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There are many myths and misconceptions about marketing and it’s role in business. Some perceive marketers as highly creative and others as ‘fluffy’. Others see marketers as champions of customers, yet expect them to make decisions based on judgement alone. And others perceive marketers as growth drivers and some as lacking commercial nous. A glance at the back pages of many newspapers or online marketing posts also reveals a variety of different titles for the job of marketing director. Including customer, experience, digital, direct, brand, communications, commercial and so on. So no wonder there are differing and sometimes contradictory perceptions. All underlines that a successful marketing director requires a combination of skills and expertise.

So based on research and experience writing The Marketing Director’s Handbook, we contend there are seven essentials to being a successful marketing director (Figure 2.1).

First though, if you’ve read this far, it suggests a desire to learn. This is a good foundation for being a successful marketing director.

1. Explain, influence, manage and lead your colleagues

It never seems to surprise how few really understand marketing. Thus to win trust and influence your colleagues, you should not underestimate the need to explain what marketing is. Also how it works, and how it adds value.

Beyond this you’ll also need to manage the day-to-day, and look to the future, at the same time. To get done what needs to be done, and steer your colleagues, and business, to a more successful place.

Success will also follow not just from what you do, but how you do it. By setting the tempo for the business, and articulating a bright and motivating future. Also by engaging and collaborating with your colleagues, you’ll more likely win friends, and influence.

As Jack Welch once wrote in a letter to shareholders: “In the old culture, managers got their power from secret knowledge: profit margins, market share, and all that… In the new culture, the role of the leader is to express a vision, get buy-in, and implement it. That calls for open, caring relations with every employee, and face-to-face communication. People who can’t convincingly articulate a vision won’t be successful. But those who can will become even more open – because success breeds self-confidence.”

2. Be a disciple of customer understanding

Again no matter how sophisticated organisations might seem on the outside, it’s amazing how many hire and expect marketers to make decisions based on their own ‘gut-feel’.  However, history suggests that the most successful organisations are those that best understand their customers. This is therefore not something just to pay lip-service to but to do. Especially in a world with more and more data, yet that is sadly lacking in insight (i.e. true customer understanding).

You’ll make better decisions by obtaining facts on who customers are, their needs, attitudes and behaviour.  

Accurate and comprehensive customer understanding and on customer needs is vital to optimise products or service. As is also accurate and comprehensive understanding on customer attitudes and perceptions to devise effective communications. Specifically this means understanding the why’s behind that what’s?

This also means investing in processes and people to do this. You should also get out and do this yourself, and encourage colleagues to do likewise.

3. Establish early warning systems

The nature of customers, markets, and technology, means new opportunities and threats are emerging all of the time. Yet history is littered with organisations that failed to adapt or change to new threats. Thus they died an untimely death.

It is also easy to become ‘blinkered’ by corporate cultures, and trapped by a ‘flimsy’ job specification. Someone in the organisation needs to look outwards, and challenge and reinvent the ‘wheel’ when threats rear their ugly heads.

Marketers can and should play a key role in being the eyes, ears and ‘early warning radar’ of the organisation. This fits perfectly with helping the organisation understand and focus on customers. However, you don’t have to do this on your own, nor should it be thought of as a power grab. Moreover an exercise to sensitise and empower the organisations’ eyes and ears to provide continuous feedback to the organisation’s brain.

Competitive advantage can be gained by those who know most, and also know what’s going on first. Some call it foresight.

4. Measure and manage the numbers

Attracting customers and making money is usually a key business goal. This is where marketing makes its most important contribution. However, only marketing directly fuels growth. Other board functions fuel efficiency so combining both leads to more profit, and hopefully better stakeholder returns.

Only through measuring numbers is management possible. As you have growth objectives, and responsibility for marketing initiatives, it is natural that you measure and manage the numbers. Simply so that any deviation can be understood or addressed.

In managing numbers, also understand the relationship between customer and financial outcomes. This provides high-ground justification to invest in, or fine-tune, your marketing activities.  

Investing in marketing should not be random chance, but borne of comprehensive understanding. So get the CFO on your side, and to help in this respect. The more heads on the case, the better the measurement solution. Ultimately, this will also benefit your Boardroom credibility.

A quick win is to work with your CFO to establish a marketing and financial dash-board of metrics (some call them KPIs, key performance indicators).

5. Develop and deliver your brand or brands

If your colleagues do not understand marketing, you can be sure they do not understand brands.  So your challenge starts by helping them understand, and also to establish ‘why bother with your brand?

There are lots of reasons to bother with brands

First, to simplify and drive customer choice and purchase. Secondly, to enhance value (brands command premiums) and shareholder value. Thirdly, and especially in service organisations, to align hearts and minds and deliver consistently over time.

The management function to optimise brand stand-out and appeal is marketing, but you’ll need help from other functions to deliver your brand.

For example, especially in service companies, the good work of an advert in raising expectations is sometimes undermined by a surly customer service representative, or poor system. It therefore requires effective management of the customer touch-points or underlying processes to deliver a great brand experience.

Influencing delivery via touch-points usually requires you to influence many parts of the organisation beyond your responsibility. So work collaboratively with your colleagues to identify issues, and deliver a more distinctive and appealing offer to your customers.

6. Deliver marketing technical excellence

In highly competitive markets, both strategy and execution make a big difference to the results. Misplaced or poorly articulated words in a strategy can cause confusion or lead to mistakes in product development or marketing communication.  From the customer stand-point, sub-optimal products, positioning or communication also risks missing the ‘target’ or ‘need’. And result in wasted marketing investment.

The devil is in the marketing implementation detail. Even a tiny improvement in response could deliver millions to revenue or your bottom line.

So set up processes, tools and techniques to make sure that both strategic and executional decisions are of the highest order. And test and test again from low to higher investment.

7. Use your creative skills to solve problems

Through your great advertising and promotion work thus far you’ll have built a reputation for being creative. As a result, this is a great strength to use to benefit colleagues and the businesses as a whole. Futher, if the CEO’s role is to manage the big picture and the financial director’s is to manage the numbers, then the task of creating ideas lies with the marketing director.

So take the lead in engaging your colleagues to solve the problems that your business faces.  Even if the problem lies outside of your functional area, the health of the business remains your primary responsibility.

To do this, bring colleagues together in problem solving workshops. With the right skills, resources and creative tools no problem is unsurmountable. And if bravery does not come naturally, remember that it is a just state of mind. So be confident and go for it! If needed, also bring in some external help. An even more objective approach will depoliticise issues and add value more quickly.

Marketing Inspiration

1. Whatever the job title, communicating AND also managing the effective delivery of the commercial strategy through the business is key to being a successful marketing director.

2. Delivering successful marketing is as much about your own personal skills and relationships as technical excellence.

3. Understand and put yourself in the customer’s shoes when making decisions.

4. If in doubt, sleep on it.

5. If still in doubt, ask round and about.

6. While it is more lonely at the top, remember you are not alone. You also don’t have to do everything yourself. Call for help.

