How Not to Plan: 66 Ways to Screw it Up

by Les Binet and Sarah Carter

Packed with insights, this book is a compendium of 66 articles originally published in Admap, “all loosely based on a myth-busting theme.” The word “not” in the book title and each article title is in strikethrough type. The articles are grouped into 9 chapters: Setting Objectives; Product, Price, and Place; Brand and Communication; Research and Analysis; Talking and Thinking Strategy; Who Are You Talking To?; Media and Budgets; Creative Work; and Effectiveness and Evaluation. 

How Not to Think About Loyalty: “Research shows that brands become big and profitable by building weak relationships with lots of people. We know that when budgets are diverted from building penetration to building deeper relationships with fewer customers, profitability suffers… Don’t forget: supporting higher prices is usually more profitable than just increasing volume. So price sensitivity may be the best loyalty measure of all.”

How Not to Manage Your Product Portfolio: “Most marketers wrongly believe their job is to ‘persuade’ people with compelling product messages. And if you follow this rational persuasion model, then nothing works like ‘new news’… This approach can work well if the product is really ground-breaking. But most new products aren’t. At least, not in mature markets like mouthwash. So, the trade will give the latest variant shelf space for a while. Yes, some of us will try it once. But usually, that’s about it. As a result, most new products fail. And marketers find themselves on a treadmill of pointless pseudo-innovation.”

Don’t neglect your core products. “Remember: advertising becomes more essential as brands mature, not less. That’s why the big tech brands are all ramping their ad spend now.”

How Not to Think About Distribution: “Many people find out about a brand by seeing it in-store, not on TV. So simply seeing the product on display is one of the simplest and most effective forms of ‘advertising’. Which is why pack design matters so much… Understand your branded cues: design, logo, color, pack shape, etc. Don’t muck around with these and confuse people.”

How Not to Think About Brand Choice: “Most mental processing that guides our actions is associative not logical. Emotional not rational. Conscious, verbal thinking plays a minor role most of the time. And the parallel processing architecture of the brain makes a mockery of sequential flowcharts.”

How Not to Be Interesting: “Adding interest to things that people don’t care about is one of the most important functions of advertising.”

Nonsense Does Not Work: “Tetley’s new tea idea was round bags. This made no sense at all to us. The tea would taste just the same, wouldn’t it? We gave it a few months, at best. But how wrong we were. People loved the new round bags. And Tetley shot to brand leader in a year… These little differences are just the kinds of things that get trimmed by rational, cost-benefit marketing. Because it’s hard to say quite ‘why’ they work.”

How Not to Be Different: “Difference is less important than distinctiveness. A distinctive piece of communication on a category benefit will usually be more effective than a bland piece of communication on a differentiated positioning… So don’t focus on saying something different. Instead, think about how you can say something differently.”

How Not to Get People Thinking: “Real people have more important things to think and talk about than brands. In fact, we often forget that the main reason people choose brands is so they don’t have to think. Brands offer mental shortcuts that make purchase decisions quicker and easier.”

How Not To Sell: “Think from the other end of the telescope. What are people doing? People watch TV for relaxation, so shouty, hard-sell ads aren’t welcome. People looking for information online may not want to be entertained… Less time measuring ‘brand loyalty’ and ‘brand love’, and a bit more attention to ‘brand annoyance’ would benefit us all.”

How Not to Use Focus Groups: “Expertly practiced groups can give us a uniquely sensitive understanding of people’s relationships with brands and communication. They’re probably still the best means at our disposal of accessing ‘System I’ thinking: the emotional, implicit, non-verbal thought processes which drive most buying behavior. The silences, the arm crossing, the raised eyebrow. The words not chosen. The laughter, the leaning forward or leaning back. The change in group energy level—all these are more potent indicators of what’s really going on in people minds than the words they use. The trouble is that focus groups are increasingly interpreted by clients at ‘System 2’ level: the realm of the verbal, logical and post-rationalized.”

How Not to Think About ‘Positive’ Responses: “When researching anything new, a polarized strong response is often a more reliable predictor of success than a uniformly mild liking… Failure to recognize this in research, and going instead with the mildly positive, must contribute to the high failure rate of new products. And to the lack-luster performance of many ads.” (Or as Peter McGraw says, “In a world where people want hot tea or iced tea, stop trying to please everyone by serving warm tea.”)

How Not to See the Wood for the Trees: “Granular customer data can be dangerously seductive. Too many brands obsess over fine segmentation and tight targeting, despite evidence that the real money comes from broad reach and high market share… And now we have digital data at the customer level… But analyzing data at the individual level can’t measure important ‘herd effects’ which only emerge at the group level. And social media metrics won’t help, because herd effects are mostly nonverbal and offline.”

How Not to Use Correlations: “Sometimes the arrow of causality goes the opposite way to the expectation. Research routinely shows that people who’re aware of communication from brand X are more likely to buy that brand. Sometimes used as evidence that communication drives sales, in fact causality usually runs the other way: buying brand X makes you more likely to notice its communications. This phenomenon, the so-called Rosser-Reeves [Fallacy]… is still routinely used to ‘prove’ communication effectiveness (most recently to justify social media use).”

