Bob Hoffman
Mar 23, 2021

The road to reality: A treatise about marketing delusions

THE AD CONTRARIAN: We spend 100% of our marketing energy and dollars on the largely ineffectual exercise of trying to control consumer behaviour, and 0% of our resources trying to cope with the realities of consumer behaviour.

(Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.”

This got me thinking. First it got me thinking about politics, economics and society. Then it got me thinking about marketing. I’ll spare you the political, economic, and social part, but I think I may have something worth thinking about when it comes to marketing.

This will be a very small dissertation with a very large ambition: to change every marketing plan in the world. Of course, it won’t. But if I’m right—and I think I am—it really ought to.

1. What if we’re wrong?

The marketing and advertising industry, like every other industry, operates on a set of principles and assumptions. But what if some of the key principles and assumptions are wrong?

I want to present you with the thesis that some of the most widely believed tenets of our industry are wrong, and that there is an alternate way to think about what we do that may be far more productive.

I believe we marketing people have created a fantasy world and have structured our endeavors, our strategies, and our activities as if the fantasies were true.

In other words, some of the principles and assumptions that we have constructed about our discipline are suspect, and consequently may be highly wasteful and misguided. This is an audacious assertion, but before you dismiss it out of hand, I hope you will hear me out.

Let’s start by defining the fantasies.

I think we have constructed a fantasy land in which brands are far more important to consumers than they actually are. In our fantasy land, consumers want to 'join the conversation' about brands; they want to have 'relationships' with our brands, and if we’re lucky, they experience 'brand love'.

Also in our fantasies consumers want to engage with our 'content', they are hungering for 'more relevant advertising', they are attracted to advertising that is 'more personalised'.

My work in the advertising industry has convinced me of the opposite. It seems to me that most people are perfectly happy having the shallowest of connections to us. They are quite satisfied just to buy our products from time to time and then forget about us. They focus their passions on their lives, not peanut butter, pop tarts, or paper towels.

The facts of consumer behaviour back this up. The segment of a major brand’s customer group that engages with the brand in any but the most transactional way is tiny. In fact, it is infinitesimal. They buy, and move on.

For the most part, nobody cares very deeply about our pickles, our half-and-half, our mayonnaise, our cookies, our tires, our pencils, chewing gum, toothbrushes, umbrellas, dishwashers, napkins, toasters, gasoline, horseradish, dental floss, paper towels, golf balls, shoe laces, pillows, deodorants, nail clippers, furniture polish, frozen chicken strips, lamps, potting soil, bathing caps, glassware, clocks, fungicide, dish towels, cat litter, sun block, cookie dough, motor oil, light bulbs, ironing boards, fire insurance, coffee filters, pillow cases, mouthwash, vacuum cleaner bags, and shower curtains. I’m sorry. They just don’t.

Most marketers have a hard time recognising that while their brand is vitally important to them, it is of little consequence to their customers. If you're a marketer and you believe people love your brand because they happen to buy it, you're kidding yourself.

As Byron Sharp has demonstrated, much of what we call 'brand love' and 'brand loyalty' is simply habit, convenience, mild satisfaction or easy availability. Are some consumers strongly attached to a few brands? Sure they are. But remember, we each participate in hundreds of product categories and are strongly attached to maybe a handful of brands.

I promise you, if Pepsi would disappear tomorrow, most Pepsi 'brand lovers' would switch to Coke with very little psychological damage.

Nike loyalists would throw on a pair of Adidas without having to enter rehab.

Big Mac lovers would cheerfully eat a Whopper without the need for counseling.

If your brand is not available, most of your customers will be quite content to buy another. In fact, a study by Havas Group reported that consumers would not care if 75% of the brands they use disappeared.

Your deepest desire is to be loved. But most of your customers don't love you and never will. Sadly, spending time and money trying to get them to love you is largely a waste of energy and resources. Even if they do 'love' you, they probably don't buy your product any more frequently than your customers who don't 'love' you (once again, see Professor Sharp.) Nonetheless, striving for 'brand love' is the centerpiece of many expensive marketing strategies and activities.

2. What’s wrong with having a fantasy?

One of the most pernicious effects of operating in fantasy mode is that it gives us the illusion that we can control things that we can’t really control.

In our fantasy land we are not just sales agents, we are 'brand architects' and 'cultural anthropologists' and 'relationship scientists'. It seems that the more ineffective marketing becomes, the more preposterous our job descriptions become.

When we believe there are large swathes of the population with whom our brand has a 'personal relationship' and who are 'joining conversations' about our brand because they have an emotional commitment to it, we are entering a world in which we believe our influence is far greater than it actually is.

Ten years ago, we were treated to a glorious vision of the future of our industry. The ensuing decade was expected to be one of the most fruitful and productive in the history of marketing. We had amazing new tools and amazing new media that we never had before. This meant, we were sure, that:

  • Our ability to personalise advertising and reach consumers one-to-one was sure to make advertising more relevant, more timely, and more likable.
  • Our ability to listen to consumer conversations through social media and react quickly couldn’t help but connect brands more closely with their customers.
  • The opportunity for people to interact with media was certain to make advertising and marketing more engaging.

