Whatever happened to Common Sense in Marketing?


Common sense marketing appears to have packed its bags, with marketers being distracted by every new shiny bauble that swims into view. Will common sense marketing make a comeback?



common sense marketing



Marketers are tribal creatures. They walk together, talk together and spend their time fretting about being left behind. When new ideas surface, they flock around and nod approvingly, even when there is little evidence to support the idea. In recent years, marketers have abandoned the ‘scientific method’ and this lack of evidence-based strategic analysis could cost the industry dear. Even the great and good of the marketing tribe are beginning to call into question many of the new concepts and toys that marketers hold dear. Can common sense marketing make a come-back?


Shiny and New


Of course, I would argue that common sense marketing has never really gone away. However, in recent years the marketing tribe has been busy adopting concepts and tactics that are not backed by good data. An example is the widely-held belief that traditional advertising is on its last legs. Some have claimed that even TV as a medium is as good as dead. We are living in a digital age, so the argument goes, and the old ways of marketing were soon to be no more. The problem with this is that the data consistently suggests otherwise, and the ‘tried and tested’ methods of communication are not so ‘tired and rested’ after all. Traditional forms of advertising, including TV advertising, are as strong as ever and the increasing consumption of content viewed on phones and tablet (and even the screen on your fridge door) has not dented consumers’ love of TV.
Part of the problem with the tribe is that they are distracted by every shiny new bauble that comes along. The marketing and wider business press have become obsessed with ‘digital marketing’, and especially social media. Adverts for marketing positions will usually mention the word ‘digital’, even though few know what ‘non-digital marketing’ would look like. All marketing is essentially digital. There should be no distinction. The ‘digital’ of which they speak are merely the tools of communication. Marketers who are obsessed with tactics over strategy are not going to be much use to any business. What would you think of a carpenter who describes himself as a ‘chisel carpenter’?
Not all of the tribal leaders agree with the current orthodoxy. Professor Mark Ritson – who prides himself on cutting through the hype and looking at the evidence – has taken issue with the obsessive use of the term ‘digital’. “It doesn’t make any sense. Name a non-digital medium? Newspapers? Because nobody has ever read a newspaper on a digital device, right? Everything is digital. What do non-digital marketers do in their organisations?” Ritson goes on to quote Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey, who argued that it doesn’t matter what device you use to consume content. “The labels are useless”, he explained whilst speaking at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. “For kids growing up now… it’s all content, it’s just story.”




‘There is no more meaningless divide and obsession than the notion of digital media.’ Tom Goodwin





Tom Goodwin – Senior Vice President of Strategy & Innovation, Havas Media – decried the hollow analysis of the data around rises in ‘digital’ sales in an excellent article for the Guardian newspaper in December 2015, suggesting that in many cases, these sales have just replaced those using other more traditional means. “Do we really choose an airline or book a spontaneous flight because KLM let us do it via Twitter?” He warns against the focus on ‘digital’, suggesting that “the key to measuring success is in measuring the whole picture not the growth of a single channel alone.” For many small businesses, investing time and effort in social media has just not provided a return on investment, though those responsible for marketing in these organisations feel compelled to follow the tribe.
Brand Purpose
Then we come to the really bizarre stuff. Brand purpose is a good example – where companies adopt a higher purpose to their existence in order to shift a few more burgers. Following marketing guru Simon Sinek’s 2009 TED lecture, where he introduced the world to his ‘Golden Circle’, marketers have been falling over themselves to push the ‘purpose’ of a brand as much as the value it brings to the consumer. It was, he argued, critical to the success of any business to communicate why they do what they do, over and above how they do it or even what they do. Like good tribespeople, marketers have taken ‘brand purpose’ to their hearts.




‘No one wants McDonalds to save the world, they just want a decent burger on a Saturday’. Mark Ritson





The problems with brand purpose are obvious to most consumers, but not apparently to marketers. For many consumers, the whole thing just sticks in their throats. Ritson explains the problem with reference to Starbucks, whose mission he suggests is no longer to make coffee but “to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time”. One consequence of this approach was that baristas in stores were instructed to write phrases such as ‘World Peace’ and ‘Race Together’ onto customers’ cups and encourage them to discuss the sentiments expressed. Customers’ reactions were predictable. They just wanted a coffee and the campaign was seen as a cynical marketing ploy. They were right. In this case, the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, admitted that the campaign was a mistake.
However, the problem continues. Ritson demonstrates the vacuous nature of ‘brand purpose’ by listing the adopted slogans of six multinationals and challenges his audience to decide which slogan belongs to which organisation. His conclusion is that the slogans are totally interchangeable and meaningless to the consumer. Try it for yourself. The organisations, in no particular order, are Kellogg’s, Starbucks, Barclaycard, IKEA, Coca Cola and Future Brand:
Let’s make today great!
Inspire moments of optimism
Get more out of today!
Inspire the human spirit
Make everyday life better
Create a more positive future


