Marketing Echinacea: The Power of Belief

Cone flowers

Echinacea Angustifolia

Echinacea and marketing have a lot in common. At least that’s the conclusion I reached while listening to National Public Radio’s Morning Edition a few years ago.

It seems that common cold researcher Ronald Turner has confirmed what other studies have already concluded: the herbal supplement echinacea does not fight colds.

And yet, Turner told NPR’s Allison Aubrey he expects people will continue to take echinacea. “I’ve given up a long time ago with trying to convince people that science should dictate how they behave,” he said. “And so I don’t imagine that the people who are convinced that echinacea works for them are going to be swayed one way or another by the results of our study.”

It sounds a lot like the approach many businesses and organizations take to marketing. Don’t get me wrong; I firmly believe that well-researched strategic marketing is essential to business success. And there is ample scientific evidence that strategic marketing can be effective.

However, a distinction must be made between two variants of the marketing herb:

  1. Strategic Marketing: Research-based marketing strategy that utilizes a scientific approach to develop disciplined, targeted and effective marketing tactics.
  2. Marketing Echinacea: Seat-of-the-pants marketing tactics based on intuition, gut instinct, or “industry experience” alone.

Colds make us miserable grouches, and when you’ve got one, you’re usually desperate for a quick solution. Everyone from your mom to your taxi driver will give you advice on how to beat a cold, perhaps with echinacea.

Business challenges – particularly poor sales or market position – have much in common with the common cold. Like a cold, we are so desperate for a solution that we may listen to any advice that promises relief. Like echinacea, the lure of a quick “shoot-from-the-hip” advertising campaign can be quite tempting.

Unlike the common cold, strategic business problems won’t just “run their course” and disappear with the empty Kleenex boxes in your trash.

Strategic challenges may actually have more in common with cancer than with the common cold. They can kill a company if left untreated. Mention the “C” word in a doctor’s examination room, and the patient is likely to drop their echinacea like a hot potato and immediately seek the best treatment science has to offer.

While many leaders gravitate to the seductive Siren song of quick fixes – such as tactical advertising or public relations – consultants are guilty of over selling this marketing echinacea to their clients.

So how can you know the difference between the strategic marketing consultant and the tactical marketing herbalist?

  1. No kissing on the first date: Beware the firm that pitches a marketing, advertising, branding or public relations solution on their first or second visit. It is highly unlikely that your strategic problem can be accurately diagnosed that quickly.
  2. Beware the strategy that relies excessively on qualitative research, intuition and “industry experience” alone. Look for solid numbers that quantify your market position as well as that of your competitors.
  3. Demand strategies that have sound goals and measurable objectives.
  4. Don’t be seduced by a consultant’s portfolio of slick and creative advertising. Ask what quantifiable results their clients have achieved. If you like art, go to the museum or symphony. If you want results, you will need great creative; but it must be obsessively driven by research-based strategy.
  5. Expect to pay for sound research and analysis as the first step and foundation for an effective strategic marketing solution. The alternative is to pay a marketing echinacea salesman a 15 percent mark-up on every dose of the herb they sell you, then pray your marketing head cold goes away.

This blog was originally published by Inside Indiana Business in 2005.

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