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How to Survive the Marketing Midlife Crisis

April 02, 2021


How to Survive the Marketing Midlife Crisis

Mark Ritson over at Marketing Week put together a humorous dramatization of something that happens to a lot of brands. He called it the “Marketing Midlife Crisis.” I was literally spitting out my coffee laughing. In the script for the “play,” we see a Marketer and a Consumer sitting in a marriage counsellor’s office. They're arguing about their relationship. The Consumer accuses the Marketer of no longer paying attention to her needs. The Marketer says “she’s changed” and is seeing other brands.

As the counselling session proceeds, a lot of the points the Consumer makes sound familiar. And the Marketer’s protests are comments I’ve heard from some of us involved in marketing. Nothing seems to work. We have tried everything. Sales are down. Now spending is being cut so we can’t get messaging out there. We have tried this….and that…..including different strategies and positions. Everyone tells us we need a purpose, but we’re having a hard time figuring out what that is.

The “midlife crisis” is the perfect metaphor for what’s happening here with a lot of brands, especially mature brands. And there’s a way we can survive it.

What the Marketing Midlife Crisis Looks Like

Ritson’s Marketer complains about being told he needs a purpose, but he’s having trouble figuring it out. He also accuses the Consumer of having changed and spending time with other brands, in places he can’t reach her. He complains that she doesn’t watch TV with him. Instead, she’s watching Netflix on her smartphone, walling him out.

The Consumer counters by suggesting the Marketer is listening to all kinds of ridiculous ideas. She suggests he’s more interested in all his “new toys." He says he’s trying to “spice things up” by offering her more personalization.

If you’ve been in marketing for any length of time, you’ve probably felt this. Consumers have changed, haven’t they? Especially since the pandemic, we’ve been talking about their changed habits. They do watch Netflix or Disney+ or Amazon Prime, all these services that don’t have ads. How can we even reach them?

And we’ve been listening to a lot of chatter about social media like TikTok or influencer marketing. The Consumer in Ritson’s play rejects these. She calls Trey the influencer “a dickhead” and says nobody listens to him. The Marketer says that’s not true—but the Consumer does have a point.

It’s that we’re getting distracted. The “toys” she refers to are all our new digital marketing tools. Think about dashboards and data analysis that let us dig down deep and get to “know” our customers. The Consumer tells the Marketer his behaviour is actually creepy.

The Consumer tells the Marketer that she still wants the same things from the Marketer. Wait what? The same thing as in the why she is buying?  Well, what’s happened is that the Marketer has become distracted. He felt he needed to change to continue satisfying the Consumer.

This is a bit of a midlife crisis. We feel like we have to reinvent ourselves, create new identities. It's the perfect metaphor. We often think consumers aren’t responding to our brands because they’re bored or they’ve changed. And we think that means we need to change too. And we often take that to mean we have to overhaul our entire brand identities.

You Already Have Your Purpose

The answer to this crisis is hinted at by the Consumer. The Marketer says everyone is telling him he needs a purpose, but he can’t figure out what it is. The Consumer doesn’t tell him the purpose is what’s always fulfilled her emotional needs. But she does say that’s what she wants from him.

This is the key here. Most of us, if we’ve done branding right, already have a purpose. In fact, we have a purpose, even if we’re not aware of it. If we feel like we’re soul-searching, but not getting anywhere, then it’s likely time to turn to our customers.

Why do we need to talk to them? They have an outside perspective that can help give us some insight into who we are. Or, at least, they can tell us what they feel they get from our brands. Why they considered our brand in the first place? Why they chose us? Why are they with us now, and why do they want to stick with us? How satisfied are they with our relationship right now, and how can we ensure they stay satisfied?

Our best customers know, as they have travelled along the journey of awareness to consideration to conversion to trial to repurchase to finally becoming loyal. They can even help us understand, why others have not travelled as far in emotional attachment to our brands. 

That usually speaks to our true purpose, the “common” emotional need we’re meeting for our customers.

Don’t Get Distracted by the Frills

The other thing Ritson’s script speaks to is our tendency to only skim the surface. The Consumer complains that the Marketer isn’t really listening to her. She says, at first, the Marketer was obsessed with her, wanted to know everything about her.

Then he seemed to stop caring. He felt like he knew everything. And that was when he started to use all these “tricks” and “toys” to keep her interested.

What she’s craving is that intense emotional connection she had when she first discovered the brand. For that, she doesn’t need all the digital marketing tools or influencers or new TikTok dances.

What she needs is a deep emotional connection. She wants to feel like the brand cares about her and her needs—and that comes out of listening to her. The Marketer here keeps fluffing her off. With his new digital tools, he feels like he’s learning so much more about her, but he’s only digging surface deep.

This is a serious pitfall for modern marketing. With digital tools, we have access to so much more data than ever before. As I’ve said before, though, what often happens is we go wide—we’ll dig for a mile, but only go an inch deep. That leaves us with shallow, surface-level information. Sure, you know your customers’ occupations. But do you know what drives them, their values, what is really important to them in life? Do you know how your brand aligns to their own values and purpose or belief structure? 

As it turns out, we often don’t know much about our customers at all. Think about a friend: you know all their biographical details, but that’s not how you prove you know them. Almost anybody could recite their address or phone number or tell you what this person does for a living. To prove you know them, you talk about emotional connections: memories you share, likes and dislikes, passions, beliefs and values.

Knowing those things is key to any successful relationship. That’s because it lets us address those emotional needs. We know our customer wants to go green and wants to do good for the planet. Why do they care about that? Do they love spending time in nature? Are they an animal lover? Are they scared about the future? Do they want to leave something “better” for future generations? Are they concerned about people’s quality of life in the here and now?

Understanding why our customers hold these beliefs allows us to address their needs. When we understand those deeper needs, we can craft a “green” brand that speaks to more than surface level concerns. And our customers can feel good about buying from us, because they know we share their same values.

When all we do is say, “Hey, look, we did this TikTok challenge and will raise money for climate change initiatives!”, they may not feel we’re “getting” them.  We’re not addressing the deeper emotional needs. Or worse, they may feel that it is simply a campaign with no substance, which will eventually begin to erode the relationship with even the most loyal customers of our brands. 

So, we do need to find our purpose. Chances are we already have one; we might need help seeing it- again! We don’t usually need to overhaul or reinvent our brands to keep our customers “excited.” Yes, we do need to keep things fresh on a campaign level. But on a deep, emotional level, our customers usually want the same things from us that they’ve always wanted. We just need to stay in step with new and creative ways of delivering on that purpose.

And we need to be sure we’re digging deep, not going wide and shallow. We want to connect on an emotional level, just like our customers connect to us. That’s really what they want from us—connection. They want to know they can turn to us and have that emotional need, whatever it happens to be, fulfilled.

So if we want to solve the “marketing midlife crisis,” then we need to remember to start with the why!


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I am a business person who has excelled in driving a competitive edge through marketing, strategy, innovation, building irresistible brands and unlocking the genius that exists. I am writing to inspire or create new consideration. If you have ideas or questions that you would like me to put a pen too, I would be delighted.

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