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By Steve McKee

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this refrain, or a variation of it: “We tried _____ marketing tactic. It doesn’t work.” While it may be true that a given approach is ill-suited for a particular industry, audience, or situation, in my experience the tactic is less often to blame than the implementation of it. In fact, many companies make mistake after mistake based on gaps in their understanding of how marketing really works. Here’s a quick review of 10 of the most common errors to help you avoid the worst of them.

Aiming at everyone. No company can be all things to all people; as much of a cliché as that is, it’s true. Companies paint themselves into a corner because of a misplaced fear that by targeting one group they’ll be turning away others. But aiming at everyone is an oxymoron; the best marketers understand that by narrowing their target audience they can increase the intensity of their brand’s appeal, piquing interest and driving margins. You’re better off being the first choice of 10 percent of the population than being one of 10 options for everyone.

Betting on rationality. This mistake is subtle, but dangerous. Marketing planning is often a left-brain effort, where rational exercises like determining budgets and plotting strategy take place. But consumers don’t make decisions where logic and argument reside; research suggests that emotion not only influences most purchase decisions, it tends to trump reason along the way. Don’t try to convince your prospects; connect with them. They’re depending on their gut more than you realize.

Letting market research trump everything. Too many marketers invoke data as if information had mystical qualities. To say market research has its limitations is to understate the point; some of it can be flat-out misleading. Consumers don’t always realize how they feel, what they think, or why they do what they do, and even when they’re well aware they won’t always tell you the truth. Research is a valuable tool in a marketer’s shed, but used improperly it can cost you a finger (and perhaps your head).

Getting seduced by the new. We live in fast-paced, exciting times, with new marketing and media options sprouting up every day. While they’re all worth a look, none is worth upending your efforts for. It’s easy to be seduced by the siren songs of new tactics, but wisdom says to stick to what works while you evaluate what might. Some company has to be first to give something a shot, but it should rarely (if ever) be yours.

Advertising your aspirations. We all aspire to make quality job No. 1, offer uncompromising service, and demonstrate amazing results, but no company can fully achieve any of these. Advertising your aspirations only invites people to catch you failing to achieve them, and these days it’s easier than ever for them to spread the word. Aspirations are, by definition, promises that can’t be fully kept. Don’t announce them, just try to live by them—use them within the walls to rally your troops but don’t let them escape to rouse the ire of your customers.

Following the leader. Competition is awesome in the abstract. When it gets concrete it’s just plain hard, especially if your competitors are pounding the market with claims you think you can match or beat. It’s tempting to try and one-up the other guys, especially if they’re the market leader. Do so, however, and you may reinforce their strengths and derail your differentiation. Don’t try to be better. Just be different.

Seeking approval by committee. If you can’t agree with your family on what type of pie to serve at Thanksgiving, how can you expect a roomful of managers to agree on something as subjective as marketing communications? Everyone’s taste is unique, and the fewer people involved in the creative approval chain, the better. If you try to please everyone, you’ll end up with a gooey mess that nobody wants to eat. The best committee is a committee of one.

Starving the budget. An anemic marketing budget may save bucks but it will cost business. If you don’t have a line item on your profit and loss statement with a reasonable percentage allocated to marketing, you’re not a real business. Notice I said marketing, not advertising—paid media may very well not be right for your situation, but every company must somehow get its message out. Find the way and spend the money. And keep in mind that most do-it-yourself marketers shouldn’t be doing it themselves. Pay for professional help.

Anticipating customers will act very quickly. When was the last time you leapt out of your recliner to do exactly as an ad instructed? Marketing doesn’t work that way, and as consumers we all understand that. Yet when we slip into our desk chairs we somehow expect marketing to show immediate results. It takes time to seed a message, and credibility grows through consistency. Plan your efforts well, and stick with them. As obvious as it sounds, every time you start over, you’re starting over.

Chickening out. Plans are terrific, but plans are just words on paper. It’s amazing how much time and money companies spend getting their acts together, only to succumb to stage fright when it’s time for the curtain to rise. It’s easy to come up with reasons not to do something, surrendering to fear of the unknown. But just as writers aren’t writers unless they write, marketers aren’t marketers unless they market. Not everything you do will work, but with each mistake you’ll be learning and growing.

There you go. Ten tips that can save you time, money, and a lot of frustration as you learn from the mistakes of others. Now you’re free to make new mistakes of your own (when you do, I’d love to hear about them).

Steve McKee

This smart looking guy is our agency’s co-founder. When he’s not sitting in his not-so-oval office looking official, he’s busy writing books and winning awards for them.

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