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Where to focus your marketing brain

Skull - Marketing Creative Selling

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Why read this? : We explore 6 key ideas which boost your marketing brain. Use our marketing BRAINS model to sharpen your marketing thinking. Read this to learn where to focus your marketing brain.

It’s quite a while since we wrote our marketing tips guide. At the time, we tried to be smart (relevant, given our name) by creating an easy-to-remember and relevant acronym for how to think more smartly about marketing :-

  • B for brand focus.
  • R for resilience.
  • A for analytics.
  • I for innovation.
  • N for not an asshole.
  • S for sales-orientation.
Close up of mans hand resting on a large tree

Given so much has happened since then, it felt like a good time to review our thinking in those areas. To share how our thoughts have evolved on where to use your marketing brain for maximum impact.

Brand focus

Marketing starts with understanding customers. That’s why our first-ever article was on the importance of market research.

However, it’s only the first step in the marketing process. You don’t stop there.

That would be like shopping for ingredients but then not cooking the meal. You’d have something to look at, but you wouldn’t satisfy the real need. 

Three-Brains logo on brand design background

The real need that drives marketing is growth. You grow by building your brand. That’s why branding is such a key area to focus your marketing brain on.

Most marketers and agencies see brand development as a logical process. They look for insights, plan their competitive strategy and build their brand identity. And those are all important as far as they go. 

However, all that logical thinking uses up lots of mental energy. (See our thoughts about thinking article for more on this). Brand workshops exhaust you, as you debate the nuances of your essence, values and personality. By the time you’ve articulated your whole brand identity, your marketing brain feels drained. Empty. Except it’s not. There’s a whole other part of your brain you can and should call on here. A part that goes beyond logic.

Brands go beyond logic 

Yes, your brand should be well thought-out. Considered. Logical.

But if you use your whole marketing brain, you need more than logic behind your brand.

Great brands also connect emotionally with customers. They make their customers’ hearts beat faster. Put a smile on their faces. They make them proud to be seen using that brand. Proud of what it says about them. 

Graffiti of heart shape with illustration of a man hanging on to the heart

So as you build your brand, try to occasionally pause your logical marketing brain. Ask yourself what the brand is making you feel. And how it’s going to make your customers feel? 

Take cars, for example. 

Porsche drivers get a little thrill from knowing their car is sporty and speedy. (Though we’re reminded of that old joke about how you tell the difference between a Porsche and a hedgehog. With a hedgehog, the pricks are on the outside …).

Alfa Romeo drivers get a little smile from their dashboard reading Acqua, Benzina and Giri rather than Water, Petrol and Revs. When they’re not distracted by warning lights.

And Audi drivers feel proud that their choice of minimalist styling shows they’re discerning. Not flashy. And that they work in Finance or IT.

Great brands also have gut feel

Beyond logic and emotions, there’s even a third part of your marketing brain you should engage. Your instincts. As your marketing experience grows, your gut tells you more and more what’s right and what isn’t with your brand. 

For example, when agencies trot out standard and obvious bits of advice. Know your customer. Engage them. Build loyalty. Well, duh. 

These aren’t necessarily wrong. But which brands don’t do these things?

lady with arms up in the air and happy smiley face

No, the focus of your marketing brain should be on working out how to do those things. How to tunnel through these marketing truisms. Customers instinctively know if a brand is right for them. You need the same instincts about what’s right for your brand. 

So when the agency makes a recommendation, check your initial gut reaction. What comes to mind? If it’s “duh” then the idea’s too obvious. Or too dumb. But if it’s “wow” then maybe it’s worth giving it some of your marketing brain power.

Resilience

Ah resilience, that popular LinkedIn leadership guru buzzword. In principle, it makes sense. But c’mon, it’s another obvious idea, right?

Let’s face it, would anyone ever advocate the opposite? Recommend giving up easily when things go wrong? Wallow in misery and blame yourself? Nah. We didn’t think so.

It doesn’t help that the people most often banging on about resilience do so from their expensive-looking houses while humble-bragging about all the lucrative coaching sessions they run. 

The words "Welcome to Linked In" embossed on an office glass window

Authentic resilience

Real resilience is something entirely different. 

It’s the people trying to survive a cost of living crisis on minimum wage or government handouts.

Those who don’t get into high-flying jobs because they didn’t go to the right school, or their dad isn’t a member of the right golf club.

They’re resilient. They have to be.  

Close up image of a man in a suit wiping away a tear and looking sad

To understand resilience, look for authentic examples. Genuine people without big salaries and PAs arranging their diaries. Look for courageous people facing up to life’s real challenges with the grit to see them through. 