How Not to Harness Our Collective Brainpower: “Creativity, intelligence and innovation are the lifeblood of our business. They all require independent thought. So forget about brainstorming, huddles and endless meetings. We need time and space to think alone… There’s a reason we have our best ideas lying in the bath… Technology companies are aware of this. Google’s London office has a proper old-fashioned library for people to work in, with a strict policy of silence.”

Reach No Longer Matters: “A common view these days [is that] communications are more targeted, interactive, and engaging—so reach no longer matters… Unfortunately, it’s bollocks… Keep frequency under control as you build reach. If using digital media, cap frequency directly. Otherwise control frequency by spreading activity across the year… Avoid repeatedly hitting the same people. It yields diminishing returns.”

Waste Is Not Good: “People who buy Mercedes and Prada do so because everyone knows what those brands stand for, even if they’re not the ‘target market’ themselves. To create these shared cultural meanings, we need people outside our target to overhear our communication. In other words, we need wastage.”

Budgets Do Not Matter: “Beware setting budgets as a fixed percentage of sales. If sales go down, that means you’ll automatically cut your budgets, leading to a death spiral. Understand that when budgets are cut, sales will go down. Maybe your sales can ‘glide’ for a year, but two years without engines can kill a brand. Competitors can use this death spiral time to move in and kill your brand. Conversely, if your competitors cut their budgets, seize the opportunity to deal them a killer blow… ‘Zero-based budgeting’ is good discipline here. But bear in mind that you need to include a budget to maintain existing demand.”

If It’s Not Relevant, It Cannot be Effective: “Beware the ‘message myth’. Some of the world’s most effective ads have no discernable message at all… Advertising can work by creating ‘System 1’ connections too… ‘Have a break, have a Kit Kat’ connects the brand to a relevant consumption moment.”

We Cannot Own That: “Create campaigns, not ads. Encourage clients to invest in them over the long term… Advertising influences people as a weak force, not a strong one. This nudging process needs continual reinforcing.”

Humor Does Not Sell: “Excessive seriousness can make marketing less effective. There are times—usually just before we make a buying decision—when we want facts and figures to help us decide. At these times, a rational, no-nonsense approach tends to work best. But mostly, marketing works in a different way: creating emotional associations, so we feel good about brands when we encounter them again later. This kind of brand advertising needs to charm and seduce us. Not persuade us… Playfulness and humor work rather well for brands. Research shows it’s those feelings that drive long-term ROI… Advertising lacking charm can have the opposite effect. It raises our defenses, so we scrutinize its claims more critically.”

Details Do Not Matter: “Human beings are complex. Human communication is subtle. Real people rarely fit into our simplistic targeting and segmentation boxes. They don’t pay much attention to our messages. They don’t process them deeply. Yet seemingly insignificant things – music, casting, location or a telling detail in the performance – can have huge power. Our work must reflect this; we need magic, not just logic… A good example is music choice. This usually has little to do with the rational content of an advertisement, but can improve ROI by 20-30%.”

“Studies by Paul Watzlawick on relationships show that what he calls the ‘meta-communication’, or how something is said (gestures, tone of voice, body language, etc.), is far more influential than the ‘message’, or what is said.”

Imperfection is Not Attractive: “Imperfection signals authenticity… Flaws create empathy. People who are flawed seem more like us, and so more likeable.”

Consistency No Longer Matters: “One of the biggest marketing skills to master is the art of leaving well alone…  Marketers fret about wear-out… Worry more about wear-in. Remember: brand associations are built through repetition… 2019 marks 30 years since the Felix cat food campaign first appeared on UK TV… Felix has only ever had this campaign… Once a winning formula is found, advertisers should stick with it… Familiarity and consistency boost effectiveness.”

You Can Never Be Too Efficient: “ROI can be a useful measure—for comparing different ways of spending budget, for example. But making ROI your primary focus can be dangerous. To understand why, you need to think about diminishing returns. As you spend more on advertising, it often gets more effective (sales and profits generated go up), but less efficient (ROI goes down). That’s the nature of diminishing returns. It means that in practice the highest ROIs tend to come from small budgets… Net profit is a good measure of effectiveness… ROI, on the other hand, is a measure of efficiency, not effectiveness.”

Online, Evaluation is No Longer a Problem: “Don’t treat online and offline worlds as separate siloes: each affects the other… Contrary to what people think, most life still takes place offline, not online. Recent IPA TouchPoints data shows that more than 80% of all media consumption is offline.”

There is No Value in Failure: “Allocate most of your budget to stuff that’s worked well in the past. Continue with old campaigns if they still work. But always save a little budget for trying new things. If they work, do more.”

Les Binet has co-authored several other books, including: The Long and the Short of It (2013),  Media in Focus (2017), and Effectiveness in Context: A Manual for Brand Building (2018).

Binet, Les, and Sarah Carter. How Not to Plan: 66 Ways to Screw It Up. Leicestershire, U.K.: Matador, 2018. Buy from

Note: I have modified the spelling to appease my American spellchecker.
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