Strategic Conclusions vs. Strategic Ideas: The Failure of “Marketing Science”

by Bruce Tait, for Brandweek  •  Published April 2002

Over the last 30 years the practice of marketing has become increasingly scientific. You can pay research companies to give you a quantitative (and therefore presumably “true”) measurement of virtually anything. Very few serious marketing companies would ever consider bringing a new product to market without some sort of stage-gate process that ensures every aspect of the “bundle” surpasses the pre-set hurdles. Even the language of marketing has changed to reflect the logical, disciplined process we have developed to arrive at brand strategy, i.e., we come to strategic conclusions rather than daring to have strategic ideas.

But has all this science made us better marketers? Unfortunately, there isn’t much evidence that it has. New product failure rates are still over 80% according to some studies. Even famously successful brands like Levi’s have suffered tremendous losses with sales dropping by some $2.5 billion between 1996 and 2000. How could such a catastrophic drop in sales occur in our scientific era? Why couldn’t anyone fix brands like Oldsmobile or Plymouth that have been around for decades?

Now I don’t think that we should throw out all of the discipline of good marketing thinking. However, I do believe that if you integrate more original thinking into a disciplined process, your chances of success dramatically improve. Strategic brand thinkers need a rallying cry to take back the creative high ground that marketing once owned in organizations.

Let’s step back and think about the fundamentals of what a brand is supposed to do. It needs to touch consumers with a relevant, compelling thought about a particular product or service. And it needs to differentiate that compelling thought from all other brand choices available.

What we see over and over again is that the great brands – the ones that provide superior financial return – do land in the top right hand quadrant of this chart. They are very compelling to their target and they have a sustainable, differentiating idea that protects them from the eroding margins of commoditization. Apple is a great example of such a brand. BusinessWeek reported in this summer’s ranking of brands that a whopping 80% of Apple’s total value as a company is attributed to the value of their brand. Great brands are clearly differentiated and in order to develop a truly differentiating brand idea, you need to be original. To come up with an original brand idea, you need to apply creativity. That’s why we argue that creativity in brand strategy is the lifeblood of branding.

Professor Robert Sutton of Stanford University wrote in the September issue of Harvard Business Review that, “Organizations use all sorts of methods, such as “gates’ in the product development process, to try to improve their odds of success. But there is little evidence that such practices actually reduce the proportion of flops.” While he’s referring to product development, the same problem applies to brand strategy development. Yet we keep using these processes, which are baked into many corporate cultures, believing that if we could just make it more scientific we’ll get it right more often.

The fact is, original ideas and quantitative testing don’t usually mix well. Studies done by psychologists like Robert Zajonc at Stanford show that on initial exposure, “rare and unfamiliar things provoke negative evaluations” – just because they are rare and unfamiliar. Conversely, the more you show someone something new, the more they like it. Now that’s hard to work into any kind of quantitative testing methodology so it’s an important fact of human psychology that is largely ignored as an inconvenience to our “scientific method”. As a result, most original strategic ideas never survive the tests.

As a result, marketers too often come to strategic conclusions after a process that kills off all original strategic ideas. We find ourselves in a predictable (although statistically defensible) place where we have to ask designers and agency creatives to differentiate an un-original strategy through execution. But if your fundamental brand premise – your strategic point of view – is not original, then an ad that reflects that theme is not likely to be original either.

Let’s face it, judgment needs to play a bigger role and test scores a smaller one if we hope to create more powerful, differentiating brand strategies. Managers need to come to grips with the fact that quantitative support may be impossible to find for big, original ideas. As Dean Stanley Teele of Harvard Business School was quoted as saying, “The art of management is the art of making meaningful generalizations out of inadequate facts.” If that seems frightening, think of the alternative… brands in category after category inexorably drifting towards sameness, leading to price differentiation and vastly diminished profitability. Now that’s frightening.

So let’s not let it happen. America’s strength has always been in its ability to invent and create new ideas on all levels. It’s time that brand strategists stop being satisfied with strategic conclusions and start having strategic ideas. No more should ideas be the exclusive domain of copywriters, designers and R&D people. In truth, great brand strategy requires a great idea, not just a logical conclusion. Brand strategists need to get back in the game.