*Bill Bernbach (Somewhere in California, Google silently laughs). I have always been slightly surprised by the ease with which marketing professionals assert causality between brand symbols and product sales: "it's pure art, and we have no idea what's the mechanism, but it works!"
Why do I say this? I recently came across the list of top 10 slogans and the list of top 100 advertising campaigns of the century. Do they have anything in common? No. Do we know why they worked? No. Yet, there's a list.
This is the problem called Everything is Obvious in Retrospect.
And it would not be so interesting as a problem (people make cognitive mistakes all the time, after all) if it weren't for its impact on the millions of dollars in brands' investment. Someone said "the great idea in advertising is in the realm of myth.” This means that people still think, in great numbers, that a good ad or a slogan is a question of art and inspiration and accident. An inescapable conclusion follows: brand symbols are critical for a brand's commercial success, but their influence is a matter of chance more than anything else.
That's like going to a horse race and betting on a unicorn.
Yet, brands are still doing exactly that. Why? First, they don't know what else to do or how to do it. Second, and more importantly, they genuinely believe it works.
And why do they believe it? Because they can easily observe successful examples of what worked in the past, and conclude that they can do it as well. So, they say, "I want my brand to be a new Apple. Or, I want something like Foursquare. Or, I want Nike+"
Okay, now: why didn't you ask for a Foursquare before the Foursquare was invented?
In marketing, we know what is a success story only after it, well, succeeds. And if we can feel that we can explain why they worked, it is only because we look at them from a vantage point of the future. That is, we say that something was effective only after we have already seen its effects.
Why is this a problem? Because this is how we start planning our campaigns: from their effects. Better yet, we start from their imagined effects. We imagine something groundbreaking, some ubiquitous future cultural artifact, or another iPhone. In that, we are no different from our clients. Our ambitions are so immense, that we never stop for a second to think about a solution that can work, right now, and work really well. We are so obsessed with the future rewards, that we under-deliver.
And all of this would be okay if it was an individual cognitive mistake. When the whole industry is based on a faulty reasoning, this is a problem.
“Let us prove to the world,” said the aforementioned Bill Bernbach in the 1960s, “that good taste, good art, good writing can be good selling.”
Fifty years later, the proof is still missing. It might be time to try something else.
(photo courtesy of Vintage Ad Browser)