Hacking the business with Stephen King
The need for more (and better) problems
When did creativity become a pseudonym for producing advertising? And when did strategy become a means to a message?
At a time when technology enables boundless creativity, when digital interactions are blurring the line between product, product experience, and marketing communications, and changing how people search, choose, and buy, we are all - clients and agencies alike - in danger of limiting the scope and potential of creativity. As Lawrence Green has put it:
The task of any imaginative agency, any creative company, is to understand and serve it client’s business problems. Too often, our business has sliced and diced its tasks in the style of a sub-prime mortgage bundler. A corporate task set by the chief executive, reframed as a comms task by the marketing director, refined by the brand consultancy and reduced by the ad agency to the stuff advertising can do: Grow awareness, nurture engagement. Too many links, too indirect and weak a connection between commercial possibilities and creative resolution.”
Elsewhere, away from adland, others have argued that we need to be ‘growth hackers’. Josh Elman has described growth hacking as describing “a new process for acquiring and engaging users combining traditional marketing and analytical skills with product development skills.” According to Elman:
In the past, marketing and product development departments were often at odds where marketing groups would be spending significant amounts of money to acquire users but couldn't get any development resources to build something as simple as new custom landing pages. And on the other side, product development teams would often build what they think users want and will attract users without deeply measuring and understanding the impact of their changes. This concept of "growth hacking" is a recognition that when you focus on understanding your users and how they discover and adopt your products, you can build features that help you acquire and retain more users, rather than just spending marketing dollars.”
Of course what Elman is describing is not new at all. It is simply good marketing. It just probably doesn’t happen as often as it should.
So all this begs some questions:
How can we look beyond what advertising can solve?
How exactly do we expand the scope and value of creativity?
How can we identify opportunities for growth?
How can marketing properly shape itself around the consumer?
How can marketing define itself by what it solves, rather than by what it makes?
How can product development and marketing be reunited once more?
In all of this,theory and rhetoric will not help us. We need something more practical.
I am no a fan of templates and processes. We create after all, bespoke solutions for the unique challenges faced by each client. But I am a fan of anything that gets us asking better questions. And it is at this point that we must step back to the future. For Stephen King gave us just the sort of questions we need. They are oddly neglected in the compendium of his best work - A Masterclass in Brand Planning, and are worth revisiting.
King’s Consumer Buying System
King’s model - the ‘consumer buying system’ - appeared in his Manual of Tools of the Trade for Advertising Planners that he developed for JWT in the late 1980s.
It is by no means a panacea. And it certainly cannot solve the systemic dysfunctions of both agencies and client organizations that prevent us from a broader application of creativity. Nonetheless, it can encourage the well-intentioned and the ambitious to ask new, and better questions.
King had developed his model principally as a means of shaping and guiding a communications plan. His focus was largely on both the role and the choice of communications channels.
However, in as much as his model was largely a means of understanding consumer behaviour, its application and value goes far beyond that. As King wrote in his introduction to the model:
The objective is to take your brand, examine the stages in the [Consumer Buying System] and ask, ‘How can we move the consumer through the process?’”
I make no claim for uniqueness in any of what follows. There is many a good marketer who employs their own version of King’s model.
(That said, and by way of a pedantic aside, King’s model predates McKinsey’s model by decades. Thus demonstrating that those who are unaware of history are doomed to repeat it).
Below are the phases of the model, as described by King.
It is worth noting that King was a big opponent of the one-size-fits-all approach, and recognized that the path to purchase varied depending on the category. Buying a bar of chocolate is different from buying a Picasso, or breakfast cereal, or a pair of trainers, or a holiday, or a car.
And so, by way of a preface, it’s worth bearing in mind, as he wrote:
The time frame for this process will vary enormously from category to category, for example, buying a car could take the consumer a year, whereas buying a box of cereal, from running out of the previous box to the next purchase, could take just hours. Thus some stages are less relevant to some categories, and not all consumers within one specific category may pass through all the stages. For example, when "buying" a new long-distance phone service, some consumers are simply stimulated to change their phone company by an advertised offer, whereas others will collect and evaluate information on long-distance providers to improve their comfort level with the company.”
At each stage we should be asking - what exactly is happening?
New questions, new solutions
If we must, we can call it a framework for 'growth hacking'. Certainly the sort of thinking, questions, and the types of solutions that King’s model encourages is instructive. As soon as we start unpacking people's behaviours, we start inventing all manner of stuff that isn't advertising:
If we in adland only ever see ad-shaped problems, we’ll only create ad-shaped solutions. But if we see people, all manner of new and exciting stuff starts to happen. As ever in marketing, progress lies in asking better questions and more imaginatively examining the lives, habits, needs, wants, desires, frustrations and dissatisfactions in people’s lives.
As King said of his model:
Since all marketing activities are aiming to reinforce or modify people's sequence of ideas and actions, the buying system really is the starting point for all marketing and planning activity."
That said, client organizations and their marketing departments too must assume their share of responsibility. Often, it seems, they are divorced from product development, isolated from IT, embroiled in turf war standoffs with other functions, unwilling or simply unable to provide agency partners with real business issues to solve, and more comfortable passing off ad requests and ‘insight’ babble as bona fide client briefs.
King, ever prescient, identified the need and opportunity for thinking more broadly about brand building:
Marketing companies today… recognize that rapid response in the marketplace needs to be matched with a clear strategic vision. The need for well-planned brand-building is very pressing. At the same time they see changes in ways of communicating with their more diverse audiences. They’re increasingly experimenting with non-advertising methods. Some are uneasily aware that these different methods are being managed by different people in the organisation to different principles; they may well be presenting conflicting impressions of the company and its brands. It all needs to be pulled together. I think that an increasing number of them would like some outside help in tackling these problems, and some have already demonstrated that they’re prepared to pay respectable sums for it. The job seems ideally suited to the strategic end of the best account planning skills. The question is whether these clients will want to get such help from an advertising agency. What agencies, and the account planners in them, would have to do is above all, demonstrate that they have the breadth of vision and objectivity to do the job”
If we can only grasp the necessity of beginning our thinking with real consumer issues and needs, rather than what type of creative product (social, viral, advertising, content, POS, etc., etc.) we will make, or what line of fashionable rhetoric we will subscribe to, then we might stand a better chance of unleashing the true potential of our collective creativity.
Indeed we might at last start actually living up to the theory, claims, and promise of marketing.
Judie Lannon & Merry Baskin, eds., A Masterclass in Brand Planning: The Timeless Works of Stephen King
Josh Elman, 'What Is "growth hacking" really?'
McKinsey & Company, The consumer decision journey