Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Catching Lightning in a Bottle

What do these great marketing breakthroughs have in common?

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

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, I think 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’s more than just a short-lived ad campaign. Declines in both 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.

Having spent the better part of the last 10 years crawling inside many Fortune 500 companies to help them measure marketing effectiveness, I have recently come to the (much overdue) conclusion that most measurement problems stem from the core evils of parity value propositions and absence of effective positioning. We’ve somehow managed to shift almost all our efforts from strategic insight development (which we’ve outsourced to consultants and research companies, and then put them on very tight budgetary leashes) to tactical execution in the mistaken belief that the only viable strategy for success in a two-year evaluation window is to catch lightning in a bottle in the form of a positively viral ad campaign. In other words, most unintentionally place themselves in a position where they are relying upon lightning to strike in a specific place during a short window of time.

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

As you look ahead to your 2011 budget, how much have you allocated to “R&D”? Not surprisingly, even companies with multi-billion dollar R&D budgets for engineering and product development will likely have just a small fraction of their overall marketing budget dedicated to generating market/customer insights. 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. Many will invest heavily in analytics to optimize the media mix of campaigns to get the biggest return for the tactical budget, yet will go to sleep at night wondering if they’re actually saying the right things to the right people to inspire the right behaviors.

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.

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.

Pat LaPointe is Managing Partner at MarketingNPV – specialty advisors on measuring and improving the payback on marketing investments, and publishers of MarketingNPV Journal
available online free at www.MarketingNPV.com.

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