If You Want To Succeed, You've Got To Assume No-One Cares


“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”

Clarke Gable in Gone With the Wind

A better starting point

The careless rhetoric of loyalty, commitment, zealots, advocates, super-fans, participation, community, and so on, clouds the one central assumption that all marketing must make.

That if we want to truly succeed, then we’d better start working back from the assumption that most people don’t give a damn about what we produce. 

This might make not make us feel important, popular, valuable, popular, or wanted, but it will at least better focus our efforts.

We are not alone

It’s beyond even a cliché to observe that oversupply characterizes every aspect of our lives. We are oversupplied with products and brands. We’re oversupplied with marketing content and communications. And as we plug ourselves evermore deeply and permanently into the interweb, we are surrounded by and have access to more information and content than one could ever hope to digest in a lifetime. By way of example, according to Techcrunch, no less than 260 new porn sites go online daily. That’s 94,900 new porn sites going live a year. That’s an awful lot of porn to choose from.

The more content is liquid, the more it must compete with absolutely everything else that’s interesting, useful, or entertaining. And in a world characterized as Grant McCracken puts it, by plenitude, we cannot assume anybody will notice us. Let alone that anybody will actually care about us. It is after all, a world replete with other options.

Brands aren’t that important

The rhetoric of participation rather obscures the fact that one of the most fundamental (and overlooked) roles of brands is to help people NOT think very much about their purchase decisions. 

Branding helps people make quick, easy, intuitive and confident purchase decisions. Without thinking about them that much. Or worrying about the price. Or the quality. Or the competitive offers that might be available.

Indeed people really don’t care that much about their choice of brand. Despite the language of commitment we bandy around, most people are are actually polygamous, with split loyalties to several steady partners. 

As Ehrenberg put it:

“In general there are relatively few 100% loyal or sole buyers of a brand, especially over any extended period of time. A typical and predictable finding for frequently bought grocery products is that in a week, 80 or 90% of buyers of a brand buy only that brand, that in half a year the proportion is down to 30%, and that in a year, only 10% of buyers are 100% loyal. To expect any substantial group or segment of consumers to be uniquely attracted to one particular selling proposition or advertising platform would therefore generally seem entirely beside the point.”

The idea of ‘our consumer’ is a myth. A figment of our imaginations. People’s polygamous purchase patterns mean that ‘our’ consumer is in fact simply a buyer of another brand who sometimes happens to buy you. 

In general then, most people really aren’t that bothered about brands and most of the time they are not that bothered about ours. This is something that the rhetoric and practice of ‘participation‘  repeatedly fails to acknowledge. A point brilliantly made recently by the folk at Sell Sell:


Brands are not built upon devoted loyalty

The oft-touted 80:20 rule argues that 80% of a brand’s purchases come from just 20% of its users. 

This notion encourages the belief that people can and do care very much about brands. It encourages the utter nonsense of suggesting that the object of marketing is for people to be devoted and loyal towards a brand. It creates the illusion that marketing’s purpose is to stimulate loyalty and permanent relationships. 

Indeed some peddle the extraordinary notion that people can actually feel ‘love’ towards a brand.  Not only does this trivialize the most sublime emotion any of us might experience, but it expects people to extend a degree of commitment to the largely trivial domain of brands that most of us struggle to extend or find in our actual human relationships.

The truth of the matter is that the 80:20 ‘rule’ is simply not borne out by the data.  This data clearly shows that over a 12 month period, the heaviest buyers of a typical packaged goods brand will account for around 50% of purchases.  Not 80%. 

Looking at Nielsen BrandScan data (surely a better source that received wisdom) from the US for example, the heaviest 20% of buyers account for:

    51% of the average liquid fabric conditioner brand’s volume

    54% of the average breakfast brand’s volume

    53% of the average canned soup brand’s volume

    65% of the average soft  drinks brand’s volume

And so on.

That’s a long way off the much-vaunted 80% of purchases.

Brands are built not solely on a small group of zealots, but on millions of light users who very occasionally buy you.  

And as I’ve argued before, marketing to people who don’t know you, or don’t know you very well, and who come across you just occasionally is a very different thing from marketing to people who know very well, use you frequently, like you a lot, and actively seek you out. 

‘The audience’ doesn’t exist

Just as the ‘consumer’ really doesn’t exist, so too is the notion of ‘the audience’ a fiction. For talking about audiences suggests that people are waiting for what we make. Or even that they actively search it out. 

The zealots might do this. But the vast swathes of light buyers that brands depend upon are unlikely to. They’re just getting on with their lives and the stuff that really consumes, distracts and interests them.  As Howard Gossage put it:

“When advertising talks about the audience it doesn’t mean its audience, it means somebody else’s, gathered there to watch or read or something else… ” 

Most of the time most people are not gathered to consume what we’ve made. They just don't care that much.

Most of what we produce is shit

Finally - and I’ve written about this before - despite all the creative awards and slick case studies, the stuff we link to, tweet and blog about, the vast majority of us produce stuff that’s at best, utterly unremarkable. And at worst stuff that is complete mental and environmental pollution. 

Every second of every day, year in year out, our industry pumps out a deluge of mediocrity that provides people with yet more evidence that our stuff really isn’t worth spending that much effort attending to.

Success beyond the 1%

The Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel has written and spoken much on the subject of indifference. In a speech at the White House in 1999 speech, he said: “Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning, it is an end.” Or as the fantasy writer Joan Vinge wrote in her book The Snow Queen: “Indifference is the strongest force in the universe.  It makes everything meaningless. Love and hate don’t stand a chance against it”. 

If we want people to notice our stuff, to pay attention to it, to devote precious cognitive resources to it... to engage, co-create, comment, tag, share, participate, advocate, and all the rest of it, then we would do well to remember that what stands between us and success is more powerful than love or hate. If we want to stimulate 99% of people to participate not just the 1%, then it behoves us to remember that we are battling this, the most powerful force in the universe.

Much of the most interesting content at the sharp end of advertising innovation has done a good job of involving the interested and committed minority. But in a good many instances, the levels of participation expressed as a percentage of category buyers are so small that we might as well call it zero.

Done well, activating and leveraging the zealous minority to spread and amplify communications content amongst a broader population is a legitimate approach to connecting people with our brands.

But if our efforts are to be taken seriously - and if they are to have an effect on business results - then we will have to work out how this activity scales.  Assuming that we’re not insane enough to want to reduce the size of brands, and that we actually want to maintain or grow their scale, at the end of the day we will still need to focus on the indifferent 99%. 

We need to do this because success ultimately depends on capturing the imaginations of the generally indifferent, infrequently purchasing, brand polygamous majority. 

In which case we will need to ask with a greater degree of urgency some of marketing’s most age-old questions: Why should people give a damn? And exactly what is in it for them?


Andrew Ehrenberg,  "Repetitive advertising and the consumer’, Journal of Advertising Research, Vol40, No. 6, November/December 2000

Howard Luck Gossage, The Book of Gossage

Grant McCracken, Plenitude

Byron Sharp, How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don't Know