About The Marketing Director’s Handbook

The Marketing Director’s Handbook is the definitive guide to being a successful marketing director. It is unique in covering the marketing and management aspects of the role. Written by our team, it is also a ‘must-read’ book for all directors and a ‘must-keep by your side’ for all marketers. Read the FREE introductory chapter and reviews, and then order your copy on this website to get a FREE and up-to-date copy of Chapter 31 – Managing Digital Marketing.

Also available at Amazon, Foyles, The Book Depository and other good bookshops.

The Marketing Director's Handbook - the definitive guide to superior and successful marketing
The Marketing Director’s Handbook

Productivity is an economic concept (Figure 1). It represents the ratio of economic output: input. Practically, productivity assesses the competitiveness of an economy, and the health or otherwise of constituent businesses. It also indicates a country’s ability to improve raise wages over costs as this depends largely on raising output per worker. Thus understanding UK productivity is key to determining how to improve the UK economy and businesses.

Productivity = Outputs/Inputs

Since 2008, UK productivity failed to follow the previous 10 years plus trend line (Figure 2). Overall output fell by 6% yet employment by just 2%. As a result, productivity fell by 4%. Exactly why UK productivity failed to grow is hotly debated by economists (1). The decline is similar to other major OECD countries (with exceptions such as the USA and Ireland (2)).

UK Productivity Conundrum | Figure 2 : UK productivity static since the financial crashWe, therefore, thought it helpful to have a view. So in this article, we investigate why? We also pin-point lessons for UK plc and businesses. In particular, we cover:
  • How to measure productivity?
  • The employed population
  • The role of the service sector
  • The role of the Internet
  • The rise of challenger brands
  • Management influences
  • Conclusions

How to measure productivity?

In general, labour productivity is the ratio between a measure of output volume (gross domestic product or gross value added) and a measure of input used (the total number of hours worked or total employment).

For our analysis, we use the following UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) definition (3).

Productivity = output per worker i.e. Gross Value Added  / Total Number of Hours Worked (by those employed).

Gross value added (GVA) is the same as gross domestic product (GDP) minus taxes on products plus subsidies on products. We use the ‘Chained’ definition to eliminate the effect of inflation.

We also use time series data with 2007 indexed as 100 to match Figure 2.

Thus, for productivity to improve, this means that output must rise ahead of hours worked. Or more must be produced in the same or fewer hours. Let’s investigate further.

Reasons behind UK productivity decline

Figure 3 shows first, that total hours worked failed to keep pace with the trend line between 2008-2014. The decline between 2008-2014 reflects the fall-out from the banking crisis. Between 2007 and 2009 some half a million lost their jobs when many firms down-sized, went out of business (and/or were taken over). Some notables in financial services include Northern Rock, Bradford and Bingley and Lehman Brothers.  However, total hours worked is now back on the long-term trend line mirroring population growth. Nevertheless, the number of hours worked has failed to ‘grow output’ or it has held up despite the fact there is less to do. Both options suggest some time is ‘wasted’ or ‘inefficient’.

Fig 3 : UK productivity (output/hour) depressed by low output and increasing hours worked

Second, total output (Chained GVA) grew strongly between 2000-2007. It also fell sharply at the height of the banking crisis, yet continues to under-perform the trend line. Thus this also appears a compelling reason for the productivity decline. Let’s investigate both of these factors further.  Starting with the supply-side.

The growth of single owner businesses and part-time employees depress output

Since 2008 the number of single owner businesses and part-time employees grew above the trend line (Figure 4).

Growth of part-time employed and single owner businesses

However, according to the Annual Business Survey, the ONS’s annual tracker, small firms produce less than large firms (Figure 5). Overall, therefore, it seems that a shift in the mix to less productive firms has depressed overall UK productivity. Further, as Figure 5 also shows, even the productivity of the largest firms fell during the heights of the financial crisis. This  suggests that even switching some workers to part-time contracts, failed to maintain productivity. Of course, both part-time and full-time workers still require the same training.

Larger firms produce more per worker than smaller firms

Further, looking at the ‘W’ shape of Figure 5 suggests that firms of all sizes have ‘bounced-back’ from the worst of the recession. With output at between £43-52,000 per worker, figures match those a decade earlier. It therefore appears that both employers and workers appear to have swallowed a new pill to keep businesses fully functional, flexible and to benefit quickly from an economic recovery.

The service sector is a key growth driver (Figure 6)

The UK service sector currently accounts for 80% of output and hours worked (2018). This is an increase of 7% points in output and hours worked since 2000 (from 73%). Further, in the 7 years to 2007 the increase was 4% points, yet in the last 11 years, just +3% points. While the service sector continues to grow ahead of the rest of the economy, growth remains below the pre-2007 trend line. As Government has focused on ‘belt-tightening’ since 2008, and Brexit since 2015, it is unsurprising, that spending remains depressed. But what’s going on in the different sectors?

UK service sector is main economy growth driver but still lags 2000-2007 trend line

Under-performing and over-performing service sectors

Closer inspection of the performance of individual service sectors reveals six laggards: wholesale/retail, finance/insurance, recreation/culture, hotels/catering, transport/storage, and the public sector (Figure 7).  All six continue to perform below the historic trend line.  Performance changes may be due to lower levels of expenditure and/or trading down to lower value, margin, or non-essential services. This seems reasonable given several sectors appear more ‘discretionary’. A decline in transport could also be explained by an increase in ‘stay-at-home’ entertainment.

Under-performing service sectors

Two sectors are yet to show a marked change of trajectory post the financial collapse. First, the finance sector which grew very rapidly to 2007 (with historical evidence pointing to uneconomic over-lending as the reason). ). Yet the sector still trails the pack. This seems due to a combination of low interest rates, low consumer confidence, and the rise of challenger banks (offering better value, and perhaps an opportunity for revenge). Second, the public sector; while resilient post ‘crash’, public sector GVA declined from 26 to 22% of the service economy from 2000-2017. However, hours worked remained c. 28% throughout the period. Thus output per hour has fallen and remains subdued.

Over-performing service sectors

Conversely, some service sectors have over-performed: services businesses (including rental, building and employment services), real estate, IT (including media and telephony), and other services (includes scientific, technical, law, accounting, advertising and consulting professions)  (Figure 8). However, growth for all but two remains below the historic trend line. Growing most strongly, are IT (reflecting many new markets and growing customer penetration), and service businesses.  Some services businesses, such as employment, advertising, consulting, and media firms, were highly responsive to changes in the economic environment. They quickly laid off staff or reduced hours or salaries, and vice versa, to maintain competitiveness and profitability. Many are also highly reliant on people, particularly well-educated people, to deliver services. Also on personal relationships to drive demand, rather than mass marketing, and the Internet.

Over-performing service sectors

The growth of online is the elephant in the room

Since 2007 the UK has experienced major sociological shifts, ‘belt-tightening’ societal pressure, and the rise of online channels. The financial crisis of 2008 also seems to coincide with a tipping point in the rise of the Internet. In 2000, just 27% of the UK population had Internet access, and fast speeds were non-existent. In 2007, 75% of the population had Internet access, and 50% received broadband at an average speed of 4.6 Mb/second. The first iPhone also launched in 2007. Yet today UK Internet penetration is over 90%, and average download speeds are 45-47 Mb/second (4). The first iPhone also launched in 2007 yet today 80% own a smartphone.

