Jan 25, 2021

3 Axioms of Successful Marketing

DMI member and experienced digital marketer Nic Brandenberger brings us a fascinating analysis of the three fundamental axioms that marketing should adhere to. If you want to make an impact and feature in the DMI library, Share your Own Work for publication in our Community Insights!

Talk about ‘a new normal’ is cheap. And the brutal truth is that nobody has a working recipe, yet, for how marketing needs to change because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The effects of the virus on patterns of consumption, family life, work, and society might vary significantly (in nature and size) across different cultures, geographies, and industries. A good strategy for identifying what needs to change in marketing is to understand what doesn’t.

C Change

Marketing is not an exact science, yet it is a primary measure for companies to connect people with their products, for profit. In other words: it’s imperfect but important. And as a consequence, marketing is not only under constant scrutiny but also highly susceptible to change:

  • A change in consumer needs may require the product to adapt.
  • A change in competitive market dynamics may require pricing to realign.
  • A change in media consumption may require promotions to be remodeled.
  • A change in commercial logistics may require adjustments in placement.
  • A change in _____ might require another ‘P’_____ to modify.

Surprise, surprise! Elements of consumption, culture, competition, categories, capabilities etc. change literally all the time. Call it the 4Cs, 5Cs, 6Cs or whatever… Marketing managers aren’t exactly new to living in a ‘VUCA’ world. It is the reason every decent marketer tracks and continuously re-assesses the context in which they must drive their business.

Equally unsurprisingly, concepts like the 4Ps, 6Ps (or however many Ps of marketing) continue to stick around. They provide structure to help embrace change in the dynamic world of marketing: Whenever a ‘C’ changes, a ‘P’ must compensate in some way, shape or form. It’s how companies have survived the last three industrial revolutions.

Sea change is inevitable, and it’s been like this … forever.

Same, Same, but Different – but Still Same

Unlike more easily predictable change (like cultural or technological shifts), COVID-19 came unexpected and hit hard, and fast. Suddenly, a multitude of Cs are morphing the landscape simultaneously. For example:

Analysts are still trying to understand which shifts are permanent, and which are temporary. There’s no question that there will be lasting change. Like there has been … forever. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ However, there’s equally overwhelming consensus (see for example hereherehere and here) that COVID-19 essentially accelerates already existing trends, rather than creating new ones. The above examples only illustrate this point.

So, what’s with all the hysteria about a “new normal”?

Stand like mountain. Flow like water

The abruptness and intensity by which COVID-19 has brought change—and the fact that it (still) has no clear end-point—is exceptional. Like an adrenaline shock, it leaves untrained marketers overwhelmed, disoriented, and anxious. Pundits with a light form of adjustment disorder swiftly melted in their own hyperbole, declaring “the marketing playbook must be re-written” or that “traditional marketing is dead” and such… But does it? And is it?

‘Avoidance coping’ is a natural human response to sudden change, but it often leads to unjustified and inappropriate (over-re)action. Fortunately, most companies are somewhat immune to overreaction in that they can’t pivot on a dime, for structural reasons. Most of them shouldn’t pivot on a dime, for strategic reasons (or at least not based on hysteria). Because the data shows that over time, with more insight and pragmatism, the reactions to sudden change normalize, economic sentiment turns more optimistic, and the “pivot panic” naturally winds down.

‘Control coping’ is a more appropriate reaction pattern: instead of escaping into hyperbole, the focus is on confronting and embracing the changing landscape. Trained marketers track and continuously assess which Cs are changing and why, then manage or modify elements of Ps accordingly. When current (and familiar) trends suddenly accelerate, the existing marketing strategy (to manage the respective trends) should ‘stand like mountain’, while marketing tactics (to manage the sudden acceleration) should ‘flow like water’.

If a marketing playbook cannot inform such modifications, it wasn’t much of a playbook to begin with.

Some things never change

When the dust settles, some companies will have survived COVID-19, some will have thrived. And the ones which somehow spent the last 30 years willfully ignoring the 3rd industrial revolution will have died (quite a few of them already did: check out this chilling graph of COVID-induced bankruptcies).

