80/20 Market Research

Many years ago in graduate school, I took a seminar in advertising. The professor was a distinguished British gentleman who was a veteran of many years at the highest levels of the industry. This professor made it a point from the first day of class on to impress upon the students that advertising was a “weak force” that couldn’t do much more than nudge somebody to buy something they were already inclined to buy in the first place. Furthermore, he told us the people most likely to pay attention to a brand’s advertising were those who were already users of that brand.

Those sorts of proclamations from the professor took a little bit of the air out of my tires. As a child of ’70s and ’80s television, I had grown up believing that advertising was a powerful force that changed people’s minds on a dime and could persuade people to switch brands with just a little clever wordplay or a well-executed design. That was the whole reason I was in grad school studying it! I didn’t want to believe my professor’s arguments about advertising’s limitations. But ultimately, he convinced me by virtue of the fact that, like most Americans, I automatically accept any information delivered to me in a British accent as being authoritative.

Since then, I have seen for myself over the course of my career that the professor’s assertions were true, both about advertising and marketing as a whole. It is profoundly difficult to change people’s minds or behavior, even if your message can fight its way through all of the clutter of competing marketing that the target audience is doing its best to ignore. Word-of-mouth is much more likely to influence a consumer than anything the marketer can do or say.

I bring all this up because it provides some context for my appreciation for a piece by Ray Poynter that was recently featured on the GreenBook Blog. Poynter argues that, in most cases, a marketer should focus 80% of its market research on its customers. This is in contrast to the way much research was done in the past, which tended to focus on the whole market. A major underlying assumption of the whole market approach is that it’s important to understand a lot about non-users of a brand in order to figure out ways to convert them. In other words, it assumes that marketing is a powerful force, fairly capable of overcoming the consumer’s skepticism, previous habits or apathy.

Focusing a large majority of the research on existing customers is more of a nod to the factors that my grad school professor was talking about – essentially that marketing works best when it is applied to consumers already positively inclined toward the brand. Or, as Poynter says in the piece, “In many cases, perhaps most cases, the best way to grow a brand is to increase the number of customers who ‘love’ it, because these people will recommend it, use it ostentatiously, and offer it in group settings. In most cases, a new line, a new campaign, a new service will only succeed if existing customers respond positively to it.”

It’s a very sensible approach, yet I suspect that a lot of marketers who should be following this 80/20 recommendation are devoting less than 80% of their research efforts on existing customers. It can be hard sometimes for even experienced marketing veterans to admit how much more powerful the consumer’s own inclinations and social peers are than our best-laid marketing plans. And if you don’t have an advertising professor with a persuasive British accent on hand, reading Mr. Poynter’s article in its entirety is the next best thing to remind you otherwise.


‘Mad Men’ Reaction: Episode 703

Disclaimer: Read no further if you want to avoid potential spoilers of Mad Men, Episode 703!

This week’s Mad Men was about whether the head honchos at Sterling Cooper & Partners would accept Don Draper back into the fold after his forced leave of absence. That was the official storyline, anyway. Lurking just below the surface, and in many ways linked to Don’s fate, was a story about SC&P deciding what kind of an ad agency it wanted to be.

From the very beginning, the show has portrayed Don as a creative genius. Presumably, the creative wizardry from Don, and later Peggy and Ginsberg, has been the main selling point to clients over the years. This season, the show has gone out of its way to suggest that the creative spark has left SC&P. Don’s replacement, Lou Avery, is a hack who embraces mediocrity, on top of being arguably the worst manager in a company brimming with awful bosses.

Lou Avery leaves a lot to be desired as a creative director, but you have to like his spiffy Mr. Rogers cardigans.

But agencies do not survive solely on creative prowess. In truth, although the creative product is what most people see from an ad agency, it isn’t the only service that agencies provide their clients. Some would say it isn’t even the most important one. Another major agency responsibility is media planning and buying — in other words, figuring out the best place to run the ads the agency creates and negotiating with media outlets like TV networks, magazines, newspapers, etc. to get the best rates for the time and space. While thoroughly unglamorous, the media planning function took center stage in the side plot of Episode 703 wherein a client puts SC&P media department head Harry Crane (who has evolved from an ordinary putz in 1960, to a putz who embraces every laughable late-’60s men’s fashion choice like it’s his mission in life) on the spot to explain how the agency’s computer compares to the one at Grey Advertising that had recently been featured in the New York Times.

