In the opening paragraphs of Michael Pollan’s book Food Rules, he outlines the problem with modern nutrition:
“Eating in our time has gotten complicated, needlessly so in my opinion. For all the scientific and pseudoscientific food baggage we’ve taken on in recent years, we still don’t know what we should be eating. It’s a fascinating subject, and someday the field may produce definitive answers to the nutritional questions that concern us, but – as nutritionists themselves will tell you – they’re not there yet. Not even close.”
Across the rest of the book, Pollan distils some easy to remember, broadly applicable policies that help people eat well. Pollan doesn’t prescribe absolute behaviours but instead offers broad decision-making guidelines.
“Always leave the table a little hungry.”
“If it’s a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.”
“Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the colour of your milk.”
Why is any of this relevant? Because it’s an eerily familiar parallel for modern marketing. We have plenty of marketing science, but it is usually wrapped in language that is impenetrable to the layman.
We suffer from a lack of consensus about what’s likely to work. We have a cohort of ‘thought leaders’ benefiting from muddying the waters with bombastic claims. And because of this we often kill creative effectiveness by making things more complicated than they need to be.
We have plenty of marketing science, but it’s usually wrapped in language that’s impenetrable to the layman.
If you look across disciplines such as sport and finance, you will see a desire for simplicity is common among top performers. According to investor Warren Buffett, “there seems to be some perverse human characteristic that likes to make easy things difficult. But I was taught that in investing, it’s not necessary to do extraordinary things to get extraordinary results. What you must do is handle the basics well.“
Sites like Farnam Street have popularised the concept of mental models and heuristic decision making. These filters that help us make intelligent decisions by grouping big important ideas from a discipline into understandable chunks, like Pollan. Maybe marketing could benefit from having a similar set of simple ‘marketing mental models’ for delivering effective advertising?
For many marketers, creating great advertising is an increasingly small part of their role. So, a set of helpful rules of thumb sprung from the most robust marketing thinking could help get to efficient, likely correct decisions about advertising.
What might a matrix of these simple mental models for brand advertising look like?
How about the following seven filters for starters.
1. Focus on buying into quality context, high visibility, sound on, full screen environments watched by lots of people, ideally in tandem
Media context matters. The content that surrounds your advertising has an impact on how people perceive it. If your job is to gain attention, it’s easier to do this on large screens with movement and sound, as Karen Nelson-Field has proven in her study of engagement with advertising across platforms and devices. Also, media that is viewed in tandem with other people is generally more trusted and is more effective at building brands
2. Plan a media strategy that gives you reach and recency against all category buyers
If you only target ‘in market’ audiences and nothing else, you will not grow your brand. Most purchases rely on repeated conditioning over time. This requires broad reach media. The work of Binet & Field on marketing effectiveness goes deep into why this is the case. ‘Wastage’ is a vital part of building a brand. You should reach as far as you can for your given budget. Generally, it’s useful to maintain a regular presence for your brand and invest in strong consistent levels of ad stock.
3. Aim for well branded, consistent campaigns that get talked about (‘fame’) and use distinctive assets
Brands need to prioritise “mental availability” as Byron Sharp would call it. Try to get your brand stuck in people’s heads and ensure it’s being easily noticed and/or thought of in different buying situations. Campaigns that focus on ‘fame’ tend to be more effective in driving metrics like profit, penetration and market share. Aim for fame by creating conversation and buzz around the brand (online and offline) and creating the sense of making waves in your category. As Mark Ritson stresses, strive to understand your brand’s distinctive assets (logos, colours, font, imagery, jingles etc) and re-use them regularly.
4. Prioritise creating an emotive response, but make sure it’s relevant to your brand/product
Emotion helps us to process, remember and share information. Creative gets shared and talked about more if it appeals to ‘high valence’ emotions such as excitement, anger, inspiration or humour, as the work of Contagious’ Jonah Berger on “why things pick up” has shown. However, the idea that ’emotion is all that matters’ has significant limitations, an important point well made by Decoded author Phil Barden. To impact sales, an ad needs to convey the right motivational message in an emotionally engaging way. One without the other and it will fail.
5. Great advertising doesn’t have to make much sense
In our search for rationality and repeatability, we have become far too concerned with making sense, a point Rory Sutherland makes strongly in his new book Alchemy. Also, as Binet & Carter opine in How Not To Plan, often brand value is created from things with no logic or function. So nonsense sells. It’s sensible not to make sense. According to creative researcher Graham Booth, an excellent question to ask of your creative thought is ‘What is the most extreme thing that could happen to prove this proposition true?’.
6. Support big ideas and platforms that you can hammer home over and over
Fluency, the speed and ease with which people process information about your brand, is one of the key ways to build brand success. So if possible, focus on building the structure of a big, memorable, distinctive creative platform and fuelling this over time. Focus on ‘imaginative repetition’ by using originality to reinforce existing platforms and assets rather than changing too often. Kantar’s AdReaction or campaigns like Guinness’ ‘Made Of More’ and Snickers’ ‘You’re Not You When You’re Hungry’ prove this point.
7. Remember that advertising is a weak force and most people will not care about your brand
As Martin Weigel has written, most people don’t care about or want to “have a relationship with” most brands. Brands are generally mental shortcuts. Advertising mostly works through nudging, not through bringing about instant conversions. People are generally not active consumers of advertising and most will not pay much attention to your purpose, as Richard Shotton has argued. Most brands are not differentiated. Understanding this should ensure you take a healthier, more realistic view of the job you need to do.
Most people don’t care about or want to ‘have a relationship with’ most brands. Brands are generally mental shortcuts.
Obviously, there’s a clear caveat in all of this. As Paul Feldwick argues in The Anatomy Of Humbug, there are no immutable laws governing how advertising. All advice must be dependent on variables like budget, objective, size, category and audience. In fact, the inverse of each of the filters above could be true in many cases. But that’s not the point. These models are not meant to be iron clad rules that must be adhered to. They are solid pieces of advice that are easy to understand and will work well in most scenarios.
Although it sounds like a paradox, we would benefit from understanding that getting to good enough is often a better ambition than striving for perfect. As Mark Ritson has said elsewhere on this site, the bar is low, so if you get a few big things right, you can get quite a few small things wrong and still succeed.
Rather than being overly dogmatic or detailed, these models should help us get out the weeds and back to foundation blocks of great advertising. To paraphrase a famous quote, all models are wrong, but some are useful and the real test of knowledge is not absolute truth, but utility.