31 Jan 2005  Research & Ideas

Rethinking Marketing’s Conventional Wisdom

Making advertising hard to find is just one way companies are rewriting conventional marketing strategies, says Harvard Business School professor Youngme Moon.

 

HBS associate professor Youngme Moon teaches the MBA elective Consumer Marketing and several Executive Education marketing courses. With her research and course development work focusing on innovative consumer-marketing strategies, she is the author of numerous cases and journal articles on marketing and psychology. Moon is a recipient of the HBS Student Association Award for teaching excellence and has twice received a Hellman Faculty Fellowship, presented annually to a junior faculty member for outstanding research.

Gary Emmons: Are there industries or sectors out there that should rethink how they're marketing themselves?

Youngme Moon: Many mature service industries are in a service "arms race" in which they keep adding more and more services cumulatively over time. But consumers don't always want "more and more"—what they're looking for are unique combinations of attributes. You see that with the success of the airline JetBlue, for example: It has no meals and no round-trip airfares, but it does have leather seats and personal entertainment centers that delight and surprise its passengers. JetBlue's unique combination of features is what gives it a unique position in the market.

Q: Do you have a favorite case?

A: One of the cases I wrote is about BMW Films' award-winning marketing campaign. These were eight beautiful short films by famous directors, each less than ten minutes long, stuck on a corner of the Internet. Trailers for them on television sent you to the Web site where you could see the films in their entirety, which starred the same dashing young actor driving BMWs amid all manner of car chases and plot twists. Because it was kind of an underground thing, young people started to discover the films. You could download and pass them on to friends. The case is about the marketers' decisions regarding what to do with these films: They could put them on DVDs, or run them in movie theaters before feature films, or do any number of other things.

Q: What's the takeaway from the case?

A: One surprise is that the method of distribution was very limited by intent. Restricting content and making it hard to get was one of the rationales behind the campaign. What I like about the case is that it breaks so many fundamental marketing principles. One classic rule maintains that if you want to reach a broad audience, then you need mass advertising; if you want to reach a narrow audience, you do niche advertising. But these marketers realized the best way to create cachet for a young audience was to make it inaccessible and let the kids discover it on their own.

Q: So classic marketing wisdom doesn't always hold true?

A: That's right. Take another piece of conventional wisdom: Brands need to have a consistent brand message. In the United States, BMW is a relatively new brand, some thirty or forty years old in terms of its American presence. Yuppies who bought BMWs in the 1980s now have kids, but kids are never going to buy the car their parents own. So BMW, knowing that it's a fashion brand, is trying to manage different and multiple brand messages for different audiences, using the Internet and various other forms of distribution.

Q: What else about marketing conventional wisdom invites reexamination?

A: What I like about the BMW case is that it's a completely different way of thinking about customers—it's an invitation, not a heavy sell. You can download the films and keep them—you don't have to buy a car. And they're enlisting people to become marketers for them, by passing the films on to friends. They're generating goodwill in a nonaggressive way.

Q: You write a lot about interactions between humans and technology. Are computers the perfect tool for customized marketing?

A: The tailoring of messages via computer technology to a person's interests based on past purchases or preferences is of course very efficient. But also important is the manner in which a message is conveyed. It's the same as when you meet someone with whom you share similar interests, but despite that, you never really click because you find something in that person's manner off-putting. In human interactions, we often can adjust our approach and delivery to better fit with other individuals or situations; similarly, there's untapped potential in being able to establish electronic connections with consumers in ways that are not necessarily based on having a huge database of past consumption.

Q: Clearly, you have a passion about your subject.

A: The reason I love consumer marketing so much is that it's really the study of human behavior. Why do people buy and consume? Why do they have preferences? Of all the business disciplines, marketing is the most personal. What I try to do in every case I teach is to make the class about human behavior, and bring that home for the students. I tell them we're all marketers second, and consumers first.

About the author

Gary Emmons is Senior Associate Editor, HBS Bulletin.