Jonathan Salem Baskin
I know, it sounds like a nutty conspiracy theory, especially as you read this essay in the brief lull between meetings about consumer insights and social-media analytics, but take a moment and consider your reliance on data. The word has become de rigueur for marketers, like it has some generic, absolute value. Only it doesn't. Just because we have the mechanical wherewithal to measure clicks, seconds expended or sentiments expressed doesn't mean that doing so tells us anything about what's really going on. Numbers don't speak for themselves; we speak at them and from them, and data doesn't yield accurate pictures unless we first manipulate and apply the right equations. We risk distraction when we confuse understanding human behavior with use of the same variables as, say, units shipped or dollars saved.
Which leads me to the two supposed problems data is supposed to help fix:
We need more conversations and less selling. Yeah, right, like the folks who brought us telephones, 1930s Hollywood or Tang didn't listen to their customers, or that advertisers traditionally talked down, spoke one way, or otherwise stupidly ignored the market. Sorry, but they weren't that dumb or lucky: There have always been conversations going on between consumers and brands, only it used to be reasonable to expect those dialogues to result in sales. Marketers got hired and fired over this fact. Now you're being told that you have to talk for the sake of talking, and tasked with collecting tons of numbers that will have less causal effect on any sales outcome than the qualitative opinion surveys they've replaced. So what if a billion people clicked on your stupid holiday e-mail? Do you realize that you're being encouraged to base your job security on such data?
Our consumers have changed fundamentally. A prolific Greek chorus has enriched itself propagating this ruse with great sincerity and conviction. They're wrong. People today are the same as they were a hundred or thousand years ago, only we live longer and smell better. The subjective experience of a new and challenging marketplace doesn't make its fundamental principles objectively new, yet you've been encouraged to throw out a century's worth of branding and marketing insight and instead embrace purposes that often defy common sense: Interestingly, "free is paid," "more is less" and other oxymoronic phrases require ledgers of new numbers to collect. While technology has made consumers need more of the same relevance, meaning and utility that they've always wanted -- and which CMOs used to be responsible for creating and delivering -- we've gone in the exact opposite direction to give them something different. It's no wonder that whatever data you collect on this stuff isn't enough to please your most vociferous critics. Maybe you're being set up for failure?
Here's the scary part of my conspiracy theory: I think marketers are behind the plot. CMOs are doing it to themselves.
This number thing caught most marketers by surprise, as we'd been trained to use the analogy and metaphor of poetry to describe brands. Our professional predecessors became experts at making the case for branding via terms of qualitative intangibles, associative benefits vs. functional performance, and the potential of affection over the love demonstrated by sales, even as they executed the marketing campaigns necessary to get consumers into retail stores. I don't think business operators ever liked such explanations, let alone believed them, so now they're all too happy to ask for more data to prove how less they think of the whole shebang. Relying on data doesn't miss the purpose of marketing as much as it fundamentally changes it. We need numbers, but tolerating the wrong ones means you will ultimately lose.
We need a new vision for brands, something that provides a framework for the sole, eternal purpose of commercial speech -- to sell stuff -- and lets CMOs define the data required to deliver it. We need to stop embracing the latest variable or dashboard VU meter and demand a better, bigger, more thoughtful perspective on how to measure the ways marketing outreach meshes with consumer needs and expectations. We need to stop buying up-is-down pop business books and start focusing again on the fundamental premise of the CMO function. You're not guardians of brands or keepers of cultures (or whatever). You're supposed to figure out how to sell, and measuring how you do that is a giant, wonderful, compelling thing that's in dire need of a guiding vision.
Without it, you can see where this plot is going: Your marketing is going to keep devolving into lots of numbers, most of which can be generated automatically and measure nothing.
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