Marketing is notoriously looked down upon as one of the least trustworthy professions around.

This Gallup poll (link) from late 2020 has marketers placed above only car salespeople and Members of Congress in the US, and a survey from Grey and YouGuv in the UK (link) found that 96% of the UK public does not trust influencers.

The flip side?

Marketing is a fundamental function of any company of any scale, alongside Operations, Finance, Management, and Sales.

Clearly, marketing and advertising is necessary, but how evil you believe that necessity to be depends on your perspective, ranging from marketing being crucial to your company’s success when you’re on the clock, to ads being iffy at best when you’re consuming them off the clock.

How can we resolve this tension?

To be blunt, it’s best to tackle it head-on, by:

  • Providing real value to your customers
  • Never lying or obfuscating the truth
  • Following through on your brand and marketing promises

Provide Real Value to Your Customers

Your product/market fit, and your company’s positioning, should be fundamentally rooted in solving a real customer pain point or providing a real customer benefit. Selling widgets for the sake of selling widgets may have its boom-and-bust cycles (see: fidget spinners a few years ago) that you can occasionally strike gold with, but it’s easier to sleep at night if what you sell at least inches towards a better world.

Don’t Lie or Obfuscate the Truth

Marketing at its best is creative, compelling, and brings enough wit or charm to put a smile on someone’s face — but none of that depends on playing fast and loose with the truth, or co-opting broader cultural movements that have no relevance to the product itself. At its best, you have ads like 2020 and the Devil; at its worst, you have the notorious Pepsi Kendall Jenner ad.

Follow Through

And as we’ve written before, a brand is more than a logo – it’s your company’s impression in the eyes of your customers. Make a promise, sell it honestly, and provide good customer service or perks after the purchase is made, and your brand will be fine in the long run (all else being equal in terms of, well, Operations, Finance, Management, and Sales).

How Can We Adapt?

This all may sound great in theory, but we’re sitting here in early 2021. The past 5-10 years has been, in its most generous interpretation, a turbulent period of change and reckoning, particularly with social media and digital platforms and the role of truth and power within that.

That Facebook, Instagram, and Google’s consumer products are all free to use thanks to the paid advertising model, and the increasingly dystopian impacts of algorithms and individually generated targeting profiles that maximizes outrage and radicalism, puts a hell of a stain on the picture-perfect version of What Should Be.

Costs are rising (not just financially), attribution is declining (not to mention accountability), demands for greater privacy controls are growing (can’t come fast enough), and the impacts and importance of all of this goes far beyond the scope of selling baking soda in banner ads.

So how can we adapt to sell your product and service in amongst this chaos?

  • Stick to the 3 principles mentioned above, as none of them are tied to any one platform or technology. Stay with them, as they can adapt to any shifts.
  • Know your customers. Keepan ear on the day-to-day ground and empower your org to conduct regular customer interviews beyond just customer support. Your customers are paramount, far more so than whatever your competition may be up to.
  • Own your audience. Never let a channel you don’t own, like Facebook or Instagram, be where your product lives. Use these as marketing channels, not end destinations. Keep your website fresh, own your email marketing list, and explore additional paid or organic channels strategically without orphaning content somewhere else and not in your owned spaces.
  • Don’t advertise with those that promote or allow hate. Tip of the hat to Sleeping Giants for their work in an advertising sense, although this discussion is ballooning well beyond ads to include the deplatforming of former presidents and radical right-wing online communities. Facebook recently announced that they’re (finally) testing a new feature to allow brands to control the topics where their ads shouldn’t appear near. While this should been in place for years, it’s at least a step in the right direction.
  • Don’t just do digital advertising. The programmatic world can be extremely successful for marketers and clients, but it can sometimes be a black box. Check out this Forbes article on what happened when big brands cut their online ad spend (in a nutshell: nothing changed). More data does not automatically equal more effectiveness, and your opportunities for reach or impact may be far greater by combining paid and organic digital with more traditional media (TV, radio, out of home, direct mail) or newer forms of advertising (podcast ads; unboxing and other branded experiences; communities; thought leadership).
  • Tweak your strategy consistently. A general marketing strategy is likely only good for 1-2 years at a time. While platforms and tactics may or may not change that quickly, culture and context certainly does. Look at your strategy as a series of evolving bets, not as a set-it-and-forget-it plan.

The whole point of marketing isn’t to lie, but to promote. Keep your briefs honest, your organizational humility and honesty high, and your knowledge of your customers deep, and you’ll be further ahead than most – particularly in a landscape that’s constantly shifting.

Post Script: After writing this post, we came across this post that highlighted Tim Cook’s speech lambasting Facebook in all but name – and in particular, the excessive overreach of data in advertising well beyond what provides benefits to end users. Well worth the read.

Post Script Part 2: We’re true believers in the power of what digital paid advertising can do for clients. But at the scale the digital platforms are operating at, particularly without a great deal of controls or oversight, the system needs some fixing. Precise targeting has its perks, but it’s more important to balance what’s good for business with what’s good for society.