Marketing in the doldrums?

San_antonioI am in San Antonio for the Association for Consumer Research meetings. Last night, I had dinner with several old friends: John Deighton (HBS), Rob Kozinets (York), John Sherry (Northwestern and now Notre Dame), Craig Thompson (Wisconsin). I am not sure who said it but we were talking about the state of marketing theory, research, education and practice, and noting that it seemed less interesting, fun, imaginative, and risk taking than it used to be.*

We fell to talking about the more free wheeling days of marketing when both the academics and the practitioners had a more free wheeling quality to them. For me, the key players here with people like Lloyd Warner and Burleigh Gardner, guys who moved back and forth across the border between theory and practice, helping to form both domains, and launching an intellectual enterprise in the process.

Maybe this is the hazard of hindsight, but it feels like these people were prepared to try anything. The notion seemed to be, we’re smart, we’re mobile, we have very good improv skills and if something goes badly, we’ll just change it. How very different this is from the white knuckling that sometimes dominates in the marketing world now, where people are afraid to takes chances.

It’s as if we have lost our courage and most of all our self confidence. Somehow it feels like we’ve decided we live in a "I’ve fall and I can’t get up" kind of world.

It could be that marketing is now like any mature industry. All the big innovations have take place, all the key players are in place, margins are shrinking, and it’s now a race to the commodity basement. This is a joyless world, one that is so perfectly well mapped that there is no place for big ideas or big risks.

Well, maybe. On the other hand, some much has changed on both the production and the consumption side of things that it seems to me the maturity model cannot apply. Take the world of food. On the innovation side, we are looking at a steady flow through of novelty. (Chipotle! sp?). Retail is reinventing itself at a furious pace. (Whole Foods, and still more impressively, Central Market.) On the consumer side, we are seeing a new curiousity, a breadth of interest and diversification of taste (even within a single family!), and a constant willingness to experiment.

This doesn’t look like a still, a conventional, a well mapped world. This looks like a world demands the free wheeling approach of Lloyd Warner and Burleigh Gardner. (There are of course thousands of names from the history of marketing that could go here. These are my personal heros.) Indeed, it looks like the world that demands a self confidence and a willingness to experiment. Or to put this another way, it’s never failure of it comes risk. It’s only failure if it comes from cowardice.

Excerpts from:

Easton, John. 2001. Consuming Interests. University of Chicago alumni magazine. Vol. 93, Issue 6.

Warner, who joined the U of C as a sociology professor in 1935, had taught SRI’s other two founders, Burleigh Gardner and William Henry, PhD’44. An anthropologist by training, he’d spent three years as a graduate student doing field work in Australia, scrutinizing the social structure of an aboriginal tribe. But he grew less interested in "primitives" and increasingly convinced that the tools of social anthropology might better be applied to modern American society-an idea that would not become popular until the 1970s.

"His platform," recalls SRI colleague Lee Rainwater, AM’51, PhD’54, "was that all human life partakes of the same basic species behavior." If so, then the tools used to understand sacred tribal rituals or daily routines should work just as well to understand the Fourth of July or breakfast cereal. When Warner returned to the U.S. in 1929 to take a position at Harvard, he decided not to finish his dissertation on kinship among aborigines thousands of miles away but to focus instead on the social systems of a nearby small town.

BY THE TIME the first Yankee City volume appeared, Warner had been lured away from Harvard by Chicago’s greater enthusiasm for interdisciplinary work. He was followed by Burleigh Gardner, a country boy from Texas who had come to Harvard to study anthropology and wound up working on the Yankee City studies. Described by Packard as a "mop-haired, slow-speaking, amiable man," Gardner was ill at ease with scholarly pretensions and preferred life on the fringes of academe. But in 1942 he was enticed into teaching in Chicago’s newly created Committee on Human Relations in Industry.

[I]n 1946-this time with backing from Sears, Roebuck-Warner and Gardner formed their own consulting group, SRI, to help companies investigate employee and customer attitudes. They brought in Henry, who had joined the Chicago faculty in 1944, to run the psychological testing. Gardner, who had quickly tired of academic politics and meetings, resigned from the University to become SRI’s executive director.

Sidney Levy, PhB’46, AM’48, PhD’56, another insolvent grad student who arrived at SRI in 1948. By the early 1950s, the core staff was in place. Moore, Levy, and Lee Rainwater, who came in 1950, formed a close trio. Key members Ira Glick, AM’51, PhD’57; Richard Coleman, PhD’59; and others soon followed. The professional staff never grew very large, however, topping out at 17 in 1957.

The period, said Levy, was "the most exciting and intensely absorbing in my life. We lived SRI from breakfast until bedtime, brooding over methods and data gathering and seeking penetrating insights."

