How ‘Marketing Science’ Undermines Brands

by Bruce Tait, for Admap  •  Published October 2004

Since starting Tait Subler we have had a tremendous opportunity to see the inner workings of marketing and brand management at a wide variety of companies. In this time, we’ve been shocked by the general malaise in the brand arena.

There is a sense of hopelessness in many marketing departments where few dare strive for dramatic, exponential growth through brand initiatives. Overall, the value of the marketing department seems on the wane and many CEOs have focused on cost-cutting because they no longer believe dramatic top-line revenue growth is possible.

In the US, brands like Campbell’s, Kodak, K-Mart, Polaroid, Oldsmobile and Levi’s were once standard-bearers for the power of brands. Now all are very ill or, as is the case with Oldsmobile, dead; Levi’s has experienced breath-takingly precipitous declines over the last seven years. What does it say about our ability to manage brands when such an incredibly strong one can fall so far so fast?

Differentiation crisis

In 2000, two research companies in the US teamed up to do a study of how well brands were differentiated in a diverse set of categories1. They looked at 46 product/service categories and found that the leading brands in 40 of these were becoming less differentiated in the minds of consumers.

In four categories the leading brands were perceived to be maintaining their level of differentiation and in only two were they perceived to be getting more differentiated. In support of this, Ernst & Young’s study of new brands showed upwards of 80% failing. The primary reason cited for failure? Lack of differentiation.

If brands are to succeed they need to be based on differentiated, unfamiliar brand strategies. Unfortunately, these are the exact same kind of ideas that people initially dislike.

Now any student of marketing can tell you that brands need to be relevant to their targets and differentiated from their competitors to be successful. But there is ample evidence that marketing has somehow lost the capacity to create and manage differentiated brands. This lack of differentiation forces brands to compete on the basis of price and undermines the business reasons why brands exist in the first place.

The inability to differentiate suggests that our downfall as marketers is our lack of original thought, a lack of creativity in strategic matters. Differentiation demands an original brand strategy. Therefore, creativity is vital to developing successful brand strategy (the positioning, or strategic point of view, as we call it).

Too often marketers try to cover up a me-too strategy based on the category benefit by asking their ad agencies to make unique ads. The problem is that a tired strategy anchors down everyone trying to be original in any aspect of execution. This differentiation crisis is not a problem of execution.

Overall, marketers seem to have lost the ability to think creatively when developing their brand strategies. Or perhaps we are being constrained by a belief system that works against original thinking.

The four core tenets of marketing science

Marketing science is a cluster of processes and beliefs that has arisen out of the need of business schools and big businesses to systematise the activities of marketing. As regards budgeting, managing promotions, pricing and many of the operational aspects of marketing, it has worked out fine. However, when applied to brand creation and management, we see that the core tenets of marketing science are often wildly at odds with the need for original, differentiated brands.

The underlying unspoken tenets of marketing science are as follows:

1. Process matters more than ideas
There is a belief that a well-organised process can help us solve virtually all complex business problems. Business schools teach managers how to use a general process for problem solving, and specialised processes in specific fields such as operations, finance and marketing. Overall this set of processes, along with some fundamental principles, is called management.

The processes managers learn help create clarity and enable decisions with forthright rationales. We all love logical, systematic analysis based on hard numbers. But pushing, pulling and testing alternatives has eventually become more important than generating good alternatives in the first place. Process inevitably becomes more important than the ideas being processed, because ideas are hard to systematise and hard to make black and white. Also, frankly, it’s more fun to judge than be judged.

2. If it’s quantitative research, it’s true
In marketing science it’s axiomatic that ‘the truth is found in the numbers’. As a result, quantitative market research is the only research that is thought to be really defensible in the culture of business today. That’s what senior management needs to see because it is believed to be the closest thing to reality.

3. Good test score = good idea
Quantitative test scores create their own reality in marketing science. It is irresponsible to simply propose an idea. Everything must be vetted by a quantitative, statistically reliable sample. The result? When you get a good test score on a positioning idea or marketing initiative in some packaged goods companies, that’s how you are evaluated. The actual market results are secondary to the test score.

This often leads to clients who have much stronger relationships with their ‘testing partners’ than with their idea generators (ad agencies and such). Given the first two tenets, it’s not surprising that evaluation is valued more than ideas.

4. Brand building is dangerous to your career if you don’t cover yourself with research
The market place is a complex and ever-changing environment. Things can go wrong. But if you do all the right testing beforehand and if you get a good test score, who could really blame you? Everyone involved in a failure can point at the test scores and ask, ‘Who could’ve known?’

It is time to step back

Having seen the studies and experienced the results of marketing science first hand, we thought it might be wise to audit the latest findings in psychology, neurology and market research to see where we may be off-track with these beliefs.

Our learning from this exercise points a damning finger at the quantified, process-centric state of today’s ‘marketing science’. While the failures of marketing science have been well documented, the underlying values system and processes that are driving these results seem to be flourishing. In fact, the values system at the heart of today’s marketing science has led to a behaviour pattern that is quite literally insane – doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result.

In this article we can share a few of the findings from our audit that made us question the validity of marketing science as it pertains to brands.

The Zajonc effect

Psychologist Robert Zajonc from Stanford University has found that humans don’t initially like rare or unfamiliar things. And the more we see the same thing, the more we like it. Perhaps we are all here today because some distant forefather didn’t approach the new guy with the big club in his hand and lived to pass on his genes. It made sense for human survival to avoid the untested or the unfamiliar.

