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Industry Contributor 29 Apr 2020 - 4 min read

In defence of the 'Communications Muppets' - turning it back on Mark Ritson

By Carl Moggridge, Managing Director - Magnum & Co.

I like half the words that come out of Mark Ritson's mouth. The other half I also like, not because I agree with them, but because he just doesn't care what people think. But every now and then he says something that winds me up - such as calling people that work in marketing communications "Muppets".

So, in the words of Jim Henson and in good jest: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it may be necessary from time to time to give a stupid or misinformed beholder a black eye.”

COVID-19 has become an opportunity to tell brands what they need to do. They need to keep advertising. They need to stop advertising. They need to reset, reinvent and work on a recovery plan. One of those being promoted, a lot by Mark, but not just him, is that we need to return to 'proper marketing' and stop relying on communications. As if you can do one without the other.

It's impossible for brands not to communicate. Everything a brand does, or doesn't do, communicates something, and never has this been truer than during a crisis. Before I make some points, allow me to be a bit of a facetious twit. Or a communications "Muppet" as Mark would call me.

Mark Ritson is a person. But he is also a brand.

It's fair to say few people would buy Mark's product if he didn't promote himself.

However, when Mark decided to become a full-time brand consultant and former marketing professor, that communicates something about his new product and how it is distributed.

When Mark talks about his experience and PHD qualifications, that communication is to justify a price premium and make you trust his advice.

When Mark takes the basic elements of a marketing degree and calls it a 12-week Mini MBA in marketing, charging over 1200 quid. That's wonderful reframing. Communications at its very best.

When Mark calls people communication Muppets, he is positioning his brand with 'proper marketers' and communicating to his desired, higher budget segment, that his product is so much more sophisticated than communications.

I agree with Mark about the importance and timelessness of the 4 Ps. But the promotional P is not the only one that needs communications expertise, in fact I'd argue it's distinctly lacking in even the purest of marketing departments.

Essentially there is no product, price, place or promotion without communications and as the adage goes, everything communicates. It's impossible not to communicate and during a crisis brands will come under greater scrutiny. Everything it does will be communicating not just all of its Ps, but its morals, ethics and style of leadership.

So before dismissing communications and calling people that work in it Muppets, here are some things to remember.

Everything a brand does communicates.

Let's look at a category close to my heart. Gin.

As a result of the pandemic, the entire gin category started making hand sanitiser. But which brand are you more likely to buy gin from in the future? (To note, none of these are bad, just varying degrees of good).

Diageo, the world's biggest distiller, with 25% global market share, and maker of Tanqueray donated 2 million litres of hand sanitiser to multiple markets around the world.

Archie Rose is selling it for $20 a pop and each customer can only buy up to six bottles. The shift in production has helped keep a dozen people employed at Archie Rose as its bar has been impacted.

Manly Spirits is giving away a bottle with every gin purchase and donating five litre bottles to local communities.

Shane Warne’s SevenZeroEight is producing it around the clock and giving it all to local hospitals.

Southern Wild in Hobart is shifting its entire supply to give hand sanitiser to local schools and not-for-profits.

All of these are great actions with genuine intent. They involve all the Ps, but they fundamentally communicate different things.

While I'll always enjoy a Tanqueray, I'm looking forward to trying a Southern Wild the next time I’m in Tassie. And who knew Warnie had a gin.

Without great communication you can’t move people.

Apparently, Steve Jobs said: "You can have the best idea in the world, but if you can't communicate it, it doesn't matter".

And even if that great sound bite wasn’t really from Steve, there are numerous studies that prove language affects behaviour. Not just the behaviour of consumers, or employees, but society as a whole. In fact, the manipulation of culture via the use of language, is one of the biggest challenges of our time.

When Dr Frank Luntz advised climate deniers to swap the words ‘global warming’ for ‘climate change’ he proved communications is an exceptionally powerful tool.

But what’s that got to do with brands and a Proper Marketing Department? Outside of growth, which I’d argue is because of, and not in spite of great communications, I’m sure we’d all agree the most successful brands are masters of it. 

REI’s Opt Outside by Venables Bell & Partners is up there with some of the very best marketing going. Long term, effective, it moves all stakeholders and all the Ps are aligned.

Compare that with Westpac. An excellent start, a bank that’s here to help Australia. Cue ads about helping broken families and immigrants. Rescue choppers flying about and a $1.5m bushfire fund for small businesses. Then what happens? Turns out they invest a fair few billion into the growth of fossil fuels and things that generally contribute to bushfires.

You can have the best market orientation and brand codes in the world, but you can’t blame this on the communications Muppets. Someone in the organisation signed it off, knowing the people in the organisation aren't really behind it and customers might pick holes in it.

Communications is more innovative than marketing

Ok. This last one is controversial. I’m of the belief that the fundamental principles of marketing are as true today, as they were 20 years ago. Perhaps more so.

But my word, the application of them hasn’t changed an awful lot. Some of the stuff that gets passed off as marketing science is impressive and I’m still amazed how much weight we give to some pretty spurious market research methods.

Segmentation is a great example. In principle, an excellent concept. However, most of it is pretty crude. Based on small sample sizes, few data sources, collected using out of date methods, yet for some reason, we still spend millions off the back of it.

Compare that with political communications where communications Muppets are in high demand. These Muppets are turning their back on polling, quantifying culture using unbelievable amounts of data, sophisticated methods and unfortunately manipulating how people vote.

In the hands of good companies and great marketers some of these techniques are effective and can make ‘proper marketing’ look a bit basic.

So perhaps what we really need is more communications Muppets. Or maybe people that understand the value of both marketing and communications.

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Carl Moggridge, Managing Director

Magnum & Co.

Carl is the Managing Director of Magnum & Co, a leading independent full-service communications agency that works with brands such as Converse, GoDaddy, Contiki and L'Oreal. He is also an award-winning planner having worked at Naked Communications, Razorfish and Edelman.

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