Productivity: Change Isn't An End In Itself

  • by September 22, 2006

In Lewis Carroll's classic Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen explains to Alice that she is running as fast as she can just to stay in place - an image that reminds us that speed doesn't always mean progress. Media today are panting to keep up on an accelerating treadmill of novelty and innovation, yet the cornerstones of marketing success remain unchanged.

Ted Levitt, the renowned HarvardBusinessSchool marketing guru who died this past summer, wrote once that people don't buy things, they buy solutions to problems. Or, as he often put it in class lectures, people don't want quarter-inch drill bits; they want quarter-inch holes. The essence of marketing remains today what Levitt taught that it was and always has been: solving people's problems.

The whirlwind pace of change in the marketplace these days is dizzying. It is fueled by an ever more rapid cycle of innovation and competitive response, due in no small part to an exploding proliferation of technological advances. Media reflect this no less than any other aspect of marketing, and probably more. Every week it seems like a new vehicle or format pops up out of nowhere, with credible-sounding claims that in short order it will disrupt if not dethrone established platforms.

The rate of change in marketing is like compound interest, which Albert Einstein once characterized as the most powerful force in the universe - speed doesn't just build upon speed, it builds upon an ever-faster base of speed. Marketing isn't just changing rapidly these days; it is changing more rapidly, and in more ways at once, than ever before.

But all of this change matters only if it helps or hurts marketers as they strive to solve people's problems. Otherwise, it's little more than fad and fashion. Of course, it feels like more than fashion to marketers, who experience this rate of change not only in the jobs they do but in the jobs they hold. Marketers themselves turn over as fast as the marketing they manage. The average tenure of chief marketing officers, for example, continues to shrink; it's currently the shortest it has ever been, at well under two years.

Consumers are caught up in this rapidly changing marketplace, too. More media, entertainment, and communications technologies are available now, with features and options multiplying faster than most people can even sample and enjoy. Niche products and customization are massively swelling the product varieties available to consumers. And the average consumer today is targeted by 3,000 to 5,000 ads each day, up from 500 to 2,000 each day in the 1970s. These overfull lifestyles feel too fast and time-starved to many consumers.

In response, consumers either resist the growing blitz of marketing or they invent new ways to engage with it. Neither is good for marketers. Indeed, multitasking is nothing but a fancy word for giving scant attention to many things at once. The human brain has no more capacity to process information today than 30 years ago. Six to eight choices are all that people can manage at a time.

The best strategy for an age of speed is to slow down, not speed up. More change and more exposure don't mean more success. The number of brands that dominate a category is the same small number as ever. Relevance isn't guaranteed just because a brand shows up on all the latest screens. This doesn't even guarantee awareness. Ingenious new ways to deliver a message create the illusion of progress while only scratching the surface of what really makes a difference.

Marketing that changes quickly is often marketing that misses the mark. Not that change is bad; brands do have to evolve. It's just that change per se is not the point. Solving people's problems is the point. So the only change worth doing is change that better achieves that goal. Otherwise change is mere fluff.

The risk marketers run today is thinking that keeping up with change is all it takes to keep up with consumers. The rate of change in technology and media is growing, but success requires the same old thing: a compelling relationship with consumers rooted in solving people's problems. And that means the age-old trifecta of precise targeting, meaningful benefits, and creative communications.

J. Walker Smith is president of Yankelovich, Inc. and the coauthor of three critically acclaimed books, including Coming to Concurrence: Addressable Attitudes and the New Model for Marketing Productivity (2005)

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