Kevin Lynch
May 23, 2012

Five things you can do to avoid 'placebo marketing'

Placebo marketing is that which makes marketers feel better but doesn't actually do anything to help the brand. Kevin Lynch, executive creative director at Energy BBDO and senior vice-president and creative lead at Proximity, shares five tips for avoiding it.

Five things you can do to avoid 'placebo marketing'

We’ve all been guilty of it. We’ve launched a campaign that nailed the strategy with flawless executions that had all the target market-relevant cues, and left the online community all a-twitter.

Only, the campaign didn’t actually help.

It didn’t really alter people’s perception of the brand or change their behaviour. And beyond the brand’s biggest fans, it never was as buzz-generating as our case study videos made it out to be.

But what the campaign did was, it made us marketers feel better, because we did everything we were supposed to do. It was placebo marketing.

Placebo marketing happens when we become so insulated in our own objectives, we can’t tell when we’re being dull. And it’s easy to do—we’re surrounded by more false metrics than ever. In fact, I’d argue there’s never been a better time to be delusional.

Of course, being delusional is not always a good thing. So here are a few suggestions to help us avoid Placebo Marketing:

1. Don’t assume attention

When reviewing ideas, our first question is usually, “Is it on strategy?” Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of strategy. Some of my closest friends are strategists. They’re not my funnest friends, but still. But by making strategy our primary criteria when we evaluate work, we develop a cognitive bias that the communication will be successful. We assume if we say the right message to the right audience, the audience will take note. The first question should be, “Will this get attention?” Only then should we move on to the strategy question. Without attention, all else is academic.

2. Don’t over-amplify social-media mentions

Just because ThumbTwirler382 LOL’d at our new campaign doesn’t mean we have a hit. (Conversely, we shouldn’t pull the campaign when @AngusY0ungFan takes offense at our campaign, and rallies his 78 twitter followers to march on our headquarters.) Turning to social media for proof our campaigns are “striking a chord with consumers” is inaccurate at best. In the social-media realm, even mediocre campaigns can look brilliant.

3. Don’t create your own metrics

Our craving for validity makes our industry do funny things. We find momentum in a positive industry review, as if the trades are our real audience. We celebrate being “shortlisted” at award shows, which is like winning except not. And we say things like, “Well, it’s good for the category.” Of course, people don’t view things by category. Until we’re all squandering our days watching The Foot Odor Network, it shouldn’t matter to us that a campaign is breakthrough for the foot odor category.

4. Don’t rely solely on test scores

Focus groups are manufacturing plants for Placebo Marketing. They deliver numbers and verbatims that send us all to sleep resting assured we’ve nailed it. Should testing play a role? Sure. But let’s not use testing as the place where we send unique ideas so they can learn how to act like the rest of the ideas. And let’s recognize even the highest scoring campaigns should come with the same disclaimer found in mutual fund ads: “Past performance does not guarantee future results…” We recently launched a new product with a campaign whose TVC tested poorly. It has become the biggest product launch in the brand’s history. Chalk one up for trusting our guts.

5. Don’t practice incrementalism

Incrementalism is about focusing on nuances we marketers notice that real people won’t. I was once in a meeting where we spent hours debating whether a brand should be “genuine” or “authentic.” In spite of the wide assortment of cookies available, it wasn’t a fun meeting. Spending time on details our audiences won’t perceive can create false perceptions of the work.

We all want to feel good about the work we’re creating. Keeping these points in mind can help assure those good feelings are justified.

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