Andrea Belk Olson Andrea Belk Olson

Marketing shouldn’t always sell

There’s been a recent push (most likely by the bean counters) to establish a direct ROI for marketing efforts. I can understand this thinking. Advertising and marketing are expensive. The adage of “half of all marketing spend is wasted, we just don’t know which half” makes sense, if you’re looking at waste in an immediate return sense. You spend $X on advertising and marketing this quarter and only get $Y in sales. As a numbers person, you’d want to invert that balance. But the problem is, that’s not the only purpose of marketing and advertising.

For example, British Airways launched a new outdoor ad campaign, showing a child peering out the window of a plane in flight. The billboards don’t include a logo, QR code, tagline, or call to action. It doesn’t “sell” in the traditional sense. But that’s the point.

In a world where executives sit around a board room, evaluating the marketing team’s concepts and stating, “Make the logo bigger”, “We need a call to action”, “Make the product image larger”, “Show the URL”, and “We need to list our features and benefits”, are those thinking about the beans – not how consumers operate and make decisions, or how to create perceptions or build trust and recognition. It comes across as a bit pompous. It’s like saying, “We need to talk as much about ourselves as possible”.

A truly expert strategic marketer understands how a company needs to take a unique position and orientation and use marketing to capitalize on it. You see, British Airways isn’t oriented as the low-price leader. So advertising features, benefits, and other amenities would amplify the price narrative – in essence, we have more stuff, but we’re more expensive. So instead, the marketing strategy focused on shifting the narrative around their unique orientation – that experience is their differentiator, and it would be a step down to consider anything else. And they illustrated that experience rather than simply stating it in a bold, sans-serif font.

Engaging consumers isn’t just about incessantly promoting features and benefits, but consistently reinforcing what makes you distinctly different in a way that connects with people. Over the last few decades, in the spirit of saving money, companies have continued to hire more and more junior staff, who see “cool” ads and simply try to replicate them, to little success. Remember, if someone knows how to use Canva, it doesn’t mean they are a designer, marketer, or strategist. Just like if someone knows how to use QuickBooks, it doesn’t mean they are a financial expert. It’s not about simply being cool, quirky, funny, or catchy. A unique orientation is inherent to a solid, well-thought-out foundation for a bigger strategy. Without it, the default is run-of-the-mill marketing that pushes features and benefits ad nauseum.

Take Walmart, which sets the bar for low price expectations. So a competitor like Target instead focused on a better customer experience orientation. And their marketing focuses on reinforcing and shifting the narrative from “Is it worth paying more for Target?” to “I love Target. Do I want the hassle of going to Walmart?”

Marketing strategy, just like a financial strategy, requires a level of experience and expertise that goes beyond the implementation of familiar tactics. And just like any good monetary strategy, returns can take time to manifest. Organizations need to start thinking about marketing less as a transactional sales tool and more as a mindset-changing, narrative-changing tool. Just like short-term versus long-term investing, you can make some quick gains from some lucky stock picks, but the people who make real money are focused on the long game.

About the Author

Andrea Belk Olson is a keynote speaker, author, differentiation strategist, behavioral scientist, and customer-centricity expert. As the CEO of Pragmadik, she helps organizations of all sizes, from small businesses to Fortune 500, and has served as an outside consultant for EY and McKinsey. Andrea is the author of three books, including her most recent, What To Ask: How To Learn What Customers Need but Don’t Tell You.

She is a 4-time ADDY® award winner and host of the popular Customer Mission podcast. Her thoughts have been continually featured in news sources such as Chief Executive Magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine, Harvard Business Review, Rotman Magazine, World Economic Forum, and more. Andrea is a sought-after speaker at conferences and corporate events throughout the world. She is a visiting lecturer and startup coach at the University of Iowa, a TEDx presenter, and TEDx speaker coach. She is also an instructor at the University of Iowa Venture School.