Today, we’re going to learn a very fancy word that you can use to impress people at cocktail parties. The word is…iatrogenics. I’m 75% sure that it’s pronounced: eye-ahh-tro-genics, so go ahead and practice saying it out loud in the privacy of your home.
Now that we can pronounce the word, let’s define it. Iatrogenics is a medical term. Iatrogenics is when an illness is caused by a medical intervention, and it’s what killed George Washington.
One night, old Georgie boy stayed out late riding his horse, and he got caught in a rainstorm. The next morning, George woke up with a throat infection, and decided to call a doctor. The doctor, in keeping with 18th century best practices, treated George Washington’s throat infection by draining out all of his blood. Fun fact for any non-doctors reading this: if you loose all of your blood, you die. And that’s exactly how George Washington died. It wasn’t the illness (the throat infection) that killed him, it was the treatment (the blood-letting).
That’s iatrogenics at work. The lesson is simple: interventions can be very dangerous.
Iatrogenics is still a problem today, and modern medical professionals work hard to prevent it. I’m writing this article in the midst of a global pandemic. The scientific community is working tirelessly to find an effective treatment for COVID-19. But researchers are working equally hard to ensure that the treatment is safe and doesn’t cause harmful side effects. That’s why vaccines need to be thoroughly tested before being administered. It’s one reason why our front-line heroes have been so vocal about the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) --- if testing for COVID-19 spreads COVID-19, that would be another tragic example of iatrogenics.
The problem is that humans have a well-documented “intervention bias.” We always assume that it is better to intervene than to not intervene. Doing something makes us feel useful, doing nothing makes us feel useless. But doing nothing is often the right decision. In finance, for instance, passive investors often out-perform active investors. In a famous Fidelity study, users who had forgotten their passwords had the best performing stock portfolios.
I have come to believe that most marketing is iatrogenic, especially when it comes to creative. Marketers are active investors, constantly intervening, and it’s a big problem. Consider, for example, two of the most effective ad campaigns in history --- the Absolut Vodka campaign, and the Dos Equis campaign. Think for a second about how lucky these brands were to have such world famous creative. My sister used to collect Absolut ads. These were unknown brands that used advertising to catapult their way to market domination.
And what happened? Iatrogenics, that’s what. Some new marketers rose to power, eager to prove their value, and decided to intervene and kill off the campaigns. “The Most Interesting Man In The World” was forced into an early retirement. Dos Equis sales declined 6% after that change, and still hasn’t recovered, last time I checked. Absolut hasn’t faired much better.
Sometimes it’s dangerous to intervene even if the business is in trouble. Consider the case of WeightWatchers, a once-mighty brand that experienced a sales slump. The marketers at WeightWatchers decided to radically intervene, and rebrand the company to “WW.” What were the side effects of that decision? The stock dropped 34%, the CMO had to issue a public apology, and now “WW” is begging Oprah to come back and save their business.
Rebrands are almost always iatrogenic. Why? Because more often than not, bad marketing isn’t what’s wrong with the business. In fact, the brand may be the only thing slowing the decline of the business. If you intervene, and remove the brand, things just get worse, faster.
The coronavirus pandemic has also revealed the folly of marketing interventions. The majority of marketers have radically adjusted their strategies in response to the crisis. 83% of marketers plan to modify their creative messaging, and 70% plan to reduce their media spends. But the evidence suggests marketers would be much better off doing nothing at all. Our research with System1 shows that consumers are responding no differently to old ads, and all of the COVID-specific creative has just created a “sea of sameness.” In terms of media spend, our research with Peter Field shows that marketers would be much better off maintaining (or increasing) their spend to increase their eSOV and grow their market share over the long-term.
My marketing mantra for the COVID-19 pandemic? Don’t touch your face, don’t touch your stocks, and don’t touch your ads. Don’t panic-sell your portfolio, and don’t panic-change your marketing strategy. Do nothing. Doing something may turn out to be iatrogenic.
How do we fix this problem? How can we convince marketers to intervene less, and become less active and more passive? Well, why don’t we take some inspiration from the medical community? Doctors faced a very similar challenge 2000 years ago. Even back then, doctors knew that interventions were dangerous, and devised a simple solution: an oath. The Hippocratic Oath, which all doctors take when graduating from Medical School. The oath is to “first, do no harm.” That’s Rule #1 for doctors. Not to cure illness --- to do no harm.
Marketers need to take an oath to “first, do no harm” to their brands. And we need to celebrate marketers who avoid the temptation to intervene. Let’s start by celebrating the CMO of Mastercard, Raja Rajamannar, one of the best marketers in the business. When Raja took over the brand, he could have done what most CMOs would do, and kill off the “Priceless” campaign, which has been running since 1997. But instead, Raja decided to stay the course. He stuck with the “Priceless” theme, but modernized the campaign with some new ads.
But arguably, the MasterCard CMO could have done even less. Yes, he stuck with the “Priceless” theme, but what if he had just re-run those old MasterCard ads from the 1990s? Maybe marketers should just stick with the same exact creative, year after year.
One ad, running forever. That’s the ultimate “passive investment” strategy.
You probably think I’m insane for even suggesting something so radical, but may I direct your attention to this Coca Cola ad? The same Christmas ad has been running for 23 years in the UK, and it has never declined in performance. When Coke tried to pull the ad off the air, the British protested en masse, and the marketers at Coke were forced to bring it back.
Most marketers would never, ever do this. We’d never run the same ad for 23 years. Why? Because we’re too worried about creative fatigue. But as far as I’m concerned, creative fatigue is a fictional disease that no one ever contracts. Creative fatigue is when marketers get bored of a campaign that most of their customers have never even seen. Evidence suggests that ads don’t wear out --- ads wear in, and become more effective over time. Humans like familiar stories, familiar characters, familiar taglines. Marketers suffer from an “originality delusion.”
So, my advice: intervene as little as you can. Maybe that means running the same ad every year, and reaching new audiences, like Coca Cola. Maybe that means sticking to a well-established creative theme, with a modern twist, like MasterCard. The goal of brand marketing is to build memories in the minds of future buyers, and that requires constant repetition.
Interventions are dangerous, and radical interventions, like rebrands, are doubly dangerous. You don’t get open-heart surgery unless you have exhausted every other medical option, because surgeries can cause complications. We should be equally risk-adverse when it comes to changing our marketing strategies. We need less “agility” and more “consistency.”
Marketers need to take an oath. First, do no harm to the brand.