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Overthinking to Stinking: The Dangers of Overly Complicated Marketing

10/21/2009 05:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Since the beginning of ad time, marketers sold salad dressing. Today, we still sell salad dressing. The two most important constants of Shopper Mom haven't wavered: she's still a mom, and she's still trying to make the best decisions for her family. She might have worked then, and probably does now. "Go play outside" has morphed into playgroups and play dates. Technology has had an impact on her family's life, but isn't really a factor when she's pushing a cart down the aisle of her grocery store. The retail environment has changed, albeit not drastically. Stores still sell products, and she still buys for her family.

The basics of Shopper Mom haven't become more complex, but our attempts at reaching her have grown substantially. In today's marketing world, seemingly endless cadres of marketing personnel at corporate and its agencies often spend countless hours pouring over a marketing solution for a product before Mom can pick it from the shelf. Marketing solutions are often created by committee and agreed to by quorum. In the 70s we had research, but our logic and intuition and common sense drove us. Now, reams of analysis and formulas and equations and modules and charts of all shapes and sizes complicate the jobs we do. And, in most instances, the over overabundance is unnecessary as it is time and cost ineffective.

A unique marketing idea is like a rock on the side of a riverbank. It has flat spots and rough spots and points and dips and crags and a host of things that make it different from the rest. Walk into the river a few steps, and you'll find water polished stones. They are more similar with one another than different. Too much interaction with the water has softened them into commonness. When you want the best creative idea, you need to allow the rocks their uniqueness. By complicating the marketing process with too much input of both human and data forms, we risk polishing the rock beyond effectiveness and waste time and money in our process.

For most consumer products sold at retail, marketers don't need the complications that we feel make us smarter. When considering creative concept generation, there's an easy way for you to test the theory. Let's say chewy granola bars is our product, and the time frame is back to school. Target is Mom for kids. Give the assignment to a strong two-person creative team. Give them a week to come up with 3 - 4 concepts. (You only need one winning idea, so coming up with 20 ideas is a waste of time and effort). Now, create reams of research and data of all shapes/sizes about Mom and kids and back to school and granola bars and lunch boxes and snacking occasions, etc. and brief a second team. Let that team consist of as many talented people as you can find, and make sure that everyone is motivated to participate. Give Team 2 team a month to solve the challenge.

When Team 2 is finished, regroup. Both teams will have logical, creative solutions that meet the goals/objectives of the challenge. Both teams will have ideas that will deliver motivation to Shopper Mom and increase sales during the promotional period. The difference? You'll have spent thousands of dollars and countless hours of time and effort on the second, more complicated effort. Further, because there were less cooks in the kitchen, the small group will probably deliver even better creative than the much larger team. The majority of great ideas in our industry didn't come from a series of committees armed with a plethora of charts and graphs and a host of opinions. They came from a handful of creative thinkers who possessed a fair balance of fact and gray matter. Over thinking isn't a formula for success, but for failure.

Creative "Brainstorms", groups of marketers sitting in a room pondering creative solutions for marketing challenges, are valuable tools provided the persons assembled are creative thinkers and the manner in which the group is hosted is valuable. It's when/where they are used in a creative process that should be considered carefully. When I began in the 80s in marketing, a two-person creative team would get a two-page assignment and sent on its way to come up with ideas. That was our job, after all, as creatives working for a marketing agency. After the ideas were in concept form (a program theme, and brief description often in 3 - 4 bullet points), we regrouped with creative supervisors. If we didn't think we had the winning ideas yet, we held a brainstorm with other creative thinkers. When the creative group was satisfied, we brought the ideas to the account team and then to the client. The process used to create ideas 30 years ago worked. They just cost the client a lot less money.

As an industry, we need to trust ourselves like we once did, and we need to begrudgingly accept failure. We need to trust our instincts without committees and over the top attempts to make fact out of our guesses through inordinate amounts of analysis. We have to realize that even the best guesses at times miss the mark. Over thinking doesn't make an idea stronger, and might have the exact opposite affect. There are no guarantees in what we do, and feeling that stacking the deck involves beating dead horses gives us a feigned sense of security. Ray Kroc didn't have a committee when he met the McDonald's brothers. He just had an idea. Big thinking doesn't need to be complex, it simply needs has a logical soul designed to drives sales.

Shopper Mom's wants/needs/desires haven't changed a lot in the past thirty or so years. She still stands in front of the salad dressing, and still has a choice to make. She's not inundated the process with opinion or information, we have. At the end of the day, she's going to buy Wishbone, or she's not. We're the ones that need to persuade her effectively and efficiently.

We can all learn a lesson from Shopper Mom. She doesn't go out of her way to waste time and money, and neither should we.