Is Marketing in Need of a Reality Check

Do You Really Understand How Real People Live?

Marketing is under attack for being too detached from customers. But is marketing really in desperate need of a reality-check?

By Jennifer Small

Let me introduce you to Tom from Bromsgrove. I can tell you what’s in his fridge. I can tell you why his wife thinks they should shop at Sainsbury's and won't let him shop anywhere else...”

Tom from Bromsgrove may not know it, but he was a highly instrumental part of the Saatchi & Saatchi John Lewis Partnership / Waitrose pitch win in May, says the agency’s chief strategy officer Richard Huntington.

“He isn't a persona. He isn't a made-up person, or a representative segment of a mass. He is real,” Huntington says, explaining that the agency talked at depth to 13 people before using expert voices and quantitative validations through YouGov.

Tom is also at the heart of Huntington’s recent call for marketers to get in touch with reality as part of WARC’s Future of Strategy 2023. The report suggests strategists are at risk of being distant from real people and culture, having found in-person qualitative research is the method least used by strategists (21 per cent).

“The progressive collapse of the UK economy and the hollowing out of the middle classes that all businesses ultimately depend upon, has made the disparity between Marketingland and the real world more obvious,” Huntington wrote. “The flight from reality in marketing is now so pressing and so problematic that those of us that believe in the real, the observable, the lives that are really lived by the people we serve, must take a stand. The truth may be a relative concept these days, with everyone having their own individual ‘truths’, but real is still objective. And real should be our objective,”

After inflation reached a 41-year high in October 2022, accelerating to 11.1 per cent on the back of rising energy and food prices, it’s been another tough year with the cost of a basket of food still up by around 26 per cent, the effects of war, and transformed consumer habits in a post-pandemic world. But is it time for the marketing industry to wean itself off “aspirational” practices of the past two decades if it wants to speak to consumers more effectively?

Peter Markey, chief marketing officer at Boots, believes marketers “haven't done a bad job” of keeping up with consumer sentiment over past couple of years, describing Covid as “a pivotal reset moment for a lot of brands to lean into more customer insight and listening than they’ve ever done before".

Markey refutes the notion that he is in a cultural bubble, a situation he fends off by filling his brand and agency teams with diversity of thought and background that feeds into creative output.

“In all the work we do, there are other voices around the table with me, it’s not just my voice. We are thoughtful around which agencies we work with, and the people we have in our team. And where we aren’t the target customer, we walk in the shoes of our consumer by going into their homes and having tea with them, finding out what their lifestyle is like. It brings people's lives to life in a meaningful way. I encourage any brands to do that. Your work will be better as a consequence.”

Having said that, Markey underlines the importance of using the widest variety of research tools available. For the past three Boots Christmas ads, he says, the retailer has used System1, and this year Boots is among the top four retailers, while pointing out that one brand – which he describes as “synonymous with Christmas” – is not even in the top 20.

“I do wonder if they’d used the same insight [as Boots] then being out of touch wouldn't have been thrown at them. If they'd leant in and used newer research techniques to test some of the work right from the start, they could have made sure it chimes with customers.”

“Embrace mass-market culture”

Zoe Harris, chief marketing officer at On the Beach, thinks it’s mainly agencies that need a reality check. As marketers, she says, teams are expected to consume and live their brands “in a way that just doesn’t happen in agencies".

At On the Beach, marketers are given money and extra days off to go on the brand’s holidays. But the holiday choices of agency teams, says Harris, wouldn’t be reflective of mass-consumer choices. When she’s spoken to agencies during pitch processes, Harris has found that very few people understand package holidays, for example, because it’s so far removed from them and their social circle.

“It’s become culturally accepted to look down your nose at ordinary Britain and feel superior. But I’m interested in finding people who are prepared to embrace mass-market culture, no matter their background, who genuinely enjoy it. And I say to agency people, where did you go on holiday? What books are you reading? What did you watch on Saturday night on telly? And if they're turning their nose up at The Masked Singer, that says a whole heap. That's fine, we're all different. But you can't have 90 per cent of your agency not ever watching ITV. It's about diversity of class and interests, and a willingness to go out and understand people who are different from their own social set.”