If brands are to succeed they need to be based on differentiated, unfamiliar brand strategies. Unfortunately, these are the exact same ideas that people initially dislike. That’s why quantitative testing of alternative positioning ideas will likely systematically kill the more original ideas, and people will prefer the ones that are closest to what they already know.

The marketer using this type of test will unwittingly select the strategy that is less differentiated and eventually fail in the marketplace.

Perhaps that’s why such highly differentiated and highly successful products/brands as the Walkman, Absolut Vodka, the Seinfeld TV show and Baileys were all ‘failures’ in testing. Seinfeld took a long time to catch on once on the air, but is now lauded by many as the best, and most successful, American TV programme of all time.

All quantitative research is really qualitative and subjective

Any market researcher knows that there are many subjective decisions made in designing and interpreting quantitative research. Subjectivity enters quantitative research at any number of points: in the design of the research itself, in the wording of the questionnaire, and in the presentation of the results.

It’s as much an art, and easily as subjective, as focus groups. One example is the way segments are named after a quantitative segmentation study is completed. The segments that are to be targeted are never given names like ‘insecure steak lovers’ or ‘lonely illiterates’. They are usually called ’emerging elites’ or other positive names that varnish over their warts.

Statistical reliability

Statistical reliability is not the same thing as the truth. Yet that is often the way it is presented. If we ask the same question of more people it does not mean that they are more likely to be able to tell us the true answer. In fact, we routinely ask people to predict behaviours that they cannot accurately foretell. People simply cannot accurately tell us what they do not know about themselves.

Paul Leinberger of NOP World told us: ‘In much of the consumer attitude tracking that we’ve done over the years – going back over 50+ years – there are many instances where there is little correlation between what people say they will do and what they actually do.’ That is not surprising, because as neurologist Dr Richard Restak says, ‘we have reason to doubt that full awareness of our motives, drives and other mental activities may be possible’.

Robert Chambers, the economist, said that, ‘Quantification brings credibility. But figures and tables can deceive, and numbers construct their own realities. What can be measured and manipulated is then not only seen as real, it comes to be seen as the only or the whole reality. Count numbers and only numbers count.’

Science no longer supports ‘marketing science’

If such credible sources challenge our current behaviours, why aren’t we hearing more about it? There are two obvious reasons. First, as we have discussed, business culture is highly reliant on numbers. Numbers are seen as the truth, and most senior managers have never taken a market research course in their lives. Middle managers trying to sell their ideas are forced into using some sort of quantitative test to prove the legitimacy of their thinking.

Second, the market research community seems to have little incentive to raise these issues. This is not to imply that quantitative market researchers are unethical. In doing our audit, we found many who were thrilled to bring these issues forward. The problem, in the minds of the market research community is that clients aren’t open to buying methodologies that are unique or different.

Round, round we go. It seems that the only way we can break this cycle is to get to the most senior managers – the CEOs. They demand numbers that are often erroneous. They are in the hot seat for failed brands and limited organic revenue growth. Perhaps they could also demand that different approaches be used to develop brands and new positioning initiatives.

As our brand consultancy has grown we’ve found that CEOs are our strongest proponents and lately we find ourselves being hired directly by the CEO more than by heads of marketing. They are very open to new ideas and new approaches, once given facts that challenge marketing science.

CEOs listen when marketing and brands matter

If marketing is going to be the creative engine that drives top-line revenue growth again, it needs to move beyond process management. The people promoted in marketing departments should be proven idea-generators, not experts on testing processes. Marketing directors and CMOs need to think about repositioning the marketing department, since it seems to be slipping in importance in most companies. CEOs need to come to see this department as the source of business-building ideas – a distinction it seems to have lost in most cases.

A brand is akin to the reputation of a product, service or company with which it is associated. It is not just a marketing concept, since everything a company does can affect its reputation (that is, the brand).

For instance, when Nike was accused (fairly or unfairly) of using sweatshop labour to make its products, the brand suffered because of a manufacturing decision. This example illustrates the necessity for a company’s mission to be in complete lockstep with the positioning desired in the marketplace. The brand needs to be an over-arching organising principle and strategic filter for decision-making in all aspects of the business.

At Tait Subler we use the term ‘strategic point of view’ to describe this concept that defines both the reputation desired in the minds of consumers and the company’s mission in the minds of employees. By moving the concept of ‘brand’ beyond the marketing department in this way, we make decisions around the brand important to the CEO. The strategic point of view allows the CEO to define the core purpose of his/her business(es) and it puts marketing back at the centre of the business.

The era of marketing science must end

Once CEOs become vested in brands, they become open to challenge marketing science. When the CEO wants change, everyone involved seems to be liberated. We are not alone in trumpeting the need for a new era in brand creation and management. Mark Earls has written articulately about what he calls the ‘creative age’2. In his book, he speaks of brands as movements or crusades. Today we need a crusade to free marketers and brands from the tyranny of marketing science.

  1. Copernicus and Market Facts: the Commoditization of Brands and its Implications for Marketers, December, 2000. []
  2. M Earls: Welcome to the Creative Age – Bananas, Business and the Death Of Marketing. John Wiley & Sons, 2002. []