing and put the budget instead into improving the customer experience. A quick show of hands showed most of the audience was not up for such a strategy. I said that for the few who did put their hands up, this was excellent evidence that they were right – and most businesses would be too frightened to try it.

I think the problem is that too many businesses are selling products without conviction and passion; they stick to the safety of the known. Example: nearly all banks in Britain blather on about targeting the mass affluent, and about customer service. Few, if any, have anything very different to say about their motivation for saying so, or demonstrate any genuine passion for their work. (Kudos to The Cooperative Bank as a notable exception)

I think most brands in some kind of crisis daren’t prolong their confusion. They won’t take the time to really engage in searching conversations with their stakeholders about their purpose. Instead, often under pressure from the teenage scribblers, they reach out for an noisy promotional solution from the admen, making grand promises to the public whilst their staff look on, bemused or downright cynical. I fear this has been, and will continue to be, the fate of Marks and Spencer and Sainsbury’s here in Britain.

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