One way Harris and her team get closer to consumers is by joining various Facebook groups – she’s part of the biggest Facebook group, Family Lowdown, boasting more than 1.2m members – which allows her to keep track of what’s important to her target customers as they are chatting and asking for advice about “where to go with two incommunicative teenagers” for example.

It’s much better than flipping through a social listening report every quarter, she explains, as it allows her to experience what some consumers are seeing in their own feeds, and how they are searching for holidays. She checks the group up to four times a day.

Populist creativity

Gathering the genuine attitudes of consumers is an issue that Leo Burnett, already adland-famous for its populist creativity approach (see McDonald’s, Morrisons, and Tui), has tried to anticipate, having reimagined the way it listens to consumers.

Its PopPulse report, in collaboration with The Outsiders, is based on the opinions and discussions of individuals from various professions like hairdressers, beauticians, bar staff, personal trainers, and decorators, who have regular interactions with people in their daily jobs and hear what the nation is talking about every day.

The findings were corroborated by a panel of “people experts” (including neuroscientists, anthropologists, cultural consultants, and journalists), plus a sprinkling of traditional focus groups.

Josh Bullmore, the agency’s chief strategy officer, says: “We’re listening in a way that removes the filters added by traditional research. In focus groups or even in-home interviews, people are to a certain extent performing, so you get this research effect; you're not yourself. And that's why we set out to listen to the listeners.”

Bring people to life

It harks back to Huntington’s approach to the John Lewis Partnership / Waitrose pitch, of which he asks: “Is it better to understand the truth about one person or nonsense about 1000? And I think I prefer to have truth about one person; at least we can build out from that. The granularity that we're able to talk about brings people to life for clients.”

For Yorkshire Tea, which has grown to become the number one selling tea brand in the UK, with almost a third (28 per cent) of the black tea market, social media and close listening has been a key success factor. When the brand worked with its agency partners, Lucky Generals and Goodstuff, to launch Biscuit Brew, a few key stakeholders were “a bit upset” about the variant, says Dom Dwight, marketing director of brand owner, Bettys & Taylors of Harrogate.

“They thought we could potentially trash the brand or commit sacrilege. The thing that won them over was when we shared the absolute love and adulation that came from a certain group of consumers on social media, who felt like we'd sprinkled magic into their world by creating this product,” says Dwight.

Ultimately it was the emotive, qualitative elements of research that built the pitch for the product and strategy, Dwight explains.

“Disappeared up our own purpose arses”

The real problem is a reality gap, says Cheryl Calverley, marketing consultant and former CEO of Eve Sleep, as marketers often fail to recognise that they have an intimate knowledge, passion and love of their product, which consumers don’t often have.

“We seem to have got ourselves into an ivory tower. You can see it clearly in the way communication has gone over the past few years as we've disappeared – quite frankly – up our own purpose arses, and created lots of abstract clever communication, which my mum wouldn't recognise,” Calverley says.

Communication should be populist, she argues, pointing out that it “shouldn’t appeal to the people you work with (unless you're communicating to some weird, rarefied group in central London)” and also that “people don’t want their lives reflected back at them in a horrendously condescending patronising way; they want communication which gives them useful, interesting information, in an entertaining way.”

There’s too much talk of “audiences” says Calverley, as marketers have shifted to chasing mass data, rather than customers. Too often, quantitative research is being used to try and answer qualitative questions, she says, with qualitative and ethnographic work having “fallen out of favour” due to expense and the fact “it takes intelligence to interpret; it doesn't just plop out into a platform.”

“I always say marinade yourself in your consumer, in their life. And that will give you the right instincts, and the right judgement. And it also makes you the most powerful person in the room within your own business. You can say, ‘when I was talking to Janine last week, about exactly this, she said…’, and no one can argue with the fact that you spoke to Janine last week, whereas what they were doing last week was drinking in Soho House.”

