By Published On: June 18, 2024

This might sound strange coming from a team of enthusiasts calling ourselves a marketing agency for the past 24 years. But we can no longer ignore the elephant in the room.

Marketing is broken.

And not just a little. Like Thelma and Louise, it had some fun, but went too far, and now it’s hurtling off a cliff.

Consumers and buyers are annoyed by marketing. They mistrust the messages. Vanity metrics don’t capture the full story. ROI is painting an overly (or underly) rosy picture of effectiveness. Social media is oversaturated with ads. The constant pressure on marketers to be expert analysts while keep up with the latest technology and design trends is having the unintended effect of their brand looking like everyone else’s. And let’s not forget our friend spam (but how great would it be if we could?)

The result is a landscape where people get tricked into buying things they don’t need; where brands all look the same; where messaging is underwhelmingly generic; where some influencers don’t genuinely care about the products they promote; where impressions are more important than conversions; where upper management thinks AI-prompters can replace marketing departments. In B2B marketing, the critical relationship between sales and marketing resembles an all-out battle rather than a strategic alliance.

When those of us who work in marketing tell others what we do for a living, we sheepishly flinch, apologize a little, and quickly explain that we don’t do that kind of marketing. We don’t email you four times a day, purposely deceive you, stalk your friends, or promote a product to people who would never buy it just to raise our impression stats.

Part I:
How we got here

Mistrust

A direct result of misleading claims, a deluge of cheap products, and a relentless barrage of ads everywhere we look isn’t helping our cause. To put it bluntly (and maybe a bit over-dramatized to prove our point), nobody trusts marketers. Almost 80% of Americans say they only trust big brands a little or not at all and only 4% say advertising positively impacts their trust in a company.*

For this, we can thank the people whose go-to marketing practices include way too many popups, banner ads, clickbait content, cold calls, and spam emails. Or retailers that unnecessarily slap words on a product label that align with the latest trends (“Our canned tuna is gluten-free!”). Not to mention the bad actors who phish or try to sell us things we don’t need, can’t afford, and will never live up to the claims they make. When people see something that seems too good to be true, they think “that’s just marketing speak”. To them, marketers are tricksters, spammers, and liars. Ouch.

Side note: It’s true that consumers share some of the blame for these issues, but that’s for another discussion.

Misleading metrics

Somewhere along the way, “marketing” became synonymous with “digital marketing”. And digital marketing is, for the most part, measurable. In the early digital days, marketers thought metrics would prove our worth and help us keep our jobs. We convinced the budget controllers that measurability is all that matters. Number of impressions, cost per impression, and click-through-rates defined our success.

But these numbers don’t mean much except to the companies that defined what’s acceptable. Their benchmarks are used by everyone—no matter their business model or product—as a main component in measuring ROI. What these numbers don’t consider are tactics that are hard to measure, like brand awareness and loyalty, churn, customer satisfaction, lifetime value of a customer, and the multiple touchpoints needed to make complex or big-ticket sales.

These considerations are important, but volume-based advertising has taken over and everything else has been drowned out.

Misfires on social media

For all the good social media has done for marketing (building brand awareness, customer engagement, audience targeting and retargeting), it brings its share of challenges. Oversaturation can make it difficult for marketing messages to capture attention, ad fatigue can desensitize your audience and lead to them installing ad blocking software, targeting can be challenging with constant algorithm changes, negative feedback can damage your reputation, and the competition is fierce.

And then there are the influencers. The legit ones do great things for your brand, but many are still bought and paid for. If they’re not authentically repping your brand, your audience will see it and your reputation could take a hit.

Misusing AI

Our new friend AI is the straw that’s about to break the camel’s back. Since ChatGPT busted into our lives at the end of 2022, we’ve heard countless stories of marketing layoffs. Higher-ups looking to save money think they can replace writers and content creators with generative AI. What they’re getting is more broken marketing—more ads, more boring content, and more of the same stuff everyone else is doing. People can only take so much of brands promising to “uncover the secret” or “unlock the power” of whatever it is they’re trying to sell.

Misdirected messaging

We notice this a lot with manufacturers. Branding doesn’t get the attention it deserves, and marketing materials often focus on product specs, but not much else. This leaves prospective buyers—who aren’t ready to talk to a salesperson—left to make decisions based on price alone. What a shame, when so many companies have so much more to offer. Yes, B2B companies have sales teams whose jobs are to build relationships, and we’re all for that. But you can’t build a relationship before you get someone’s attention. A company not taking full advantage of its marketing team is missing out on the opportunity to show their human side by speaking directly to the needs of their buyers.

Misalignment of sales and marketing

A sales team wants qualified leads from their marketing team, but who decides what that even means? If leads are deemed “no good” or don’t turn into customers, they don’t count, and marketing gets the blame. A marketing team might decide to spend a chunk of their marketing budget on a massive email list with the primary goal of getting a certain number of landing page hits. If they’re not concerned with lead quality or whether the sales team is prepared to respond to them, it becomes a disconnect and revenue suffers.

Part II:
The Road to Rehab

We didn’t break marketing, but we’re on a mission to save it. As marketers, we’ve never had so many high-tech tools and methods for doing what we do in meaningful ways. When a company’s messaging and internal values are aligned, when they have real empathy for the needs of their audience, and when they’re ready to pave their own path instead of following everyone else, we’re 100% certain it can be done.

