Stop Looking for “Silver-Bullet” Solutions in Marketing

In the sixteenth century, Spanish conquistadors in South America heard stories about a king who made an offering of gold and precious gems to his god as part of a religious ceremony. The Spaniards called the king El Dorado, and over time El Dorado came to mean the city of this king. According to the legend, El Dorado contained gold and precious stones in fabulous abundance. The legend was so powerful that for over two centuries, European explorers mounted numerous expeditions to search for El Dorado.

So far as we know, the “city of gold” was never found.

It’s only human to long for simple and easy solutions to complex or difficult problems. At least once in our lives, most of us have yearned for a magic diet pill that would enable us to lose twenty pounds in four weeks without eating less or exercising more. Usually, we know this is just wishful thinking, but in some cases, our desire for simple solutions rises above mere wishful thinking. The number of self-help books that are sold every year demonstrates that millions of us are willing to believe that simple solutions for difficult challenges do, or at least might, exist.

The desire for simple solutions can also be found in the business world. Nowhere is this more evident than in the attempt to answer the most basic of all business questions:  What drives high performance? Over the past few decades, the effort to describe the “secret sauce” for achieving high performance has probably consumed more brainpower than any other single business topic. It has been the modern-day business equivalent of the quest for the Holy Grail or the search for El Dorado.

Since the early 1980s, dozens of books – most written by talented and well-respected authors – have purported to explain how companies achieve high performance. Some of these books describe the important attributes that high-performing companies share. The implicit (and often explicit) promise is that if you can develop these attributes in your business, you too will achieve high performance. Other books focus on specific management tools or techniques. Once again, the implicit promise is:  Use this tool or technique, and high performance will inevitably follow.

Despite the best efforts of a lot of very smart people, the recipe for high performance has remained elusive. No one has been able to get it quite right.

The desire for “silver-bullet” solutions is also widespread in the marketing world. Over the past few years, the number of marketing channels and techniques has exploded, largely because of the evolution of digital communication technologies. When a promising new marketing channel or technique appears, the marketing community often responds with great excitement. The “shiny new object” becomes the topic du jour for articles, blog posts, webinars, conference sessions, and even full-length books. As the hype machine kicks in, it becomes almost impossible not to overestimate the value that the new channel or technique will provide.

The basic problem is that success in marketing is far more complex and unpredictable than most people like to admit. The marketing world is not ruled by the kinds of precise laws that govern the natural world. For example, if I apply heat to water, the water will boil when the temperature reaches 212 degrees Fahrenheit. I can repeat this “experiment” thousands of times, and the result will always be the same. The laws of physics enable me to accurately predict that my action (applying heat to water) will produce a specific outcome (boiling water).

This level of predictability simply doesn’t exist when it comes to marketing performance because success in marketing is determined by the interplay of numerous factors, many of which are beyond our control. The inability to dictate future outcomes has two important implications for marketers. First, it means that the use of any marketing tool or technique won’t guarantee high performance, regardless of how sound that tool or technique may be. More importantly, however, we can’t dictate future outcomes because there is no universal formula for high performance in marketing. Like El Dorado, it just doesn’t exist.

Uncertainty will always be a prominent feature in the marketing landscape. When we accept the inevitability of uncertainty, we can put the decisions we make on sounder footing. This approach may not provide us as much comfort as relying on simple, “silver-bullet” solutions, but it’s better than wasting our time on a fruitless search for El Dorado.


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