Aided also by the growing number of comparison sites, there is an increasing and high propensity for customers to compare and hunt lower prices (up to 30% less) online.

Thus online purchasing has grown significantly from just 3.4% of retail sales in 2007 to nearly 18% in mid 2018. Further looking at trends (Figure 9), overall retail sales since 2007 remain below the overall output trend line. And retail sales excluding online sales, even further below the trend line. The pattern of decline is almost a mirror image of the growth in Internet users. Growth of UK internet users and online sales

The arrival of Black Friday

The convenience and financial benefits of shopping online enabled by increasing broadband and mobile penetration continue to drive online sales growth at the expense of ‘bricks and mortar’ retailers. Black Friday appeared in the UK in 2009 championed by etailers such as Amazon, eBay, and others. It was also spurred by Asda in 2013. However in 2015 Asda de-clined to participate, announcing that their customers preferred year-round deals rather than a single day of discounting. Reading between the lines, this suggests the event had little effect on Asda’s bottom line. Perhaps merely serving to bring forward demand. Conversely, etailers have experienced significant sales and growth.

The rise of online challenger brands

The UK branch of Amazon EU alone amassed £21 billion sales in 2017, +80% over 3 years (and equivalent to £7.5m per employee). However, as this Amazon business is based in Luxembourg these sums are largely removed from the UK’s accounts.

While the wholesale/retail sector only accounts for a 10-11% of total output, other sectors such as real estate, hotels/catering, recreation, transport, and finance /insurance markets, also have burgeoning online sectors. And the last decade or so has seen online challenger brands enter and grow share in other markets too. Examples include Rightmove in real estate, in travel/hotels, a myriad of flight search engines, and in finance and insurance, and in energy.

The growth of online therefore appears to coincide with the removal of a significant chunk of income from the UK economy.

Significant growth in online advertising

Figures were first recorded for digital advertising expenditure in 2005. In 2005 spending was just under £600m (some 5% total advertising expenditure). In 2007 digital advertising spend was 9% of the total, and by 2017, 28% of the total (£5.7bn). This is a growth index of 474 vs. 2007 (Figure 10).

Growth of UK online advertising and online sales

While online advertising potentially influences all purchases, growth better correlates with online sales rather than total output (Figure 10). While online advertising potentially drives income, it is also a cost, and only adds to profits if extra income generated exceeds extra costs. It remains to be seen whether this level of online advertising is sustainable (6-8% income) and grows margins.

What we do know however, is that a very great proportion of online advertising income is also due to US owned Google and Facebook – both based in Ireland. Google Ireland’s turnover is £27.5bn (£9.2m/employee) and Facebook Ireland’s turnover is £16bn (£4m/employee). Again this suggests a significant chunk of UK advertising output has shifted offshore.

Structured management practices enhance productivity

Now let’s return to the role of internal business influences on productivity (Figure 11). In 2016, the ONS surveyed management practices among 25,000 firms. The so-called ‘management practice’ score is an aggregate of several measures including practices relating to continuous improvement and employment management – such as those relating to promotions, performance reviews, training and managing under-performance. In the questions, a score of 1 is assigned to the most structured management practice and 0 the least.  The mean score across all organisations was 0.49. Their analysis found a statistically significant correlation between management practices and labour productivity, with an increase in management score of 0.1 associated with a 9.6% increase in productivity.

Larger firms have more structured management practices

The analysis also shows a statistically significant relationship between management practices, the size of a firm, and productivity.  Further analysis also reveals that family firms have lower management practice scores and productivity than non-family or foreign-owned firms. Management scores are also higher for the real estate, service business, and other services (scientific and technical) businesses. A higher incidence of degree-level staff is also associated with a higher management practice score and greater productivity.

Does time spent online at work affect productivity? 

Finally, we explore the effect of hours spent online at work to see if this has any bearing on productivity (Figure 12). Since 2007 the number of hours spent online at work (or in education) doubled from 3.3 hours (10% total in 2007) to 6.6 hours (20% total in 2017) (6).

Hours spent online at work or place of eductaion has grown more than total hours worked

While we cannot precisely quantify productivity in those hours, some research raises questions. Asked whether ‘I feel more productive without the Internet’, 10% of adults 16+, and 15% of those aged 18-34 answered ‘yes’ (6). Recent announcements that Wetherspoons, and Lush Cosmetics, are closing their social media accounts, also confirms (at least for them) that the marketing time-costs fail to outweigh the benefits. And if marketers are failing to realise benefits, it raises the question are you?

Marketing Inspiration

  1. It appears that there are many supply and demand side-factors that depress UK productivity. Including competition from other nations.
  2. While the financial crisis spurred many new businesses, the smallest are least productive, and have most to learn. They should seek help from the UK’s world-leading academic, marketing, creative and consulting community.
  3. The financial crisis of 2008 also depressed customer confidence and purchasing. However, marketing deals with changing attitudes and perceptions. And basic marketing communication principles suggest that businesses and customers will buy and invest to secure benefits, rather than to avoid disbenefits. To drive demand, all should therefore promote positive messages. The national campaign starts here.
  4. Further technological and societal change is inevitable. And with online sales accounting for c.20% total, expect further growth. Marketing’s answer to the UK productivity crisis is to invest more in understanding the social and behavioural causes and effects, and inspiring products and services that deliver benefits.
  5. Off-line players face threats from low price online players and disintermediation. So choose to join and beat them. Or lose out. Winning requires improved customer value propositions or world-efficient supply and production capabilities.
  6. Digital promotion is here to stay. Though online advertisers should carefully measure returns. And remember that the marketing mix also includes off-line media with very high reach and impact.
  7. Declining public sector productivity is a threat to the whole economy, as income comes from private sources. The challenge is to deliver more for less, facilitate world-class organisations and reduce income loss from UK shores.
  8. The openness of the UK economy, high Internet and smartphone penetration, and fast broadband, fuels customer and business agility, and innovation. However, the Internet also brings distractions that appear to dilute UK productivity. Addressing this starts with awareness of the issue. So remember the story of the emperor’s new clothes.


(1) Patterson, Peter, Deputy Chief Economist, Office for National Statistics, The Productivity Conundrum, Explanations and Preliminary Analysis, 2012

(2) Organisation for Economic Development (OECD)

(3) Camus, Dawn, Editor, The ONS Productivity Handbook – A Statistical Overview and Guide, 2007

(4) UK Fixed Line Broadband Performance (Residential), OFCOM, November 2017

(5) Management and Expectations Survey, Office of National Statistics and Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence (ESCoE), 2016

(6) Communications Market Report, OFCOM, August 2018

Thanks to the analysts at the Office of National Statistics for answering our questions and helping with our analysis. Also to my colleagues at The Marketing Directors, Chris West, and Tim Arnold. To anyone wishing to build on this analysis, please do. We’re happy to share our datasets and insights to help you.

Marketing a product to an individual consumer rather than to a business is often a very different proposition. Or is it? The growth of digital media means that there is an increasing number of channels and methods from which to chose. So how should marketers approach the task of engaging and winning customers? It’s a bit like learning a dance.