Yes kids, this is what computers looked like in 1969.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Grey Advertising, a real-life agency that’s still around, got name-checked in that scene. For many years, Grey had a reputation, fairly or unfairly, as an agency that produced lackluster creative but built its success on the more mundane aspects of the advertising business. In other words, Grey represents the kind of agency that SC&P might morph into without Don Draper. Of course that would be a rough transition since, despite the grandiose lies he tells the client, Harry eventually reveals that SC&P doesn’t even have its own computer and isn’t close to matching Grey in that area. (Did we mention that Harry is a putz?)

So, the decision about whether to bring Don back becomes a long-range strategic vision choice among the partners over what kind of business they want to run: a place with a reputation for ideas versus a place with a reputation for being efficient. It’s a choice of genius versus stability, man versus computer. Or it least it could have been that type of decision. Ultimately, they bring Don back after they collectively realize that buying him out of his partnership would involve too much of a financial hit. In the end, the short-term bottom line trumps any kind of philosophical considerations. Just another reason why Mad Men is the most realistic workplace drama on television.

RetroAnalyslis: Bathroom Intruders

Paranoia is a persistent theme of 21st Century American life. We worry that cybercriminals, corporations, and our own government are spying on us via our computers, our phones, even our video games. By comparison, the 1970s seem like a simpler, more carefree time. Yet a review of some prominent ad campaigns of that decade suggest that personal privacy was under assault back then as well. That assault was happening in the nation’s bathrooms.

There were strange goings-on in the john four decades ago. Visitors from Madison Avenue kept showing up in the loo. Some of them were benevolent, like the mustachioed Dow scrubbing bubbles, who worked hard at cleaning tubs while the homeowner took it easy.

But even some ostensibly friendly bathroom helpers were undeniably creepy. For example, the miniature sailor living in the toilet, hawking Ty-D-Bol…

Could the presence of this uniformed man in the toilet tank have been what drove John Lennon, in 1980, to pen the curious lyric, “There’s Nazis in the bathroom just below the stairs”? If not, perhaps Lennon was reacting to the Big Brother-ish scenario in the series of Right Guard deodorant commercials in which men in adjoining apartments share a medicine cabinet, and thus a daily window into each others’ personal space.

In reviewing those last two spots, their tone is oddly lighthearted given the unsettling context of encountering uninvited interlopers in one’s bathroom. In that sense, it seems that the commercials weren’t actually reflections of paranoia on the part of consumers, but rather of a brazen disregard for personal boundaries on the part of marketers at the time.The 1970s were famously an era when many social taboos were thrown by the wayside and when, in the opinions of many, bad taste reigned. In 1957, the makers of an episode of Leave it to Beaver had to tread carefully around network censors when featuring in a scene where the boys in the show put a baby alligator in the toilet, reportedly not being allowed to even show the bowl. Less than two decades after that episode, standards had evolved to the point where Archie Bunker was routinely flushing the commode for laughs on All in the Family. For better or worse, bathrooms became fair game as TV settings in the ‘70s.

At the same time, the decade was a period when American big business  had developed a reputation for arrogance, complacency, and tone-deafness toward changing consumer tastes (exemplified by U.S. automakers failing to make the stylistic and fuel efficiency adjustments needed to keep pace with Japanese imports). Some corporations seemed to be operating under the belief that they could use the brute force of  the TV-Industrial Complex to make the public buy anything they had to sell, and that their messages need not be thoughtful or even persuasive, so long as they were relentless. In fact, the advertising of the time appeared to go out of its way to present intrusive scenarios.

It may very well be that these commercial bathroom intrusions were the result of TV finally being allowed to peer into the bathroom at precisely the moment when marketers were least sensitive to the notion that consumers might bristle at the idea of receiving a sales pitch during their most private moments. Or perhaps we are overthinking it and the commercials are nothing more than vintage 1970s pop-cultural loopiness. Either way, we agree with Mr. Lennon’s lyrical assessment of the era: Strange days indeed.

‘Mad Men’ Reaction: Episode 702

Disclaimer: Read no further if you want to avoid potential spoilers of Mad Men, Episode 702!

Just when I had settled in to write a weekly feature about the marketing principles at work in Mad Men, the show threw me a curveball and aired an episode that was remarkably free of any advertising-related content. Oh, there was a lot going on at the agency in Episode 702: workplace romance, casual racism, horrible treatment of employees by their managers, anxiety over stalled careers, and botched communication between people on different coasts as well as between people who were standing right next to each other — but precious little about the actual work that Sterling Cooper & Partners actually does for clients.