So what separates the winners from the survivors? Sure, the winners will have “solid strategic foundations”, “flexible brand playbooks”, “modern marketing frameworks”, and “agile organizational structures”. But when we cut through the generic buzzword bingo, what does that actually mean?

There’s clearly no all-purpose recipe for success. But a reasonable proxy can be developed, by eliminating all the marketing variables, and making the constants visible. These constants arguably never change, should feel like no-brainers, and thus can serve as ultimate, immovable truths (or axioms) of successful marketing.

The three axioms of successful marketing are to:

  1. Create a useful experience
  2. Communicate a simple promise
  3. Enable easy access to both

Axiom #1: Create a useful experience

It’s hard to argue with this as a starting point. But it would be erroneous to think this is (in any way) “basic”. To qualify an experience (product or service) as ‘useful’ is merely a simpler way of determining “product-market fit”—Venture capital’s treasured precondition for potential business success. It implies no less than offering a competitive (ideally superior) solution to a new or existing (ideally unresolved) consumer problem, for which there will be a sufficient market to build a sustainable and profitable business.

For an experience to be ‘useful’ it requires the brand to have:

  1. Deep understanding of (relevant) consumer needs, and the market in which they are being met or remain unsatisfied. For example, Instagram is in the entertainment business and competes with Netflix and Nintendo just as much as with TikTok and YouTube.
  2. A minimum viable product, which adequately (consumer-noticeably) addresses the need, and positions the brand profitably in the market. For example, Instagram’s IGTV product is a decent solution for interest-based, snackable video demand.
  3. Identified a sufficiently sized, addressable consumer target group, which expresses the (met or unmet) need, and desires the experience. For example, IGTV’s target consumer may be 18- to 34-year-old YouTube users looking to fuel their passions.
  4. Built a compelling, marketable value proposition around how the experience satisfies the need for the target group. For example, IGTV’s benefit communication could be centered around ‘continuous, personalized video inspiration for your passions’.
  5. An easy and friction-free consumption ecosystem which reinforces the consumer need and efficiently supplements the desire for the experience. For example, IGTV notifies users of new content, based on past consumption patterns and interest preferences.

It’s a lot of effort to make something truly ‘useful’. The devil is surely in the details, but a ton of brands already fail at points 1 and 2 above.

Axiom #2: Communicate a simple promise…

… a promise for which the experience is proof and which people will listen to, understand, and remember. Similarly, it would be arrogant to dismiss this principle as banal. Many companies already struggle to recognize how their current experience positions them within the market, or how their vision (if they have one) develops the value proposition. There is also inexplicable yet widespread confusion over the difference between a promise, a purpose, and a differentiator—the WHAT, the WHY, and the HOW, respectively.

Attempting to derive a promise from such fuzziness is rather challenging, if not pointless. Fortunately, brands which have created a truly ‘useful experience’ have clarified consumer need, product and proposition to a degree that makes capturing the promise (the WHAT) relatively straightforward. For example, Geico’s “15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance”, Walmart’s “Save money, live better”, or FedEx’s “when it absolutely, positively has to get there overnight”.

We can see that an effective promise:

  • tangibly and compellingly conveys the foundational consumer benefit,
  • is coherent with the experience delivered by the product or service,
  • consistently meets the consumer need, every single time.

When the product or service category itself already implies the foundational benefit (e.g. personal computer or automobile) the promise must not level down to convey secondary benefits, features, or reasons to believe. Instead, the promise must level up to impart a higher-order emotional reward (e.g. Apple’s “think different” or BMW’s “The ultimate driving machine”).

A promise is ‘simple’ when it meets these criteria.

  • It can be conclusively communicated in a crisp, single-minded message—without any further explanation in complementary sub-paragraphs or visual aids.
  • People, including those beyond the target group, intuitively understand the promise—even without seeing, and before experiencing how the product or service addresses the need.
  • It spontaneously earns attention and immediately evokes a reaction—either a pragmatic “a-ha!” response, or a positive emotional response (of the heart or gut).
  • The promise itself or the way it is communicated can be easily remembered—by simple association with the brand’s name (otherwise unaided).