"Much of the excitement," notes Karesh, "followed from the feeling on the part of those involved that they were part of a pioneering team composed of brilliant minds exploring new intellectual terrain." Because Gardner had a tendency to accept assignments without knowing whether SRI could perform them, its members had to be especially creative. "New concepts and methods were generated internally," says Karesh, "or borrowed from the University and then combined and applied in novel ways."

It was the ideal arrangement, argues Karesh. Informally connected but formally separate from the University, SRI could "acquire the latest conceptual and methodological tools in the social sciences and apply them to commercial ends."

The company quickly made a name for itself in the emerging field of consumer motivation research, pulling together Gardner’s interest in commercial applications of social science, Henry’s expertise in psychoanalytic testing, and Warner’s faith in the crucial importance of social class.

*Last note:

The participants in the conversation may or may not approve any or all these ideas or my expression of them.

Thanks to for the photo!

3 thoughts on “Marketing in the doldrums?

  1. John McCreery

    I am forever informally citing John Sherry as the source for the observation that current interest in anthropology/ethnography in marketing is driven by the exhaustion of the conventional paradigms from social psychology on which most marketing research is based. Does this still (if it ever did) make sense?

  2. Peter McB.

    On your comment, Grant, that it seems like everyone is in a race to the commodity basement:

    One of my maxims is: No special skills or insights are required to lower prices, so competition on price is evidence of a failure of marketing.

  3. Alex Hutton


    I’m more worried that you’re confusing trends in design aesthetics rather than really having a pulse on marketing. Chipotle (and I assume you’re speaking of the burrito joint) is nothing more that a burrito stand that utilizes new fads in design – rather than do anything unique. If a blind person were to go to Chipotle, vs., say, El Pollo Loco – would there be that significant of a difference in experience?

    I would argue that business is at a significant juncture in terms of marketing and how the bureaucracy interfaces with the human. I think we’re on the verge of changing the sales cycle of any good to equal the life cycle of the product in general. New Marketing will be governed by the following equation in my mind:

    external marketing + 2(product lifecycle experience) + 2(New PR (fostering word of mouth)) = success

    Where success in product lifecycle experience is:

    good product + 4(pr towards unhappy customers)

    In other words, your marketing is twice as less as important as the sum of all user experience, which is as important as your relationship to your customer community.

    The reason for this change is that customer evangelism, thanks to increase in the ability of the average consumer to communicate to a very large audience, will be of foremost important in the future of marketing. In fact, in some respects, we’re already there. My 65 year old Mother-in-Law regularly checks “word of mouth” on for products before she purchases, even if she’s going to drive to Sears to make the actual acquisition.

    A fantastic example of this is the recent mp3 player market, with very important lessons to be learned by the releases of the Dell Diddy and iPod Nano.

    The failure of the Diddy launch is best related by John Gruber at I won’t repeat his work, only suggest that for the reasons he mentions – Apple’s external marketing beat the living daylights out of Dell’s. Ten years from now everyone will remember the iPod Shuffle or Nano, but very few will fondly recall their Dell Diddy.

    However, Apple is very close to screwing it up. There has been a large vocal contingent online expressing dissatisfaction with the robustness of the display on the Nano. The Nano got off to very positive independent review. It seems fairly indestructible, first independent tests by Ars Technica made out the Nano to be indestructible, it continued to play even when run over (twice) by a car. But the display of the Nano seems less incredible. Apple’s response to the issue was to “acknowledge” an issue that affects a very small percentage of their user population. Basically, even if Apple is understating the Nano issue by a factor of 4 – the “defects” are well within traditional metrics. In fact, “Google” (if you allow me to use that word as a verb) iPod Nano. Nevermind that the sales and buzz have made the product a remarkable success. The screen issue that Apple states effects 1/10 of 1% of purchases is all over. The Nano product will no longer conquer the world – even once Apple changes the product to have a new, indestructible screen, the consumer’s mind will be made up. People will remember the iPod Nano, but maybe in the way that they remember the Newton.

    The most successful marketing of the next 10 years will be executed by those who harness the new consumer democracy. If there’s any “Internet Theory” that anthropology can make at this point – it’s that there’s always going to be some freak who will tie his time and effort to something, no matter how obscure or inconsequential (don’t take this negatively, but this blog could be an example). This will be of no small consequence to branding…

    Customer Evangelists, getting everyone to drink the Kool-aid, will begin to contribute more significantly to sales than many other traditional marketing concepts, like “impressions”.

    To their (dis)credit Microsoft is already trying to “Astroturf” this New PR.

    Business, in my mind, must find a way to rapidly, effectively handle public opinion or else suffer obscurity or scorn.

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