Amidst all those extracurricular activities, the episode touches on one of the show’s persistent themes:  that the people responsible for telling the public how happy life could become just by purchasing the right product are at least as unhappy as everybody else. In fact, the characters who are the most skilled in the art of selling the American Dream to the masses — Don Draper and Peggy Olson — are miserable and have personal lives that might charitably be compared to dumpster fires. Peggy in particular, reaches new lows in Episode 702, as she is revealed to have the emotional  maturity of a 13-year-old girl who doesn’t get asked to the junior high school dance and is later shown verbally abusing her put-upon secretary in a scene that is laden with depressing racial undertones.

The idea that advertising and other marketing-related fields are heavily-populated by dysfunctional, shallow, often generally awful human beings is not unique to Mad Men. In popular culture, the idea goes back at least as far as the 1947 Clark Gable film The Hucksters, which portrays the advertising industry as a place where only unprincipled scoundrels could succeed. And then there was the 2008 headline from the satirical website The Onion that read, “World’s Worst Person Decides To Go Into Marketing.” During the six decades in between, fictional portrayals of people working in advertising, public relations and other marketing jobs have frequently painted such characters as alcoholics, liars, vain, empty suits, manipulators, irredeemably cynical or general personifications of “What’s Wrong With Business Today.” Over the course of its run, Mad Men has certainly featured a rogue’s gallery of all of the above.

This is the part of the post where you may be expecting me to get all indignant and outraged about unfair media stereotypes, but that’s not going to happen. Generally, I laugh at people who get bent out of shape about stuff like that. It’s like the great Kurt Vonnegut once said: “Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.” Besides, while I do believe that marketing, as a profession, is often drawn with broad, overly-simplistic strokes in popular entertainment, I believe the same is true of most professions. Novels, movies and TV shows are routinely littered with doctors, police officers, lawyers, farmers, politicians, army generals, et. al. who are nothing more than one-dimensional embodiments of persistent, intellectually-lazy stereotypes. It would be unrealistic to expect marketeers to get special treatment in that regard.

Finally, I will say that over the course of my career, I have never observed my peers in marketing to be categorically different than anybody else in the workforce. And I definitely don’t sense that real-life marketing professionals are more prone to Don Draper-esque moral lapses or disastrous interpersonal relationships than anybody else. That said, I hope that Don himself continues to be prone to them. They are what make the show worth watching.

‘Mad Men’ Reaction: Episode 701

When I began this blog, one of the initial ideas for a regular feature was to do recaps of Mad Men episodes. After all, this blog is about discussing the impact of marketing on the broader culture. No TV show, now or probably ever, covers that ground better than Mad Men’s look at the world of 1960s advertising. Plus, it’s a fantastic show that’s worthy of analysis.

After this season’s premiere aired, I felt inspired to write about it, but quickly realized that I did not want to do a full episode  recap. There are a lot of good writers already doing that sort of thing, and providing in-depth, critical content analysis of an hour-long drama isn’t necessarily my strong suit. Instead, I decided that for the duration of the show’s run, I am going to provide a more informal reaction piece to every episode, discussing whatever aspect jumps out at me at the time. With that said, the remainder of this post serves of the first installment of the Marketing Smart Aleck’s Mad Men Reaction feature.

Disclaimer: Read no further if you want to avoid potential spoilers of Mad Men, Episode 701!

This episode resonated for me as it featured a few lessons right out of the introductory Marketing Principles class that I’m teaching this semester. Early on in the episode, Joan meets with the young Marketing Director of  Butler Footwear, one of the agency’s clients. The kid is a smug, freshly-minted MBA who wants to end Butler’s relationship with Sterling Cooper & Partners and handle the advertising in-house. He  begins the conversation by lecturing Joan about his focus on the “Four Ps” of marketing, which actually says a lot about the character, the time period and the subtext of the scene to viewers who understand what he is referring to.

The Four Ps, also known as “the marketing mix” were a fairly new concept to the business world in 1969, when the episode is set, but are now standard-issue orthodoxy for anyone who works in marketing or has taken a college marketing course. In my class, they are covered in the very first lecture. For the benefit of the uninitiated, the Four Ps refer to the four broad areas that marketers need to concern themselves with: Product, Place, Price and Promotion.  Product and price are self-explanatory. Place refers to both the locations where customers can obtain the product as well as the distribution channels that the product moves through along the way. Promotion refers to all of the different ways that a marketer makes customers aware of the product and tries to encourage purchase. Promotion includes advertising, but also additional elements like public relations, personal selling, and sales promotions.

