The Failure of the Mass Marketing Strategy

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Purple Cow" by Seth Godin. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why does the traditional mass marketing strategy fail? What strategies should companies use instead of traditional mass marketing?

There are three major reasons why the traditional mass marketing strategy is failing. The obvious targets are gone, consumers will ignore you, and people who are happy with what they have aren’t looking for new products or services.

Keep reading to learn why the mass marketing strategy no longer works in today’s society.

Why the Traditional Mass Marketing Strategy Doesn’t Work Anymore

There are three major reasons why the traditional mass marketing strategy is failing.

1. The Obvious Targets for the Traditional Mass Marketing Strategy Are Gone

For example, think about Aspirin, the first major pain reliever on the market. It was cheap, was low risk, had obvious benefits, and almost everyone needed it sooner or later. Perhaps most importantly, it had no competition. It was a perfect candidate for the mass marketing strategy. 

Now, though, there are dozens of painkillers out there. A new one would have a hard time finding traction in that crowded market, even if it is somehow a little better than the others. If you were trying to sell this new drug you’d have to find customers who need a painkiller, who are willing to try a new kind, and who have the time and energy to listen to your advertising. Even though almost everyone needs a painkiller at some point, the people interested in yours will only be a small fraction of the population.

2. Consumers Will Ignore You

This is a relatively new phenomenon; even twenty years ago consumers had more free time, more available money, and fewer choices in what to buy. There were fewer things to spend money on but, at the same time, people’s needs were mostly met. Therefore, business became about selling people what they want, and marketing got them to want more and more.

Today, the number of choices people have keeps increasing, but the time and money to sort through them all keep decreasing. (Consider the rising cost of rent and college tuition compared to just twenty years ago. Also think about expensive cell phone plans and all the online services billed every month, all draining would-be customers’ bank accounts.) As a result of this, people today are stingier with both their money and their attention. Especially now, people are most likely to stick with what they know or what their trusted friends suggest. 

Traditional mass marketing often runs afoul of the Law of Large Numbers: the idea that big numbers tend to come with big denominators. If you’re reaching millions of people, but only a tiny fraction of those people buy your product or click your ad, you’ve wasted time and money. (To avoid this problem, you need to figure out who’s likely to listen and target those people with the perfect message for them. Figure out the right combination of Ps to win them over.) 

3. Customers Who Are Already Satisfied Aren’t Likely To Spread New Ideas

Phrased another way, people who are happy with what they have aren’t looking for new products or services. To compound this problem, companies are constantly getting better at knowing what their customers want and delivering it, which makes it harder and harder for newcomers to get people’s attention. 

A closely related problem is that it’s hard to spread new ideas through populations that are already cluttered with too much advertising and too much stuff. There’s so much advertising noise already; consumers are going to be reluctant to add to it. They won’t spread the word about a new product unless they’re certain the people they talk to will be excited about it.

Case Study: The Wall Street Journal

Many companies are not adapting to the changing times. They see new marketing techniques like the Purple Cow as fads, rather than proven strategies that should be embraced. 

The Wall Street Journal provides the perfect example of this. A full-page ad in the Journal costs hundreds of thousands of dollars (Google puts the price at around $240,000), a price that many willingly pay to put their products in front of as many eyes as possible. 

However, the ads don’t work. Godin once asked some people reading the Wall Street Journal if they could name even two of the companies who had full-page ads in the paper they’d just finished reading. They couldn’t. Also, they said that they had never—not once—looked for more information on a product after seeing an ad in the Journal.

The mass marketing strategy clearly isn’t working, yet companies keep shelling out huge amounts of money for it. These companies don’t believe in the Purple Cow, and they don’t want to change their approach—they just want to do what works. However, this is exactly the point: The Purple Cow is needed because nothing else is working

The Failure of the Mass Marketing Strategy

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  • Why you have to be remarkable to succeed
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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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