Why Marketing Mostly Fails

Walker SmithAugust 17, 20222 min

Marketing mostly fails. Most new products fail. Most innovations fail. Most ads underperform. Most algorithms yield marginal improvement. It’s like baseball. Hall of Fame pitcher Goose Gossage said once that “baseball is a game of failure. A .300 hitter, a superstar, fails seven out of ten times.”

So what does this tell us? Gossage said it proves the “difficulty” of baseball. True of marketing, too, but this begs the question of why marketing is so difficult. The answer is that people are reluctant to change, which makes marketing failure the norm. We lose sight of this. Especially today. Technology since the mid-nineties has convinced us that constant, rapid, significant change is the natural state of the world and thus easy for any marketer to harness. Untrue. Change of any import, even over the past three digital decades, is much rarer than headlines and hype would have us believe.

The change we think we see is often a mirage, or at least not as much as we tell ourselves.

Consider the thought experiments articulated separately by economists Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen. Krugman said think of a modern kitchen versus the 1950s. While different, not so different that an old kitchen wouldn’t be “functional” today (meaning it wouldn’t feel out of place). Similarly, Cowen noted that the “basic accouterments of life have remained broadly the same” since his grandmother’s time.

The pandemic taught this lesson anew, even though a profusion of pundits declared that the world had been knocked out of its grooves forever. As I reiterated repeatedly during 2020, people don’t aspire to a new normal. People want to get back to normal. People resist change.

Much of our belief in accelerating change dates to the dot-com era when our enthusiasm got the better of us.

Gisle Hannemyr, co-founder of the first Norwegian ISP, published a 2003 reality check in The Information Society journal and concluded, “through careful compilation and examination of the historical record…there appear to be no major differences between the adoption rate of the Internet and the patterns of adoption we know from radio and television in the past.”

Obviously, big changes happen occasionally, and some happen fast. But as a general rule, change is rare, difficult and slow. Mostly incremental not transformational. Almost always, marketing is more about managing what we have than leapfrogging ahead to the day after tomorrow.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider By: Walker Smith, Chief Knowledge Officer, Brand & Marketing at Kantar

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