Understand nuances behind sales

At Škoda, the philosophy is to “treat every customer like your best friend”, but the manufacturer realised it wasn’t set up to do that, explains Kirsten Stagg, marketing director.

So, Škoda UK changed the structure of its organisation, with the addition of a customer experience team, which sits within marketing alongside the digital experience, brand, and performance teams.

“What is the entire experience the customer has; right from when they see an ad on the telly to when they come to the website, through to when they go into a retailer?” asks Stagg. “We want to know we are joining up all the dots and really challenging ourselves to deliver the right experience, rather than just putting out what we want.”

To avoid being blinded by data, the brand has recently launched a programme called “Škoda All Ears” a customer panel designed to help the brand understand the nuances behind its sales figures and quantitative research.

“Moving forward it will really help us, because instead of coming up with ideas in a bubble and assuming we know how they will land with customers, it will allow us to test ideas out and get feedback.”

Tyranny of data limits instinctive talent

The challenge for marketers is facing the tyranny of “unless I've got data for this, it doesn't matter” which is causing a “massive crisis of confidence”, says Huntington, with marketers sacrificing strategic bravery because they don’t have the confidence to trust their own judgement and defend brilliant ideas to their boards.

“We're failing to trust our own instinct, partly because we've been told that we must be data driven, and partly because of the diminished role of marketing, culture, and agencies within client organisations,” says Huntington.

Marketing is seen as “less essential” and not perceived as the demand-generation centre of the business in too many organisations, says Huntington, who bemoans the exit of “genuinely intuitive marketers like Phil Rumbol at Cadbury; just knowing that Gorilla would work and fighting for it. Or Mark Evans at Direct Line 10 years ago, believing that getting a gangland fixer like Harvey Keitel would work.”

But Michelle Whelan, UK chief client officer at VML, argues that looking at the issue from a commerce perspective means marketers can track actual behaviour through e-commerce and mobile shopping apps.

“We can see what journeys they are following, what moments and content they engage with, how they're responding. Is it more of an experience for them? Are they buying things in that moment?” she asks.

“We're doing our own bespoke social listening and tracking of people's behaviours, alongside any first- or third-party data that clients have, so we can build a thorough picture of how they’re engaging with the category. Blending data sources to give a holistic perspective of individual people is not an over-reliance on data, it's smart use in order to get effective creativity.”

For People's Postcode Lottery, VML has been “able to get super-granular around postcodes all around the country and look at who's living in those postcodes. Who are their families? What do their homes look like? And then you can extrapolate behaviours to generate from an additional social perspective, bringing micro-relevance to those postcodes and the people that are living there,” Whelan says.

The effectiveness reality check

Huntington worries that the marketing community is not seen as solving commercial problems, but simply concerned with getting more and more people to “love the brand”. If marketers want to be taken seriously, he says, they must look beyond “intermediate” measures of advertising effectiveness, and concentrate on business metrics.

“For 20 years, marketing has been convinced that ROI is a measure of effectiveness,” says Huntington, “but it tells you nothing about the effectiveness of the work. It only tells you whether you earn back the money you spent. And I think that's a problem.”

Huntington argues that marketers need to return to measuring sales, share, volume-growth, value-growth, “rather than how many stars you got on System1, or whether Byron Sharp thinks you’ve got distinctive assets. There’s too much pontificating about brand, when brand only has a role if it is a driver of commercial growth.”

Bullmore agrees that marketers need to prioritise linking creativity to business metrics: “Our ultimate measures of success are commercial ones, which is the most unfiltered view of success. The money doesn't lie, that's a fact. And so that's ultimately where we start and end in any project, is the financial returns. With every layer you add on to that, you get one step away from reality. If you look at brand tracking… all those tools are important, but we always take them with a pinch of salt and focus on the financial performance.”

Could ‘relevance’ supersede ‘affinity’?

So, what’s next for marketers in the bid to get closer to consumers? Is the industry on the cusp of a new era?

After a long period of affinity marketing, where brands have laid out their values and asked consumers to share them, the key – against the backdrop of today’s omnicrisis – says Huntington, is to aim for relevance, or “micro-relevance” as Whelan describes it.

