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Eclectic Thought Samples From Larry Burns

The Need to Refocus Marketing on People’s Needs

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Prompted by the recent news coverage about Hillary Clinton’s statement that she hasn’t driven a car since 1996, I started to think about the disconnect between the elite and the general public, especially how that disconnect relates to recent trends in marketing. Of course, the lifestyle differences between someone who’s constantly in the public eye and an average individual can be drastic, but have we in the marketing industry fallen into a somewhat similar trap? One caveat to all of my writing here: yes, exceptions prove the rule. Do I mean to suggest that ALL marketers are out of touch? Absolutely not. Not yet. It’s the trend I feel out there which concerns me.

It seems that too many marketers in my CPG world are inexorably moving away from the traditional marketing practices through which brands were built. I grew up in the days when marketers engaged with the public to see how products were being used in order to make improvements or changes, or to learn what products customers needed. Even with the advent of rich social data from “real people,” it still appears that too many CPG marketers create products themselves  products that then get blessed by senior-level executives who are often out of touch with the real market. So, the industry ends up trying to craft plans to entice the general public into purchasing things which may or may not fit into their lives (and remember, exceptions only serve to prove the rule).

Products that may seem useful, different, or even exciting to a senior level executive may have little merit in the everyday life of the populace the executive’s company is trying to serve. The disconnect is really driven home in this era of widening income inequality. A recent OxFam report stated that the wealth of the richest 85 humans on the planet is equal to the combined “wealth” of the 3.5 billion poorest people on earth. In our industry, wealthy individuals in the top 2% income bracket (but certainly not on the “85 richest people” scale) are usually key decision-makers in the marketing and advertising hierarchy. People with titles like CMO or VP of Marketing, or even senior product managers may find themselves living a lifestyle quite removed from the day-to-day reality of the people who buy their products.

Then, couple this non-reality-based notion of needs and wants with marketing companies who exacerbate the issue by moving more and more into programmatic media buying, which is based on algorithms, observed behavior, persistent cookies and online tracking. These systems attempt to single out the right person to put a brand message in front of, using assumptions about what that individual might like or buy, based on observations of their online behavior, known purchases and other “facts.” So, I ask you, is all of this really what we are content with, as representatives of the heart and art of marketing? I adore technology and data and speed, so no one can accuse me of longing for the “old days.” I do not.

The true art of marketing lies in attempting to understand human wants and needs, and in creating products and services that address these “opportunities.” In our wildly complex society, making people’s lives easier, happier, simpler, more fulfilling, etc. would seem to be the wise choice – not simply continuing to develop the next line extension, or “me, too” product, for which we must then use ever more sophisticated marketing machines to push upon the buying public.

Technology and widespread internet use are the perfect tools to create a more genuine connection between human beings and marketers. There are all sorts of new pathways for data to flow through. However, many companies seem less focused on making those connections than on how to “leverage” data collected through online tracking to enhance media precision, and thereby increase response rates. If we look at in from a purely financial perspective, being able to add even a few basis points in higher response rates can means millions of dollars saved or reaped – so the pursuit of these machines will (and frankly, should) continue.

While, admittedly, my age suggests I’m rapidly approaching curmudgeon status, it still feels to me that too much of our marketing spend seems to be moving backwards – and right at the time when we have the real opportunity to leap forward towards a more individualized market understanding. Today, our data use can be so granular, and yet this extraordinary power seems to be re-focusing on the old style “pushing” of products – granted, with more clarity on the right offer to the “exactly right” consumer in the exactly right context – but can we not do better?

If the public outcry about Hillary Clinton’s comment, or former President George W. Bush’s amazement at the sight of a supermarket scanner is any indication, marketers should be very wary of exploiting data solely for the purpose of pushing marginal products on customers. The populace is now keen to the growing disconnect between the social classes, and some of that is reflected in the over-the-top marketing backlash we sometimes see.

To combat this potential issue, marketers should refocus their efforts and find honest ways to connect with people’s lives and personal spaces. By using real-world experiences (get OUT of the bubble!), listening more intently to what the people are asking for (not what the media filter tosses up as important) and engaging with actual users (today you can, at scale!), marketers have enormous potential to create useful, needed and – yes, wanted products that will be welcomed into people’s homes.

So, don’t get lost in raising the response rate on your new campaign from .05% to 2%. (Wow, a 300% increase!) Instead, consider all of those folks who are tuning us out, and perhaps, what they could use to make their lives better.  Because that is where our greatest marketing opportunity lies.


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