Opinion

Marketers: fashion is your enemy, not your friend, so focus on timeless truths

All around us, advertising campaigns spend millions making the same old mistakes – as marketing experts remain mesmerised by the new, the fashionable, rather than learning from history – claims Dave Trott

About 2,500 years ago, Aesop taught lessons in parable form.

One of these concerned a dog with a bone, crossing a bridge.

As the dog looks in the water below, he sees another dog with a bone looking back at him.

His immediate reaction is to want the other bone.

So he barks to make the other dog drop his bone and run away.

But of course the other dog is his own reflection.

And in opening his mouth to bark he drops his own bone into the water.

He was bewitched by the illusion of having more, so he ignored what he had and lost everything.

It’s a very simple story.

Nowadays Aesop’s fables are considered far too childish for adults to learn anything from.

Especially not sophisticated marketing experts.

Which is why we keep repeating the same basic mistakes.

Although we’d actually learn more from Aesop’s fables than from all the marketing textbooks.

Because Aesop’s fables are what Bill Bernbach called “Simple, timeless, human truths”.

Take Marks and Spencers.

Twenty or so years ago M&S were in a very solid position.

They had a reputation for simple, good quality, basic clothes.

You bought your suits on Bond Street, but not the basics.

For instance, every year I’d buy half a dozen pairs of plain black socks, half a dozen plain white T-shirts, half a dozen plain black boxer shorts, and 3 plain white shirts there.

Because I wanted simple, plain, no patterns.

Everyone knew that was what M&S did well.

Even Brian Ferry said it was the best place to buy a plain white shirt.

So M&S were making a lot of money, but they wanted more: they wanted to be fashionable.

So they began using fashionable, stylish designers.

They discontinued all the plain, simple basic items.

Suddenly all their clothes had to be patterned, trying to be fashionable.

Which was massive failure because they weren’t.

People who wanted fashionable and stylish wouldn’t shop at M&S.

Meanwhile people who wanted plain and simple couldn’t get it at M&S.

So all their customers went to GAP, Uniqlo, and Muji instead.

These stores happily filled the void left by M&S.

What happened was M&S saw a reflection in the water of stylish, new, high fashion customers.

It was an illusion and, in trying to get them, they ignored the customers they already had, so they lost those.

And once they were gone they couldn’t get them back.

By ignoring something as simple and basic as the lessons in Aesop’s fables they blew everything.

In believing that anything old was irrelevant, they became irrelevant.

In trying to be stylish and sophisticated they ended up looking foolish.

It’s the basic lesson of the dog’s reflection.

Don’t take what you’ve got for granted in order to get something that may not exist.

But we can see all around us advertising campaigns spending millions and making the same mistakes as in the past.

Marketing experts mesmerised by the new, the fashionable.

So they ignore what they’ve already got.

They ignore simple, timeless, human truths, like Aesop.

And yet, Sophocles, Socrates, and Democritus all quoted Aesop’s fables.

So perhaps they shouldn’t be beneath today’s marketing experts.

As Jorge Santayana said: “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

Dave Trott is a consultant, author and former ad agency creative director. This article was first published on his blog

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