Marketing moments of the decade: Part I
As the decade draws to a close, Marketing Week looks back at the defining moments of the 2010s from the News of the World phone-hacking scandal to the launch of Instagram and the dawn of influencer culture.
2010 – The coalition government and start of austerity
Given the ructions seen in politics in the years since the 2016 referendum, it’s easy to forget how significant the first new government of the decade was.
After 13 years of New Labour, the country wanted change. The electorate, however, wasn’t entirely sure what they wanted instead. The election of May 2010 was indecisive. David Cameron’s detoxification of the Conservative brand had helped the Tories become the biggest party, but shy of the requisite number of MPs needed to form a government.
Whether out of a sense of duty, or a naked pursuit of power, Cameron acted quickly and agreed with Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg to form the UK’s first post-war coalition. It was a government that would define politics, the economy and in many ways marketing for the next 10 years.
In 2010, the UK and world economy were still reeling from the financial crash, bank bailouts and subsequent monetary crisis in the eurozone. Consumer confidence was low, the deficit high and business brittle.
The response was brutal. To restore confidence in UK PLC, the coalition government prioritised debt control. A huge programme of cuts was unveiled.
Spend on marketing activity was immediately frozen, and then reviewed and cut by half in the coalition’s first year. The Central Office of Information (COI), the government’s marketing agency, was no longer the UK’s biggest advertiser and wouldn’t be long for this world.
Public information was an unnecessary cost. The language was unhelpful to the perception and standing of marketing.
Once shorn of much of its budget, its responsibilities were passed to the Cabinet Office. It left many agencies scrambling to fill the tens of millions they earned from being on the COI’s roster. Some suffered serious damage. Others reportedly worked for smaller margins in order to stay in line when the crumbs were being thrown.
The narrative around marketing communications was pejorative, with statements suggesting the government was taking decisive action by ridding Whitehall of the profligacy of marketers. Public information campaigns were an unnecessary cost. The language was unhelpful to the perception and standing of marketing in Westminster and elsewhere.
Elsewhere, the coalition inadvertently help popularise brand purpose. Its flagship ‘Big Society’ initiative aimed to spread responsibility for societal advancement by marrying business, community and the benevolence of people.
While the Big Society was flawed and ultimately retired, the concept of brands having a wider role took deeper root. Corporations sensitive to the sense of injustice people felt following the near-collapse of the financial system at the end of the previous decade felt guilt and a need to do their bit.
The biggest act and legacy of the coalition, however, is austerity. The downsizing of the government’s marcomms operation was insignificant compared with other cuts to central and local government spending.
Although the economy stabilised through the decade from its 2008-2009 nadir, it remained in a perpetual state of uncertainty through to the end of the decade.
At the same time, those that bore the brunt of public sector cuts grew angry and frustrated. A sense of injustice that arguably played its part in triggering Brexit and yet more economic uncertainty. Marketers, as spenders of cash that would be otherwise returned to shareholders, were forced to tighten their belts. RP
2010 – The publication of How Brands Grow
Although the commercial viability of the printed word has undoubtedly lessened in the 2010s, one type of book appears to be in rude health – marketing theory.
Feeding the anxiety many marketers feel about their capabilities in wake of some of the big macro shifts seen in the decade, tens of such books appear to be published every month. Transformation, agile, disruption and customer experience particularly popular among publishers, at least.
Given the volume and often generic subject matter they are often sent for donation to charity after a short period sat on your desk as a talking point when your boss stops by. One very notable exception came right at the decade’s start: Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow.
“The first book in a decade to say anything new about brand strategy,” according to Mark Ritson, How Brands Grow cut through a lot of the theory, and indeed practice, that had become common in marketing to that point.
A very brief summary: penetration should be key for marketers, with more sales from more people reached through mass marketing being demonstrably more effective than targeting a segment of a brand’s potential buyers. A focus on distinctive assets such as colours, tag lines and logos trumps differentiation.
There are few other marketing books launched in the decade that would be as known, as consumed and as polarising as How Brands Grow.
Ally this “mental availability” with the “physical availability” of being on sale in as many places as possible and you have a recipe for success, the book argued. With the Ehrenberg Bass Institute for Marketing Science at his back, the professor is unwavering in the belief that he and his book are right. This wasn’t finger in the air theory, Sharp argued, it was science.
As the decade wore on so did the momentum behind the book. High-profile converts including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Pepsico and Mars have all at times underpinned activity for some of their brands with takeaways from How Brands Grow.
One thing can be guaranteed, the book and/or its author will be mentioned at some point during any marketing conference, anywhere in the world.
Ubiquity also attracts criticism. There are plenty that reject Sharp’s conclusions. Indeed, Ritson has argued strongly against Sharp’s dismissal of targeting and differentiation, memorably in a debate at The Festival of Marketing in 2017. And despite its influence on some, micro-targeting and the quest for ever deeper engagement has grown exponentially in the decade since How Brands Grow was published.
Whether it is used or not to inform brand strategy, whether you flinch at or favour its findings, the book’s conclusions are parked in marketers’ minds.
At a recent conference, I asked the audience if they had heard of How Brands Grow, most hands went up. When I asked how many had read it, only a few went down. When I asked whether they agreed with its findings, the audience was split.
There are few other marketing books launched in the decade that would be as known, as consumed and as polarising. Or as influential. RP
Read the full article on Marketing Week.