Why Marketing Beats Advertising

A watch around every man's wrist. Photo by Alex Kerhead.

A watch around every man’s wrist. Photo by Alex Kerhead.

You can create a product, put a million dollars in television behind it, and command viewers to buy it. That may have worked for a while in American history, in that magic window between about 1950 and 1980 when almost everyone had TVs and watched the same three channels. But it certainly doesn’t work now.

Fortunately, we can look to history for some great examples of how it should be done, because you had to be genuinely creative before the advent of television. I recently checked out The Permanent Campaign, a 1980 work by former Clinton staffer Sidney Blumenthal, who at the time was a young journalistic turk writing about the rise of the political consulting class. He interviewed the original master, Edward Bernays, who invented the discipline of public relations and, tellingly, was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Blumenthal shares this amazing World War I anecdote:

During the war, Bernays also handled the account of the Ingersoll Company, a manufacturer of wristwatches, which were then regarded as effeminate jewelry. How could this image be overcome? Bernays did some research. He discovered that all soldiers carried pocket watches. In order to see what time it was at night they had to strike matches, which, if they were in the trenches, attracted the attention of snipers. Wristwatches with luminous dials, he reasoned, could save lives. It would also boost Ingersoll. The War Department, convinced by his logic, soon issued wristwatches as standard equipment.

Too many marketing/PR consultants still just follow the standard script, advising clients to buy TV airtime or some other undifferentiated, scattershot approach. But we have to think carefully about what the problem behind the problem might be. If TV had been around, Bernays could have hired a manly celebrity to wear a watch and prove to America it wasn’t sissy. But how much more powerful to think strategically and, as Blumenthal says, “[tie] a wristwatch around the wrist of virtually every male in the country”?

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the National Park Service. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.