Monday, June 30, 2008

On Marketing

This - I am late, I have been away - may be the most depressing story I have read in some time.  A marketing man is to be the new head of BBC Radio. Some weeks ago I realised why marketing complex products is such a scam. Slightly unsure of my ground, I tested my theory on a distinguished economist. 'Of course, you're right,' he said, so, emboldened, here I go. Products with a unitary and effectively unchangeable appeal can easily be marketed. 'Here are some baked beans, they taste like every baked bean you have eaten - sugary, vomitous - and they have the same appalling slithery, lumpy mouth feel, but, today, they are cheaper or you get a DVD of Battleship Potemkin, loaded with extras.' Job, as people keep saying, done. Complex products - radio stations, TV channels etc -  cannot be so marketed because their core appeal is an unstated and unstateable blend of different attributes. Nevertheless, the ad and marketing drones keep trying either with freebies or with some kind of slogan which supposedly captures the essence of the product. These are temporarily successful. The drones make up stories to explain why - the economist was very revealing about these absurd post-rationalisations - and get their feet in the door far enough to ensure that they can't be pushed out when their scam goes wrong, as it always does. With their feet thus trapped and their ideas failing, they then propagate the notion that the product is at fault. Note, wrong though this idea is, it can sound persuasive in the case of a complex product: you'd be wasting your breath arguing that baked beans were wrong, but complex products are being tweaked all the time so why not tweak to the tune of these guys with swollen feet? What happens then - and this is the gist of my theory - is that bits of the products are marketed. They thus achieve, obviously, more prominence. But what is lost is the initial and necessarily complex state. This will have been evolved through countless decisions by many different people - both producers and consumers - and will, as a result, be more robust than one idea coming from one small group. What was supposed to be marketed, the product itself, has been lost. Nevertheless, the apparent success of the idea will persuade managers that the swollen footed guys are on to something and so the folly persists. What is actually happening is only that which has been marketed is being marketed. This will fail in time because the inroads made by these decisions will finally destabilise the product's complex system and thus its only viable and enduring appeal. But, meanwhile, an increasingly baseless and empty 'vision' of the product will take over and the marketers will exert more power over product design. So, in essence, good bye, BBC radio, you used to be a great consolation.

15 comments:

  1. A pernicious feedback cycle in which the marketeers become participators in media product development.

    Having said that, the slogan 'Feed your mind', used to advertise a particular newspaper in the 1990s, did capture a complex product quite effectively.

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  2. Jeez, Bryan, give him a chance. He hasn't even had his first day in the job yet.

    I agree with the main point though. Like everyone else I gripe at length and in detail about the failings of the BBC, but it is still better than any other broadcasting organisation in the world - because it has been allowed to evolve naturally and without the malign influence of planners. Much like our political structure.

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  3. Nobody is interested in niche markets anymore. It has to be world domination or nothing. I, for one, am not lovin' it. But so what? To the marketeers, I'm just not worth it.

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  4. A bit harsh no the old baked bean, I feel.

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  5. It will be interesting to hear the FUD hour.

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  6. Did you bring back some peyote in your suitcase? By the end of that post I felt like I was trapped in the Matrix -- the marketing matrix.

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  7. What is actually happening is only that which has been marketed is being marketed. This will fail in time because the inroads made by these decisions will finally destabilise the product's complex system and thus its only viable and enduring appeal.

    The thinking's sound, old chap but have you ever considered that pesky syntactical device - the paragraph?

    Just asking, Bryan. :)

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  8. Stream of consciousness writing is all very well. But the danger is it comes across as gibberish (pronounced with a hard g - as favoured by e waugh).

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  9. Paragraphs are for whimps and you'd better look into the meaning of stream of consciouness.

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  10. Stream of consciousness? Ah, it was the peyote!

    I think what you are saying is that the marketers shouldn't try to tweak the product to figure out what will work better. As with Coke, BBC's value is with the brand and with the unadulterated product. Soon they'll bring out "New BBC", and "BBC Lite", and then people will clamor for the old product, so they'll bring that back as "BBC Classic".

    I think BBC's appeal is much like NPR's - soothingly calm voices, almost drugged, announcing the news with perfect diction and slow, hypnotic enunciation. They all sound like cult members.

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  11. You're spot on Duck...except it's not coming soon, it's already here. There are loads of niche BBC radio and TV channels.

    To be fair, they're mostly pretty damn good, and they've got the web sorted.

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  12. i find marketing interesting because it purports to present the product (e.g. Baked Beans) to appeal to extant desires but in fact seems to exist in its own separate realm, more or less independent of 'the market', or at least not really listening to it. Marketing - in my experience - rather dictates what people should want.

    For example, a literary agent rejected my novel saying something like "it seems good but there's no market for it." Given that, when i put the opening chapers on youwriteon.com, 1/3 of the random readers really liked it, that seems bullshit to me. What he meant, i think, is that the marketeers have decided there's no market for it - and since they have all the power, there can be no market for it, because they dictate desires rather than attend to them.

    Their judgement would probably be based on something far removed from the reality of actual readers, e.g. "this is a university novel. No university novel has sold well in the last 5 years, so there can be no market for it."

    And since they refuse to touch it, of course there's no market for it.

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  13. What's the distinction between marketing and advertising, brand-building and such like? What's a complex product? How about health care? Doesn't Bupa market itself pretty successfully? Or The Economist? This must not be what you mean.

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  14. Elberry, I completely agree. Isn't that the essence of dumbing down? The marketeers seem to have decided that because inherently easy-to-grasp ideas / products are the easist to sell to a mass market, they are the ONLY products with any inherent interest. To the marketeers, perhaps, who's goal is, after all, to make a quick and easy buck, but not to the rest of us...

    Anyway, back to the BBC, I thought it was falling apart purely because of the liberals. Now apparently the marketing men are on to the 'self distruct' case, so it seems there's no hope.

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