He places the blame fairly and squarely with the tribe mentality. To some extent, marketers have lost the plot. They have lost their focus on what is most important to the organisations they serve, and that is the commercial imperative to make a profit. Ritson suggests that most marketers do not want to be involved with ‘selling a mildly stimulating sugar water’, but would prefer to be ‘inspiring moments of optimism and happiness’. They are embarrassed to be involved in an activity that lacks a higher purpose. In the end, brands are not “at the centre of the consumers’ world” and that whilst he wants “equality, an end to racism and more loving”, he doesn’t want “corporations involved in the fight”.
The Evidence
The problem with following the shiny baubles is that common sense loses out. There are tried and tested methods of getting your message out there. Not all marketers have a grounding in science, which is something of a shame. The ‘scientific method’ places the need for evidence at its heart. Fads may be attractive, but there should be good evidence that a marketing strategy will work before anyone should commit to it. The problem with modern marketing is that it has become obsessed with the tactics and has lost sight of good evidence-based strategy development.
To be fair, the critics are out there. Easyjet CEO, Carolyn McCall, has recently criticised marketers for the overuse of the word ‘innovation’ – a ubiquitous term, often employed to describe new tactics aimed to deliver non-innovative strategies. Another buzz-word used by marketers – ‘millennials’ – has also been shown to be almost meaningless in terms of market segmentation. The term refers to those born after 1995 and is employed to describe particular traits and attitudes shared by this age-group. The data suggests that this group is no more aligned in terms of its behaviour than any other age group. Millennials, as a group, are heterogenous when analysed using any criteria you might wish to choose. They are not a segment. Yet, you will often hear marketers refer to them as if they were. The concept of the ‘millennial’ is just another bauble, a shiny new buzzword which is, most of the time, unhelpful. Millennials are young – marketers love to target young people – but they usually have less spending power than other age-defined groups.




‘We have a long and illustrious track record of being inanely attracted to the latest flashing knobs of technology’ Mark Ritson




Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is another marketing fad where the evidence fails to stack up. Take Google. In 2015, they were rated the number one company in the world in terms of their corporate reputation (CSR RepTrak 100). This was despite paying just £20 million in taxes on the back of £3 billion generated in the UK in 2013. Legal, perhaps, but hardly reputable. Among the giants in terms of CSR are Volkswagen, whose fraudulent use of ‘defeat devices’ to hide the true emissions from 11 million cars is estimated to be responsible for up to 60 deaths each year in the USA. Despite a strapline of ‘Responsibility knows no boundaries’ on their CSR policy, they have taken great lengths to avoid responsibility and refused to pay compensation in a number of territories around the world. Corporate Social Responsibility is a myth, but it keeps a lot of marketers very busy.
Common Sense Marketing
A client recently forwarded an email to me that they had received from a Marketing Consultancy. In it, the consultant waxed lyrically about utilising ‘digital’, the need to appeal to millennials and the necessity to employ every social media platform under the sun (Facebook, apparently, is considered essential for every business). I sent a reply to my client that posited the following thoughts:
Why is the consultant talking about tactics before they have considered the strategies appropriate for the business?
Why are ‘millennials’ being seen as a homogenous segment that simply must be targeted?
What evidence have they offered to back up their claims?
The problem with so many marketers is that they have an unquestioning allegiance to the tribe. No need for evidence. No critical thinking taking place. No common sense on show. They have a bag of tricks, full of shiny new tools and they just cannot wait to use them on your business, whether they are appropriate or not. And believe me, it will cost you. It will cost you in terms of the money they will spend. It will cost in terms of the time wasted on inappropriate tactics. It will cost in terms of opportunities missed. Here are my suggestions if you are considering employing a marketing consultant.
1. If they mention anything tactical (e.g. social media) before they mention strategy, challenge them.
2. If they use terms like ‘digital marketing’, ask them what a non-digital marketer does all day.
3. If they use the term ‘millennial’ (or any of the other current meaningless buzzwords), kick them out there and then. 
For many small businesses, social media is simply not appropriate. It is a distraction from what genuine common sense marketing can do for the business. There is plenty of evidence to back this up. Many consultants will talk about numbers of followers, but will ignore business essentials such as customer engagement and return on investment. The starting point for any consultant is to conduct a proper audit of what you are currently doing in terms of marketing, and then devise appropriate strategies. Only then, can they consider what tactics are suitable to deliver those strategies and whether that includes tools like social media. And if they blab on about millennials, you really need to show them the door.
Common sense marketing still exists. It is tried and tested. It works. It is about communicating the benefits of your product or service in a cost-effective and targeted way. It is ultimately about achieving your objectives, whatever they are – be that making a profit or providing a good for the community. Small businesses often require specialist marketing help. The needs of SMEs and micro-businesses can be radically different from multinationals and your marketer should have a firm grasp of what makes a small business succeed. That doesn’t always present itself in the marketing courses and marketing degrees, but comes from genuine experience of running a real business.
If you have a small business or SME in the Reading area (or further afield in Berkshire) and are interested in supercharging your business with expert, common sense marketing advice, feel free to contact James for a free initial consultation using the contact page. He will avoid meaningless buzzwords and focus on what will strengthen your business, based upon years of experience with similar companies and a deep understanding of strategic marketing. And he promises to make no mention of millennials.

Image courtesy of Free Images


About JMC

James is a marketing & business development consultant working to develop small businesses along the M4 corridor including Reading, Newbury, Swindon and surrounding towns in Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire.


 07902 290165