Don’t eat the mashmallow

It’s the 1960s. Four-year-old Craig is sitting alone in a small room staring at a marshmallow. The woman who placed it there has promised she’ll be back in fifteen minutes. If he can’t wait, he can ring a bell. Then she’ll return and let him eat the marshmallow. But, she explained, if he waits the whole fifteen minutes then he can have two marshmallows. It’s his choice; a small reward now or a bigger reward later. Craig doesn’t bother to ring the bell. He gobbles up the marshmallow thirty seconds after the researcher leaves the room.

On average the children in that Stanford University experiment waited less than three minutes. The true significance only became apparent years later. The children who had waited longer demonstrated remarkable advantages. They achieved higher academic scores. They were more mature, and less likely to be aggressive and misbehave. They were also less likely to be over-weight, have drug problems or get divorced. Many experts now believe that an ability to delay gratification is the single greatest predictor of a happy and successful life.

Marketing and ad people love to announce the death of traditional approaches, and the rise of exciting new alternatives. The debate around TV versus digital is loud and messy, partly due to a lack of definition for either term, but also because it’s all so emotional. Who wants to be seen as an old-fashioned TV supporter?

It’s not difficult to draw a comparison with the temptation of short-term brand marketing.

In an article entitled ‘Why do chief marketing officers have a short shelf life’, Forbes.com writer Mike Linton describes the ‘marketer’s dilemma’. “It’s quite a balancing act to hit the sweet spot that delivers today’s results while building the brand for the long-term.”

Enduring greatness

Joseph Schumpeter, an economist who wrote about the “perennial gale of creative destruction”, believed “technological change and visionary entrepreneurs give birth to new things that obliterate old things, only to see those new things become obliterated by the next generation”. The fact that only 71 companies that appeared on the first Fortune 500 list in 1955 were still there in 2008 seems to back that theory up. But while it might seem slightly depressing, enduring greatness is certainly possible, as some of these examples show. 

PepsiCo diverted most of its budget from traditional advertising in 2010 in favour of the Pepsi Refresh Project on social media. Despite huge engagement (80 million votes, 3.5 million ‘likes’ etc), it failed to sell Pepsi. Pepsi and Diet Pepsi each dropped five percent in market share, and Pepsi dropped from its long-standing position as number two soft drink in the US to number three behind Diet Coke. Meanwhile Coca-Cola has continued with long-term sponsorships and a long-standing brand strategy to own happiness.

Tesco has successfully used ‘every little helps’ for 20 years. Sainsbury’s was using Jamie Oliver as a spokesperson to elevate its food credentials for years before it began using him in its very successful ‘try something new today’ response campaign, which strengthened the brand and generated immediate sales uplifts. Its relationship with Jamie Oliver came to an end in 2011, after 11 years.

Outdoor apparel company Patagonia ensures that in any given meeting someone is responsible for representing the interests of future generations. And Amazon, often critiqued by Wall St for its small profits, leaves an empty chair at board meetings to represent the customer. Its chief executive Jeff Bezos is a long-term evangelist (he’s also involved with the Clock of the Long Now, which aims to measure time for 10,000 years) and by taking a long-term view, he says “the interests of customers and shareholders align”. 

US insurance company, Aflac’s bold decision to implement a spokesduck took name recognition from less than ten percent to 90 percent over ten years. It’s been using the duck since 1999.

Closer to home, Mainland Cheese has been using ‘Good things take time’ since around 1991 and ran its ad campaign with the two old blokes for ten years.

But ASB Bank, after successfully running its Goldstein campaign for 11 years, has had two different campaigns in the last three years. Is it perhaps falling into the short-term trap?

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Present tense, future perfect

This short-term thinking reveals itself loudly to all through the frantic world of advertising. And world-leading advertising effectiveness expert Peter Field describes short-termism as “the single greatest threat facing marketing.”

Here in New Zealand ‘campaigns’ are certainly getting shorter. In the golden days of advertising, ads for Colgate, Crunchie, Toyota, Lion, Griffins, Tip Top and numerous others ran for years. I remember a group fondly discussing a ‘new’ Mainland ad, featuring “the old guy talking slowly”. It had been playing for over a year.

Today it seems ambitious to talk about any execution, in any channel, running for more than a year. What’s changed? Is today’s consumer really that different? Are they so fast on the uptake that they are now permanently converted to a brand or product after just one or two exposures? 

Much has been written about behavioural economics by researchers such as Dan Kahneman, Richard H. Thaler, Cass R. Sunstein, Dan Ariely, Tim Harford, Geoffrey Miller, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. All reach reassuringly similar conclusions. Firstly, decision-making, despite the frequently rational approaches of those trying to influence it, remains largely an emotional affair. Secondly, there are some simple principles that explain how we really do make decisions.

The most influential principle is ‘herding’, or ‘social proofing’. In advertising, this can be achieved with repetitive mass-exposure. A consumer can’t see directly how many people are using the advertised brand or product, but they know millions are seeing the same message they’re seeing. This means they’ll feel ‘normal’, or part of the crowd, if they buy it too.

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