Summary of the differences between B2B vs. B2C marketing

B2B vs. B2C marketing

Businesses that Sell to Consumers

The B2C marketing challenge is to build product awareness and convert browsers into buyers.  As it’s usually a ‘low involvement’ purchase, say to buy a confectionery bar, marketing campaigns must capture the consumer’s interest immediately. Thus, typically mass promotion activities like tv and press advertising are employed.  In addition, special offers such as discounts or vouchers help  ‘activate’ the purchase. The challenge is therefore to establish an effective one-step routine.

In the online world, an email or search marketing campaign encourages consumers to click and buy. The email or advertisement encourages consumers to a website landing page designed to sell the product. The purchasing process must be simple and easy, for example, by integrating the shopping basket and checkout page. Requiring more than a couple of clicks risks the customer going to another shop.

Businesses that Sell to Businesses

The goal of B2B marketing is also to convert prospects into customers but the purchase is usually more considered.  More decision makers are also usually involved and the challenge is to engage and educate the target audience and build relationships. To succeed a B2B company must generate and nurture leads over a longer time period. A careless or quick step could mean a lost partner (or customer). The challenge is to therefore also to establish an effective multi-step relationship building routine.

In the online world, an email campaign or online advertising campaign again typically drives prospects to a website. However it is less likely to achieve an immediate sale.  A more realistic goal is to secure a meeting with a sales representative in order to discuss the customer’s business requirements in more detail and also influence him, her or them to buy (i.e. complete a sale). By providing information about the products and services, benefits, features, possibly pricing, and contact information, reassures customers and wins his or her trust. Conceiving marketing activity as one of several steps in a longer, integrated, multi-step campaign that includes awareness and relationship building via direct mail, newsletters, video promotion, webinars, virtual exhibitions, conferences or live events and social media such as Twitter or Linked In is more likely to persuade.

Marketing Inspiration

While there are differences in B2B vs. B2C marketing, the principles about engaging and building customer relationships remain the same. At the outset understand the customer journey from the customer’s point of view.  Understand the sources of information and the selection criteria that the customer uses. Understand the triggers and barriers to building awareness and relationships, through to the sale. At each step along the journey, consider how the experience that your brand delivers is different to or better than your competitors. And if it is no different, consider what improvements to make.

If you are a B2B marketer learn how to dance the marketing 2 or 3 step. If you are a B2C marketer while you may have mastered a 1 step routine, a 2 or 3 step routine may help you to build stronger customer relationships.  Determine the appropriate messages, media and timing to attract and engage customers at each step on the journey. In so doing you will be better able to invest your resources where they really make a difference.

Additional reading

1. 10 winning digital marketing strategies – why it helps to think like a gamekeeper, The Marketing Directors
2. How B2B customers search for tech solutions,

Even Apple, one of the world’s most successful companies, visionary, secretive, allegedly antipathetic to research, fails occasionally. Witness poor iphone battery performance, speedily reversed software changes and easy-break charging cables.  While following the ‘gut’ sometimes leads to product development success, success is far from guaranteed.

Equally, following ‘sacred’ product development ‘gate’ processes sometimes fails to guarantee success. This is because gate processes are just that – processes. And processes are ‘a series of actions or steps’ to help management manage risks. Also to prioritise opportunities and avoid wheel reinvention. Thus processes tend to be rigid, inflexible, and less suited to some circumstances, such as rapidly changing markets.

In the 1990s Reader’s Digest was a multi-billion dollar business. Its’ mailings were legendary. Their magazines and books sold in the millions, and if the sales data were published, most products would appear in the best-seller lists. The products and promotions were based on extensive testing, and response rates commonly in double digits. Then in the UK, along came the National Lottery. Almost at a stroke response rates fell, as the attraction of Tom Champagne’s £50,000 Free Prize Draw declined in comparison with the opportunity to win millions on Lotto.

The fact that a substantial proportion of products and services fail rather than succeed suggests there is more to do (1). While failures are set-backs, there is also lots to learn from failure. It helps improve the odds of innovation success.

Instituting feedback loops beats cognitive dissonance

How to anticipate and overcome failure? It is easier to observe and comment with the benefit of hindsight.

While there is much good in health-care, there are also many stories of unfortunate casualties and accidents. In the UK alone, there are nearly 1m reported patient incidents (fatal and non-fatal).  In the US, preventable medical error in hospitals is the 3rd biggest killer. Problems occur mostly when clinicians work diligently and with good intentions. Problems include complexity (WHO lists 12.4k diseases and disorders each requiring different medical protocols), stretched resources and decision making pressures. There are also other reasons, for example, cultural, where communication, assessment and reporting is less than open and honest.  Errors occur where practitioners are so focused on a task at hand that true perspective is lost. Thus compounding issues. Early remedy is sometimes frustrated through fear to speak-out or failure to accept reality – evidenced in a blame or a cover-up mentality (2). So called cognitive dissonance.

Conversely, where the mindset to is to ‘fess up’, document and investigate the reasons for failure, heath-care outcomes rise.

The air industry has the lowest fatality rates of all forms of transport. How is this? Through systematic recording of the reasons for failure and then learning from them. As a result, installation of black-box flight recorders in aircraft is a globally agreed practice. This allows full investigation of the reasons behind any air accident. In turn, black box flight recorders, have inspired protocols covering landing, takeoff, cockpit safety and more.

Product Development

‘Biological’ evolution beats analysis paralysis

A conventional approach to product development is to identify a pain point, or unfulfilled customer need, and then design a better product or service or fill a gap.  When faced with nozzles that ‘clogged’ and halted the washing powder manufacturing process, Unilever put their top mathematicians and fluid experts on the case. After a long study period they came up with a new design. However, the powder produced still blocked the nozzles. Almost in desperation, a team of biologists, with no knowledge of fluid dynamics, were then tasked with solving the problem. They took a very different approach. First to manufacture and then test ten different variants of the nozzle. The winning nozzle was then copied and revised ten times and each retested. Through 45 generations and nearly 450 failures, an outstanding nozzle emerged. In other words, through rapid evolution, scientists learned how to make a better nozzle (2).

Synchronous development and testing

What about the online world? Take the ubiquitous and multibillion behemoth, Google. Google tests and releases hundreds of millions of lines of code daily. Billions of builds prompt millions of automated tests to run across hundreds of thousands of browser instances daily. Testing is Google’s ‘secret sauce’ and it takes pride in both its development speed and failing on a daily basis.

Google product development

Google’s approach may have shortcomings, but they are willing to publish it and open it to the scrutiny of the international testing community so that it continues to evolve. Everyone who writes code at Google is a tester and responsible for quality. The mantra is “you built it and you break it” i.e. code a little and then test the build.  Then code more and test more. However, while product development and testing go hand in hand, different responsibilities lie with different groups. Beyond development or coding, Google has created roles for engineers (Engineering Productivity) to make other engineers more productive and more quality-minded. Their mission is to avoid re-work and redundant code due to sloppy development.

