Marketing is common sense

I’ve worked in the marketing industry, in one form or another, since the mid-1990s (save for a couple-year break when I did technical writing, but we’ll ignore that for now). I’ve seen a lot in those many (many) years, but one thing has really stuck through all of that: what marketing does.

That’s not a question, it’s a realization. Truth is, most people don’t know what marketing is, or what it’s supposed to do. Most people think marketing is advertising: making TV commercials, radio blurbs, internet banners, print flyers, and so forth. To a degree, marketing is absolutely involved in that process, but the act of doing advertising is tactical, whereas marketing is strategic. And the end of the day, marketing does something that most people don’t realize:

Marketing is about creating common sense.

Everyone thinks they know what “common sense” is. After all, that’s why it’s common, right? It’s a shared idea, concept, or message. It’s not about the fancy visuals per se (although that’s certainly a component), it’s about making you believe the change.

And it is about change. If at some point we didn’t need to change your opinion on something, we wouldn’t need marketing. Did you need that new car? Probably not, but we’re going to give you a lot of reasons why it’s a good idea. How about looking at green technologies? It used to feel vague and untouchable, but odds are you’ve got some of it in your home right now. Marketing is about creating common sense. It’s about something new, be it information, or a product or service that didn’t exist before; something so different from current common sense that we need a change in thought.

Let’s take Apple Inc. as an example. A couple of decades ago, it was a fledgling company, far back in the ranks of technology firms that was trying to show people a new way. They had a good idea, but they were terrible about how to communicate it to the world. Despite the campaigns to “Think Different“, and their shattering “1984” ad, the messages didn’t resonate with the general public. They struggled to develop the common sense to buy Apple, instead of Apple’s competitors.

Then came the excitement. In 1998, in what would become a pattern for the next decade, Steve Jobs announced something truly different: the original “Bondi Blue” iMac. In that announcement, Apple grabbed two things: the world’s attention at the first computer that wasn’t boring to look at, and how it would change the experience for those who used them. They capitalized on an industry that was filled with beige boxes that did typically dull things, and wanted to do something more exciting. They would not change the industry overnight: the core audience was still fringe, from an industry perspective. But the common eye was now opened. The release of the equally interesting clamshell iBook the following year continued the trend. In 2000, Apple went announced Mac OS X, a radical departure from macOS, which captured the technical attention.

And attention was all they needed to release the iPod, five years “too late” into a saturated MP3 player market. Though the first version wasn’t the “boom” moment that later versions would become, common sense won out over price alone (the iPod was more expensive), and Apple started it’s meteoric rise.

Yes, marketing is manipulative, and that’s the point, really: we have to change the way you think to see something new. It’s not about fear (though that is an oft-used tactic), it’s not about beating you over the heads with facts (people tend to tune out). It’s about coercing you to seeing something differently. To co-opt Apple’s one-time slogan: Think Different[ly].

That’s what we do. We change your mind (hopefully for the right way). We do this to sell cars, watches, newspapers, movies, television shows, crackers, ground beef, gasoline, dishwashers, tables, toilet paper, cameras, computers, email services, music streaming, cellular service, education, mutual funds, pets, pretty much anything you’d ever spend a dime on. That includes things you don’t actually acquire: because we also help you support your local food banks, international relief agencies, scientific organizations, museums, your church, municipal services, environmental groups, and political parties (elections, in particular).

We are convincing you to think of a future. Unless you’ve already accepted our common sense, we’re trying to change yours for a point ahead of you. Because common sense doesn’t appear instantly. You might be able to change one or two minds instantly, but it takes time to change many minds. That’s why we call them “campaigns”. That’s why we have to think of different ways to create a common way of thinking, so that decision-making is made simpler for the intended audience.

Audience is a significant factor. If you go truly “common”, and cast a wide net to encompass everyone, you’ll likely miss a lot of people. The greatest myth of “common sense” is that there is really is no “common”. The term “common” means “belonging equally to, or shared alike by, two or more or all in question[1]“. It takes only a quick glance through the daily events to know that our civilization is far from “belonging equally”.

That reality drives the massaging of message. The core concept of the message might be the same (ie. buy an iPhone), but how you sell it will vary across age groups (Millennials have much different economics than Baby Boomers), income brackets (lower-cost iPhones are sold to low-income earners), location (city dwellers live by their devices, whereas famers look more for utility), even by political leaning (left-leaning audiences receive more social branding, where right-leaning audiences are about self worth). The same approach is used for every product, service, and support organization, to ensure that “common” comes into existence, even if you see it a little differently than your neighbour.

This happens all day, every day, everywhere you look. You see this information in newspapers, on websites, in Twitter and Facebook, on the sides of buses, over the radio. It’s done to sell, and to inform you to act. Because at the end of every penny spent on marketing, our goal is to get you to do something. Not just change your mind, but to follow through with some kind of a transaction. It’s not always financial: we also need your time, your effort, even your donated blood.

I suppose we should apologize for having to manipulate you. But humans are pretty terrible at change; we don’t like change because it causes us to have to do something potentially uncomfortable. It means giving up a tightly-held idea, sacrificing loyalty to a person or company, or accepting a difficult concept that requires us all to accept fault.

These changes are needed, because this is what drives us forward. The irony is that the notion of “forward” isn’t common, nor ever will be. There are some aspects that are more uniformly directional than others, and there are others (like with politics) that can be horrifically divisional. Because people are different, and despite all efforts to the contrary, we think differently, too. And we always will.

Hopefully this diatribe gives you little insight into marketing and why it exists. With luck, you’ll see things in a different light — and see some marketing for what it really is. And if you’ve got a new opinion about marketing, even better: because that’s what marketing does.

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