The Brute Force Myth

What is the biggest change you need make in your marketing? Embrace new media? Embrace social media? Switch spending from traditional media advertising to other options? Yes, most companies need to do those things, but these changes are secondary to the one really big change you should make, if you haven’t made it already.

The biggest change you need to make in your marketing is to abandon the mindset of “brute force” that has ruled marketing since the mid-20th century. Brute force is the belief that the key to winning customers is to interrupt them as frequently as possible with messages that are as powerful as possible. The brute force philosophy implies that customers are easily swayed, and they are eagerly waiting to receive your communications after which, lemming-like, they will change their behavior.

Listen in on most marketing planning meetings, and you will hear the religion of brute force being preached. “We need a more powerful message to cut through the clutter,” or “we’ll need to increase spending to reach our audience more effectively.” Sales people, also, have been sucked into the brute force vortex. They can be regularly be overheard talking about “getting at bats with a customer” or “giving a pitch.”

Guess what? The days of brute force are waning. The main reason: Customers are not as impressionable as they used to be. They don’t buy your product just because you interrupted them more effectively than another company. The second reason brute force doesn’t work well anymore: Unless you work for Annheuser-Busch or McDonald’s, you don’t have a big enough budget to shout louder than everyone else who is also shouting at your customers.

As Tom Peters once said, “Learning is easy, but unlearning is difficult.” Do your best to unlearn what you’ve been taught about brute force as a marketing strategy. Focus, instead, on what really works: Creating a powerful sense of brand harmony for your customers that helps them hear a clear, compelling story as they interact with your company. Brute force falls on deaf ears, but brand harmony is the first step to creating motivating brand impressions in the minds of your customers.

17 Comments

  • Jayakumar Hariharan
    Jul 14, 2008 - 01:38 am

    In 1996, Coco Cola became the “official Sponsor” of the Cricket World Cup series.This was followed by the usual “Official Sponsor” ad blitzkrieg.

    Pepsi came up with a clever one liner.
    “Pepsi:There’s nothing official about it”

    Coco Cola changed their ad agency, if I remember right.

    Jay, from Bangalore
    http://ideaburger.blogspot.com

    • Amanda Cullen
      Jul 14, 2008 - 11:38 am

      Hi Jay,

      Pepsi had a clever comeback, very funny. How did the campaign do? Is there any indication that it worked?

  • Amanda Cullen
    Jul 14, 2008 - 11:36 am

    Recently, a friend of mine told me the company he works for changed the name of their conference room to the Marketing War Room. Their new head of marketing explained the move by saying, “Marketing is war.” Besides being a tiring way to work, imagine their poor customers. They’re going to get shellshock. Then leave.

    • Steve Yastrow
      Jul 14, 2008 - 22:13 pm

      … And they’ll start by “targeting” their customers!

  • david
    Jul 14, 2008 - 18:37 pm

    Whatever else you think about it, brute-force branding is inconsistent with today’s conservation-minded consumer and constricting economy. It reeks of wastefulness.

    Large companies can fight for dominance in our cerebral cortexes. The rest of us have to mind or dollars and cents and reach consumers when and where it matters.

    • Steve Yastrow
      Jul 14, 2008 - 22:18 pm

      So right, David. Often, a direct mail campaign is considered successful if only 99% of people throw it away. Imagine an ad in a magazine with a circulation of 250,000 … how many of those 250,000 copies of the ad end up in the garbage, unseen by readers, or seen but ignored?

      • Amanda Cullen
        Jul 16, 2008 - 10:10 am

        Even if it’s the best ad they’ve ever seen, and they resonate with the product and message, where does the ad end up? Still in the trash! Once the trash has been emptied, the ad is long forgotten.

  • Nathan
    Jul 16, 2008 - 08:42 am

    Even worse, the psychology behind “brute force” conditioning began earlier in the 20th century, such as with the “Little Albert” experiment. Even though conclusions from such experiments have been repeatedly refuted in scholarly work, we continue to base actions upon them.

    • Amanda Cullen
      Jul 16, 2008 - 10:07 am

      Please forgive my ignorance, but what is the Little Albert experiment?

      • Nathan
        Jul 16, 2008 - 11:06 am

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Albert_experiment

        Note that I’m not saying that the experiment is somehow “wrong.” I’m simply mentioning that early 20th century psychologists seemed to treat the mind as a black box. Given certain inputs, the brain would react, predictably, with certain outputs.

        Or, as Steve phrased it, “The brute force philosophy implies that customers are easily swayed, and they are eagerly waiting to receive your communications after which, lemming-like, they will change their behavior.”

        This brute force mentality ignores the cognitive side of psychology, which focuses on internal mental processes. These internal mental processes are actually what produce behavior as a result of the communication received.

        • Amanda Cullen
          Jul 16, 2008 - 12:01 pm

          You are right that you can see the roots of brute force branding in this kind of psychology. It’s very presumptuous to think oneself has the power and the right to fabricate emotions in another.

          Psychology has realized the error of this unethical experiment, but marketing still has a ways to go.

        • Steve Yastrow
          Jul 16, 2008 - 12:20 pm

          Marketing seems to be about 150 years behind both psychology and philosophy. Existentialism recognized that people are responsible for their own actions a long time ago, but the ad agencies on Madison avenue and michigan avenue still believe that they move us to act if we are “targeted” with enough GRP’s.

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  • Richard Morton - Accessible Web Design
    Aug 04, 2008 - 08:53 am

    So true – if only the spammers would get this.

    As you say brand is more important, and to me that includes the relationship with your customers potential customers.

  • Hersh Bhardwaj
    Aug 18, 2008 - 05:33 am

    Hi Steve,
    Tom Peters used the phrase Cubicle Slave Anonymous to signify those who, regardless of talent and skill sets, sit in their DIlbert cubicle all their life. I reckon companies with nobrand harmony or confused brand sense fit the CSA bill.
    I have written on my blog post about this. ( actually I am still in the launching phase, but couldn’t resist letting you have a sneak peek)
    Keep blogging!

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