Why Smart People Sometimes Say Stupid Things
Smart people accomplish things by finding solutions to important problems. This is a tough, disconcerting process that’s full of frustration and boredom. The great physicist Richard Feynman likened it to being a confused ape.
Yet succeeding isn’t enough for most people, they also want to be prophetic and that’s where they run into trouble. They try to codify their performance by making up simple rules that inevitably fail. It’s a trap that we all fall into sometimes, but should do our best to avoid.
What follows is a particularly instructive example of how, in the quest for simple, core beliefs, smart people can say some pretty dumb things.
The Ad Contrarian
Recently, I’ve become addicted to the Ad Contrarian Blog, written by Bob Hoffman of the Hoffman/Lewis agency. It’s a mixture of sharp wit and good sense that is highly readable and informative. If you’re at all interested in marketing, it’s a must read.
Mr. Hoffman is more than just a blogger. He runs a highly successful ad agency with $120 million in billings and A-list clients such as McDonald’s and Toyota. Judging from their reel, they do very fine work and serve their clients well.
The trouble came when one day they got bored and decided to formulate their success by creating three simple rules that they felt would encapsulate their approach. The result is something that might make sense, as long as you don’t think about it too much.
Performanced Based Advertising
You can read the document they provide for yourself here, but basically it based focuses on three principles:
1. Advertising is most productive when it’s focused on changing behavior, not attitudes:
On the surface, this would seem to be highly sensible. You want people to buy your product, right? Who cares about a lot of feel-good fluffiness? Well, as I wrote a while back, psychographics are important for many reasons, among them:
Targeting: For many categories (i.e. cosmetics, beer, cigarettes) attitudes are the only effective way of defining consumer groups. People’s sex, age, education and occupation often tell you next to nothing about what they will do or buy.
Long-Term Strategy: As Mr. Hoffman loves to say, “It’s easier to convince you to eat a Big Mac then to convince you that eating a Big Mac is a good thing to do,” and he’s right. However, what people think about Big Macs will have a measurable effect on sales in the long term. In fact, changing attitudes is how you build a sustainable brand advantage.
His client, McDonald’s, understands this well and goes to great lengths (including the development of its own proprietary survey) to track consumer attitudes about its brand as well as competitors in every country in which it does business. When those numbers start slipping, you can be sure that they do something about it.
Moreover, it’s tough to see how Hoffman Lewis puts this principle into practice. Their reel is full of adorable kids treating their mothers to a birthday lunch, middle aged football heroes having cute conversations with old ladies and the like.
I’m not knocking the ads, they are good spots which would make any agency proud; but I’d be willing to bet my considerable wealth (of experience) that they put a lot more time and effort into the emotional impact of their ads than the quick price offer they sometimes throw in at the end.
2. Advertising messages should be created for, and directed at, the heavy using, high yield customers in your category:
Okay, here he has some factual ground to stand on. Sales gurus call this the 80/20 rule, while economists have branded it the Pareto Principle and mathematicians describe it as a Power law. Whatever you want to call it, it takes about 5 minutes of volumetric analysis on any basic research survey to work out that heavy consumers make up the bulk of sales.
Yet how does one go about targeting heavy consumers? You have to describe them in some way; either demographically, psychographically or by activity (i.e. commuters, family outing, etc.)
In reality, you target people who have specifics wants, needs and preferences. A heavy user could hit you with a bus and you probably wouldn’t know it was a heavy user (unless of course, you have an alcohol client).
It’s hard to see how the process he so vehemently advocates (focusing on heavy consumers) doesn’t end up with a result that he so adamantly decries (i.e. demographic and attitudinal targeting). It’s true that attitudes are often misused by silly marketers who psychoanalyze toilet paper, but you can’t legislate good sense.
3. We don’t try to get them to try our product by convincing them to love our brand; we convince them to love our brand by convincing them to try our product.
This one is a bit baffling for a guy who runs an agency that does such image intensive advertising. Nevertheless, he’s making the same mistake that I ascribed to direct response marketing, assuming that the only objective is immediate sales.
There are a lot of reasons why sales might not be the primary objective. For instance a brand that is effectively converting a small base might want to increase awareness. Another might want to use social media to encourage advocacy. A third, might notice that its internal attributes are falling in tracking research and want to change attitudes.
Good marketing, much like anything else, is about solving problems. That means you have to identify the problem first. Things like awareness, consideration and advocacy are just as important as immediate sales (and, incidentally, not much harder to measure).
Should brand managers ignore obvious problems in order to serve a maxim?
The Problem with Rules
A while back I explained why marketing rules are useless, but nothing shows it better than Hoffman Lewis’s “Performance Based Advertising.” The problem with simple axioms is that they are either too general to be meaningful or too specific to be useful.
As I mentioned above, Mr. Hoffman is a highly capable, intelligent man. He could just say, “We work very hard at what we do and hire talented people that really care about getting results,” but he didn’t. The luster of a codified system was too tempting. If he fell into the trap, then we’re all at risk and there’s where the lesson lies.
To solve problems that matter, we don’t need axioms; but the discipline to approach problems without prejudice toward one solution or another. As for me, I’ve only found one rule that’s really worth following and, since all bloggers are hypocrites, I’ll share it with you:
Find a problem. Solve it. Repeat.