By invoking the Four Ps, the young executive wasn’t just showing off his fancy new business school jargon, he was also telling Joan that advertising was just one component of his holistic approach to marketing, and a shrinking one at that. He was also — as Mad Men is so good at doing — giving us a history lesson about the development of marketing in America. In the 1950s and most of the 1960s, advertising was the undisputed king of selling products to the masses. Real world Madison Avenue giants like Ted Bates, Rosser Reeves and David Ogilvy, along with their fictional contemporary Don Draper, held sway. In that era, the conventional wisdom was that selling a product was all about what you said and how you said it via advertising. By the end of the 1960s, that mindset was beginning to give way to acknowledgement that the success of the product was also heavily influenced by considerations like developing features of the product to match consumer wants and needs, price points, where and how the product was made available in the marketplace, and using coupons, rebates, in-store merchandising, etc. to stimulate sales. All of those were considerations prior to the 1960s, of course, but modern marketing represented the first widespread attempt to deal with them scientifically, as part of a structured system — inevitably at the expense of many traditional advertising budgets.

That last point gives us some clues about the subtext of the episode, and I suspect the trajectory of the final season of the series. It suggests that we are entering a world where Don Draper and his cohorts at the agency are much less relevant than when we first met them in 1960, not only because all of the hippies in 1969 were rejecting materialism, but because Corporate America was exploring new ways to sell things. The magic of Don’s slicked-back client pitches, reliant as it was on his personal charisma and the mystique of “The Big Idea,” is waning and giving way to a more systematic, data-driven, prosaic reality. That is to say that the series narrative is winding down at the same historical point that a widely-regarded Golden Age of Madison Avenue was coming to a close. No ending for Mr. Draper and company could be more fitting.

Backpfeifengesicht in Advertising

Advertising spokespeople are supposed to be likable. That’s one of the main qualifications for the job — to present the viewer/listener with someone they have positive feelings about in hopes that those feelings will rub off on the product. If you think about some of the great celebrity endorsers of the past such as Ed McMahon, Bill Cosby, Karl Malden, Michael Jordan, Florence Henderson, pre-double homicide O.J. Simpson, etc., most of them were highly charismatic, or at least affable. The same goes for the anonymous and not-yet-famous actors who tend to get cast in commercials. When it comes to putting disarming folks on our TV screens, in our magazines and so forth, the advertising industry usually gets it right. But not always.

Sometimes commercials are populated by people that just rub you the wrong way. The reasons we have for taking a dislike to somebody we don’t know based on a 30-second impression are wide-ranging. It could be their voice, the clothes they wear or their hair. Sometimes they have a face that you just want to smack. The German language actually has a word to describe that latter concept: Backpfeifengesicht. The word translates as “a face in need of a fist.” (Leave it to the Germans to invent a word to express this idea.)

It goes without saying that Backpfeifengesicht is largely in the eye of the beholder, but it’s something that we’ve all seen.  What follows is a look at some notable examples of Backpfeifengesicht rearing its oh-so-punchable head in advertising over the years. Please note that The Marketing Smart Aleck will not be held liable for any cracked computer screens, smashed smartphones or knuckle injuries that may result from you reading any further.

The guy in this 5-Hour Energy spot appears to be making an effort to contort his face into the most fist-worthy expressions after every statement he makes. Since he seems to be trying so hard to accomplish Backpfeifengesicht, we’re happy to show him first:

If there was a world championship awarded for Backpfeifengesicht, there can be no debate that Vanilla Ice would have owned the title belt for the past quarter-century*. The man has a face that makes you not just want to punch it, but to go after it the same way that an in-his-prime Muhammad Ali worked a speedbag.

We would not be surprised to learn that German dictionaries feature this photo along with the definition of Backpfeifengesicht.

Despite that, and despite (or probably because of) Vanilla Ice’s current status as a cultural joke, he has managed to find his way into some commercials. This spot for South African beer Castle Lite wisely does not feature any closeups of VI’s mug, but even from a distance, the infuriating glow of Backpfeifengesicht shines through.

The UPS “Whiteboard Guy” from a few years back is a borderline case. He’s definitely smug, a little too-cool-for-school (especially off-putting for a guy whose main talent appears to be drawing stick figures with a brown marker) and has a bit of Backpfeifengesicht going on in the screen capture below. But, ultimately, it was his ponderous hairstyle that made him unlikable. In the final analysis, more people would probably rather punch his barber than him.

