my turn


Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Public?

Once upon a time, the evil villain in the fairy tale of marketing was the Chief Financial Officer. Like vulnerable princesses, marketers had little protection from the CFO's scrutiny of every marketing budget line item and even less ammunition with which to combat the constant nagging about marketing ROI.

But with the current "tsunami of populist rage coursing through America" (to use the words of New York Times columnist Frank Rich), we may find ourselves longing for the luxury of concerning ourselves only with the questions of an anal controller. At least with CFOs we could have a rational, informed discussion about marketing strategies and tactics, grounded with the confidence that we all have the best interests of the business in mind.

Instead, we find our marketing plans now being tried in the court of public opinion -- and so far we haven't been given much of a chance to defend ourselves. It started last November when General Motors' CEO Rick Wagoner, after asking Congress for bailout money, was bullied by his potential saviors into pledging that his company would not advertise in the Super Bowl. Then, earlier this month, Citigroup, feeling the heat to prove it was a worthy recipient of TARP money, was prompted to reconsider its sponsorship deal with the New York Mets.



I wouldn't be surprised if we start seeing public outcry over the marketing efforts of other companies -- not only of those that have been bailed out, but also of any company people just love to hate. A high-profile marketing campaign is the perfect target for people who've taken it upon themselves to police corporate irresponsibility and waste.

So what's a maligned marketer to do? There are some obvious things we shouldn't do. We shouldn't dig in our heels or, more likely, bury our heads in the sand and hope the scrutiny subsides. Neither should we respond to questions in knee-jerk fashion, quickly pulling the plug on any marketing efforts that might seem excessive. Instead I suggest three things:

First, we should better communicate the value of marketing so that people understand its potential contribution to the economic recovery. After all, much of marketing is communication, and so we should be experts at convincing our audiences that spending money -- often lots of it -- on marketing is an important investment for companies to make now.

I'm not suggesting we engage a high-profile ad campaign -- that would be about as effective as the notorious "Shared Values" campaign the U.S. launched several years ago in an attempt to sway Iraqi public opinion in our nation's favor. We need to employ the tools that we've learned to use to develop positive relationships between our brands and consumers. Instead of letting ad-bashing fill the social media "airwaves," let's launch an effort to make the case for marketing.

This assumes we have a case to make -- which is my next suggestion. We need to ensure we can draw a direct and causal link between marketing efforts and results. That is not to say that we have to open our books to anyone who asks - rather, we simply need to be able to show how marketing spend generates image equity, which in turn translates into brand preference and ultimately greater purchase frequency or transaction size. One of the best papers I've read on how to do this is by Jonathan Knowles of Type 2 Consulting, a firm that specializes in aligning the marketing and finance perspectives on branding -- you can access the piece at

Finally, I submit that we must expand marketing beyond the marketing department. Instead of emphasizing brand communications which seem -- and many times are -- superfluous, we should be focused on brand delivery. Whether you're talking to an angry taxpayer or a company leader, a multimillion-dollar investment in a new technology that enables the business to serve its customers better makes a lot more sense than the same money spent on a corporate sponsorship or an ad campaign.

Brand-building should be about identifying, prioritizing, and implementing programs and initiatives to deliver the brand through the core organizational operating system. Certainly a brand is strengthened by what we say (what and how we communicate with customers) -- but it is primarily what we do (what and how we provide to them) that drives value creation.

So perhaps the scrutiny being cast over marketing isn't all bad. If it prompts us to re-consider what the value of marketing is, get crystal clear on the business case for marketing, and learn how to effectively communicate it, then we'll be the better for it.

Surely public opinion will never be our Prince Charming -- but perhaps it can deliver our wake-up kiss, er, call.

6 comments about "Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Public? ".
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  1. mike Metzger, March 2, 2009 at 8:44 a.m.

    This is espcecially true when our government is full of wimps and puppets that only want ot get thier 15 minutes of brutality shown on local news in an effort to builod thier nex campaign on.

  2. John Sullivan from The Loomis Agency, March 2, 2009 at 9:21 a.m.

    Maybe some of these folks should start thinking about campaigns against what the federal government is about to foist on US Citizens. Look what our wonderful elected officials have done to our private aircraft industry after their remarks to CEOs from the auto companies about flying in on their private jets. Hats off to Cessna's response to that baloney.

  3. Thomas Acquaviva from, March 2, 2009 at 9:24 a.m.

    Interesting perspective....given the premise, is there a medium that better insulates a brand from this scrutiny? Specifically, is radio, Internet, TV, etc the best vehicle for 'under the radar' branding?

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, March 2, 2009 at 10 a.m.

    1. Mike, your writing skills on all levels degrade the PepsiCo brand.

    2. Cessna has been profiting on non existent money, unfortunately. For now, there needs to be a vacation for the unnecessary extravagances. When the money becomes real again, the extra Cessnas can get back on board. There is plenty of blame to go around in the private sector before you get to the government blame.

    3. Some of those major sponsorship costs have gotten out of hand. They need to be tempered as well. Pulling in the reins is not the same as excluding marketing just as you have pointed out, Denise, and when real money replaces the funny money, in time, larger marketing programs will be able to resume more profitably.

  5. Thorsten Rhode from marqueteer, March 2, 2009 at 8:33 p.m.

    Denise -- great pov! I agree it is prudent for any marketer (and not just in trying times) to shore up support for marketing and deliver proof (on an almost daily basis) that marketing is more than a cost center. It is an investment, with an ROI and we, as marketers, need to ensure we select media and response vehicles in a way that allows the measurement of most of our efforts.

    I say 'most,' because I am not entirely convinced every piece of communication can (or should) be measured -- but as long as we can point to an ROI for the majority of a budget, we can more easily argue that the rest is most likely 'working hard' as well (even if an immediate payoff cannot be verified).

  6. Christopher Payne-taylor from sAY-So, March 3, 2009 at 3:10 p.m.

    What this really shows is that putting anything that requires thought and expertise in the hands of the public is invariably a mistake. To begin with, they neither understand what marketing is or how it works. So, equating brand-building with putting an ad on the Super Bowl or doing a sponsorship deal with the New York Mets is like equating architecture with brick-laying.

    Unfortunately, according to what's been laid out in this article, our response as marketeers is about as lame. God forbid we do a high-profile campaign explaining marketing's function and its relationship to generating revenue, particularly in the current economic environment. With billions being poured into industry bailouts all over the place, you'd think we actually had the luxury of NOT doing that.

    No, we'd rather tiptoe quietly around the public lest they become incensed about something they know as much about as what's under the hood of their cars. We'd rather put our money on trying to prove and prove and prove what we do works, as if advertising, promotions, public relations and trade events in their various forms haven't been revenue-generation engines since time immemorial.

    Make no mistake, doing things like making multimillion dollar investments in new technologies is no substitute for the simple, straightforward ability to create a strong brand presence and affinity. As the high-tech sector has repeatedly found out, more, bigger, better gadgets often fail to translate to more, bigger, better sales.

    Thus, brand-building is not about "identifying, prioritizing, and implementing programs and initiatives to deliver the brand through the core organizational operating system," whatever that truly means. It's about creating an identity with which consumers can intrinsically identify and feel good enough about to buy a given product. Even the public knows that because they tend to drink a lot of Coca-Cola without really knowing what it is, or why it might or might not be good for them to be drinking it.

    So, leave the proof points and snazzy new technologies to the Sleeping Beauties of the industry. The public isn't particularly interested in waiting for us to "re-consider what the value of marketing is." They just want the economy to get better as quickly as possible and have no interest in whether or not we marketeers need a wake-up call to help make that happen.

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