What The Hell Are You Marketing?


I saw a kid pushing an imaginary trolley down a leafy lane near my house. I stopped and smiled. The kid smiled back. I don’t know if he could speak or not, but that day he was relying on gestures. “Do you want one?” he mimed at me. Quickly trying to keep pace I nodded. He seemed to open some lid and pull out what must have been an ice-lolly. I took the pretend lolly and pulled pretend money out of my pocket and gave it to him. He counted this make belief cash and even mimed returning some change to me. What wealth in these days of cash crunch I tell you! Pocketing my imaginary change, I traipsed off, licking my lovely non-existent ice cream.

That kid was eight years old. You, dear marketer, are not. So what the hell are you marketing? Your pretend products with pretend benefits and pretend life changing properties are beginning to look faker than that kid’s ice-lolly. And they certainly don’t have anywhere near the same emotional benefits.

What happened to making a brilliant product, testing it, retesting it, improving it, enhancing it, selling it, gathering feedback, improving it further? What happened to promotion & publicity coming in as an after thought in order to bring more people’s attention to a stupendous product? What happened to advertising coming AFTER content creation, and not INSTEAD OF?

Many years ago, while in conversation with a nervous sales executive at the radio station I worked in, I had told him, “hey you can’t be so timid and unsure with your client. Think about it. You are selling thin air – literally. You can’t do this job unless you have a sense of adventure & bravado. Unless you can see the fun in it! Now go in there, and sell air!!”

That day, I had said this to that nervous kid because I was trying to inject some magic into the boring job of space selling. And I truly do believe that when you’re selling thin air to a client you’ve got to be a bit of a maverick to do so. It’s a conjurer’s job.

But nowadays everyone seems to be selling thin air, not just the airtime sellers. The focus on content is minimal. The effort, time, rigour and attention to create it are even less so. Everybody wants to make a video in 10 minutes that will apparently go viral in 5. Errr… why exactly will it? Because you want to make money off ad clicks? Sorry the universe didn’t hear you, could you say that again please, a little loudly?

When content guys ask for time, budgets, resources and patience, the marketers look at them with growing annoyance. Creative people are considered brats: those who just don’t understand the demands of the market. Business heads cut their budgets; marketing heads rush them to finish a six day job in six hours, their time to think, plan, ideate and craft is considered pure creative indulgence if not laziness – and sadly a lot of people on the content side do make these allegations seem real.

But just because some content people are inept or incompetent, that does not mean the process of creating great content somehow miraculously becomes less complex or shorter or simpler when in the hands of the good, talented guys. A great TV show still takes that long to shoot. A cream that’s good for your skin still takes that long to manufacture in the laboratory. A fantastic laptop isn’t designed in two months in some slap dash way. Compelling content, great products take time, expertise, detailing and rigour to create.

And then, marketing and sales executives today know less and less about that which they are trying to sell. They don’t bathe with that soap, or watch that TV channel or own that gadget or use that app which employs them. They crib about how tough their job is, how it’s impossible to take anything to market, and how the competition has grabbed the entire share because they ‘got it right’. Wrong. The competition is having the same frustrated, frustrating conversations inside its own boardroom, thinking that you’ve got it all worked out. Because at the end of the day all this marketing is in thin air. Its vapid, uninformed, formulaic, and plain and simple insipid. There isn’t a shred of inspiration to any of it because inspiration comes from deep roots. And am sorry, we are flotsam. Roots? What are those?

Sadly, at the end of the day, it’s the ever suffering consumer who is put through yet another yawn fest. That boring ad, that pointless tie up, that grate-on-the-nerves mall activity.

There was a lovely, uncomplicated once-upon-a-time, time when one could divide the customer into neat little boxes: the reader of the newspaper, the listener of the radio station, the viewer of the television channel. These boxes probably weren’t true even then when they were in use but now they have been completely blasted through. The reader is listening, the viewer is tweeting, the frequent flier is commenting and the commentator is posting pictures. This seamless reader-listener-viewer-voyeur that you are marketing to, is marketing you right back on Facebook Twitter Snapchat Instagram and of course Whatsapp.

Think about it. Never before have marketers had this intimidating 360-degree experience. To misquote the Sufi poet Rumi: What you are marketing to, is marketing you. It’s a frightening new reality. But oddly while this phenomenon should have lessened the bullshit, it has taken it up exponentially instead. It’s almost as though the marketer feels that ever since this voiceless consumer has got a voice, it must be lied to even more loudly. And that perhaps will make it shut up. We must hypnotise this animal with tall tales, glamorous photographs, glitzy celebrity tie-ups and vapid brain dead claims that a six year old would see through.

A biscuit will bring you happiness. A shirt will ensure success. A deodorant will get you sex and – wait for this – a real estate property will help you achieve nirvana. Can it get cornier? Weirder? More hyperbolic?

Somebody pulled at this ‘spiritual-wellbeing-emotive’ thread out of the marketing ball of wool about a decade ago. Since then this one thread has been so badly abused that it has lost all shape and form. Nothing just clothes–feeds–quenches you any more. Nothing serves a functional purpose or plays a utilitarian role any longer. From a cola to a refrigerator, apparently everything is contributing to our spiritual growth and emotional balance. (Unless it’s helping
our sex life that is).

And the biggest reason for this hyperbole I think is that nobody is getting into the product anymore. Nobody is spending any time creating the content, or if someone is, then the marketer is definitely not getting into the nuances of it. The massive face of a film star mouthing empty endorsements, an exaggerated claim of wellbeing through some totally pretentious brand line, millions of rupees worth of spends in useless TV show appearances – these are those blank marketing templates that can sell everything from a cookie to a convertible.

Do they work? Clearly not. Nobody is falling for the formulae, the drivel, the hyperbole trying to cover up the hollow any longer. Dear marketer – please spend time with your product people, your content guys, your R&D team, your editorial fellows, your programming colleagues, your scientists, your artists, your craftsmen, your engineers.

Understand the beautiful nuances and detailing that goes into making anything well – from a superior grip car tyre to a playlist on a music app. From just the right crunchy potato wafer to a luxury sedan. Learn. Pause. Absorb. And then think of the most specific, bulls eye campaign you can create to get that wonderful product across to just the right audience.

Because otherwise, what the hell are you marketing? Thin air? Or an imaginary ice lolly down a leafy lane in cuckoo land?




  1. Pallavi Rao on December 7, 2016 at 5:33 pm

    True. True. Especially liked- the making a video in 10 min and wanting it to go viral in 5.

  2. Pratik Mazumder on December 10, 2016 at 9:14 am

    In today’s highly product commodities world brand managers look for advertising and communication pegs – be it emotional, sexist, soppy or humour to hang the brands memory in the consumers mind..product teams should work harder to create a different proposition. Advertising and communication can do only so much…

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