“Relevance marketing means we understand how people are living their life, what they're wrestling with, and therefore how to respond. Without being condescending, brands can say; ‘this is my understanding of your life, and I can help you’.”

As Huntington asks: “what is the point of marketing if it is not to represent the lives of real people – like Tom from Bromsgrove – and then work out how best to serve them?”

How should marketers and agencies avoid the reality gap?

Marketers and strategists share their best advice…

Pip Hulbert, CEO, VML

“I wouldn’t want to paint everyone with the same brush, so the simplest way to put it is that the best ones don’t need a reality check, but there will always be a few that do.

“Given the time of year, let’s look at the class of 2023 Christmas campaigns. Some are brilliant (McDonald’s, Greggs, JD, to name a few), while others seem to be (once again) labouring under the crass assumption that the whole of Britain lives in four-storey Victorian terraced houses on wide, leafy, West London streets.

“It’s the age-old London-centric debate. 87% of Britain don’t live in London, yet so much of the creativity we see feels like it was made for Londoners, by Londoners. Marketers need to make sure they’re representative of the people they’re trying to reach, and staying within the M25 keeps us within that echo chamber.”

Zoe Harris, chief marketing officer, On the Beach

“Agencies are often based in London and Manchester and are very guilty of being detached from consumers. I would urge them to go on a package holiday. Or go and take everyone round Aldi, Iceland, Asda, Waitrose, then come back and talk about what you've seen.

“You never see agencies doing that on their away days do you? Why aren't they?

“News UK journalists used to go to Butlins every year, to see a different side of life than they might normally experience. People working at Haven Holidays have to go on one of their holidays to experience it, and so that you see your consumer as they are – not in a research group. I just don't see agencies doing that, ever.”

Dom Dwight, marketing director, Bettys & Taylors of Harrogate

“I would urge people to think wider than just the advertising industry and just marketing that need a reality check. That diagnosis contains the problem it's diagnosing. In calling that out, it's also saying this is a problem unique to marketing. And I don't think it is.

“Why is it only that the marketing part of any businesses is not connected enough to the consumers and has a slightly biased view of the world? That could probably also be applied to every other department in the business and therefore it's true, not just of marketing, but of the business as a whole.

“If the idea is pitch to 20-to-30-year-old women, and you're trying to get buy-in from a group of mostly-over-50, mostly male or mostly white board, then you've got issues. The less diverse they are, the weaker they are, the less creative they're going to be, and the bigger job they're making of having to try and work out how to connect with their audience.

“We've got a long way to go, but I detect lots of agencies and marketers moving in the right direction. The thing that will drive change happen the most is when diversity leads to unique creativity that's got a particularly powerful commercial edge, which I think is already beginning to happen.”

Richard Huntington, chief strategy officer, Saatchi & Saatchi

“A lot has happened in the industry to try and attack the monoculture. I get that, but I don't think that's the reason why we can't connect. There are plenty of professions that don't look, sound, feel, live like ordinary people, but they are able to serve society. So we can't simply say, ‘Well, there’s not a lot I can do about this because until we have better representation in our agencies and our marketing departments, we will always be slightly missing the point.

“We work in Chancery Lane. We're surrounded by barristers. We're surrounded by people who probably went to a public school that looked like a Cambridge College, then went to a Cambridge College.

“They turn up to the Royal Courts of Justice and defend or prosecute or represent ordinary people. They do a good job. So you can still be unrepresentative and do a good job.

“We can’t hide behind that. I think there's something bigger that's going on, which is marketing's afraid of reality. We work in a parallel universe, we have constructed a world to please ourselves that we can understand and deal with, because we're way too scared of the real world.

“Whereas the lawyers, they’ve got to deal with it every day because they are up close and personal. Meanwhile, we do a segmentation study and pretend that the world is completely different.”

Richard has started The Marketing Reality Movement - Meet the 85 per cent. ( to encourage marketers to reach for a reality check.


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