A development aim is to build a core product and release it once deemed useful to as large a crowd as feasible. And then seek feedback and iterate, rather than ship a large number of features at once. Gmail is a good example; remaining in beta mode for four years to signal that the product was still under-development.

Instead of distinguishing between code, integration, and system testing, Google runs small, medium, and large tests emphasising scope over form.  If a problem doesn’t require human cleverness and intuition, and suits automated testing, then it is. Again during early Google Mail development, 40 user groups of 2.5% experienced different colour shades. Tracking determined the best shade to optimise engagement.

Marketing Inspiration

  1. Adopt a ‘growth’ mindset rather than an ‘ostrich’ (head in the ground) mindset. Engage with, understand and challenge reasons for failure because feedback is the food of champions.
  2. Learn from biologists. Because markets are evolutionary systems, products and services evolve, with the fittest and strongest taking increasing market-share.
  3. Seek marginal gains. Accumulated over time they provide a competitive edge. Whether in product development and delivery or another element of the marketing mix such as promotion.
  4. Avoid unnecessary complexity i.e. hide the wood by trees.
  5. Encourage and make the most of differences of opinion. No-one has a monopoly on good ideas, and differences in opinion help optimise product quality.
  6. Use the right investigative tools and strike the right balance between more qualitative human understanding vs. weight of data.


(1) According to the Product Development and Management Association (, 2004, 42% of new products failed between 1990 and 2004.

(2) Syed. Matthew, Black Box Thinking – Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance, 2015

(3) Whittaker. James. A, Arbon. Jason, Carolla. Jeff, How Google Tests Software, 2012

Storytelling predates writing; the earliest forms were spoken, combined with gestures and expressions. They include fairy tales, myths, legends and many of religious origin. There is much to learn from stories and with brand storytelling it is possible to transform a brand from a frog to a prince, prolong brand life and even slay a competitor or two in the process.

Great stories endure

Saint George (AD 280 to 23 April 303), for example, is immortalised in the myth of Saint George and the Dragon. A soldier in the Roman army, he later became venerated as a Christian martyr and adopted as patron saint of many countries, cities and organisations. The story about George and the Dragon returned from the Crusades (11th Century). In the legend, the dragon lives at a water hole and requires a gift of a sheep or maiden to allow the locals to reach the water. When it is a maiden, they draw lots.  One day a princess is chosen. She begs for her life but to no avail. Then George comes along, slays the dragon and saves the day.

Great stories are retold

Great stories touch and move us. Particularly when seen in a cinema, and increasingly through mini movies – as some television advertising has become. Not only do great stories engage, but they merit retelling and sharing. In this rich digital media world (1), we are all writers, photographers, producer/directors and editors. Only the best stories grab attention, are ‘liked’ and shared.

It is the same for brands. Only the best impress journalists, trade buyers and of course, consumers. Some brands have become great by telling great stories. Some are born of reality, many of accident or serendipity and some invention.

Great stories offer inspiration for brands

Figure 1 shows a typical cinematic story structure. This is useful for brand storytelling. Act 1 involves setting the scene, introducing the characters, conflict and setting. It concludes with a climax or set-back (turning point 1 (TP1)). Act 2 develops the story, with rising action and tension, and concluding with another climax or set-back (turning point 2 (TP2)). In the last act, the dénouement, the story reaches a final climax, and the story resolved.

Brand storytelling - Fig1 - 2 act story structure

Great stories tend to recognise deep truths, important life lessons

For example, that good always triumphs over evil. That every cloud has a silver lining – i.e. that you can derive some benefit from every bad thing that happens to you. Or that fortune favours the brave – that drive and determination is essential to success. Christopher Booker’s Jungian-influenced analysis of stories and their psychological meaning, espoused seven basic plots (2). Margaret Mark and Carol S. Pearson highlight eighteen, eight guides or gifts and ten warnings (3). Figure 2 shows eight familiar stories mapped to Mark and Pearson’s need-states.

Brand storytelling - Fig 2 : Common storylines

‘Transformations’ deal with significant change in attitude, behaviour or personal growth. ‘Overcoming the Monster’ stories are crime and adventure staples. They feature archetypal heroes (and villains). Including George and the Dragon. Also James Bond vs. Scaramanga (The Man with the Golden Gun). And Harry Potter, growing from boy to man, while battling Voldemort.

The typical story-line is baddie does bad thing (set-up), goodie fights baddie and loses (story development, set-back) and then goodie digs deeper, fights back and wins the day (dénouement). In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, he kills a young maiden and then goes after Harker, the hero’s fiancée. Harker and friends then hunt and eventually kill Dracula thus saving Harker’s fiancée (and allowing them to live happily ever after).

Great brand stories follow from brand archetypes

Brand archetypes can play different roles in narratives, and inspire brand storytelling. In a typical ‘overcoming the monster’ story-line, archetypal heroes, such as James Bond and Harry Potter are protagonists (leading players). Equally the brand could still be the hero, but not the protagonist but instead a bit player – perhaps the protagonist’s assistant or ‘weapon’.

Consider a utilitarian hero archetype, cleaning brand Mr. Muscle.  In a typical 3 act story, we see the housewife battling the dirt, getting tired and frustrated at her inability to clean the house etc. until along comes the hero, to clean away the dirt and save the day. The protagonist is the brand user or housewife and the adversary, simply dirt.

Nike is a more inspiring, hero(ine) archetype (4).  The protagonists in Nike advertisements are usually athletes or ordinary people, and adversaries, fellow competitors. In a typical 3 act story, we see the athlete competing against another, wearing Nike clothing or using Nike equipment, suffering set-backs yet eventually winning, and winning applause.

The Nike advert (below) features a tennis playing protagonist vilified for being a pretty face. Here the antagonist is not just a fellow competitor but public dismissal, or disdain. All questions confidence in the athlete’s skills. Will she, won’t she succumb to the pressure? Watch the advert to see the dénouement. Feel how the rising tension strengthens the brand story.

Sharapova – Nike Commercial 'I feel pretty'

Brand Storytelling Marketing Inspiration

Now work through these simple brand storytelling steps to finesse and execute your brand strategy.

1. Understand your brand truth, archetype and positioning
Great brands like great stories are based on great truths. Great truths include customer and brand truths. Look inside and outside your business to find them. Consider what do customers’ really think, believe or need? Is there anything meaningful and true but unknown or disbelieved about your brand? What is your brand founder’s tale? What’s special about where or how it was invented? Perhaps a ‘secret’ production or delivery process or ‘magical’ ingredient? And what’s special about the brand look, livery or the people who make or deliver the brand.

2. Create/shape/select stories to engage and dramatise the brand benefits.
Consider characters, the role of the brand, and how your brand could transform customers’ lives. How can you create rising tension, and a dénouement that fits the brand? Also involve disparate people in the creative process and allow time to nurture the ideas.  Figure 3 shows a start-point brand storytelling concept.

Brand storytelling - Fig 3 Brand story concept

3. Express the story idea through multiple media.
While great stories and great brands touch people in different ways, they express a consistent message. Consider how the story could unfold or be presented through different media. Involve media experts in early brand storytelling. Choose media to enhance the message and enable sharing.

Get in touch for help to tell your brand tale.


