Marketing breakthroughs can drive substantial growth, but you might be better off buying a lottery ticket. 


A big breakthrough in marketing messaging can cause a substantial growth boost.

MasterCard “priceless”
Energizer bunny
“Got Milk?”
Absolut ________

What do all these have in common?


All were truly “breakthrough ideas”.  All were “viral” ad campaigns before there was such a term. But they all were much more than ad campaigns – they were positioning strategies that effectively cemented their brands into the top echelon of their respective categories. They were marketing platforms that have lasted for many years and evolved to adapt effectively in dynamic environments.

Yet of all the marketing jargon that’s penetrated our brains, the concept of the “breakthrough idea” may be one of the most dangerous.

Would we all love to have one? Sure. When one comes along, can it revolutionize our business? Absolutely.  So what’s the problem? Shouldn’t we all aspire to the same success?

Statistically speaking, most marketing organizations have a better chance of hitting the lottery than they do creating a breakthrough idea that does more than light-up Twitter for a few days. The fact is failure rates in marketing are astronomically high.  Only a small fraction of new marketing initiatives succeed in achieving their intended objectives.  If marketing were a baseball player, it would NEVER have made the major leagues.  If marketing were a horse, you’d need 100:1 odds at least (and even then you’d be best served to box your bet across win, place, and show). If marketing were a bridge, you’d certainly not want to drive across it on a windy day.

Why?  Why is it so damn hard to make marketing work consistently and reliably?

You might argue that the challenge lies in the very dynamic markets we operate in.  Shifting sands are the rule, not the exception.  No sooner do you get your feet under you than your knowledge is antiquated by the latest disruptive force.

Could be that marketers are in a constant state of experimentation, always in search of the magic combination of message and tactics that “move the needle”.

Perhaps it’s the absence of good “raw materials”.  Maybe we’re just reflecting the frequency with which we are given uninspired products with no news value and no clear differentiation and asked to “do something” with them.

Or maybe declining research budgets and internal competencies are primary causes.  But internal politics and dynamic competitive environments play a role too.  All of which is exacerbated by shorter timelines to produce demonstrable results.

Dominique (Mike) Hanssens is Professor of Marketing at UCLA’s Anderson School of Business and former executive director of the Marketing Science Institute. He proposes two explanatory factors:

  1. Marketing involves integrating the left and right brains – something that very few people are capable of.  It requires an ability to think conceptually and unencumbered by the present realities, yet to evaluate critically in a rigorous way.  Without the former, we fail to innovate; without the latter, we fail to focus.  Moreover, it takes more than one person in an executive committee who can actually do this two-brain thing to notice and approve a good idea when one hits the table. Odds of there being a quorum of such people in any one boardroom are long indeed, given that executive committees normally include strong left-brainers from finance, IT, and manufacturing/operations.
  2. Marketers tend to be more right brain than left. They enjoy concepts and creativity and innovation and inspiration, but not the repetitive types of analysis that tend to extract true insights from the cacophony of marketplace response. Many don’t have the patience for disciplined experimentation and continuous improvement, preferring to “try new things” and make a name for themselves within their industry.

It’s also possible that the challenges stem from the common mistake of concentrating our efforts not on strategic insight development but rather on tactical execution improvement in the mistaken belief that the only viable strategy for success in an annual performance evaluation window is to create a positively viral ad campaign. In other words, most marketers unintentionally place themselves in a position where they are relying not only on lightning to strike, but to strike in a specific place during a short window of time.

True, most of the breakthrough campaigns above were born in moments of pure inspiration on either the client or agency side. But those moments were carefully “engineered” to come about thru insightful research and market study. They were successful outcomes of a diligent “R&D” process.

As you look at your marketing budget, how much have you allocated to “R&D”? Not surprisingly, even companies with multi-billion dollar budgets for engineering and product development will likely have just a small fraction of their overall marketing budget dedicated to generating market/customer insights (“tracking studies” tend to get a multiple of the budget of insight-generating research). Far more money will be allocated to unstructured and uncontrolled “experimentation” with communication tactics in support of messages which are neither breakthrough nor effective strategic positioning.
Increasing the probability of success in marketing almost always comes down to executing against a process of hypothesize, test, learn, refine, repeat. Along the way, you can employ a few metrics to gauge your progress at improving.  For example:

–       Relative Value Proposition Strength – a measure of the degree to which your core value proposition (unbundled from ad execution) is preferred by the target audience relative to the options they see themselves having.  Tracking this on a regular basis helps diagnose the extent to which your core offering is driving/depressing results versus your execution of it.

–       Positioning Relevance – a measure of the degree to which your key positioning points resonate on relevance and materiality scales compared to other positioning strategies the customers/prospects are exposed to from competitors.

–       Message effectiveness – a measure of the degree to which your message execution is delivering the right message in a compelling and differentiated manner.

Finding out where you score high or low on these metrics will direct and focus your efforts at improvement.  It may also help enlighten others around the company as to the need to invest more in developing stronger value propositions through product/service innovation, instead of just hiring a new ad agency.

When we get marketing “right”, we make it really difficult for competitors to imitate. That’s why the big marketing victories are so transformative for companies (and careers).  If we got just a little better at standing on the knowledge shoulders of our marketing forefathers (and mothers), we might actually get it “right” more often.

Implementing a few structured steps like these can go a long way towards informing your understanding of where and when lightning is more likely to strike, so you can put your bottles in the right places.

© 2014 Growth

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