• Many companies have diminished marketing’s role by measuring the function’s value through a narrow set of demand-oriented metrics
  • Brand and demand teams must work together to break out of this simplistic and mechanistic mindset
  • CMOs who reclaim the larger remit of marketing will increase their effectiveness and strategic standing

There’s a well-known story used in social sciences known as the drunkard’s search or the streetlight effect. It goes like this: A policeman comes across a drunken man crawling around under a streetlight and asks what he’s doing. The man explains he has lost his keys and asks the policeman to help him look. After a little while the cop asks, “Are you sure you lost them here?” And the drunk replies, “No, they could be anywhere on the block that I walked from the bar to the car.” The cop asks, “Why aren’t you searching there?” The drunk replies, “This is where the light is.”

industrial streetlamp

We’re guilty of this in marketing today.

Our version of this is trying to find answers to what works in marketing by looking only at the data that is easiest to see — usually what is stored in marketing automation platforms (MAPs) to measure demand generation programs. This data is indeed valuable, but it doesn’t illuminate the entirety of the buyer’s decision-making process. Recently we’ve added intent monitoring tools to expand visibility into earlier stages of the buying decision, but these don’t fully illuminate what the buyer is thinking before the buying process, and they provide little or no information on how buyers perceive your brand. This “preexisting condition” — how buyers view your company, solution, and category — is critical to how buyers will behave during the buying process.

In most marketing dashboards, scant attention is paid to anything outside of demand generation (respondents to a recent SiriusDecisions survey reported that only one out of the top ten metrics in marketing leadership dashboards relates to brand). Many marketing teams have staked their value on the ability to generate leads and the connection this provides to revenue. Lost is the idea of building a brand that influences buyers before the buying process begins. And when we don’t think of our job as anything outside the buyer’s journey, we’ve lost a big part of the value that marketing was once charged with creating. Consider these three fundamental truths:  

  • The buyer’s journey starts before the buyer’s journey starts. Because people have formed beliefs about the world before having buying needs, we need to shape the perceptions of people who are not in an active buying cycle. For many companies, this runs counter to the strategy of hyper-targeting and spending budget dollars only to influence active buyers. The familiarity that buyers have with your brand and their opinions about your organization affect their willingness to participate in your marketing tactics. Low awareness and negative perceptions manifest as lower-than-expected response rates. Waiting to diagnose and treat these problems in the demand phase is like waiting too long to treat an illness. To increase your chances of winning, you need to reshape the buyer’s mental playing field before the moment of need arises. 
  • Confirmation bias is a major factor in human decision-making. Confirmation bias is when people seek information that aligns with their existing beliefs and devalue or reject information that conflicts with those beliefs. We’re hearing much more about this these days, because this is one way social media is wreaking havoc on the political process. People choose which information they are exposed to on the basis of what they already believe, and as a result, we are becoming increasingly polarized and vulnerable to misinformation. Because confirmation bias is a part of the human condition, it also afflicts B2B buyers. Buyers aren’t robots waiting to receive data that they will then evaluate with scientific precision. They naturally lean into information that comports with their world view and listen more intently to sources they trust.
  • B2B buying is complex and scary. We underplay the role of emotion in the B2B buying process — especially negative emotions that can swirl around big decisions when there’s a lot on the line. The higher the price tag and visibility to executives, the higher the anxiety level of the people participating. A wrong choice can have devastating consequences: damage to the company’s brand, loss of revenue, and for the participants, loss of respect or even their jobs. All of this naturally leads buyers to seek the safety and comfort of known quantities (brands) and trusted entities (third-party influencers). Brands simplify the buying decision.

If you accept these truths, you see that marketing has a bigger job to do than it is generally doing today. Many marketing leaders have chosen to narrow their vision to align with a tidy but limited set of metrics that are easily obtained through MAPs. Welcome to the incredible shrinking function where anything that can’t be captured as a number is seen as unimportant. In this world, marketing is a mechanistic process of creating automation qualified leads, marketing qualified leads, sales qualified leads and so on, and the more strategic issues of building markets and engaging audiences with compelling ideas are seen as less worthy because they lack simple, short-term quantitative proof. We’re searching for success under the streetlamp. 

I’m not arguing that brand programs should be free from scrutiny — quite the contrary. But we need to accept that building a brand — in other words, shaping the beliefs and opinions of an audience — takes more time and is harder to quantify than demand programs targeting active buyers. Survey research is often the best approach, but we have found in work we’ve done with clients that less than 50% of companies have done a brand survey in the past two years. There are other approaches (such as the SiriusDecisions Brand Measurement Framework), but these require a concerted long-term effort.

What can we do? Let’s start by lighting one little candle of cooperation. Brand and demand teams need to start working together more effectively and recognize that their work is complementary and can be united through shared goals. Marketing leaders need to reclaim their larger remit and educate executives and peers on overarching principles of brand, resisting the temptation to boil everything down to a quarterly lead number. Maybe then we’ll see the light.