We spent $500 billion globally on advertising in 2013. Every year we're spending more money, to interrupt more people, more often, with messages they don't care about and don't pay attention to. We've come to believe that the way to succeed is to have an advantage—by being different or better, more visible, or just plain louder.
For the past fifty years we've been thinking about marketing as a department. We made the mistake of forgetting to see the world through the eyes of the people we wanted our ideas to matter to. We went from operating with empathy to selfishly trying to make people pay attention to what we had to say or sell, whether they might want it or not. By looking for a shortcut to a quick win, we wasted chances to be generous, to engage with and inspire people. But in a world of infinite choices and digitally empowered consumers, quick wins no longer build sustainable businesses, and they certainly don't create brands that people care about.
Now more than ever before, the ideas, businesses and brands that succeed are the ones that help to reinforce, enhance and shape the cultures, beliefs, aspirations and behaviors of their audience. Brands that have recognized and found a way to become part of subtle cultural shifts—shifts around nomadism, conscious consumption, simplicity, provenance, environmental consciousness, connectedness, self-expression, nostalgia, adventure, real food, female body image and on and on—have thrived. Examples include Lululemon, Whole Foods, Airbnb, Warby Parker, Kickstarter, Instagram, Dove, KeepCup, Patagonia, Innocent Juices, Method, Zipcar, charity: water, Dropbox, TED.com, Apple, Starbucks, Khan Academy, Task Rabbit and Sugru, to name a few.
Actually, marketing is, and has always been, a transfer of emotion.
Conventional wisdom advocates developing a product and then creating a big marketing funnel in order to sell it, which means doing whatever we can to attract the most potential customers and then to convert some to leads. The tactic is to bombard those leads with our messages in the hope of getting a few people to care about our products and services. This approach has become an unsustainable and zero-sum game. What's working now is doing exactly the opposite: figuring out what people want and finding ways to delight one person at a time, one person who is thrilled to talk about you to her friends, essentially turning the funnel on its head.
Open any business book and it will tell you that marketing is the set of activities involved in the transfer of goods from the seller to a buyer. The exchange of products for money. This for that. Even in the days before advertising, though, when ancient tribes traded pieces of flint for other things they needed, marketing was much more than a series of activities that ended in a transaction.
Actually, marketing is, and has always been, a transfer of emotion. It's about changing how people feel and, in turn, helping them to fall in love with something, or maybe just a little bit more in love with themselves.
Marketing has always been an art. We've tried to turn it into pure science with big data and focus groups. Of course it's helpful to be able to use analytics to know how long people spend on your website or where they give up during the on-boarding process for your application. And while AB testing will tell you which version of your landing page or copy a customer prefers (and that information is useful, too) it's not enough. In order to create the product or write that copy in the first place, you need to have a story to tell, a story that your customers will want to believe in. And before you can begin to create difference for them, you need a product or service they can care about and love using. Some of the marketing theories and practices of the past seventy years made us forget that. Now we have a chance to rewrite that story.
It's not just time to flip the funnel; it's time to care about what people actually want. In our digital world, customers exchange things that can be far more valuable than cold hard cash, things like time, loyalty, content, ideas and endorsements. I believe we need to change our thinking, and begin building our businesses around difference, to help our customers not just to buy from us but to love our brands because they believe in what we do.