(1) According to there are now over 1.1 billion websites including a burgeoning range of social media including Facebook, You Tube, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Snapchat and many more.
(2) Booker, Christopher The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories.
(3) Mark, Margaret and Pearson, Carol S. The Hero & the Outlaw. Building Extraordinary Brands through the Power of Archetypes.
(4) Named after Nike, the Greek goddess of victory.

On June 23rd 2016 the UK decided to leave the EU. So what does this mean for UK businesses and marketers? The consensus is to expect a period of uncertainty as everyone digests the facts, and devises strategies to manage the risks of Brexit and plan a way forward.

Rather than think doom, gloom and despondency, think positive, and as global citizens, embrace the world

The trade barriers erected around the EU protect EU businesses from global competitive pressures. As a result they cause ‘flabby’ rather than ‘fit’ competitors. The UK has a proud history as a free trading nation and being ‘open for business’. Thus UK business should be materially ‘fit’ to compete in unfettered markets. Also to attract inward investment.

The world is a big market

In 2015 the world economy was worth $73.2 billion with the EU accounting for $16.2bn (22%) (Figure 1). Thus the rest of the world accounts for the larger proportion (78%), with the USA, China and Japan, being the largest markets.

Global economy 2015

Many global opportunities

Moreover, emerging markets are forecast to grow faster than the developed markets, and China and India will both reach the top 3 by 2030 (Figure 2). There are many opportunities to grasp.

Top 20 economies 2015 - 2050 ranked by GDP in dollars

As marketers we know that the most successful businesses are those that understand and meet the needs of their customers. As global citizens, speaking the world’s languages, investing in research and marketing to continue to understand and meet current and future customers’ needs, and build relationships and commercial value makes sense.

Marketing Inspiration

1. To address short-term economic turbulence from Brexit, businesses should take every opportunity to strengthen relationships with overseas suppliers and customers. Make clear that you are open for business as usual, and value your relationships. There is reassurance and value in relationships.
2. Keep searching for win-win opportunities to sell, invest and buy. Also acquire knowledge to gain competitive advantage. Use research to uncover new insights and opportunities.
3. Have no fear. The fittest or most able will be the most successful. So stay true to good business and marketing principles; understand customer needs, and demonstrate and deliver value in meeting needs.
4. For any sector of the economy or business that considers themselves unfit, start working out how to get fit now. So use time wisely to maximise the value of your offer.

Standing out from the crowd is tough! It is common to find products, services and brands making the same claims. In other words, occupying the same brand positioning spaces. For example, almost every business service claims to improve business efficiency. In consumer goods, almost every washing powder washes clean. Most food also tastes good, and nearly every feature film entertains. These are examples of ‘basic’ or ‘generic’ category benefits – they match the most basic or prevalent consumer needs.

This is where the idea of brand personality has a role to play. Brand personality can transform your brand into a super brand. Through how the brand communicates not just via what is said.

So what is brand personality?

Brand personality confers human characteristics on a brand; physical characteristics, beliefs and behaviours – these guide how the brand looks, speaks, what it thinks, believes and how it behaves.

While there are usually few benefits to express, there are almost limitless ways to express the benefits. For example, with candour, authority or through humour.

A brand personality helps engage

A great deal of psychological literature suggests that people have a tendency to perceive those they like as more similar than those they dislike. People also have a tendency to perceive themselves in a positive light and seek congruence (1).

Thus a brand personality helps attract and engage. Consider the criteria involved in selecting a mate. Other than physical attributes it mostly comes down to personality and the consequential benefits of a personality.  Beyond the obvious, “And Mrs. Ecclestone, what attracted you to the multi-millionaire Bernie?” other potential benefits include reinforcing self-knowledge, self-consistency and self-esteem (2).

Brand personality also enriches differences and helps attract and cement relationships. There are three main strategic applications or benefits of a brand personality (Figure 1) (3). To:

Influence of brand personality

    • express or enhance either functional or emotional benefits (these are essential criteria for strong brands). Mr Muscle adds strength to a cleaning brand, Fairy suggests a delicate touch or care, while Nike suggests those who wear their sports-wear are winners (4).
    • reflect consumer types/enable self-expression. BMW creates stylish automobiles (this is aspirational to non-owners and confers ‘cool’ on owners), Fosters imbues macho and comedy to beer drinking (and thus confers self-esteem and sociableness on the drinker), while Apple suggests high style, easy communication (and confers cool and feel-good in belonging to an ‘elite’ group).
    • strengthen consumer-brand relationships; Starbucks attracts as a ‘cool’ place to chill while John Lewis is trusted as a place to shop (because of their clear and consistent trading and returns policies). The passion and success of Manchester United not only generates extraordinary physical and emotional support but the club shirts are also labels (conveying self-image benefits).

Archetypes add meaning to brands

Applying archetypes to brands helps further distil and define a brand’s personality.  Archetypes came to popular consciousness through the work of Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Carl Jung – the founder of modern psychology.  An archetype is a collectively inherited unconscious idea, a pattern of thought, behaviour, image. It is universally present in myths, legends, literature and art. Archetypes are neither good nor bad, they simply exist. Although the number of archetypes is limitless, there are a few notable, recurring archetypes, “the chief among them being” (according to Jung) “the shadow, the wise old man, the child, the mother … and her counterpart, the maiden, and lastly the anima in men (the feminine side in a man’s psyche) and the animus in women (the masculine side in a woman’s psyche)” (5).

Humans automatically inherit archetypes and enrich them based on our own experiences. These archetypal images reflect basic human needs and motivations. Mark and Pearson (6) summarised these needs along two axes: belonging/enjoyment versus independence/fulfilment and stability/control versus risk/mastery.

The strongest brands are clear and familiar archetypes

Though it is likely that few were deliberately designed with archetypes in mind! Figure 2 shows the twelve main archetypes mapped on two axes, together with examples of well-known brands that fit each archetype. Some will be readily understood and others may trigger subliminal thoughts.  Virgin is a familiar Outlaw brand. Think Robin Hood. A challenger to authority, taking from the rich and ‘evil’ (as they have variously portrayed established national airlines, banks and railway companies) and giving to the ‘poor’.  Think also Zorro and Rebel without a Cause. This is useful to position pioneering brands and those taking on the establishment.

Creating brand personality using archetypes: Twelve Master Archetypes

Archetypes also add meaning and convey messages that verbal and written information cannot.  They help bring brands alive. They are powerful in revealing new ideas to help brands challenge category conventions, stand-out and reconnect with consumers. Understanding the archetypal nature and power of a brand is the first step to realising the strategic benefits outlined in Figure 1.  Archetypes can also help explain brand successes and failures; brand marketing activity that correlates most strongly with archetypes tends to be more successful and value enhancing (and vice versa) (6).  Once you name your archetype and understand how it works, the more you can express it, use it and avoid career-limiting mistakes!

The right brand positioning, personality and archetype depends on the market in which you compete, your customer segments and their needs. Also the brand positioning spaces occupied by competitors, as well as your own strengths and weaknesses.