Speaking of ridiculous hair, most people who watched TV in the late 1980s and early 1990s will probably remember these Encyclopædia Britannica commercials with the smarmy blond-headed guy who radiated Backpfeifengesicht:

Before anyone objects to citing a minor as someone people might want to punch, it should be pointed out that the “kid” in that ad was an actor named Donavan Freberg who was an adult when that spot was made. And even if his face weren’t enough to inspire rage, how about the pretentiousness of an encyclopedia publisher that insisted upon spelling part of the set’s name as “Encyclopædia?”

Of course, these examples just barely scratch the surface of the long history of Backpfeifengesicht in advertising. This could very well be the first post in an ongoing series. If you can think of any notable examples that were left out this time around, please let me know about them in the comments section. Until then, keep those fists clenched.

*The one name that comes to mind as a dark horse challenger to Vanilla Ice would be former MTV DJ Kevin Seal, but we’d still give Mr. Van Winkle the edge.

RetroAnalysis: The Honeycomb Hideout

Disclaimer: The following post is a work of speculative fiction. Any similarities between the characters and events presented and real life are purely coincidental.

The scene: A psychiatrist’s office during some point in the 1970s. (You don’t need to imagine a room that resembles the office set from the old Bob Newhart Show, but that’s totally what the author had in mind.) A patient, who is the creative director at the advertising agency that has the Honeycomb cereal account, enters and begins his session with the psychiatrist, who bears a striking resemblance to Dr. Bob Hartley…but is just different enough for the author to avoid any kind of intellectual property law complications.

Psychiatrist: Welcome back. How have you been since our last session?

Creative Director: I’ve been busy, Doc. I’m working on a new cereal campaign.

Psychiatrist: Interesting. Today I thought it might be good if we talked a little more about that monomania issue we touched on last time.

Creative Director: Monomania, shmonomania! I don’t even know what that word means. All I know is I’ve got a big account and I have to give them a big idea.

Psychiatrist: Okay, since that seems to be on your mind, let’s talk about that. Tell me about this cereal.

Creative Director: It’s big. Yeah…big.

Psychiatrist: I see. What else can you tell me about it?

Creative Director: It’s not small. No, no, no. Not small.

Psychiatrist: Got it. What does it taste like?

Creative Director: It’s got a big, big taste.

Psychiatrist: Alright, but I mean the flavor. What does it…

Creative Director: I told you — it’s got a big taste. A big, big taste and a big, big bite. What else could you possibly want to know?

Psychiatrist: See, this is why I wanted to talk about your mono…

Creative Director: You listen here, Doc! You might have a wall filled with fancy degrees, but I refuse to sit here and have you suggest that Honeycomb cereal is not big! I will hold a ****ing tape measure up to that cereal and prove to you how big it is if I have to!

Psychiatrist: There’s no need for that. I believe that the cereal is big. Let’s just move on. Settle down and tell me about the commercial you’re making for this Honeycomb cereal.

Creative Director: (still hyperventilating) Okay, well it centers on these kids. They have a clubhouse. Except it’s really more of a hideout. We call it the Honeycomb Hideout.

Psychiatrist: A hideout? What are the children hiding from?

Creative Director: From big things. What else?

Psychiatrist: Big things?

Creative Director: Yeah, you know like big football players, big gangsters, big motorcycle thugs, big drill sergeants…

Psychiatrist: Oh, I see. Personifications of power and menace that are frequently encountered in our society.

Creative Director: …big circus strongmen…

Psychiatrist: I dunno about that one. Do kids nowadays even go to circuses?

Creative Director: …a big roller derby girl…

Psychiatrist: Seriously? That one really feels like a reach.

Creative Director: I was even thinking about doing some where the kids go back in time and get threatened by a caveman or a Roman charioteer.

Psychiatrist: Yeesh. You’re really testing the limits of my “unconditional positive regard” here. But anyway, I hope you can look at all these ideas and see that they are clearly manifestations of your deeply-held fears.

Creative Director: Fears. Ha! You wanna know what I’m afraid of? That ten years from now, some copywriter who inherits the account from me is going to get the bright idea to stick a stupid, superfluous robot in the Honeycomb Hideout for no good reason.

Psychiatrist: Yes, that would be unbelievably lame. Let’s hope it never happens. (Looks at watch) Well, it appears we’re out of time for today. I trust you’ll be back next week?

Creative Director: Yeah, when I come back I want to tell you about this crazy idea for a car design that my son is obsessed with and keeps talking about building some day. He calls it the Hummer…