Backseat Driving your Marketing Department

Imagine this scenario: You are sitting in an executive staff meeting where the development engineer is showing a prototype of your company’s new product.

Frank, the CEO, is the first to speak up. “Why is that a 220 ohm resistor on that LED? I remember building a science project using LEDs when I was in high school and we used a 330 ohm resistor.”

Tania, the head of HR, is next to comment. “It seems to me that there are just too many parts. Why do we need all those? It just makes it harder to assemble and more likely to break.”

And finally, Suzanne from IT pipes up. “I’m going to take this design home and show it to my kid. He has an excellent eye for mechanical stuff. He can probably suggest a couple of changes without going through that whole cumbersome design process. We need to be more agile.”

Ridiculous, isn’t it? And yet this often happens in entrepreneurial start-ups when the marketing person rolls out the new message strategy, logo, or engagement campaign. Engineering, IT, Finance and even HR are all treated as professions requiring years of training and adherence to processes and methodologies, but in these companies marketing is treated like something anyone can do. Why is that?

I think there are three reasons. First, the work product of marketing is less tangible. It consists of message architectures, strategies, and plans. Even the most tangible outputs are simply stories, ads and logos. Things that are less concrete seem somehow less valuable.

Secondly, there is the function of marketing. The job of marketing is to influence a target audience to do something, but as humans, we have a very difficult time imagining ourselves in someone else’s shoes. You hear this all the time in statements like “I never go online to make a shopping list before going to the store” or “I wouldn’t ever buy a product in that color.” In fact, most of the tools used by the marketing department are designed to insulate us from just this type of self-projection into the process: focus groups, buyer personas, the Kapferer brand prism, the message house and the creative brief to name a few.

Without these tools, it’s too easy to say “I know what [college kids, grandparents, small business owners] want. I know how to get their attention.” Professional marketers understand this fallacy. They know that the target market does NOT share their world view and will behave in ways that they cannot predict using their own intuition. Keeping yourself, your desires, dreams and attitudes out of the marketing process requires vigilance. Effective marketing comes far more often from the dogged execution of process and tireless research than it does from flashes of insight and genius.

Lastly, the effectiveness of marketing takes time to prove. With a product, you plug it in and it works or it doesn’t. Sure, this is an over-simplification; you still have performance and field reliability issues. But with marketing, it could be weeks or quarters before you know how effective the new messaging is. This makes it hard to demonstrate in a meeting that the CEO’s spouse’s “brilliant idea” doesn’t work.

This isn’t a new problem. In 1962, Avis car rental ran one of the most audacious breakthrough advertising campaigns in American history, “We’re number two, so we try harder.” It was the first time in history that a company had claimed to being anything except first or best.

The legendary Bill Bernbach is credited with creating that campaign, but I believe just as much credit is due Robert Townsend, then CEO of Avis. He issued a company-wide memo stating that “Avis will approve or disapprove, not try to improve, ads which are submitted.” In exchange, Townsend demanded Doyle Dane Bernbach’s best work, not just what they believed Avis would buy.  (You can read the whole story here.)

Avis finally retired the “We try harder” campaign in 2012. In those 50 years, it not only elevated the company’s little-know brand to the status of iconic, it inspired new levels of service and performance from the staff. That’s the kind of campaign you can get if you are willing to give the marketing department control of marketing.