When you hear some LinkedIn leadership lame-o banging on about resilience, ask them for examples. Something meaningful. Something authentic. An actual example of when they handled a difficult challenge at work or in their personal life. When they actually saw something that was hard through to the end.

We’ve shared examples of this in articles about overcoming barriers in marketing, creativity and e-Commerce. If you want to add to your marketing brain’s resilience, those are the sorts of stories you want to be telling.  

Analytics

It’s hard not to slip into digital marketing mode when you hear analytics. Mostly due to the prevalence of Google Analytics. However, analysis goes far beyond digital. It’s a frame of mind. A conscious intent to observe, reflect, and think deeply about problems.

In other words, it should be a big focus area for your marketing brain. Yet it’s another area that’s easier to talk about than do. When you look at what many marketers actually do with analysis, your first thought isn’t, “What were they thinking?”, but, “Did they do any thinking on this at all?”.

Person holding glasses in front of them against a blurry street background

Brand name and packaging changes that make no sense for customers and whose only purpose seems to be generating fees for agencies and consultants. 

Marketing awards that seem to be driven by how much money the company throws at celebrities and influencers for spurious endorsements and cringe adverts. 

Innovation launches with only tenuous links to real customer needs which feel like they were squeezed out in a workshop to hit some dubious internal innovation target. 

The best marketing isn’t any of this. It should be so smart that customers don’t even realise it’s marketing.

Ingredients vs meals

We find analytics a bit like cookery. Everyone can do it. But only some can do it well enough to make a living from it. And loads of people like to talk about it but can’t actually do it themselves. 

Proper analysis in marketing means deep thinking.

Using your marketing brain to look at different inputs. Data from your dashboard. Insights from your research. Learnings from adjacent fields like behavioural science.

Analysts can put these inputs together to come up with new ways of seeing the market.

Overhead shot of two people preparing a salad, chopping lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and avocados

Something that you’d have never otherwise thought about.

Rory Sutherland’s book Alchemy is a great read on this topic. We’ve mentioned before his concept of non sense ideas. Ideas that don’t seem logical, and yet seem to work anyway.

He gives the example of a UK finance business that gave customers the choice between a small monetary reward and a fluffy penguin toy. The penguin won by quite some way. Logically, that makes no sense. But if you understand what drives people, you realise cute fluffy penguins you can see and touch are more appealing than just another number in your bank statement. 

Marketers who can crack insights like this are like the top chefs. They create something amazing and memorable. 

But those who only talk about it are more like food critics. Lots of power. Good with words. But what value do they add? They can’t feed your marketing brain. At best, they can only point you towards those who can and steer you away from those who can’t.

Innovation

These marketing creators shine most clearly in the world of innovation. This is the most exciting but also most challenging area of marketing.

It’s where you get to experiment and do things that haven’t been done before (exciting). But also, where the results of your experiments are highly visible with a high risk of failure (challenging). 

It’s a tricky area as everyone likes the “idea” of innovation. Yet when you look at how most businesses innovate, you find that it’s very hard work.

Person holding light bulb with blurred out light effect in the background

Evolution and revolution

Innovation sits on a spectrum.

At one end, there’s evolutionary innovation. Small, incremental changes companies make to existing products to improve them without risking alienating their customers. It’s safe, slow and steady. Think Volkswagen. If you’ve got a mouse problem, think building a better mousetrap. 

Then, there’s revolutionary innovation. Bold and breakthrough ideas that disrupt the market. Think Red Bull. Think buying a cat for your mouse problem. But revolution is risky. Big companies rarely take risks.

Marketing evolution - revolution model - spectrum showing mouse problem in middle and evolution answer - better mousetrap - and revolution answer - a cat

For example, look at what Apple did in their innovation golden period from 2002-2012. The iPod, iPhone and iPad were revolutionary products. Their impact is still felt today. 

But since then? Evolution. The iWatch is just a small iPhone with a few extra health functions. Those super expensive VR goggles are just a smarter version of what was already out there. Everything they’ve done in recent years is safe. Nothing revolutionary.

A balanced view of innovation

For us, a strong marketing brain understands the balance between evolutionary and revolutionary innovation. It weighs up the pros and cons and has a balanced portfolio of projects and ideas in each area that work together.

You make ongoing improvements to your products and services. Optimise the customer journey. Find small ways to make customers’ lives better. Website upgrades. Easier to read and more robust packaging. Better customer service after the sale to keep customers happy and loyal.

Small metal statue of lady of justice holding scales

But you should also have your marketing brain thinking about the next big thing. That brilliant idea to bring in even more customers, or make your current customers even happier. The thing that will wrong-foot competitors as they’d never think about it in a million years.

It’s driven by creative thinking. By creating a culture that encourages breakthrough ideas. It’s the biggest opportunity to use your marketing brain to outsmart the competition. 