Here’s how:

Know your audience like you know your bestie

Rehabbed marketing requires a profound understanding of your target audience. A simple list of demographics isn’t going to cut it. You need to understand their values, fears, challenges, and aspirations. And then speak to those attributes in a way that resonates on a personal level. It means knowing their buying behaviors and where they spend time online. And then tailoring your strategies to fit. If you don’t have access to this kind of data, companies like GWI and Resonate that ethically gather first-party data are great places to get it.

Know your company like you know yourself

A client once hired us to help rebuild their reputation by creating a communications plan. Without knowing what was happening internally, we simply couldn’t do it. By listening to their staff and other stakeholders, we found their culture was suffering. They did the work to repair it and then moved forward with the campaign. Really knowing your company—not just what you say about yourself on your website—and then aligning who you are with who you want to be is the best way to authentically build your brand. Anyone can create an ad or a video or a post for a marketing channel. Only you can be an expert in who you are.

Stop with the roboticized communications

Talk to people like humans. This might sound obvious, but it’s astonishing how many brands miss the mark on this. Your audience wants to feel understood and appreciated, not sold to. Go back to the basics of what humans need from you—a product or service that solves a problem. People have thoughts, emotions, opinions, and needs. Find out what makes them tick and connect with them through better marketing.

Invest in brand building

Building trust takes time and consistent effort. Invest in your brand story. Create and live your brand values, and make sure they align with your audience’s values. Brand building isn’t about immediate conversions. It’s about establishing a lasting relationship. So, when you have something to say, they’ll listen and believe you. As marketers who understand the importance of brand building often say: A brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what your customers say it is.

Measure what matters

Stop evaluating the effectiveness of your campaigns on surface-level metrics and measure conversions instead. Define those conversions as whatever is most meaningful to your organization, not someone else’s. And wait for a reasonable amount of time to pass before determining success, especially if your product has a long sales cycle. In the meantime, stay true to your plan, keep nurturing, and don’t make any knee-jerk reactions with your media budget. Just because you can change things hourly doesn’t mean you should.

This new way of operating will take some grit and smarts—you’ll need to know your audience on a deeper level, and you’ll need to have a clear understanding of your marketing funnel and customer lifecycle. Yes, it’s more complicated to measure than vanity metrics, but it’s a lot more meaningful.

Walk your talk

Living out your values and sharing them liberally isn’t just about connecting with customers—it can help drastically improve employee morale too. The marketing team can and should play a big role in making sure everyone is aware of your company’s values in a creative and engaging way. Influencers, endorsements, and reviews are good for your brand, but there’s no better marketing ally then employees who believe in and live your values through genuine customer interactions.

Build a better town square

People like to spend time with other like-minded people. Brand communities are all about bringing those people together online or in person. They’re much more than a newsletter or social media page. A brand community is a self-sustaining entity where each person gets to be an active part of the community and contribute to conversations within the group. Harley-Davidson, Lululemon, and Noom are doing it right. Imagine how your customers, clients, and followers could benefit from knowing each other. And how you could benefit from being the brand that brought them together.

Play nice with your sales team

It’s time for sales and marketing to stop blaming each other for missed goals and start sharing data, insights, and strategies with each other. Find ways to work together to understand your customers better and create a unified front instead of a behind-the-scenes battle. Work toward a culture of responsibility rather than fear. For some high-level ideas on how to tackle the rift, this article is a good place to start.

Use AI wisely

Technology should empower marketing, not dehumanize it. If you replace your creative people with AI, you’ll get sucked directly into the broken marketing paradigm of looking and sounding the same as everyone else. Or worse, you could be spewing incorrect information if you’re not fact checking. Even if you train AI with your voice, it’s not innately creative (at least not yet). Instead use it for blog outlines, video scripts, PPC ad headlines, brainstorming, first drafts, and predictions. Then ask your humans to turn that content into marketing that resonates with your audience and rises above the marketing junk.

Hire the right kind of agency

Agencies like ours that say no to broken marketing invest in teams and technology for doing it the way it should be done. They have access to audience research platforms and can quickly get valuable, up-to-the-moment data points on your customers. They look at marketing problems as business problems and develop solutions with an outside perspective. They help you get to know your company better by conducting unbiased, anonymous employee surveys and interviews on your behalf. They create a custom solution for every client based on their unique needs. Yes, they also make digital ads and measure impressions. But that’s just one small piece of the puzzle. Whoever you hire, make sure you’re choosing someone who can help you meet your goals—not just get more clicks.

The time for intervention is now

Those of us in the trenches are fed up with broken marketing. It’s in a sorry state and we all know it. And yet we’ve been settling for it. That stops now. It’s time to clean up our act and start rehabbing marketing. It’s not just our job—it’s our responsibility. To the brands we serve, the customers we reach, and the people on our payroll.

*GWI USA, 2021 & 2023

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About the Author: cat-tonic

cat-tonic
Born of curiosity and enthusiasm, we’re a scrappy group of smart, passionate marketers who work hard and play hard. We show up every day and fight for our clients who are making the world a better place. We listen with curiosity, explore deeply, ask hard questions, and sometimes put forth ideas that might make you squirm. Because we believe the status quo is good for growing mold but not much else. The way we see it, change is the way forward and the magic happens when curiosity, math, science, instinct, and talent intersect.
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