Marketing Inspiration

  1. As search engine marketing relegates brands to a few keywords, avoid dumbing down your brand. Invest in a colourful brand personality to be seen and heard.  If you are #2 or #3 in a category, this could give you an edge to overtake a competitor.
  2. Understanding and optimising brands transform the ability to compete.  So search for and express the distinctive and engaging combination of personality traits to build consumer-brand relationships. If products are people, then brands are friends or loved ones.
  3. A distinctive brand personality and archetype will also aid brand management. If you have a service glitch, customers will more forgiving.
  4. For service or digital brands, that customers meet through people, such as in call or service centres, a brand personality or archetype blueprint will also help staff to converse and behave consistently.
  5. A good place to start is with a competitor brand positioning assessment that encompasses personality and archetypes.

Now read how brand storytelling helps too.


  1. Sirgy, M. J. Self-congruity: Toward a Theory of Personality and Cybernetics, United States. Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 14, (1986).
  2. Sirgy, M. J. “Self-concept in consumer behaviour: A critical review,” Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 287-300, (1982).
  3. Ahmand, Anees and Thyagaraj, K.S. Understanding the Influence of Brand Personality on Consumer Behaviour (2015).
  4. Nike is the Greek goddess of victory. The figure of Nike also appears on the bonnet of Rolls Royce cars, ‘the best cars in the world’.
  5. Jung, Carl. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Second Edition (1996).
  6. Mark, Margaret, Pearson, Carol S. The Hero and the Outlaw – Building Extraordinary Brands through the Power of Archetypes (2001).

Photo credit: Warner Bros. Batman vs. Superman 2016.

Digitalisation and 24/7 global connectivity increases customer power and supply-side reach. As a result, markets become increasingly competitive over time and not less. Search and algorithms also reduce brands to keywords. These therefore all create pressure for change. And dealing with change requires foresight, new business and brand management skills and processes.

We often get asked to help businesses get closer to customers and to develop new marketing or brand strategies. Yet businesses plan, organise and manage in different ways. Further, marketing has not always been viewed as a management discipline. It only emerged formally as such in the 1950s (1). Marketing functions evolved from sales, and brand functions, from communications.  Digital functions evolved from the need to master new information and communication technologies. Yet customers and brands are the only constant in a fast-moving digital world.

Business strategy, marketing strategy and brand strategy are different

So at the outset recognise that marketing and branding are often misunderstood concepts. Customer marketing and consumer marketing are different to brand marketing. Some businesses have dedicated ‘marketing’ and ‘branding’ teams and some do not.  Even when dedicated teams are in place, the functions and skill-sets tend to be very different. Marketers are rarely empowered to think strategically. While some businesses employ rigorous strategic planning processes others encourage entrepreneurship. The pattern of evolution tends to follow from the past, with the pace of change, depending on the knowledge and perceptions of senior management. While, there is no ‘one-size’ solution for all there is a useful strategic planning process to work out the right solution (2) (Figure 1 – Infographic).

Business and brand strategy planning process

Clarify where the business or brand is now and in the future

Only by understanding where a business or brand is now and where a business wants to be in the future allows route-map development.

So understand current business, marketing and brand strengths and weaknesses, business drivers, and create clear, challenging, and inspiring goals.

The marketing discipline uniquely looks through the lens of customers and customer segments to assess issues, size market opportunities and influence demand.

By clarifying where you are now and want to be, the size of the gap, potential route-maps or strategies to bridge gaps will become clear. Potential roadblocks or issues should also become clear. So opportunities and solutions can then be developed to address key issues. If this is not possible, then new goals need setting.

Use human imagination and analysis to generate and build ideas

Work with colleagues and have confidence in human imagination to generate and build ideas (2).  While some organisations may prefer an analytical approach to strategy development, and others a more creative approach, there is merit in dual ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’ thinking. Left brain thinking involves assessing the pros and cons of each opportunity. Right brain thinking requires stepping away from the detail, and taking inspiration from the world around, to imagine new opportunities and strategies. In our experience no-one has a monopoly on good ideas, and employing different brains hastens progress.

Planning from the customer, market and brand point of view can inspire those more familiar with technology-push, creative-push or financially targeted methods.

Engage colleagues to win a mandate for change

Engaging colleagues is important to fact-find, ensure understanding and reassure. It will help reveal hopes and fears and add colour to issues and opportunities. It will also help clarify what’s understood or misunderstood, and agreed or disagreed. This helps focus attention on what’s required.

By agreeing goals and collaborating, the best ideas should naturally surface to the top, and win support. Though the best solution is not necessarily the one that is 100% technically correct, especially if only 20% of stakeholders agree with it. A better solution is one that is 90% technically correct where most stakeholders agree with it. Only then will there be a mandate for change.

Remember that change is difficult and takes time

The journey to create truly customer-focused businesses and powerful brands is a long one. Therefore be pragmatic about what benefits are achievable, at what cost, and by when. Also understand the barriers to change to devise more effective strategies and plans and mitigate any risks. Figure 2 shows a product-brand continuum with benefits delivered at each stage (3).

Brand strategy continuum
For product, service or sales-led organisations, there are benefits in simply understanding and meeting the needs of customers. This needs structures, skills and processes to put the customer and his or her needs at the centre of thinking.

For organisations in markets where brands are emerging as a differentiator, there are benefits in understanding customer awareness and perceptions. Also using these insights to influence choice and increase purchasing.  This requires structures, skills, planning and management processes to design, promote and manage brand(s), and drive demand and sales.

For digital and service organisations delivering through people, and for larger product brands, there are benefits in understanding and influencing perceptions through all brand encounters. This needs structures, skills and processes to create distinctive communications, align people activities and behaviour. Also to ensure consistent delivery through those multiple encounters.

The very largest organisations and those contemplating expansion into multiple geographic markets and categories, require more developed relationship building strategies. In addition, brand personality, structures, skills and processes to invest and manage wisely across countries and markets.

Marketing Inspiration

  1. Customer and brand marketing is a strategic business development discipline. So help senior management understand this point. Further align stakeholder’s interests to ensure business-wide relevance and acceptance.
  2. Successful customer or brand-led business development requires multiple strategies, structures, skills and processes. Rarely will success follow if expectations rely on one person or activity.
  3. Understanding a business and brand’s current position is an essential precursor to future strategy development. Research customers to understand brand relevance in the digital world. And also avoid giving importance to unexplained information such impressions and clicks.
  4. As business and brand drivers continually wax and wane, stay aware of changing dynamics, and what works and doesn’t. This therefore helps better deploy your businesses’ finite resources and influence customer choice.
  5. Finally, use creativity to build relationships though important touch-points. Though for those new to marketing, investing in a brand may be a step too far.



  1. Webster Frederick E. “A Perspective on the Evolution of Marketing Management” Journal of Public Policy and Marketing Vol. 24 (1) (Spring 2005)
  2. Harari Yuval Noah. Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind (2014)
  3. Arnold Tim, Tomlinson Guy. The Marketing Director’s Handbook (2008)


With just 20 per cent of buying decisions based on pure logic, the psychology of marketing, i.e. the role the mind plays in buying decisions, requires understanding. Psychology is the science of the mind and also behaviour. Whether we realise it or not, emotions and biases frequently influence our buying decisions. Specifically in around eight out of 10 buying decisions (1).

