Clutching at Straw Men

“Gone are the days when…”  It’s an old game, but it’s still played frequently.  How many times have you read an article, or seen a presentation, that introduces a new idea, or way of doing things, that is contrasted to how it – inappropriately – used to be done?  Except that when you think about the supposedly defective representation of the past being given, you realise what a fallacious picture is being painted.  In other words, it’s a straw man.

A leader in a marketing trade journal a few years ago included the observation that “In the past, it was enough simply to do your job well; now, marketers must think about the skills needed for the future.”  I wonder which period in time the leader writer had in mind – was there ever likely to have been a time when this was not true of marketers?  A feature in the same journal stated that “The days when corporations could hide behind process and corporate jargon are long gone.”  It is not entirely clear what “process and corporate jargon” actually are, but it was always possible to discover which corporations owned which brands and were responsible for which services.  Whilst the advent of the digital age has certainly made it easier to ‘peek behind the curtain’, those companies that wish to try to obfuscate will continue to try to do so.

In another journal, a communications agency contributor offered her views on the options now available to get on to a customer’s consideration list: “Until now, challengers had just two strategies to do so: invest in extra share of voice and/or in award-winning creativity.” Even if the writer was writing solely about advertising, which she was not, the assertion would not hold true – effective advertising does not have to be award-winning to be highly efficient at quite low ratings and there has been a wide choice of media to achieve cut-through against chosen segments for a long period of time.  In any case, marketers stretching back up to 50 years ago could extol the success they have found in options such as PR, sponsorship, sales promotion, packaging, point-of-sale, pricing, distribution and – most obviously – the core product or service.

We read about new insights such as the fact that demographics are not the best or only way to segment markets (an ‘insight’ to be found back in the 1970s) or that marketing needs to be ‘customer-focused’ (a similar revelation to discovering that HR is concerned with employees, or Finance with accounts).

An article in a trade journal a while back quoted the chief executive of the CIM saying that “marketing now has a wider definition.  It’s about representing the customer’s voice within the business and anticipating and satisfying their requirements.  It’s more about developing products, services and new markets as opposed to just ‘selling’ products and services through promotional activities such as advertising”.  This is not a “wider definition”: it’s what marketing, and the CIM’s own definition of it, has always been about.

Is all this misrepresentation, illustrated in these examples, due to laziness – an unwillingness to find out about the reality of the past?  Is it ignorance, based upon a genuine misapprehension about what has gone before?  Is it a deliberate attempt to mislead in order to try to boost an argument?  Or is it a sign of a weak proposition requiring the establishment of a much greater contrast than in reality exists?

Paul Feldwick, an experienced practitioner and commentator on advertising, commented in a piece in Market Leader in 2015: “The idea that ‘the world has changed and the old rules no longer apply’ has long been popular in marketing and advertising”.  He concludes his analysis of how there is an ongoing tendency to claim a much greater difference between the past and now by saying: “Our ability to decide clearly where we want to go in the future, I now believe, depends first of all on our understanding of where our predecessors have already been…we do not need to reinvent endless wheels”.

Frequently in life, we tend to find that most alternatives are not black and white, but shades of grey.  Yet, much like our adversarial political and legal systems, it is so much easier – perhaps even more fun – to paint the choices (and the present or future compared to the past) as being starkly different from each other.  There is no question that the marketing communications landscape looks very different to 20 years ago in terms of the tactical tools that are available; in strategic marketing terms, however – which is actually what really counts in marketing – very little has changed.

This has direct relevance to marketing planning too.  Learning from the past to avoid repeating errors, discovering successful initiatives (and the reasons why), securing objectivity on the brand and its history, and providing continuity, are all valuable components of the planning audit phase.  The most successful, and profitable, strategy is frequently the one that is based upon insights gleaned from the past and then adapted to the current market environment, rather than a wholesale (and often short-lived) reinvention based upon a mistaken assumption that ‘that was then and this is now’.

I’d love to hear about your examples of straw men!

Check out the ‘How to’ resource library for a comprehensive range of documents relating to the preparation of marketing plans, as well as the practical and conceptual issues surrounding their preparation and role within the organization.  The resources include some downloadable templates and guides.



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