Long term, short term, wrong turn: How the 'consumer journey' metaphor is leading marketers up the garden path

Thank you, Tom Roach, for coming up with the idea of ‘wrong-term thinking’

Tom Roach, head of effectiveness at adam&eveDDB, has written one of the most interesting marketing articles of recent years, about the false dichotomy between ‘short term’ and ‘long term’ communications. Building on the insights and evidence produced by his colleagues Les Binet and Sarah Carter (God, what a dream team they have over there in Paddington!), Tom argues that brands should not choose between ‘brand’ or ‘performance’ advertising, but should do both. To be ‘long termist’ or ‘short termist’ is to be ‘wrong termist’: the two types of communication work in partnership, with the long term brand ads setting up the shot and the short term direct response ads knocking it into the back of the net. Goooooal!
Well, you won’t find us at Lumen disagreeing with any of that. And in this article I want to agree with him on the detail, and then agree with him some more about the substance of his article. Because Tom is right: brand ads do multiply effect of direct response ads. But Tom is righter about something else: we’re thinking about marketing all wrong.

Attention to brand ads differs from direct ads

So, to begin with, why Tom is right about the details. At Lumen we find that ads are consumed in both a ‘long’ (in the broadest sense of the term) and a ‘short’ way.  On average, brand ads tend to get far more attention than direct response ads: ‘long-term’ ads get slightly longer dwell time than ‘short term’ ads.
But there is a big exception. Amongst people who are actively searching for a particular product, the situation is reversed. In-market buyers pore over the details of offers and financing and warranties – the sort of stuff that sends most of us to sleep, most of the time.
The attention data clearly backs up the idea that if they are engaged with at all, ads are largely consumed as entertainment, except amongst those precious few in-market consumers, who use them for information and education. Depending on what stage of the purchase journey, advertising can shift from pollution to utility (and back again) at the drop of a hat.
In this example, from a non-food retailer, we can see two quite different consumption patterns for the same direct response ad. Amongst general readers, most people have merely glanced at the ad, giving it only a couple of seconds attention. However, people who are looking bargain on a particular item have deeply engaged with the ad.

Another way of expressing this same insight is by analysing the proportion of people who engage with the ad for different lengths of time. Here, you can see that most people merely glance at the ad, but that there are some committed consumers who spend 5 or 10 seconds reading the details. You can also see that there are more of these committed types amongst the in-market group (though even amongst this group, there are a fair few who still only glance and then move on).

Brand ads multiply the impact of DR ads

Furthermore, the direct response ads of well known brand advertisers seem to get noticed more, and for longer, than similarly targeted ads for smaller or less well known brands, suggesting that the multiplier effect of brand comms on DR comms is alive and well.

In this example, an analysis of 650 direct response print ads for non-food retailers (n=7000 nationally representative UK respondents), we can see that the ads for one brand consistently get more attention than we would expect given the size and type of ads they are buying. It may be that this excess attention is because this brand’s creative is slightly stronger than its competitors. However, it will come as no surprise that this brand also spends the most on other channels and especially on brand advertising, which seem to be helping these trade ads work harder.
It seems, then, that to make DR work you should also do brand comms too. I don’t know what the proportion of the spend between each. I hear tell that a 60:40 split in expenditure seems to work.

The source of the confusion: taking the ‘consumer journey’ metaphor too seriously

Tom’s right on the details, but I don’t think that this is the most interesting part of his article.
I think the biggest favour Tom has done is to give us a substantial new idea: ‘wrong-term thinking’.
What he seems to be objecting to is the false choice marketers are often asked to make between producing ads that are meant to work in the short term and ads that are meant to work in the long term. Quoting, Jeremy Bullmore (who is himself channelling the thought of his old JWT colleague, John Philip Jones), he suggests that ads should work ‘immediately and forever’.
But false choices are interesting because they like alarm bells. If you ever feel that you’re trapped in a dilemma (or more accurately, aporia, meaning ‘impasse’) then that should tell you that there’s something wrong with the terms of the debate you’re engaging in.
And what’s wrong here is that people have been taking the concept of the consumer journey far too seriously.

What is a metaphor, really?

First, a bit of background. Metaphors (and models, analogies, schema and all the rest) allow us to see one thing in terms of another. We all speak in metaphors all the time. Sometimes these metaphors are obvious: he’s a <bear> of a man, she’s a <bright spark> and so on.
But dig a bit deeper, and you will see that almost all human communication relies on more fundamental, structural metaphors. Or rather <fundamental> or <structural> metaphors, because we tend to think of arguments a bit like buildings, that need to be <constructed> (or, if we disagree with them, <demolished>). These <deep> metaphors <pattern> our thought, <leading> it in some <directions> but <blocking> others.
Finally, the very words we use are often ossified metaphors. Etymology is, in a sense, one long metaphor hunt, searching out the historical or cultural image or symbol that lies at the <heart> of a definition. In this regard, it should be noted that the word ‘metaphor’ is, itself, a metaphor, meaning a transfer (of meaning from one field to another). If you want to investigate this further, I heartily recommend the works of Lakoff and Johnson and Paul Ricoeur.

