5 Things I Know About Marketing – Scott McDonald, The ARF

Scott McDonald became President and CEO of The Advertising Research Foundation in March. A long-time friend of MSI, he was Condé Nast Trustee for over a decade and a member of the Executive Committee from 2011 to 2014. In May, he spoke with President Marni Clippinger about brand equity, consumer attention, and the dangers of living in the marketer “bubble”.


Brand equity is hard to build and hard to shift – except in a negative direction.

Brand equity is a deep repository of consumer thoughts and feelings, built up in very slow accretions. This is a laborious process, accomplished through communication and advertising and, most importantly, by delivering on your product promise.

Once built, brands may not be completely immovable, but they are very hard to redefine in the consumer’s mind. So most attempts at “repositioning” will fail. Once people think the Volvo is about safety, it’s pretty hard to convince them that it’s about hot cars.

At the same time, brand equity can be squandered quickly. Volkswagen is a good example of that in recent times. In that regard, brand equity is very asymmetrical – slow to build, easy to lose. If you get caught up in scandal, it’s very, very hard to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

This asymmetry is exacerbated by social media. Social media virality rarely helps brands. It’s almost always negative. So even as brands seek social media attention, their reputations are at greater risk all the time.

For the most part people are not paying attention to us, to our advertising messages, and to our brands.

Marketers often live inside their own brand bubble, imagining that consumers are paying much closer attention than, in fact, they are. At best, people are paying partial attention. Rarely do we have their full attention. Particularly now, when there are so many commercial messages and people are multitasking and distracted, the fact that people got hit with a particular marketing message multiple times does not mean that anything got inside their heads.

This is one of the reasons why advertising needs to be sustained and why marketers who reduce their advertising often see negative results in a relatively short time. This happened when Procter & Gamble reduced their high-reach TV advertising and increased targeted digital; the results were disappointing, and they shifted back again.

Particularly for packaged goods, reach and recency are hugely important. Category users need to be reminded of your brand near to the time of consumption. If you cut advertising because you think your brand equity will ensure continued market share, you probably are going to be disappointed. Relatively few brands are so “iconic” that the brand is the sole basis for the consumer’s choice in the category. This is another danger of living in the marketer bubble:  failing to recognize how substitutable your brand may be for consumers.


We tend to exaggerate how predictable people are.

As marketers, we have a bias toward believing that people behave in rational ways. It’s the way that we were trained to think as marketers, and I think it’s a human trait as well. We analyze the return on investment for each component of a marketing plan, we try to estimate what drives sales, and we use sophisticated algorithms, but the reality of how people behave is often random and even accidental. As a result, despite our best efforts to predict people’s behavior, we are constantly surprised.

We try to connect the dots and construct a coherent narrative about how our consumers behave, but I think it’s probably more accurate to say that many things that happen in markets are more chaotic than we admit. There’s a good quote from Bob Dylan: “I accept chaos, I don't know if chaos accepts me.” I think he’s onto something there.


Our love of targeting technologies should not become “blind love”.

Our love of targeting has taken us to some pretty bad neighborhoods. Advertisers who are pursuing programmatic digital ad buys suddenly find that their ads are appearing on hate sites or anti-Semitic sites or porn sites. And they are shocked. Shocked!  But what do you expect if you’re serving ads to 400,000 websites out on the long tail? Even the most sophisticated software has difficulty keeping up with the volume of user-generated content uploaded daily to the internet. Brand safety is impossible to guarantee out there on that long tail. It’s also where you are most likely to have your ad read by a bot instead of a human.

The belief that we can effectively target the consumer, wherever he or she is, has set the value of the context in which the message is served to zero. It’s cheaper if you’re way out on that 400,000th site than if you’re in one of the top thousand. So you’re going to save some money on media, but you get what you pay for.

I saw a presentation demonstrating location-based technology that lets retailers analyze in-store video in real time so as to detect customers in their store and serve them special offers. The technology used facial recognition software to see whether customers were having a good time or a bad time, whether they were enjoying being offered spritzes of fragrances or whether they were struggling with a petulant child. The aim was to create in-store interventions to improve the customer experience, which is a laudable goal, but it was all a bit Orwellian.

Is this how we want to treat our customers? Advertising has had this problem for a very long time. We’ve tended to treat the customer in a hostile way. We interrupt their TV programs to make them watch a commercial. We use militarized language to talk about what we do: ad campaigns and targets, ambushes and screen takeovers.

Digital tracking simply allows this military metaphor to extend to a newer and deeper level. It is becoming hard to distinguish this type of marketing from surveillance, and it’s provoking a considerable amount of pushback from some consumers and governments.


Cross-platform advertising should have a unified look, feel, and theme, but the creative units should be adapted to the platform.

A lot of research – some done at the ARF – shows that the most effective ad campaigns are those that have a unified voice, theme, and look. However it is a big mistake to use the same creative without regard for how it will be seen on different platforms. Taking a TV spot and dropping it into mobile phone doesn’t work well unless you adjust for the fact that the ad will be seen while the consumer is moving about, with much shorter view time and probably more distraction.

The point applies to other types of advertising. I have worked with many advertisers who had simultaneous television and print campaigns. The best ones recognized that the ads work differently in the two media. On TV, the ads are an interruption in the programming, so they have to grab your attention really fast. So TV ads are little narratives, and 75% of them try to be funny. The creative energy is all around capturing and holding attention.

Print, on the other hand, isn’t interruptive. People can choose whether to pause and look at the ad or turn the page, so the ad must draw them in. Print ads need to be magnetic. An ad might post a puzzle or have something missing from the picture that excites curiosity. Or they might simply be inviting, so that someone wants to be in the picture as in “I’d like to be on that beach right now.”

I think this applies across the board. Every time you try to bring a marketing message in, you really should put yourself in the shoes of the consumer. You need to understand the creative dynamics and the context in which the message will be received.

Five Things I Know About Marketing Series

Related links

What's Ahead for Marketing Research? (2014) [Video]


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