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Is Populism Alive and Well in Marketing?

March 2024

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The politics of simplification and opportunism means marketers increasingly want memes, not manifestos, and there are plenty of performative ‘experts’ willing to offer them up. What steps do we need to take to overcome the cult of personality and get back to strategic marketing proper?

Those old enough to have lived through the 90’s will recall the rise of what journalist and historian Thomas Frank termed ‘market-populism’ – the notion that the free market is more democratic than any political democracy can ever hope to be.

The premise was that, since markets express the will of the people, any criticism of business could be described as an act of elitism arising out of contempt for the common man.

This was how, in the 90’s, Gordon Gecko-inspired entrepreneurs, with their cashmere suits and $500 a day coke habits, could tout themselves as the latest manifestation of a populist ideology that had once been driven by toil-worn noble proles.

Only these pinstripe-clad revolutionaries were pitting themselves against the inequities of old money, toppling fat cats and their privileged progeny to create a new kind of ‘socialism’.

Fast-forward to the present day and populism is alive and well not just in markets, but also in marketing. It’s everywhere.

Just look at the performative approach to marketing expertise pervading the industry. People with no proven experience beyond their own personal brand vaunted as gurus just because they have a good line in sloganeering and easily digestible Instagram quotes.

Take, for instance, undoubtably charismatic businessmen like Gary Vaynerchuk and Neil Patel, pouring forth an endless cycle of ‘persuasive’ content that only takes the merest scratch to reveal what lies beneath the surface – hyperbole and hearsay. So-called sages who conflate marketing with comms - or worse - just ‘digital’.

Please.

The politics of simplification and opportunism is rife in the industry; alive with ‘marketing is for the many, not the few’ rhetoric that sees a lack of education in the discipline as a point of pride.

No need for elitist MBAs and cost-prohibitive CPD, you just need to watch a few videos on SEO to be the next big CEO. Like politicians, they say what we want to hear; that we too can build a multi-billion-dollar brand with little more than an iPhone and a decent pair of bootstraps.

And the depressing thing is, even in a golden age of marketing science, these figures continue to win the popular vote and dominate the global debate about modern-day marketing. Vee has almost three times more followers on LinkedIn than the world’s top 75 influential marketing professors put together. Patel is in every top ten marketers list you care to stumble across on the interwebs.

We’ve lost the plot.

It’s not that they don’t have anything to bring to the marketing party, but we also need to recognise that they are to strategy what Gay pride is to restraint.

Perhaps we can’t blame them. Why take the time to understand marketing, when you can get rich peddling your own special brand of fake news and anti-truths about it? And as we know from government, the cult of personality, thinly disguised as public service, is a seductive one.

But when did we lobotomise ourselves into acceptance? When did we look into the bleeding jaws of this surface-level BS and say ‘yes, daddy, please?’.

Perhaps it’s our alleged dwindling attention spans to blame? In a world where politician can’t get through PMQT without watching porn, how can we expect mere marketers to put the effort into learning their trade?

We demand memes, not manifestos.

Easier to take the pill than it is to take the time to work out what ails us.

Like Monty Python’s Mr Creosote, we’ll gladly consume another wafer-thin marketing mint in the hope it’ll take the bad taste of this posturing-over-professionalism out of our mouths.

All this content-before-qualifications is reminiscent of the infinite monkey theorem. Trouble is, even if you strung together the whole lot of so-called marketing ‘insights’ being peddled today, you’re not ending up with the Wisdom of Job(s); you’re ending up with a bunch of monkeys and a massive pile of simian crap.

Then we wonder why our noses are pressed to the window of the C-Suite whimpering that no one invited us to the party.

It would be funny if it wasn’t so damaging.

According to Fournaise Group, 80% of CEOs don’t trust marketing. Imagine that. Even politicians can claim only 57% of people don’t trust them at the moment.

Marketing’s perception problem is reducing its commercial influence, whilst CFO’s rub their calloused hands over their (short-sighted) ROI calculations 

Even good marketing isn’t immune to populism’s effects. We are increasingly being split into homogenous and antagonistic groups, in the red corner the Kotlerians, in the blue corner the Sharpians - because God forbid we could let balance and nuance enter into the debate.

In a post-factual era, where reality is fungible (unlike the tokens that the industry has finally stopped spaffing on about) it’s more vital than ever we start to dismantle the damaging doctrines that are holding us back.

Instead of glib soundbites, we need data. Not the Big kind, we’ve been drowning in that for years, and from our lofty vantage point here on this soap box (and according to research, like that from MIT & Melbourne Business School), it’s made marketing about as hyper-targeted as a drunk bloke trying to cop off on a night out.

No, we need the academic type that the Ehrenberg Bass Institute put out, or the on-the-tools sort that Binet & Field are producing, or the deep dives of the IPAs and the APGs of this world.

That doesn’t mean slavishly following only one when conflicting viewpoints are at play, but doing that which Marketers were born to do, to use empathy and analysis to decide which elements are right for this particular problem, this particular brief, this particular audience. To embrace, as Mark Ritson calls it, “bothism”.

We must not tell our clients what we think they want to hear, even if it does advance our own interests. We must respectfully question everything, acting as the thought-provoking Mad Men - not yellow-bellied Yes Men - that they need us to be in order to advance their affairs.

We need an ambition to change, and to once again weaponise marketing for the growth capabilities it offers. This, perhaps, is where a rejection of ‘popularity’ is most vital. We should not try to be all things to all men - marketing must polarise – but not to drive pitchforks-at-dawn ideology; instead for the benefit of a clear, deliverable strategy,

And occasionally, as evidenced in this piece, we might need to gently discredit our opponents when the truth is at stake.

It probably won’t change anything; you don’t break an echo-chamber by shouting more loudly into it.

But we’ll nevertheless take this opportunity to end on a pithy little epigram of our own: The only thing necessary for the triumph of bad marketers, is for good marketers to do nothing.

So do something.

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