Monday, June 30, 2008
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.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 4:30 pm