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The End of Marketing

Posted November 14, 2012
Posted in Advertising, Branding, Marketing, Mobile Marketing, Strategy, Technology, The Future, Trends

By Doug Stephens

Imagine a world without marketing.  No really… imagine a world where no one tries to sell you anything.  Not because they don’t want to but because attempting to do so would be a fruitless waste of time and money.  A world where there is just one trusted voice capable of penetrating your consciousness. It’s the voice of your digital assistant and that voice alone guides your every shopping experience and decision. 

It may sound implausible but this future may not be as far off as you think.  In fact, there are a number of things happening right now that are indicative of a future where marketing (at least as we’ve known it) could become largely ineffective.

Over the last century in particular, advertisements, pitches, jingles, packaging, rebates, guarantees, celebrity endorsements, all worked to sway consumer perception and behavior.  Much of this influence was based on sensory, non-rational or emotional inputs that the consumer, often unknowingly, allowed to work on them, creating desire and ultimately purchase-intent for a given brand or product.  The effectiveness of marketing was largely a consequence of the consumer’s inability to factually distinguish between one brand and another because they either lacked the time or the stamina to sift through the data.  So, in the absence of any overt performance differences between the alternatives, consumers were willing to put faith in whatever data a marketer put in front of them – a healthy percentage of which was of questionable validity.  But what if that all changed?

What if all that marketing window-dressing got stripped away.  What if the only considerations between one brand and another were facts and hard metrics about product and service performance, price and genuine reputation?  In other words, what if all the marketing bullshit was removed from the equation and every business was evaluated purely on how good they really were?  If all of a sudden the difference between two sandwich shops became solely about how good their sandwiches actually are relative to their price and how many positive experiences they’ve created for customers in their stores as evidenced by honest and measurable ratings – not how funny their TV commercial is or how memorable their radio jingle has become but purely based on an amalgam of factors that equate to a hard-ranking of overall performance.  In other words, what if we returned to a world where businesses succeeded because they were excellent, not because they could buy more advertising than anyone else or secure a more creative agency.  And what if these supremely rational supplier evaluations were being brought to consumers in a serendipitous way as they went through their day – not for further analysis but merely for a go-ahead to buy.

The signs of such a future are beginning to show themselves.  Projects like GoogleNow give us a glimpse of a future where apps begin to talk and share with one another on a common communication platform to bring us just in time information based on where we are and what we’re doing.  Facebook Gifts is a slice of what’s to come when we truly begin to integrate our respective social graphs into our consumer lives to inform purchase decisions.  And fledgling projects like Kimera strong artificial intelligence, position us at the cusp of being able to rely on our mobile devices as digital valet/butler/concierge, to guide us through the best choices to meet our shopping needs at any given instant.

These algorithmic, Hadoop sifting assistants will be unmoved by marketing spin, smoke and mirrors pricing games or superfluous retailer claims.  They won’t care how many ad words you’ve bought or how you’ve optimized your website.  They will stick unemotionally to what is factual and measurable.  They will promote brands, offers and retailers that best meet the needs of their users based on fact not fluff or fictitious claims.

I believe the marketing era is coming to a close.  Furthermore, I think we all feel that in the pit of our stomachs.   And the thing keeping more than a few CEO’s up at night is that success in business is going to be increasingly about real performance – doing what you say you do and doing it excellently well;  standing out so distinctly from competitors on every level that you become the default choice  – the mathematical certainty.

The question for all businesses – regardless of what they sell is this…  could you survive in a world without marketing?  Does your business have the chops to withstand the scrutiny of a cloud-based algorithm that can sum up its true performance an instant?  Are you still reliant on buying attention or does your outstanding performance earn it every day?  In other words, how good are you… really?


Look for my book, The Retail Revival, in stores February 2013


  • Powdergirl  says:

    Can we start with political campaigns?

  • Johan Muller  says:

    Hi Doug,

    Great insight into the future .
    The good news for consumers and marketers is just that – the future .The scenario you have sketched is so far away for so many and if we do reach that point, human ingenuity will ensure that the marketing function, albeit in a more advanced form , will be highly active and effective. Marketing is directed at humans (not robots )who simply have access to more information than ever and will still be swayed by effective marketing messages.
    More good news for markerters and entrepeneurs alike is that the sleeping giants of Africa ,Asia and South America is developing a strong middle class in the millions and their needs are to be filled.
    What currently is happening is a major shift in the way we do business, with who we do business and how we adjust our strategy and marketing efforts.
    For the traditional marketer, don’t fear – there is a whole world (litterally) open for you to apply your trade.

    • Doug Stephens  says:

      Hi Johan,
      What’s interesting is that if we look at the last 50 years we’re simply staggered by the sheer amount of change in a short period of time. Yet, whenever we look forward we’re generally skeptical that things will change very drastically from our current reality. The reason for this is that most of us think in a linear and incremental way. But change is often exponential and the result of multiple trends or technologies intersecting to create an unforeseen shift. The rapid escalation and penetration of the internet is one example of a phenomenon that was precipitated by several other technological advances converging.

