Marketing IS the product

Marc Michaels

Issue 25 | December 2012

Most evaluation of marketing activity largely revolves around the premise that there is a cause and effect that can be observed through measurement of the impact of our stimulus on the recipient (the member of the public of the business person) and what they know, think, feel, intend, talk about and do as a result.

There are clearly correlations between the marketing inputs and these outcomes which are evident and we assume to be causal. Indeed, it is to our advantage to believe this – otherwise how would we defend our marketing budgets? We thus all assume that our communications are having an effect that will change behaviours in the short or even long-term.

However, as direct marketers know, quite often our marketing is not necessarily changing someone’s behaviour but instead it is providing information that allows someone to act more promptly on a pre-disposition they already have. And, as we know people are often not swayed by logic or even emotion but have often made a gut decision (system 1 thinking) before any of the marketing stimuli come into play. As a result they are then selecting alternatives courses of action from a much reduced list of options having already rejected many courses purely on autopilot. Humans are ‘hard-wired’ to make their own choices and it is therefore hard to affect people from the outside.

This raises a key question for marketers? Are we actually measuring our ability to change people’s behaviour or are we just aligning ourselves to what people are doing or more importantly want to do already? Are we fooling ourselves as to what is really happening here?

Certainly whilst working as COI’s Director of Direct Marketing and Evaluation in Government, I have seen evidence of this phenomenon. 

A good example was on one programme aimed at poorer families to encourage them to seek affordable childcare - which would allow them to get back into the workforce. Some 70% of people who took the action we wanted them to do admitted in research later that they were going to do it anyway and that we just ‘made them do it quicker’ – in itself no bad thing as they could well have had that intention and just never got around to following through. People are like that.

Similarly on giving up smoking initiatives, the Together CRM programme was born partly out of the knowledge that 80% of people calling the phone line at that time had tried to quit before but didn’t really know how to quit successfully. They already had the intention to quit – indeed in most surveys 70% of people say they want to quit. We didn’t have to motivate or convince them to give up the nasty habit. They had already made that decision. We just had to facilitate their ability to actually do and make them aware of another way they could do it as not everyone wanted to attend local stop smoking groups – which put some people off.

Again in any cohort, there is a small pool of people who might be interested in a career in the uniformed trades such as the Army, Navy, RAF or Police. The research generally indicates that 17-20% would give this some consideration of which 5% are serious and 1% might apply. The decision to be in that 20% is already made well before any marketing might come and try to influence you. Simply put that means 4/5th are already lost and the marketing won’t have any effect at all. It probably won’t even register as it will be blanked out by people who are not receptive to that kind of message.

In behavioural psychology this is referred to as the ‘confirmation bias’. Here people pay little or even no attention to information that challenges their existing beliefs and focus instead on supportive information.

As we have known for some time, a lot of people are attuned to advertising for products they already bought the product as it makes them feel reassured that they have made the right choice, supporting that purchasing decision. They notice it. I think the first time I heard about that was three decades ago in relations to Ford cars. And, I’m sure you will have noticed that once you enter a ‘need state’ for a particular product or service, you suddenly start to see all these brochures, articles and ads for those exact services. Things you wouldn’t even have given the time of day, you suddenly start to see everywhere. They were always there – they didn’t start promoting the service just because you decided to enter the market. You aren’t that important. Sorry.

With the notable exception of some particularly stunning advertising with massive creative cut-through (and these do happen), this suggests that most of the time people select/choose/sift from the myriad of marketing communications they are exposed to in any given day, in part based on whether they fit their agenda or not – i.e. they align. In which case perhaps we need to consider measuring not only the potential impact of our communications to the person, but rather its actual utility or usefulness as a ‘product/service’ in itself  that allows the person to go further in their (already intended) journey 

When making a decision, if we lack the knowledge on a topic we will look for what behavioural psychologists call an ‘anchor’ in order to have some kind of framework to benchmark against and help make the decision and one would argue that part of the role of good marketing communication is to provide these.

At present we often measure the awareness, the relevance (of the subject matter), recall, the impact on beliefs, attitudes and claimed intention or behaviour and response as a result of exposure to the marketing comms to see whether it has been effective against our objectives.

However based on the above argument there is perhaps another route worth exploring in terms of how effective the communication has been for the person – what is the benefit to them – was the marketing useful in terms of:

  1. supporting better decision making for them,
  2. expanding opportunities/possibilities for them
  3. providing reassurance

Was it actually useful information to the information recipient?

‘Did the marketing communication you saw/heard/read/experienced help you make a better decision?’

‘Was the marketing communication you saw/heard/read/experienced helpful in giving you more options?’

‘Did the marketing communication alert you to something you weren’t aware of that would be useful to you?’

‘Did the marketing communication reassure you about the purchasing decision you were about to make?’

‘Would you recommend this marketing communication to a friend or family member who had a similar need?’[1]

These are, perhaps, indicative of the kinds of questions one might want to look at adopting into tracking question sets.

When the Government announced what became known as the ‘marketing freeze’, my then boss, Deputy Chief Executive of the COI, Peter Buchanan suggested that as well as the negative impact the marketing freeze was like to have on policy adoption, recruitment, behaviour change etc. we could explore the possibility that perhaps the public quite liked Government advertising as it kept them informed and they found it helpful. We didn’t pursue this as the media agenda forced us to believe that public opinion was against Government communicating. However it would have been interesting to see if there is some inherent value in communications as a product in itself that provides a Consumer ROI - i.e. it is worth it to them to spend time paying attention to a company’s marketing messages because of the actual utility of the way it has been conveyed.

Am I arguing here that people like being communicated to and welcome those marketing messages? Surely all the media and the pressure groups tell us that people are swamped with unwanted ‘junk’ communications.

Well they may have a point. Sadly much of what goes out into the public arena representing the marketing communities output isn’t great and could be a lot better.

However, direct marketers have always known that for communications to be welcomed by the recipient (and therefore more likely to be acted upon) they need to be timely, relevant and motivating. Perhaps they also need to be inherently useful too.

[1]           This is potentially also a measure of fame and talkability.


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