Metaphors we market by

In marketing, we use lots of ‘explicit’ metaphors to communicate with customers: Esso puts a <tiger> in your tank’, Chevrolet is the <heartbeat> of America, and so on.
But we also use lots of <implicit> metaphors to help us make sense of what we are trying to as marketers. It seems to me that there are four big metaphors that crop up time and again:
  • Marketing as <war>: launching <campaigns>, driving <penetration>, demanding <loyalty>
  • Marketing as <relationship>: <introducing> a brand to an audience, building brand <love>, and perhaps even (a different kind of) <loyalty>
  • Marketing as exchange: <earning attention>, <sending> messages that may or may not be <received>
  • Marketing as <journey>: People <start> their journey with a brand at the ‘awareness’ <stage> before <moving> along to ‘interest’. Not all of them make it along the way, but those that do <get to> the ‘decision’ stage before <arriving at> ‘action’, or purchase.
These metaphors can be very helpful. The world can be bewilderingly complex and so it’s nice to be able to see something we find hard to understand in terms of something that we find easy to understand. I don’t really know how marketing works, but I do know how journeys work, so if I think of marketing as a journey then perhaps that will help.
And it does help: marketing is a process that requires different interventions, and that unfolds over time. Crucially, some conditions have to be met for subsequent interventions to be effective (i.e. you have to be aware of a brand before you can choose to buy it). In that sense, marketing is like a journey, in that customers have to progress from ‘awareness’ to ‘choice’ to ‘sale’ and ultimately ‘habit’.
The journey metaphor doesn’t just clarify our thinking. Applying the logic of journeys onto the logic of the marketing process can help inspire new thinking. If customers are on a journey, then what are the <barriers>? What is the ultimate <destination>? How will we know when we <get there>?

When metaphors go bad

But the magic of seeing one thing in terms of another cuts both ways. Applying the logical entailments of one field onto another can imprison thought as well inspire it. When it comes to the Consumer Journey metaphor, we have a big problem with time. Journeys, even picaresque tales of adventure, usually have a beginning, middle and end. But is that true about customer <journeys>?
Where do consumer journeys start? Very occasionally advertising agencies have the privilege of launching an entirely new brand, or even an entirely new category. But this is rare, and even if it is true, they do not start with a tabula rasa. They make sense of the new product or category with reference to what went before. The meaning of brands, even new brands, is in a sense ‘always already’ there, even if only in the sense that the new brand is <like> the older options.
And if the <journey> is successful, does the journey end? What we want is for people to carry on buying things, perhaps habitually and even thoughtlessly. What is the role of brand communications once people are aware of Mars or Coke or Pepsi (or, indeed, Direct Line insurance, Volkswagen or Blue Cross/Blue Shield healthcare)?
And who’s time are we talking about here? We seem to be eliding two different time frames – that of the consumer making a decision and the marketer categorising a series of interventions. For each buyer, this timeline represents a series of mental shifts in their relationship with a brand. For the marketer, it’s more like a calendar of activity. Both metaphors can be good and useful. But they are not the same.
And this misalignment of timescales is, I think, the crux of Tom’s problem with ‘long-term’ and ‘short-term’ thinking. The language of ‘long term’ communications makes it sound like this stuff takes a long time to work, or acts at a <distance> from the ultimate sale. ‘Short-term’ comms, by contrast, work <nearer> the <point> of purchase and allegedly have a <direct> impact. This conceptual propinquity makes one form of communication sound less risky and more efficacious than the other, more <remote> options available. Of course, neither of these characterisations is true. The process of going from awareness to choice to sale can be – and should be! – very quick. And the impact of direct communications is a function of the preparatory work of brand comms, because, as another DDBer once said, ‘people don’t buy from strangers’. But the logic of the metaphor has patterned our thought, and subtly weighted the terms of debate.

Making metaphors work for you

So, does that mean that we have to give up on the Consumer Journey metaphor?
Not in the slightest. As we said, there’s much to recommend the Journey metaphor. It’s something that we can all understand – and can assume that other people we’re talking to also understand. It helps us chunk up a complex problem into simpler sub-units. It helps us understand that while all the activities we engage in are necessary, none are sufficient, and the all depend on each other.
But, at the same time, we should remember that it is just a metaphor. The buying process is like a journey, but it is not in fact a journey. No one is going anywhere, except, perhaps, the shops. We should take what is useful from the metaphor and not worry too much about the bits that don’t fit because they never will fit. The map is not the terrain.
And we should be prepared to use other metaphors to illuminate different aspects of the same challenge – at the same time as we are using the Journey metaphor. What most brands face is a situation in which it is useful for many people to know about their products and services even if only a few of those people are ready to buy right now. What else is analogous to this situation? Is it like one of those push-penny machines you used to get at the fair? Or like a ecosystem, where ‘brand gardeners’ can tend to their patch? Or a sailboat trimming its sails to make the most of the prevailing wind? Or, finally, if it is like a journey, is it like Lewis and Clark trekking the Rockies or catching the Number 19 into Soho for another day’s work?
We don’t have to buy into the iron logic of the ‘customer journey’ metaphor. We should be prepared to use it up until it stops being useful, and then ditch it when it’s no longer helpful. And this is the beauty of Mr Roach’s neologism. The need for the idea of ‘wrong term thinking’ shows that we have made a wrong turn. It is a sounding klaxon, alerting is to the fact that there is something is amiss with the concept ‘Customer Journey’. And it is a call to the ad industry to create newer, better, truer models to explain what we are trying to do.