Marketing’s New Myopia

The marketing and advertising world is full of lore. These stories often take on a life on their own and grow with each telling. Many revolve around famous campaigns. DDB’s 1960’s ad, “Daisy”, has been given credit for helping Lyndon B. Johnson defeat Barry Goldwater. It also landed Maxwell Dane, a partner in the agency, on Richard Nixon’s infamous “Enemies List”. This political ad, like the “I Love New York” cam paign have many claiming outright authorship or at least participation i-love-ny-t-shirt-whiteon the team.

New York’s iconic tag line is often attributed to Milton Glaser who is said to have creatively borrowed and built upon the idea from a Montreal radio station. It turns out that CJAD Montreal’s campaign titled “Montreal, the city with a heart” was of great influence and represented the creative spark. Mary Wells of Wells Rich Greene also lays claim in her book to this forty year old, highly successful bit of place branding.

Absolut Vodka made a fairly indistinct bottle one of the most recognizable in the world. The original campaign, which featured print ads showing bottles “in the wild,” was so successful that they continuted for 25 years. It is the longest uninterrupted ad campaign in history and comprises over 1,500 separate ads. When the campaign started, Absolut absolut-vodka-absolut-peak-1207had 2.5% of the vodka market. When it officially ended in the late 2000s, Absolut supplied half of all imported vodka in America.

A few years back while working at Interbrand I heard a grand story about Peter Arnell of the Arnell Group. Both businesses were part of Omnicom. Peter was a noted character and larger than life. In fact, he was quite large in stature and took it upon himself later to lose a significant amount of weight. He was also known to be an exceedingly tough boss but most agree he possesses a brilliance for positioning products and services.

This particular story involved a prospective pet food client who was bemoaning the lack of growth in their industry. They presented Peter with undeniable evidence that pet food was a stagnant market. They could at best hope to steal a couple of points from aggressive competitors. Peter’s eyes may have glazed over looking at the pie charts and bar graphs. At this point, he is said to have made a dramatic pronouncement along the lines of, “I know how to double your market and revenue.”

This caused the finance and marketing people from the pet food company to blink from a lack of comprehension. Equally dramatic was the pause Peter took before explaining his bold claim. He walked to a flipchart or whiteboard (the device varies based on who is telling the story). On it he drew a dog food bowl, “This is your market right now and it is tapped out.” Next to the first bowl he drew another, “Next to every pet food bowl there is a water bowl. This is where you need to invest. You can own the pet water market.”


I love that story for many reasons. Mostly because it shows that we can become myopic to both our markets and our products. Theodore Levitt wrote his influential article, Marketing Myopia, in 1960. It suggested that businesses will do better in the end if they concentrate on meeting customers’ needs rather than on selling products. That is still a highly relevant bit of thinking. Unfortunately, marketers have developed a new myopia and that is the very definition of the industry in which we compete can constrain our thinking and creativity.

Michael Porter of Porter’s Five Forces fame acknowledged that his widely accepted model for defining one’s competitive space is limiting. Upon reflection he admitted, “Definition of one’s industry is not the same definition of where the firm wants to compete.” I would add…“where the firm must compete.”

I have seen this myopia in the barbecue and barbecuing market. There exists a rich culture associated with grilling food and at first glance the market is well served. You can buy barbecues still-unresolved-even-with-new-insight-gas-or-charcoal-0and related accessories in Walmart, Lowes, Home Depot and other big box stores. There are specialty retailers who have advanced the cause of barbecuing with their laser beam focus on this specific form of gastronomy.

However, the business is risky because margins are thin on barbecues and seasonality is a significant factor. Barbecues are lost leaders for the giant retailers and most of the specialty stores have added fireplaces along with deck and lawn furniture to help make the cash registers ring. Still there is an amazing opportunity in the category.

The Economist covered America’s love of barbecuing saying, “It is a noun, not a verb. And it is not a spread_3330301cmeal so much as a meditative process, perched somewhere between science and art, dependent on reserves of judgment.” This description makes it sound closer to yoga or a religious experience. That is exactly what makes the category so desirable. Passionate consumers are highly attractive. Yet currently players in the industry have missed a key insight that could improve their fortunes.

The insight is barbecuing is characterized overwhelmingly as a manly pursuit. Tailgate parties, hovering around sizzling burgers and steaks, beer, ridiculously large cuts of meat, more beer, arguments over the benefits of charcoal versus wood versus gas…all of these images and activities scream “men”.

Increasingly we are a food-obsessed society. The source, quality and preparation of our food are daily discussions and decisions. As part of this, barbecuing is a highly social activity and arguably a healthy form of cooking. Yet, lost in all of this is the barbecue industry’s lack of focus or even interest in women. Why they have not engaged half the population speaks to their degree of 2bottlesBETTERnoHSmyopia.

Back to Peter Arnell and pet water. The long and short of his idea is it is brilliantly absurd…brilliant because it is simple and compelling…absurd because would anyone really buy bottled water for their pets? Certainly the pet water market would never come close to rivaling pet food. Yet, since Peter made the suggestion some companies have sprung up offering fortified and vitamin-enriched waters largely for dogs. One company’s pet water product states that it acts as “hydrating agent, antioxidant and detoxifier.”

The idea is not as crazy as one may think given Americans spent over $52 billion on their pets in DV-00118674-0012014. According to Derek Thompson writing in The Atlantic, that is more than humans spend on coffee and bottled water combined. This proves we should never allow ourselves to be complacent or so set in our ways that we miss a viable market. In the case of the barbecue industry, it is ignoring the fact that 74.9% of women identify themselves as the primary shoppers for their households, according to MRI’s Survey of the American Consumer. And even though men are doing more grocery shopping, women still dominate the activity by making 70% of food decisions.

Despite these facts commercials for Kingsford Charcoal reinforces the grilling stereotype. Meghan Casserly of Forbes writes, “In it, during a barbecue, when a woman pours charcoal into the grill and is spotted by her husband, he is instantly upset and stops her. “What would happen if I just walked into the kitchen and started making a salad?” he asks. His thoughtful wife’s response? “That would be weird.””

The “women cook, men grill” attitude and market assumption is ripe for the breaking. Now think about your industry and market. What has become so engrained that it is now an unquestioned absolute? When you find one, confront it and tear it apart. I am confident you will discover something that will dramatically influence your business for the better.

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