Not an asshole

Many people think marketing has more than its fair share of assholes. But to be fair, you find them in every function. It’s more that marketing tends to have its own particular type of asshole.

We’ve already covered a few asshole behaviours in passing. The LinkedIn buzzword bandwagon jumpers. Those who talk about things they don’t know how to do themselves. The self-promoters who forget that solving customer needs is the purpose of marketing. 

Here’s the thing though.

Man in a suit sitting at a desk holding a phone and angrily shouting into the mouthpiece

None of those people wake up thinking, oh, I’ll be an asshole today. They have their reasons for behaving that way, good or bad. And in many cases, you opposing them will make them think it’s you who is the asshole.

Am I The Asshole?

So how do you get past this asshole stalemate? We like Professor Robert Sutton’s take on it in The Asshole Survival Guide.

He suggests a good starting point is asking yourself when facing someone you think is an asshole if it’s entirely their fault.

Perhaps something you’ve done (even inadvertently) might have triggered their negative behaviour. 

Maybe you pushed a new product onto operations that will affect their efficiency targets which drive their bonuses.

Maybe you were slow raising the PO or chasing that invoice, meaning the finance manager has to stay late to update their month-end report. 

If you need more real-life examples, check the great Reddit thread on this at Am I The Asshole.

Of course, if you think you’ve been reasonable and considerate, and they’re still an asshole, then you need to plan how to deal with that.

There’s no single way to deal with bad behaviour as there are all different kinds of assholes. Some are weak and will back down if you challenge them. Some are vengeful and you’ll need to build a support network to back you up if and when you face them. And some are just toxic and will never change, so you need to minimise your interactions and build an escape plan.

Check out some of our experiences and thoughts about dealing with assholes in our articles on barriers in marketing, creativity and e-Commerce.

Sales orientation

Marketing and sales teams should work well together but often end up squabbling as they have different perspectives on what’s important.

Marketers think long-term and focus on the end-user or buyer. Salespeople think more immediate priorities and focus on the trade customer and how to hit their sales targets. 

Like innovation, you have to find the right balance. They should work in harmony, as they both contribute to the same goal – growing your business. It’s just that they do it in different ways.

Sale sign in white on a red window with outline of a person walking past in the background

Flexible thinking on short- and long-term

It’s a real stretch for your marketing brain to think short-term sales AND long-term brand building. 

Spend too much time acting like a strategist and you risk being detached from the day-to-day realities of your customers.

You lose the connection to what they need right now, and how your brand can help. 

But spend too much time on sales promotion and price discounting and you only see what’s right in front of you. You might be missing opportunities to do something more breakthrough.

Woman in exercise gear sitting cross legged on a yoga mat and twisting to one side

The real challenge is that it’s easy to just plonk yourself in one camp or the other. But you need to be able to move between the two, and that can be hard. You risk people thinking you flip-flop and aren’t consistent. You have to explain why short-term selling and long-term brand building are complementary. To explain that your business should be agile enough to do both.

Brands are nothing without their customers. So, yes, part of your marketing brain should think about how you meet their needs every day. But brands also succeed by thinking ahead. By being creative and innovative. So, part of your marketing brain should also be thinking up new ideas about how you’ll win in the future. You need both approaches for long-term success.

Conclusion - Where to focus your marketing brain

There’s an idea in challenger brand thinking that it’s not the marketing big fish who eat the small fish, but the smart fish who eat the dumb fish. 

There’s so much dumb marketing out there, but you can easily outsmart it by focusing your marketing brain on some key areas :-

  • Building desirable brands that customers want to connect with. 
  • Resilience that comes from a genuine place, rather than from a buzzword bingo sheet.
Skull - Marketing Creative Selling
  • An analytical approach based on deep thinking into how you creatively solve your customers’ problems.
  • A balanced innovation approach that recognises you need evolutionary AND revolutionary ideas. 
  • Not being an asshole, but recognising and admitting when you have been. 
  • The mental agility to switch between short-term selling to meet customer needs today and long-term brand building to meet the customer needs of tomorrow.

Thoughtful marketers should apply their marketing brains to these areas to drive the biggest impact.

Check out our marketing tips article for more on this. Or get in touch if you need help boosting the power of your marketing brain.

Photo credits

Hand on Tree : Photo by Fabrizio Verrecchia on Unsplash

Heart graffiti : Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Happy woman : Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Linked In : Photo by Greg Bulla on Unsplash

Man crying : Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

Glasses : Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

Food preparation : Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash

Person holding light bulb : Photo by Fachy Marín on Unsplash

Legal scales : Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

Sale: Photo by Justin Lim on Unsplash

Yoga : Photo by Dane Wetton on Unsplash

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