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4 weird things we do in marketing – and their history

In Perspectives of a Millennial CMO, Katie Martell, on-demand marketer and co-founder/former CMO of Cintell, challenges four old-school marketing habits

Ever wonder why we do the things we do as marketers? How some of our most common practices became, well, so common? At first blush, it may seem marketing is changing and evolving at an alarming rate – just the sheer number of tools available to marketers has grown 2500 percent in just FIVE years according to Chief MarTech.

However, many of the same practices and ideologies that are rooted in our history as a profession from the turn of the 20th century have endured to this day. Antiquated thinking lives on, despite our incredible advancements. It may just be the skeptical millennial in me, but I can’t help but wonder why we continue to live by such, well, old-school thinking.

In this edition of Perspectives of a Millennial CMO, I air some grievances about four particular habits that are in dire need of an inquisition. 

1) The Way We Structure our Organizations

For example, the way in which we structure our organizations suits primarily the company itself – not the customer. With deeply siloed teams, rarely is there one central organism held accountable for ensuring a holistic customer experience. Our incentives are entirely stakeholder-driven, and often don’t account for the true satisfaction of our customers. The way we structure our marketing and product development as well reflects the old-school usage of mass segments often based often on generalizations and assumptions about buyers. This, again, is driven by convenience for the company, not the customer. A recent report by Marketo and The Economist predicts the role of marketing is evolving to Chief Customer Advocate – one that is responsible for defending the needs of customers throughout the organization as marketing itself becomes more strategic. I love that idea and this direction.

2) The Role of the Customer

I heard the phrase years ago at a wayward marketing conference, but the sentiment has remained with me ever since. “Most companies are the center of their own universe.” There are certainly exceptions to this diatribe, but on the whole, what’s best for our customers tends to be an afterthought, or at best, given simply lip service. We build products for archetypes of consumers we create. We look more to our competitors, our technology, or unfortunately our highest-paid-internal-person’s-opinion to formulate strategy rather than using true customer insight.

3) Battle Jargon & Propaganda Mentality

We “penetrate” new markets, we seek “market domination,” we treat sales opportunities as a “battle” that must be won – at all costs. Ever wonder where this warlike jargon came from? It permeates the culture of business even today, and perhaps because of it, marketing is seen as nothing more than a vehicle for propaganda. Decades later, the perception of marketers is mired in manipulation, persuasion, and coercion, all for the sake of winning the battle. That doesn’t reflect 99 percent of the marketers I work with and admire today, or the reason I got into the profession in the first place.


To understand where we’re going, we should look at where we’ve been. One theory is that the trouble in marketing all started with one man, Edward Bernays. He’s known as the “father of PR and advertising,” but I prefer Uncle Eddie because it casts him as more of a creepy relative than a distinguished father figure. He was a propagandist whose tactics used during the first World War were so effective, Hitler himself used them as inspiration for his propaganda in World War II.

Uncle Eddie was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and used psychology to coerce unsuspecting masses. It’s because of Uncle Eddie that women began smoking cigarettes after re-branding them “torches of freedom.” I discussed this stunt in a recent TEDx talk. He conned the public into thinking that the glasses they were drinking from were unsanitary, and should be replaced by disposable cups (a campaign funded by Dixie Cups.) He increased consumer demand for bacon and bananas by bribing doctors to publish studies claiming their health benefits.

The marketing practices he established for cigarettes, bacon, and bananas (oh, and Hitler) has endured to this day, and unfortunately so has Uncle Eddie’s perception of buyers. He saw consumers as stupid, faceless masses, easily forged into a pre-defined identity and way of thinking, feeling, and acting. He’s famous for saying, “if you can use propaganda in times of war, you can use it in times of peace.” Let’s not forget that little consulting gig he had with Hitler.

4) The Skepticism of our Buyers

So in all of this time since the days of Uncle Eddie, we have not been able to shake a mass-marketing, product-centric way of thinking. It is often not questioned. It has resulted in buyers inherently mistrusting brands as we bombard them with 3,000 marketing messages every single day. We fill their inbox with our “thought leadership” and “helpful content” (which is often an entirely thin tactic to get them to learn what our products do.) We coerce them into believing hype over substance, and seek to win their short-term dollar over their long-term trust and loyalty.

We have a choice today. The technology and insights exist to enable us to design highly-personalized, highly-relevant experiences for our buyers. We have the capacity to understand them at a deep level and create marketing that respects them using the tenants of empathy. It means changing the way we have always thought about our role as marketers. Now the optimistic millennial side of me is showing (don’t tell anyone - it will ruin my image,) but I do believe the outlook of our profession is a positive one. I’m personally galvanized by the influx of new technologies and capabilities data affords us, and I think it will swing the pendulum from company-centric business-as-usual to truly customer-centric marketing.

Business leaders know that this is not a strategy to give lip service to, but rather a tangible, competitive advantage towards profitability. Customer-centric companies are proven to be 60 percent more profitable (Deloitte and Touche). We know the world is changing rapidly, and it could be a new era of marketing that we could be proud to say we redefined for the better – but only if we make the choice to do so.