Back in 2013, Thomas Piketty published a controversial tome of a book called Capital in the 21st Century (if you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it). Early on in Capital, Piketty makes a provocative claim that goes as follows:
“To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences. Economists are all too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves.”
While reading this quote, I wondered if all words related to “economics” could be replaced with words associated with other disciplines known for having wonky practitioners. Would the conclusion still apply? Maybe this could be a litmus test for bullshit.
Because our day-to-day work at SocialRank revolves around marketing, my Piketty Mad Lib looks like this:
“To put it bluntly, the discipline of marketing has yet to get over its childish passion for brand-building and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences. Marketers are all too often preoccupied with petty “brand equity” problems of interest only to themselves.”
With this re-imagining of the Piketty quote, economics doesn’t appear to be the only “dismal science.” Through our work with brands and our observations on the marketing industry (not to mention our own missteps and delusions), we’ve noticed a couple things.
- There are a lot of smart people doing hard work.
- No one fully knows what’s working and what isn’t.
- In the desperation to figure out what works, the entire industry chases trends. Great ideas become misused, ubiquitous memes.
Racing for Answers to the Wrong Questions
There’s a great work of graphic art by Kosta Kiriakakis that spells out the incredibly important difference between seeking out questions and seeking out answers.
Marketers, much like economists, are often sprinting to find answers.
They want answers to questions like: How can we increase engagement across all our social media channels? What’s the lifetime value of customers acquired through TV ads? What stunt can we pull to get our brand in front of as many people as possible?
But what if these questions themselves are half-hashed or not fully thought-through? There is a natural tendency for ambitious organizations and individuals to be “solutions-oriented,” the side effect of which is perhaps to jump into problem-solving before having a solid understanding of the problem itself.
We make these mistakes at SocialRank almost every day. Our product, marketing, and organizational decisions frequently veer away from constantly asking “Why are we doing this, really?” or “What is our desired effect, and how does that actually help us?” or “Are we only doing this because everyone else seems to be?”
Four Timeless Concepts for Marketers
So we figured we needed something to look back on to ground us. We scoured through a lot of literature written over the past 150 years by playwrights, copywriters, creative directors, marketers, and designers. Through this process, four concepts emerged that appear worthy of inking for posterity.
Hopefully some of you will find them useful in your line of work.
- The Madness of the Crowd
- The Strange Lust for Innovation
- The Horrible Inconvenience of Results
- The Problem of Thoughtless Rigor
1. The Madness of the Crowd
From Charles Mackay (Scottish journalist), Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, 1841:
“We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.”
From Ryan Holiday (former marketing director at American Apparel), Trust Me, I’m Lying, 2012:
“Blogs criticize companies, politicians, and personalities for being artificial but mock them ruthlessly for engaging in media stunts, and blame them for even the slightest mistake. Nuance is a weakness. As a result, politicians must stick even more closely to their prepared remarks. Companies bury their essence in even more convoluted marketing-speak […] Everyone limits their exposure to risk by being fake.”
Takeaway: If trying to game or “hack” a system, realize that its gaze is probably fixated in a particular direction; make sure you’re positioned noticeably within that gaze. In the right hands, this strategy can lead to huge, important changes in the way society is arranged. At a smaller scale, this strategy could lead to big bucks for you and your company.
However, playing this game is risky business if you want to build something truly valuable and sustainable. The things that attract buzz and hype are often the first things to be abused and tossed aside (mostly because the things themselves become reliant on their own hype).
2. The Strange Lust for Innovation
From G.K. Chesterton (English poet and dramatist), The Thing, 1929:
“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
From Bob Hoffman (The Ad Contrarian), Quantum Advertising, 2014:
“Digital has changed delivery systems pipes but it hasn’t changed what’s going through the pipes. Digital advertising looks very much like it did when it was analog.”
Takeaway: Innovation isn’t innovation if you’re just changing the outer appearance of things. Before adding a new feature, or revamping your marketing, or “streamlining” a process, try to understand why the current solution came to be.
Example: The diminishing effectiveness of banner ads.
3. The Horrible Inconvenience of Results
From Rosser Reeves (Don Draper’s inspiration), Reality in Advertising, 1961:
“(Of a new commercial starring a stunning actress) Men noticed her beauty. Women noticed her clothes. Only in the back room of a Copy Laboratory did a fact emerge which must be as old as Ur of the Chaldees. Most people could not remember what the lady had to say.”
From Jonathan Salem Baskin (brand strategist), Branding Only Works on Cattle, 2008:
“Branding is based on an outdated and invalid desire to manipulate and control consumers’ unconscious. It looks good and feels good to the people who produce it, but it has little to no effect on the consumer behavior.”
Takeaway: It really does suck when our most clever work ends up not leading to any real results. It sucks even more when we convince ourselves that our work’s positive results are intangible and immeasurable. Sure, that may be true. But it’s probably not.
Example: DirecTV’s new commercial with the bikini-clad woman and the talking horse.
4. The Problem of Thoughtless Rigor
From Claude Hopkins (pioneering advertiser), My Life in Advertising, 1923:
“We must never judge humanity by ourselves. The things we want, the things we like, may appeal to a small minority. The losses occasioned in advertising by venturing on personal preference would easily pay the national debt.”
From David Kadavy (hacker, designer), A/A Testing: How I Increased Conversions 300% By Doing Absolutely Nothing, 2015:
“Our world needs entrepreneurs with vision, and if they’re busy second-guessing and testing everything (and often making the incorrect decisions based upon these tests), that’s a sad thing for humanity.”
Takeaway: Creative industries often need more rigor and reason in their approaches to solving business problems. However, that doesn’t mean imagination goes out the window or that we begin over-relying on data instead of training our intuitions to become stronger. Leaning on data while not understanding what the numbers are actually saying is more dangerous than not using data at all.
Example: Evony’s sexist display ads for its video game.
These four concepts are by no means conclusive, but together they appear to cover most of the pitfalls of marketing and selling product. We’d like to keep this list updated, so if you have any suggestions on anything else worth adding, please let us know.