Parity marketing is back

The following column, which appears in every other issue, presents a counter-conventional look at contemporary advertising and marketing.Even though it is well-established that life and business are cyclical, one always hopes that certain trends do not ever come back. But just...

The following column, which appears in every other issue, presents a counter-conventional look at contemporary advertising and marketing.

Even though it is well-established that life and business are cyclical, one always hopes that certain trends do not ever come back. But just like bell bottoms, they do.

Discouraging

Now, however discouraging, it seems that parity marketing and parity advertising are back.

Ten years after the customer service revolution swept business, all of the big banks are telling us all at once that they care about the people they serve.

Both breweries, after all the exterior freezing imagery of last summer, are both freezing the brew itself this year.

And two bankcards have aligned with two car companies to offer frequent spending credits.

Sometimes, when the strategy itself is not parity, the advertising in execution becomes similar.

Diet Coke and Pepsi both followed Subaru and inter-cut so many supers into their tv commercials that literacy will at least benefit, if not marketshare.

What is discouraging about all this ‘me too’ activity is that brand loyalty, already declining, will simply erode further.

More confused

When marketers spend so much time talking to themselves, consumers, already preoccupied with so many other pressures, only get more confused, cynical, or worse, complacent.

We learned all this 15 years ago.

The ‘malaise’ of the 1970s, which former u.s. president Jimmy Carter called attention to during his term in office, had expression in business as well as in politics.

Big companies were all doing McKinsey-inspired long-term strategic planning.

And with their similar grids and matrixes, with their similar research and assumptions, companies did the predictable. They matched and copied each other. Crest and Colgate. Hertz and Avis. Rolaids and Tums. Ford’s Pinto and Chev’s Vega.

Society lacked confidence, as the ascendancy of North America was shattered by the American involvement in Vietnam and the Arab oil embargo.

That lack of confidence fed the natural conservatism of business. Thinking became inward, if not inbred. Parity strategies produced parity products, which were supported by parity advertising.

Crisis of confidence

Once again, our society is in the grip of a crisis of confidence.

Worries about the long-term health of the economy and high joblessness have shaken the security of even the most upwardly mobile.

And, once again, companies are falling into the trap of conservative thinking. Matching a competitor seems to be more important than innovating. Following seems to be safer than standing apart.

Certainly, all the marketing and advertising professionals in the companies and agencies that have produced this string of similar stuff did not intend parity. They are influenced by these less than optimistic times.

And, more importantly, they may be stuck using tools and processes that are so similar that it becomes impossible to escape convention.

Research is the building block for most business and marketing planning.

Yet, that research is so widely available, and generally of such mediocre quality, that it provides competitors with the same conclusions, the same implications, the same suggestions for action.

(If, as reported in The Globe and Mail, Molson learned of Labatt’s Ice from a focus group participant, then the inbreeding in research has ceased being comic and is now dangerous.)

Once the research is provided, with everybody often knowing the same things, then the process begins to impose its own standardization.

Product and account people, linked by their language of strategy, interface, and produce near-identical briefs.

Each brand is customer-oriented. Each owns a personality that is trustworthy, caring and high quality. Each claim is supported by ingredients, or research. Then on to creative.

Either because of the prevailing conservatism of clients, or because creativity is so much harder than imitation, ideas get produced that, once they reach the noise and clutter of the marketplace, are so similar as to be mostly indistinguishable.

Consumers just do not pay enough attention to be able to discern the nuances of strategy that marketers and their agencies sweat so hard to define.

I realize I am being overly critical, but the cycle of parity needs to be challenged and broken before it takes root.

Brands are too fragile, advertising is under too much attack, for marketers to simply wade in and tread water for the next few years.

Original thinking requires, as never before, originality in process.

Research needs to be reconfigured to allow human, thoughtful encounter between the people who buy products, and those who are trying to market and sell to them.

The sequential process of marketing and advertising must give way to interdisciplinary and simultaneous activity – creative people working directly with clients – both meeting directly with customers.

All parties in the process, learning, stretching, sharing all the time.

Some manufacturers have already forsaken the sequential.

Chrysler’s new technology centre gets engineers, designers, marketing and manufacturing people working together on a project from start to finish.

Already Chrysler has shaved 25% off development time. And sales would suggest it has dramatically improved quality.

Such process change, providing simultaneous development of strategy and execution may provide a similar resurgence in marketing.

It is worth trying because overcoming parity marketing requires that we first overcome the parity process that so consistently gets us there.

John Dalla Costa is an author and consultnat to senior business executives. His first book, Meditations on Business: Why Business As Usual Won’t Work Anymore, came out in 1991, and he is hard at work on a second. Dalla Costa spent 16 years in advertising and heads a company called Catalysis, which provides strategic counsel to ceos and senior managers.