And yet, by the near unanimous opinion of marketing professionals, marketing has gotten less effective, not more. Advertising has gotten worse, not better. Rather than creating materials that are more relevant, more timely and more likable, we are creating materials that are more annoying, more disliked, and more avoided.

A headline in The New York Times recently asserted, “The Advertising Industry Has A Problem. People Hate Ads.” Research indicates that regard for our industry is at a new low. It’s gotten so bad we have half the trustworthiness of lawyers.

I would like to propose that a contributing element to the deterioration of marketing and advertising effectiveness is our misunderstanding of the role that brands play in the lives of our customers. Once again, I would like to state that because brands are vitally important to us, we must not assume they are of significant personal interest to consumers. They overwhelmingly are not.

But don’t believe me. Let’s do an experiment. Let’s use you as an indicator of the depth of consumer involvement with brands. Let’s have a look at your behaviour and see how it correlates with the practices and beliefs of our industry.

I want you to start by thinking about your refrigerator. Think about all the stuff that’s in there: The cheese, the juices, the jelly, the butter, the beer, the soda, the mayonnaise, the bacon, the mustard…

Now think about your pantries. The cereals, the beans, the napkins, the flour, the detergent, the sugar, the rice, the bleach, the paper towels…

Next your bathroom cabinet. The toothpaste, the pain relievers, the shampoo, the soap, the bandages, the deodorant, the cosmetics…

Now your closet and dresser. Your socks, your underwear, your shirts, your pajamas, your swimsuit, your t-shirts, your sweaters, your pants…

Now your car. The battery, the tires, the wiper blades, motor oil, gasoline, the air filter, the muffler…

Now answer these questions:

  • Do you share branded content about any of this stuff?
  • Do you feel personally engaged with these brands?
  • Do you join the conversation about any of this stuff?
  • Do you co-create with any of these brands?
  • Do you feel like you are part of these products 'tribes' or 'communities'?

If you don’t, why do you believe that anyone else does? Because some marketing big shots say so? Because your boss says so? Because all the people around you say so? All this questionable 'brand involvement' ideology is the delusional framework on which a great deal of marketing strategy is currently constructed.

3. The real world

The real world is a harsh and unwelcoming place for marketers.

In the real world, consumers are massively not joining conversations about our brands. They are not committed to having relationships with them. They do not want to engage with our content, and they are not fascinated by our brand stories. They do not consider themselves part of a community or tribe that has our brand at the center.

According to Nielsen, 46% of consumers say they are more likely to change brands than they were just five years ago. Only 8% say they are strongly brand loyal. Our world is not what we believe it is or what we would like it to be.

If you want to test the thesis that we have lost touch with the real world, try this experiment. Go into any pub and explain to the assembled crowd that you work in marketing and that you are a brand storyteller and you want to study their 'customer journey'. It shouldn't take much more than 30 seconds to get your ass handed to you.

The ideas we have about our customers’ involvement with our brands are largely fantasies. And yet they are the bedrock upon which we have built an entire ideology of marketing communication.

4. Coping versus controlling

The sad truth is, our relationship with the consuming public consists of a great many realities we have to cope with, and very few we can control.

But our marketing activities do not account for this. We spend 100% of our marketing energy and dollars on the largely ineffectual exercise of trying to control consumer behaviour, and 0% of our resources trying to cope with the realities of consumer behaviour.

The elements of markets and consumer behaviour that we can control are tiny. Those we cannot control are enormous. And yet, if I may paraphrase Mr Vonnegut, everyone wants to control and no one wants to cope.

This leads me to the point of this treatise. It is my view that we should be approaching marketing communication from a completely different angle.

We should be answering this question: If it is true that involvement with our brand is not what marketing traditionalists believe it to be, what are the ramifications for…

  • How we spend our marketing dollars?
  • Where we spend our marketing dollars?
  • How we position our products?

In other words, everything that marketing-communication people are doing should be analyzed through a hard-nosed assessment of real-world consumer behaviour, not the rosy lens of traditional brand and marketing thinking.

How do marketing practices need to evolve if we accept that, for the most part, consumer relationships with brands are more transactional than emotional?

Formulating our marketing and advertising activities from a real-world perspective may lead to startling insights and revolutionary strategies. Or it may convince us that our current efforts are on the right track. Or, most likely, it will lead to a little of each.

In any event, it will be an invaluable check on the dubious assumptions that are currently underpinning our marketing efforts.  


Bob Hoffman is the author of several best-selling books about advertising, a popular international speaker on advertising and marketing, and the creator of 'The Ad Contrarian' newsletter, where this first appeared, and blog. Earlier in his career he was CEO of two independent agencies and the US operation of an international agency.

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