None of this is banal, and yet the challenge only starts here: even a well-crafted ‘simple promise’ will remain categorically ineffective, when it is not consistently used over time. Which leads us to…

Axiom #3: Enable easy access…

…to both the experience, and the promise; and people will know your brand, find your experience, buy it, use it, come back to it, and talk to their friends about it. If that sounds too easy, it’s because it is. Having a useful experience and a simple promise doesn’t automatically translate into profits, without exposing both to the right target, at the right time, in the right place. And that is one of the most complex, challenging, and, indeed, critical marketing jobs to deliver for success.

A promise typically travels further, and reaches the target earlier than the experience. For example, I have never directly interacted with Tesla, let alone bought one of their cars, nor drove one myself. And I haven’t been in the market for buying a car since 2012. Yet, I am aware of the brand, its promise (sustainable transport), the category in which it operates (automotive), and at least one experience attribute (e.g. high performance, intelligent luxury).

A ‘useful experience’ with a ‘simple promise’ often garners such associations with category heuristics (like a baseline signal) through standard business activities like product demos, or more attention-grabbing tactics like generating earned media. In exceptional cases (e.g. Facebook, Amazon), this can constitute a sufficient basis for success that is driven by natural search and word-of-mouth. But the vast majority of brands will need cash money for their promise to travel.

Fortunately, and contrary to popular belief, effective reach isn’t simply a direct function of media spend. We’re not in the 1990s anymore. In order to enable ‘easy access’ to a promise, modern marketers will:

  1. Define the communication context in which the target is receptive to the promise: time of day, time available, location, device, content type, attitude, state of mind, occasion etc.
  2. Derive actionable receptivity insights via consumer research: e.g. connecting content consumption patterns with consumer need states and transaction occasions.
  3. Synthesize context, insights and promise into a creative platform: i.e. a crisp, distinctive, insightful, sticky, shareable, and flexible idea that inspires execution.
  4. Map insights and creative against a cost-effective media mix choice: e.g. discoverability, messages, formats, channels, timeliness etc. across each journey stage.
  5. Consistently penetrate the promise across the mix and over time: i.e. ensuring creative integrity, sufficient reach, frequency, longevity, and ultimately memorability.

People who remember your ‘simple promise’ and associate it with your brand, have ‘easy access’ to it. But they also need easy access to the ‘useful experience’, in order for any of this to make sense (and profit).

Enabling ‘easy access’ to an experience may require decidedly varied approaches, determined by the nature and dependencies of the experience itself. A neurosurgeon, for example, offers a strictly anchored and localized experience (at least until 5G and mobile robotic surgical systems pave the way for remote surgeries). While they can effectively generate easy access to their promise, easy access to a neurosurgeon’s experience may ultimately be governed by availability and pricing.

In stark contrast, a digitally skilled company like Adidas can reproduce, distribute, and embed end-to-end commerce experiences right where the consumer need arises. For example, fans of Adidas Originals can not only find inspiration on Adidas’ Instagram feed, but also directly buy a pair of Stan Smiths, without ever leaving the app. This closes the time and space gap between promise and experience (or as Silicon Valley people like to say: “removes the friction”), avoids distractions, and increases the likelihood of transaction.

Running centralized logistics, and asking consumers to go to ‘stores’ is a last-century commerce model. Today, commerce happens on retail platforms (Amazon, Walmart etc.), marketplaces (Google, Shopify, eBay etc.), and social platforms (WeChat, Instagram, TikTok etc.). Tomorrow, it will be seamlessly embedded in entertainment channels (Twitch, Hulu, Nintendo etc.), IoT, operating systems (HomeOS, iOS, Android etc.) and ultimately bionic applications (lenses?).

Nic Brandenberger
Nic Brandenberger

Nic Brandenberger is a marketing executive with over 15 years of experience in Tech, Retail, and CPG. He has re-branded a $10bn business (eBay), launched $100m-plus integrated marketing campaigns (Pantene), and co-founded a startup (iGoGive).

Nic can be found on LinkedIn or on his website

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