Closing the loop: what marketers can learn from Mozart’s syphilis

You might not think there are too many similarities between treating syphilis and differentiating brands, but you’d be wrong, says Andrew Lewis. 

It is widely believed that Mozart died of mercury poisoning while attempting to cure himself of a nasty bout of syphilis with fairly hefty doses of what is pretty toxic stuff. If you’re currently residing outside the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing, this probably sounds pretty crackers to you in 2014, but for hundreds of years, the substance was considered a bit of a miracle cure-all. It wasn’t until science got around to looking into the stuff that we realised how wrong we were.

This is the story of learning right across all fields of science. We start out with some ideas that seem pretty reliable on the surface, and we iterate and learn. But only as long as we keep the loop between science and practice open. And in consumer-led disciplines like marketing and research, it feels like we might be neglecting this loop.

A financial services client approached us the other day with a significant brand problem. They needed to develop a new brand positioning to differentiate themselves in a pretty low involvement category. “We need a point of difference,” they said. “We need to find a unique space away from competitors that we can own.” 

Fair enough, I hear you say. This is a pretty fundamental marketing issue that most businesses will deal with at one time or another. In fact, it’s a pretty common issue that we end up looking at as an agency.

The problem with this issue is that the whole idea of differentiation being key to brand success has been empirically proven to be untrue for decades. We know from a range of academic and commercially funded studies that there is no link between brand differentiation and market performance. Studies show us it simply doesn’t matter how unique you are, only that you are strongly associated with core category needs and have distinctive branding that can trigger people’s associations with category needs when occasions arise.

We see this too in our own work for different clients, across a range of markets. Consumers typically struggle to really pull brands apart. They know some better than others and, especially for the ones they use, this can make them feel different. But their usage of them almost always comes back to how well they feel these hit the mark in terms of meeting their needs. And how distinctive the brand properties are.

Indeed, the extension of this learning is that the quest for differentiation can actually be very bad for a brand. It encourages us to focus on the small differences in what groups of people are looking for. And it encourages us to forget about the big needs that bind people together. We segment markets in a way that places emphases on the outliers in how we describe what people want. We end up pursuing niche ideas, rather than reflecting back the true drivers of decision-making and choice.

Okay, so differentiation is a space where current practice has perhaps been slow to adopt some of the learnings coming out of academia. If this were the only space, you’d feel okay about this. But it’s not. In truth, there are a whole swathe of principles held dear to the practice of marketing that have found to be on pretty shaky ground when put to the empirical test. Ideas, for example, like attitudes to driving behaviour, that people can tell you why they act the way they do, or that consumers move down some sort of funnel towards purchase, have all been proven without question to be false. Yet, they still remain utterly central to how practitioners think about their world.

Kind of like Mozart reaching for mercury in the thought this would clear up his syphilis, we are yet to acknowledge that the remedy to our issue is failing to make us better.

So why is this the case? It’s easy to see why we look to frameworks and principles for guidance. Human behaviour is a pretty wobbly area to understand at the best of times. The question is more why our frameworks aren’t updated more regularly as learnings come in. 

Think about marketing in comparison to something like medicine or IT. We joke about Mozart’s use of mercury to cure his ails, but the truth is this field of expertise constantly looks to the frontiers for new learnings to incorporate into practice, and this doesn’t feel like it’s the case with marketing and marketing services. It’s almost as if we’ve lost our links to the frontlines of new thinking. Sure, there’s plenty going on around upskilling of the “five ways to succeed with Facebook” kind, but where are the challenges to our big ideas and first principles? 

Perhaps it’s time to reconnect.

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