      Secondly, I’d challenge your assumption that emerging nations will passively accept the same marketing formulae we’ve used in developed nations. This tends not to be the case in almost any regard. If you don’t believe me, try selling desktop computers in Nigeria. Most emerging nations skipped the desktop era entirely and moved directly to mobile.

      As for Asia, they’re consumer reality is in fact much closer to what I’ve described in the article than North America’s is.

      And while you’re quite correct in saying that most marketing is directed at humans, what you’re forgetting is that most humans aren’t interested in what marketers put in front of them.

  • Amy Hanson  says:

    I think that this projection will realize in one form or another. You already see if with the focus shifting from outbound to inbound but I believe it will be humanized a bit more.

    The example of a sandwich, not everyone likes the same kind of sandwich. Some prefer a Subway, some prefer a panini, some prefer a crisper bread, etc. Each sandwich shop is different and so while one reviewer may rate “5 stars” on Yelp that sandwich shop may not be desirable to another consumer. You also see “popularity” take hold in places like Yelp, a reviewer really liked a restaurant but then notes it has a 3 star rating on Yelp, so instead of a 4 they decide to mark it with a 3.

    Additionally, marketing is a huge industry with hundreds of thousands of executives. This would just be a new “era” of marketing more so than the actual death of marketing. Google analytics are supposed to be an honest unbiased search engine but we all know how that can get played.

  • cliveb  says:

    Three new scalable technologies are at cusp of ushering this vision in. Percolator, Dremel and Pregel c/o Mike Miller

  • Carlos Mendez  says:

    Very interesting indeed, but it is failing at so many levels. We need facts, no doubt about it, the irony to your point is that marketing is a science based on facts, either rationally based or emotionally based, based on tangibles, based on un-tangibles,
    or a combination of both. Marketing as a science is much more than “classical advertising”. It is consumer data, consumer insights, market statistics, innovation, strategy, branding, design, production, distribution, sustainability, world logistics, digital streaming and dissemination, the economics of marketing, corporate policy, brand governance, consumer behavior, constituencies, analytics, retail, and so on, including word of mouth like asking your assistant.
    Based on your interesting oversimplification we are well and going into a neo-trade era where the trade of just facts determine the real value of an idea or a product. What about style and fashion? Yes, I believe that form follows function, but style is the over ruling of human emotion over function and that is what makes us human. Quality and style are in the eye of the individual and each one of them count.

  • Ken Lonyai  says:

    Interesting viewpoint about the world the way we’d want it to be, not the way it will be it. You remind me of the song “Imagine”.

    It would be great if all we had was unbiased, clear, factual information, overlaid with a social wrapper so that we can make purchases just like Sgt. Friday would “Just the facts ma’am.”

    Realistically, there may be some movement in this direction, but it’s never going to happen in a meaningful way. Take Google (one of your examples): their revenue stream is based on advertising, not quality reviews or social ranking. They would have to change their entire business model to a very expensive per/user service or they wouldn’t be able to help consumers.

    What about ties? Inevitably, two competitors will rank the same and provide the same (predicted) experience. Neither competitor will want to leave such a decision up to chance and consumer nature would be to hear their pitches to be persuaded on who to choose.

    And lastly… people don’t want to feel deceived or lied to, but they DO want to be persuaded emotionally. If not, they would never embrace celebrity spokespeople as they do.

    • Doug Stephens  says:

      Thanks for the read Ken. The truth is, 80% of the purchase decisions you make right now are based on cognitive choices but the problem is, you’re trying to decipher and sift through the available information yourself. I’m only suggesting that soon, you’ll have an intelligent engine that does it for you in a predictive way. Is that really so far-fetched?

      And actually I wasn’t talking about Google per se… I was referencing GoogleNow – a new service that Google has launched. I encourage you to take a look at it. You’ll start to see the connections that I’m referencing. And yes, in all likelihood Google will change its business model because they will have to. Facebook is already making a strong play for search, which is already becoming a commodity, with the likes of Bing and others chipping away at Google.

      And you’re correct in saying that people want to be connected with emotionally. Regrettably, only a minute fraction of all the marketing we see around us on a daily basis even comes close to achieving this.

      I have every confidence that we (as consumers) will soon subscribe to services to help us manage our consumer lives, anticipate our needs and recommend products and services based on data. This does not – nor never will preclude us using our free will to make decisions. We can just apply our energy to the decisions that really matter.

  • Ken Lonyai  says:

    Great feedback Doug!

    I am familiar with GoogleNow and while it may be innocuous now, when it scales, I don’t believe the info on the “Japanese noodle bar” is going to be delivered without advertising influence. I’m in the midst of completing a study for a client where we are recommending developing a predictive/anticipatory computing platform, so I agree fully on the power that it can bring, but I respectfully disagree that most consumers are going to want pay directly for it and that Google’s major source of revenue will move away from marketing content.

    Lets wager dinner on this for 11/30/2017. What do you say?

    • Doug Stephens  says:

      Make it 11/30/2222 and you’ve got a deal Ken! Have your digital assistant call my digital assistant to find us a restaurant we’d both like 🙂


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