Let’s Turn Around and Take the Hill

Marketing is in full retreat in 2020.  As an industry we are on the run.

On one level it is understandable.  2020, the year from hell, has thrust unexpected and unprecedented challenges on the entire world.  Needless to say the impact of the pandemic on the state of marketing pales in comparison to the much more pressing, life-and-death concerns that confront us.  Yet this is a blog in part about marketing, and I think it needs to be said that marketing as a business and practice is headed in the wrong direction during the pandemic.

What does it mean to be in retreat?  To me it is defined by a general loss of nerve in the face of uncertainty.  Conformity and safety have become our guiding lights and the unwritten, unspoken standards that guide our campaign briefs and strategies (maybe in some “Zoom” halls they are spoken out loud).

Brands are falling over themselves to express solidarity with consumers and customers in their time of need.  I am far from the first to note that the commercials flooding our screens all seem to use similar music, pacing, tone, casting and imagery.  Solidarity and community are nice sentiments, but when seemingly every ad espouses the same sentiment our work loses meaning.  My guess is most consumers at this point see most of the work as nothing more than background noise.

Many brands have reverted to feature driven messages – let’s talk about me – versus connecting with the underlying, unmet need of consumers.  At times the whole industry feels like an exercise in box-checking or creative-by-numbers more than anything else.  Gone is the risk taking, the creative outbursts of differentiation, the bold calls to gaze in wonderment of something new.  Of course there are exceptions, examples of great work, but not many.

And let me be clear, as a practicing CMO I don’t make this observation from the vantage point of someone who is above or separate from the fray.  To some degree all of us have retreated.

Marketing, to me, is a communal craft as much as anything.  Collectively we have the ability to motivate, inspire and build culture unlike any industry.  While we compete with one another for attention, ideas, engagement and ultimately customers, at the same time we very much inspire and influence one another.  When we succumb to a follow the crowd mentality, like dominos falling one after the other, we can knock down one another quickly leaving a mess that all of us must take some responsibility for.

Let me say again these are clearly unprecedented times.  In the wake of so much loss of life, business closings, job losses, office closures and remote living, a desire for safety and security is perfectly understandable and justified.

Yet we won’t emerge from this tragedy walking backwards.  Empathy and solidarity in and of themselves are not a marketing strategy.  Reminding people “we are with you” is nice sentiment but not as important as inspiring, persuading and fulfilling the unmet needs of consumers.  That’s what great marketing does.

We must regain our confidence, our competitive spirit, to boldly and joyfully assert why consumers need our brands.  Now, more than ever, such work is needed.  Marketers can’t make the pandemic go away, but we can inspire behavior that grows businesses, creates jobs and revitalizes our spirits.  It is the challenge of our careers, likely the biggest professional hill we will have to climb.  So, as an industry, let’s get off our back foot, rediscover our nerve, and go take the damn hill.





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