This ‘Psychology of Marketing’ infographic (2) summarises common biases that influence consumers’ purchasing decisions. These include the status quo bias, the loss aversion bias, and also the in-group bias.

Psychology of Marketing infographic

Marketing Inspiration

1. Marketers should take account of cognitive biases to boost sales. A brand name, special offer, and also immediate gratification all enhance sales.

2. The most successful brands comprise rational and emotional dimensions – so build both into your proposition.

3. Use consumer research to uncover exactly what emotional dimensions will best influence and persuade.


(1) Damasio, Anthony Descartes’ Error:Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (2005)
(2) Infographic courtesy

Read more about dealing with bias in this article on quantitative research.

Comparing Online vs. Telephone vs. Face-to-face Quantitative Research Survey Modes;  Which is top dog?

Quantitative Research Survey Modes, Top Dog at Crufts

Top Dog i.e. Best in Show Winner Crufts 2015

Recent OFCOM Research (1) highlighted that 71% of the UK receive 9 nuisance calls a month. Also that telephone is the #4 culprit. This questions whether this quantitative research survey mode has had its day? But while online has grown in share, is this top dog? We’ve looked closely at the merits of online, telephone (random direct dialling) and face-to-face (ftf).  Several insights emerged. So if you are about to brief in a quantitative research survey, this article summarises our findings. It also spotlights ideas to help you make the most of your research investment.

Cost of research

Costs vary by sample size, ease of reaching an audience or ‘incidence’, the length of survey, mode, and also complexity of fieldwork and analysis. Some costs such as coding for online research, computer aided telephone interviewing and computer assisted personal interviewing are similar. Compared with online (index =100) fieldwork costs are typically higher for face-to-face (index 250-300) than telephone (index 250-300) due to the greater human time involved.

Coverage or reach

Online presently reaches 87% of the UK (1) though many online surveys run via panels which cover just 5% of the population. Thus sample carefully to cover geographic gaps and bear in mind that respondents are also usually more ‘Internet experienced’. Conversely, nearly all homes have access to at least one phone though telephone databases cover just 60% UK (and we suspect even fewer are opted-in to research). Within this fixed line telephone reaches 79% (with greater penetration among older respondents) and mobiles reach 96% (with greater penetration of younger respondents) (1).  Face-to-face can reach most places (though at a cost).

UK penetration of quantitative research survey modes 2019 graph
UK penetration of quantitative research survey modes – 2019

Response rates

Online response depends on the nature of the panel, and how responsive and interested respondents are. Expect between 5-30%. Response from links on websites or emails will similarly depend on the nature of the source. Telephone responses have fallen over the last decade and responses are now around 10-15%. Face-to-face response is also around 15-20%.

Avidy bias (Sample bias)

The self-selection nature of online means there is a greater risk of respondents opting-in to surveys that interest them. This is called avidy bias. Typically online respondents are younger, more familiar with the online world and spend more time on it. They are also more informed, more opinionated and more politically activist. (2) Panels also contain more early technology adopters though it remains possible to discern other types on the diffusion of innovation spectrum.

Social desirability bias

Research (3, 4) has observed that those responding by telephone present more socially desirable responses more often than face-to-face. This is particularly the case with those with lower intellectual ability/fewer years of formal education (i.e. C2DEs).  Research has also shown that respondents are more comfortable discussing sensitive subjects face-to-face as they can see, and thus have greater trust in, the interviewer. Conversely, ftf interviews conducted in the respondent’s home eliminate anonymity, making socially desirable responses more pronounced. Overall however, interpersonal trust between the interviewer and the respondent has a greater influence resulting in more honest responses. FTF shows similar results to online (where there is no interviewer effect) though some research (5) has observed directionally higher valuation responses to some ‘willingness to pay’ questions (for example, when there is a perceived ‘civic virtue’ in being seen to contribute to a common good).


Satisficing (combining the words satisfy and sacrifice) involves short-cutting the response process, settling on a solution that is ‘good enough’ but could be ‘optimised’.

Telephone poses an increased cognitive burden. The increased difficulty to fully comprehend questions, reduces the effort to cooperate, search the memory and process information. Perceived time pressure also fatigues and demotivates. This results in questions being less considered, giving rise to higher acquiescence (answering affirmatively regardless of the question), having no opinions, choosing mid-points or only extremes in rating scales, easier to defend answers and reduced disclosure. Again this is more clear with those with lower intellectual ability.  Research (3, 4, 5) suggests FTF researchers are better able to judge confusion, waning motivation, distraction (via watching a tv, eating etc.) and be able motivate and make it easier for the respondent to understand the questionnaire and improve cooperation on complex tasks. With online respondents go at their own pace.

Marketing Inspiration

(1) Great research starts with a great research brief. Decide your target and what’s most important. Beyond feasibility and answers to questions, what’s the relative importance of cost, speed, precision etc.

(2) There are many pitfalls in conducting quantitative research. Even more if you would like to repeat a survey or set up a tracker.   Larger samples give greater reliability. A sample in excess of 1000 will give more reliability than a sample of 500. This means that repeating a survey 100 times means that in 95 instances, responses (confidence interval) will be within +/- 1%. Make sure data is comparable from wave to wave. Prefer shorter surveys to cut the risk of satisficing.

(3) Take care to make sure samples are not biased and give reliable findings. Nationally representative samples are essential to measure awareness, usage and market share. Anything else has in-built bias and risks misleading. Ensure your sample eliminates any demographic, subject affinity, usage or other bias.

(4) Buyer beware. Remember the Whiskas advert that famously told us that ‘8 out of 10 cats prefer Whiskas’. This was eventually changed to ‘8 out of 10 owners that expressed a preference said their cats preferred Whiskas’. What we still don’t know is the sample size, how many said ‘don’t know’, and how many expressed a preference. Whatever the survey mode, be clear what is statistically significant or merely directional, and make the context clear. This will help you avoid being duped and make better decisions! Meoww, yum!

Whiskas Cat Food – 1987 UK Advert


(1) OFCOM (2019).

(2) Duffy Bobby, Smith Kate, Terhanian George, Bremer John. Comparing Data from Online and Face-to-face Surveys. International Journal of Market Research Vol 47 Issue 6. (2005)

(3) Holbrook Allyson L, Green Melanie C, Krosnick Jon A. Telephone versus Face-to-face interviewing of National Probability Samples with Long Questionnaires. Public Opinion Quarterly, Volume 67:79–125 (2003).

(4) Szolnoki G, Hoffman D. Online, face-to-face and telephone surveys – Comparing different sampling methods in wine consumer research. Wine Economics and Policy 2 (2013) 57-66.

(5) Lindhjema Henrik, Navrudb Ståle. Are Internet surveys an alternative to face-to-face interviews in contingent valuation? Ecological Economics 70(9): 1628-1637 (2011).

The Marketing Directors and The Market Researchers have no vested interest in promoting one quantitative research survey mode over another. We work in partnership with the world’s leading online, telephone and face-to-face fieldwork companies to deliver the best solution for you.  So just get in touch for help.

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