The Real Value of Marketing (?)

As a small agency we work with many companies in a wide variety of industries. As a Silicon Valley agency we work with a lot of tech companies. And I have noticed something that seems especially rife here in the valley; many companies simply don’t realize the real value of marketing–and it makes me wonder whether this is true across other industries, companies, and geographies. If any of you have any thoughts or comments, we’d love to hear about them.

This is course leads to the question about what is the real value of marketing and, like many many questions in and about marketing, a lot of the answer depends on context. Here I am thinking about companies who are launching something. It might be a new product, new sales initiative, a new channel program, or a complete relaunch of the company.

What is the value that marketing brings to this process. I would argue that while the creative work of materials and online development are incredibly valuable, the highest value comes much earlier in the cycle. This is the ability to see and understand the market, then translate that into actionable strategies that form the foundation of messaging, storytelling, media selection–in other words all of the rest of the activities that will be taken on later in the marketing production cycle.

The problem that many companies have with this kind of thinking is that it is hard, time consuming, and can be somewhat pricey (although usually not in relation to the value of the market they hope to penetrate). So this gets pushed off, minimized, or simply ignored (especially in tech companies), and they take the process right into the production phase of “these are the values, these are the benefits, go make us marketing that sells the product.”

Some months later, when things aren’t going to plan, the executives tend to blame the marketing department for the failure–or come to us to “fix” the problem with the brochure or the website or the social media, or whatever.

We have seen this process of often (not that we mind the work it brings in!), it does cause me to question: Have we, as marketer/strategists, so thoroughly failed to communicate our value, or are companies just in such a rush to get to market that they are willing to ignore the obvious value to investing the time and resources into developing a real understanding of who they’re selling to, what’s important to them, what’s the best way to tell the story, and how best to tell it?

It is a very important quandary. Since the days of David Ogilvy and Claude Hopkins (BTW, see Greg Satell’s great piece on Hopkin’s Scientific Marketing) we have understood the incredible value and ROI of developing this kind of understanding.

Where do we keep losing the recipe? Where do we continue to fail to communicate the incredible to the executives in charge of the companies we serve?

Emotional Contagions

Think of the last time you felt moved by a television commercial. Was it the story it told that triggered your emotional response? Was it a song? Perhaps it was just an image of another person showing emotion. Each of these examples has an explanation and a reason for being used in communications — especially advertising.

When a baby is born, it is immediately wired to copy mechanical behaviors. If you smile at a baby, it is likely he/she will smile back. It is mirror neurons that are responsible for this. A baby, after all, hasn’t really learned yet that a smile represents happiness. Another wiring of behavior is the emotional contagion. This is seen when a baby simply cries because another one is crying. If you put ten babies in a room and provoke one to cry, it is likely that you’ll have a room full of crying babies in no time. It is this emotional contagion that follows us into adulthood.

There is currently one television commercial that seems to trigger an emotional response from me (besides laughter) and I’ve been curious to find out why. It isn’t the sight of another person with tears rolling down his/her face, but a rapid flood of smaller cues that trigger stories I can relate to. The commercial is from Chevron’s Human Energy campaign, which launched in 2007.

In this 30 second ad, a total of 15 clips of candid and seemingly unrelated scenes appear during a voice over:

“The world is changing and how we use energy today cannot be how we use it tomorrow. There is no one solution. It’s not simply more oil or more renewables or being more efficient. It’s all of it. Our way of life depends on developing all forms of energy and to use less of it. It’s time to put our differences aside. Will you be part of the solution?”

The cast of talent recruited to create this 30 second “rallying cry” included director Lance Acord (cinematographer), British composer Paul Leonard-Morgan, and voice-over narrator Campbell Scott (Damages). The tone of voice, complimented by the gentle piano melody, reinforced the analogy-triggering clips of video that evoke feelings of chaos and problem-solving and contrast it with family and responsibility. All of this to present a plea of awareness, participation, and cooperation.

Now, if you really want to sob, throw in a curve ball and create a story that has heightened exposure at the same time — an immediate, very visible analogy. A perfect example is another Chevron commercial (aired in 2007) about The Impossible. If you’ve been watching the news over the last month, I guarantee it will leave you with goosebumps. It has convinced me that I need to be part of the ‘solution’.


Measuring hesitation can be valuable. Already, devices like Google’s Android uses information from the phone’s GPS to detect traffic speed. The data is then sent to Google maps and appears as a visual overlay of information — red means there’s a traffic jam. Hesitation can also come in forms that indicate if problem solving is taking place or if doubt exists. I often watch people as they use an app on their mobile device to see if they are in fact saving or killing time.

I was among the first consumers to use the Starbucks app, which is basically a digital version of their gift cards. When I used it for the first time, I fumbled through the steps that produced a QR code for the cashier to then scan and I thought “wouldn’t it be faster if I just handed them my plastic card?”. Hesitation can kill an app like this.

So, how do we manage hesitation? We hire user experience designers, cognitive scientists, information architects, talented developers, and visual designers to make a product as intuitive and responsive as possible. The negative effect of hesitation is it can turn a user away (download times), frustrate (this is taking too long to learn – it isn’t sticking), confuse (I’m lost and have to search for navigation paths), or lose trust (why isn’t this saving?). Hesitation can also be positive, meaning the user is persuade by the product/service because the content is engaging.

With mobile devices becoming more popular it will become increasingly important to factor in hesitation times. When sitting at a desktop computer, the user is static and less likely to be confronted with environmental distractions such as moving in a line at a coffee shop or paying attention when crossing the street. This means user testing, like the device, should be mobile.