marketing forgot him— and that shows

July 5, 2017

Whether the concept of positioning is thriving or has gone the way of the USP and the dodo may be arguable, but Jack Trout’s most important work was perhaps his 2006 book, In Search of the Obvious, aptly subtitled The Antidote to Today’s Marketing Mess.

“While CMOs are being fired and US brands are descending into chaos, confusion and commoditisation,” Trout writes, “US consultants are producing book after book about what should be done about the mess.”

That is exactly what he has done too, you may say. The difference, though, is that Trout argues against the arcane concepts, catchphrases, and esoteric jargon that have become the stuff of marketing. “You can easily sum it all up by observing that marketing is increasingly becoming a complex science of data mining, number slicing, niche segmenting, and so on and on. As I said, marketing is a mess.”

Taking inspiration from Robert Updegraff ’s Obvious Adams, Trout makes the case for common sense, which was really the unifying theme in everything he wrote and said.

The trouble, as Updegraff wrote, is that the obvious seems simple and commonplace, but we like clever ideas and ingenious plans. But those who tell us to get our heads out of our computers, to think simply, and to speak and write simple English, make us uncomfortable and insecure.

Current marketing literature and the discussions on marketing forums show a profession in search of its role and meaning. The biggest concerns of CMOs seem to be digital and social media, and managing and making sense of data. But the internet, and all that it spawns, “is not the ultimate solution,” as Trout says. It is “only a new way to reach people with your obvious idea.” And if that is what keeps CMOs up at night, rather than the pressures of driving top line growth by consistently delivering a competitive value proposition, it is small wonder that, as they lament, not more of them become CEOs.

Thankfully there are the few beacons, the iconic practitioners of the Obvious Adams philosophy. And there is no better exponent of it than Google. It is not just technology that keeps the brand where it is, what they do with it and—most important—why.

Google’s stated mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, and everything they do is to serve that single purpose. Google neither was the first search engine nor is it the only one, yet it has a global market share of 78% in desktop access and 95% in mobile and tablet access. Ten years ago, Yahoo’s mission was to be no. 1 in mobile search. Now its market share is 1.7% and the company is in the ICU.

It is not a coincidence that Google is one of the two most valuable brands in the world (alongside Apple) on all the major brand valuation reports: those of Interbrand, Millward Brown (Brand Z), and Forbes.

With technology brands one may wonder how much proprietary technology contributes to their success, so consider a consumer brand: Gillette, which has dominated the market for men’s shaving blades for over 100 years, and even today has over 70% of the global market.

Gillette is driven by its unofficial motto, “There is a better way to shave, and we will find it.” It has repeatedly introduced better products to already-satisfied consumers, who faithfully drop what they are using and adopt the new, more expensive one. It has built an unassailable position by focusing on one thing, and by excelling at it continuously raised the barrier to entry.

Result: In Interbrand’s listing of the world’s most valuable brands, Gillette at no. 16 is the no. 1 personal care brand, and has been from the beginning.

Closer home and down the technology scale is Amul, aptly described in Melt as ‘the number one nobody talks about’. With a turnover of ₹ 38,000 crore*, the Amul brand is bigger than the total turnover of Hindustan Unilever (₹ 34,000 crore).

What keeps Amul there? In a word, trust. At a time when, as the Edelman Trust Barometer reports, consumers’ trust in brands is declining as marketers cut corners and even blatantly deceive consumers, here is a brand built on trust and uncomplicated thinking. And in a low-technology business they have kept the barrier to entry very high, delivering uncompromising quality at prices that are unviable for competition, by maximizing marketing efficiencies.

The search for the obvious begins and ends, says Trout, with the Chief Executive Officer. With the pressures of the stock markets and of PE investors, and the resulting focus on short-term results, CEOs need to show they are doing something. But the tougher, the more complex the environment, the more important it is to know what ‘not’ to do, which road not to take. The trick is to know where you are going. If you do not know where you are going, any road will get you there.

* Cited by R S Sodhi, Managing Director, GCMMF, in Melt, June 2017