Cargo Cult Marketers
As markets become more competitive marketers’ jobs become more complex. New categories are created while old ones add more segments. Novel marketing channels compete with traditional media outlets. Marketing has never been harder or more abstruse
There are those, however, that offer a false solution to all of the drudgery. They have a simple formula that explains everything. I call them “Cargo Cult Marketers“ and they are people to avoid.
What is a Cargo Cult Marketer?
Such marketers are very much like the “Cargo Cult Scientists” that Richard Feynman described in his famous speech. He came up with the name from island people in the south Pacific. These “Cargo Cultists” built mock airfields after World War II because they thought the airports attract precious cargo.
They did have some basis for their thinking. During the war, valuable cargo really did arrive at improvised airfields regularly. The islanders were convinced that building airfields would cause the cargo to start appearing again. Nevertheless, planes never came. There were other forces at work than airfields alone.
The cargo cultists were falling into a fallacy of induction. They had some facts on their side – planes really had previously landed and they did contain cargo that the islanders wanted – but their belief in their mystical powers of insight led them to ignore facts that would disprove their theory (i.e. that the cargo was somehow connected to those who built the airfields, not the act of building them).
Correlation is often confused with causality. It’s an easy trap to fall into, because facts devoid of context can easily create an airtight argument. Anecdotal evidence can be extrapolated to a universal principle. Voila!
As Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”
A Cargo Case Study
Our Cargo Cult friends usually work in the following way: They think of an inspired idea; for instance developing snowboarding equipment for senior citizens. This is a true “Blue Ocean” with no strong competition.
To the doubtful non-believers, they will proudly say that they have just returned from Aspen, Colorado and visited the Senior Center, where a snow sports program for the elderly is offered.
Moreover, they will quite accurately point out that the elderly population is an exploding demographic with extremely attractive economic attributes. These are facts, and can’t be argued with. The homework has been done.
Or has it? Are there no facts to the contrary? Are senior citizens unhappy with the equipment they have now? Do people who are active and healthy enough to pursue snow sports into their ‘70’s and ‘80’s want to pursue their activities using equipment made for old people?
In the internet age, we can always find support for any case with a few quick Google searches (like I just did). However, it requires a great deal of emotional effort to try and find evidence to the contrary for an idea you fell in love with.
Just because something might be true, doesn’t mean it will be. Great success rarely is born out of one idea from one person; rather it is usually the result of collaboration, modification and persistence. (See How a Successful Digital Business is Really Built)
Cargo Cult Marketers seek to “think out of the box” and don’t want to do the same old marketing stuff. Marketing, for them, is about the pursuit of difference for difference’s sake. They are out to break all of the rules (except of course, for the 22 which are immutable).
They can find justification through reading books by the likes of Al Ries and Jack Trout, who have built great personal brands in the field of marketing (although it is not clear what brands the pair have built in the field of commerce).
Cargo Cult Marketers don’t seek to do any harm; in fact, they put much effort into plying their craft. They actively seek out “Blue Oceans” and avoid the counterproductive competition of the “Red Oceans” (where, presumably, there are either fish that bleed red underwater or the mafia dumps a lot of bodies). With laser-like focus they target “the hill they want to own.”
Cargo Cult Marketers are also eager to instruct others. To the uninitiated, they will quote General von Clausewitz and instruct them in the inspired strategies of “Marketing Warfare.” For them, war is the continuation of marketing by other means.
They seek to inspire followers because they know exactly where they are going. Doubt is for the weak and small-minded.
They know about people like Phillip Kotler, the famous professor at Kellogg, and think “all that” is just fine, although a little bit out of date. Cargo Cult Markets want to go beyond the ordinary and achieve a transcendental plane of strategic development.
I Think, Therefore I Market to the Masses
What Cargo Cult Marketers lack is not energy, or even talent. They do, however, suffer a serious deficiency in discipline and rigor.
Although they know about the latest marketing trends reported in the popular business press, very few know how to use even basic statistical functions in Excel. (See Less Numbers-More Math)
When shown research they don’t like, they are sure to ask about sample size, yet never learned how to calculate sample error. (For those who care, a quick short-hand way to do it is just to compute 1/√N where “N” is the sample size, which will give approximately 95% confidence).
Coming up with ideas isn’t enough, to be an effective marketer one has to search for truth even if the truth is unpleasant, or worse, dull. Becoming married to one’s own ideas will inevitably end in disaster, even more so if one lucks into initial success. (See How Companies Fail)
Why Good Marketing Is, and Should Be, Hard
Many Cargo Cult Marketers are nice people. Yet, I have to admit, their inability to take marketing seriously irks me. The hardest part of marketing isn’t coming up with facts or even ideas or even finding people to believe in your ideas.
What’s most difficult and what really takes effort, is to take pains to disbelieve your own ideas – to try to disprove them by finding evidence to the contrary and applying unyielding, rigorous analysis.
This isn’t always fun. Yet marketing, like any profession, is a job. It has responsibilities. Marketers have an obligation to uncover and present all of the relevant truths that it is within their ability to ascertain.
Don’t believe everything you think.