Why marketing still needs soul: Jason Miller on punk over predictability
Jason Miller is the Gene Simmons of B2B. He’s an incredibly talented marketer—with a career that stomped from LinkedIn to Microsoft AI to Active Campaign, making each one a better brand.
He’s also a super-talented rock & roll photographer (I once joined him at a concert in Camden—he practically crawled on stage to get that perfect shot). Jason has earned enormous respect in a world that doesn’t welcome outsiders. He did that in the same way he did it in marketing: by working his ass off and not caring about the rules.
So when Jason shared this post with me, I pitched hard to get him to post it on our blog (a rare guest post–maybe a first). Jase graciously agreed. I think you’ll see why I like it so much: [Doug]
As a concert photographer, I’ve spent more time than I can remember capturing gigs – and people’s reactions to them. I can therefore tell you with confidence that there’s a big difference between performances that generate the excitement a crowd expects – and those that excite them in ways they never saw coming.
A band can play all the notes perfectly, turn the volume up to 11, fire up the venue with their favorite anthems, but leave people struggling to remember the set list the morning after. They can try something different, leave themselves open to the unexpected, and create memories that will last a lifetime.
These moments are serendipitous. They come about when a performance goes down a different route, and happily ends up connecting with the audience in ways that couldn’t have been planned or rehearsed. It could be a band playing something different – or playing something differently. They take risks; they improvise; they imbue what they’re doing with soul.
As marketers we describe ourselves as working in a creative profession – but more and more of the pundits that I read and the keynote speakers that I hear seem inherently uncomfortable with this type of creativity. Experimentation and improvisation? In front of a live, paying audience? Risking the carefully cultivated brand experience that you’ve been consistently distributing via CDs and Spotify? It’s downright irresponsible.
Brand management, AC:DC style
Our profession seems far more comfortable with what I like to call the AC:DC approach. Now, AC:DC have been a great band for about four decades. They have a set list that most musicians would die for and they have some of the best assets ever for a live performance: cannons, giant bells, and one of history’s most famous lead guitarists, complete with schoolboy uniform. But any fan of theirs will tell you that AC:DC make very narrow use of these brand assets. During the 90s, at the peak of their powers, they became famous for following the same strict set list throughout any tour. The same songs, in the same order. They didn’t offer crowds 40 different performances; they offered up the same performance 40 times.
The consensus of marketing opinion today would actually find much to admire in this: you’ve established what your audience expects and you deliver exactly that. You don’t waste any investment of energy and resource rehearsing songs they might not recognise. You leverage what you’ve built up over time. You keep selling tickets and everyone goes home happy. If that’s working, why try to do anything different?
Which Disney do you really want to be?
It’s the same reason for which most marketers claim to admire Disney. They never mention ground-breaking animation techniques, or daring storytelling which embraces challenging subject matter in a way few other studios would consider.
Instead, marketers fall over themselves to lavish praise on how much value Disney can squeeze out of its back catalogue. They love the way that it manages its content franchises.
They seem to have no interest at all in how those franchises came to be created in the first place. It’s as if the most admirable thing about one of the most creative businesses of all time is its capacity for asset management and endlessly repeating itself.
This marketing zeitgeist is worrying because it limits our options for creating value for our businesses. The more marketers follow predictable brand playbooks, the more growth depends on how much budget you have available to spend and how big your brand is already. If you’re not offering a different experience to the competition, then it comes down to whether you can afford to put your brand in front of people more often. We value predictability – even if that keeps our brand predictably where it is.
The rise of risk-averse marketing
Why is marketing becoming so risk-averse? Plenty of people would argue that it’s because our profession is more responsible. We have more conversations with CFOs and CEOs and therefore we can’t afford to follow our instincts in ways that don’t translate into a projected financial return.
I don’t agree. I think that too many marketing teams have just lost sight of the value that innovation and improvisation brings to the table. And I think this is due to the influence of two recent trends.
The first is the rise of big data – or more precisely, the fact that we have a lot of data but relatively limited tools when it comes to applying it. Despite the advances we’ve seen in Artificial Intelligence (AI), data scientists are still a lot better at analysing which past activity we should repeat than they are at projecting forward imaginative suggestions for doing something new. As a result, no matter how big the pool of data we play with, it tends to result in an ever-narrowing range of recommendations going forward.
The second factor is the trend in marketing commentary towards valuing distinctiveness over differentiation – the prevailing fashion put forward by Mark Ritson and Byron Sharp. The logic goes that it’s more important for your brand to be consistent and recognisable that it is for it to do something different and interesting – and fair dues, there’s lots of evidence of big, established brands getting bigger this way.
The problem is that not every business can afford to play a game in which the most established, recognisable brand always wins. If you need to grow market share and if you have limited budgets with which to do it (stop me if any of this sounds familiar right now), then you need the ability to bring something unexpected to the party.
You need to punch above your weight through hungry, imaginative, edgy thinking. You need to be a bit punk. Yes it matters that people know it’s your brand speaking to them – but it matters much more if you say something that makes them stop and listen.
Marketing needs soul or it stops being marketing and becomes management. Even today’s big brands needed soul to get that way. You can’t be the AC:DC of the 90s without first being the AC:DC of the Bon Scott years. You can’t be the Disney remaking its animated classics as live action movies without first being the Disney that reinvented what an animated movie could be.
Marketing that surprises and delights is one of the most important brand assets that we have. It heightens emotion, which in turn forms more powerful memories. It opens the door to behavior change through cognitive dissonance, which forces us to rethink assumptions. It lights up reward pathways in the brain in the same way that addictive substances do. The capacity to surprise is so important that the best screenwriters from William Goldman onwards have followed the principle of, “give the audience what it wants, but never in the way it expects.”
Is the outcome you can predict really the outcome that you need?
When marketing gives up on doing the unexpected, it sells itself short and stops attracting and promoting people that have a hunger to push boundaries. We equip ourselves to manage brands along a trajectory that’s already set for them and neglect our ability to change the course of that trajectory.
People who really understand data tend to get this to a far greater extent than those that just wait for it to tell them what to do. One of my favorite marketing-related videos of all time is a classic Moz Whiteboard Friday featuring Rand Fishkin, a man who’s made a career from his mastery of search data and algorithms. Rand argues passionately that marketers should always set aside at least some budget for serendipitous marketing – ideas that could work, that could deliver against your objectives, but the success of which you have no way of predicting.
The worrying thing is, that video was posted seven years ago – and I don’t think enough people have been listening.
To give marketing soul we need to rediscover the nerve to do things that we can’t always measure. We need to acknowledge that we’re not capable of tracking the impact of everything that we do all the way from idea through to result. We need to recognize that we don’t get interesting data without running some interesting experiments.
The great thing about this approach is that it doesn’t have to involve massive investment in terms of resources. It requires investment in terms of imagination – and a willingness to encourage it. We’ve started to think of any departure from certainty as a risk. The truth is, the outcomes that we can predict aren’t always enough. It’s time to rediscover the magic marketing is capable of when we inject a little soul back into it.
Try something different. It’s a lot easier than you think.
See what I mean?
You can get more of this stuff on Jason’s blog Rock & Roll Cocktail—and sign up for his new newsletter.
Also, his book is without doubt one of the best rock photo books every published.