Interviewed by Aliah El-houni /
Photographed by Nation Wong

Fresh ideas on the death
and rebirth of marketing

John McGarr, president and co-founder of Fresh Squeezed Ideas (FSI)—an award-winning brand and marketing consultancy—describes himself as a lifelong student of marketing, people and culture. John realized early in his career that he was interested in brand strategy and so, with his partner Karen McCauley, he started FSI. What began as a small research company has become a 20-person applied anthropology consultancy with clients across North America and in Europe. In his words, “It’s been a really fun ride alongside some very smart people.”

John McGarr’s most recent publication is Reincarnation: The Death and Rebirth of Marketing, 2016.

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1,494 words

On FSI’s webpage you talk about moving away from “best practices” and you recently wrote a book entitled Reincarnation: The Death and Rebirth of Marketing. You seem to be developing an approach that is evolving beyond the practices of the past. What do you see as the contrast between the work you’re doing and approaches that are based on “best practices”?

I have grown up in the marketing industry and recognize that much of it is a learned craft, based upon the “best practices” developed over time from the successes and failures of your predecessors. There is a belief that the fastest way to learn how to do something is to just follow what others have done before. I can’t say that that is entirely wrong, but the trouble is that there is a cultural context that changes over time to alter what is of value. Best practices are static, but culture and the concept of value for goods and services are fluid. Consider the differences between generations. Everyone talks about Millennials, Gen-Y, Gen-Z, Gen L-M-N-O-P. They all have their own subculture, preferences and rules. The world has changed. Best practices are for people who are process-oriented: you can follow best practices blindly, but the real game changers are those who understand that we don’t live in a vacuum, so what worked before doesn’t necessarily work now. Culture changes.

And your team relies on social science research to understand these changes in cultural context, right?
Yes, absolutely.

The meaning that has been created in the goods and services that everybody buys are not intrinsic to those goods and services, it’s actually our culture that says a diamond has more value than a ruby, and gold has more value than silver, an Apple mobile device has more value than a Nokia or what have you.

Can you tell us a bit about the methodology behind that?
It’s applied anthropology. I’m not an anthropologist, so the methodology is handled by our team, but the process of identifying cultural forces is key. There’s lots of academic research that they mine, but they also apply their own knowledge of social theory to make sense of what they see. Whether the data source is an ethnographic study or a study driven by social data–or even an observational study when they go out into the market to observe people, our staff applies the same kind of thinking to all of these kinds of data, which makes all of it cultural data we then use in our Brand Eco-system model to develop strategy for brands.

Once your team has distilled this cultural data, how do you connect it to brand development?
Great question. We are not here fussing about with complex cultural concepts just for the sake of making people smarter. That’s completely useless if you can’t do anything with it. We’ve found a way to take those insights and integrate them into a brand strategy by asking questions such as: “What are the cultural forces and tensions that are acting on the consumer to influence how they perceive value?” or “What are the conventions or the categories that you may or may not want to disrupt?” The answers to these questions, along with the brand equities and other end user insight data, build a proposition to bridge between research findings and brand strategy that illuminates a new pathway to growth. Through that proposition, we are able to connect culture to brands by saying: “My brand is going to fight for this; or it’s going to fight to resolve this tension; or it’s going to align with this cultural force, or cultural rule, or even fly in the face of it.” The meanings that have been created around the goods and services that everybody buys are not intrinsic to those goods and services. It’s actually our culture telling us that a diamond has more value than a ruby, or gold has more value than silver, or an Apple mobile device has more value than a Nokia, or what have you. That’s the domain of culture. If you can understand the domain of culture, and actually use that understanding to build a strategy, you can build the smartest strategies. In particular, you can build a strategy that aligns with the values that people have. Then, when you build a strategy model that integrates your understanding of the culture and the cultural forces of your target market into your brand proposition, it becomes very powerful.

When using social science evidence, how do you and your team make sure that you’re doing so in a way that is not exploitative or manipulative of people and culture?
We believe that when people make a purchase, whether it be a home, a car, a vacation package or whatever it is, they are actually using that product or service to add meaning to their lives. If you come to marketing from that point of view, it suggests that the choice they’re making is actually very important to them. From that perspective, the marketer has a responsibility to do the right thing by those consumers, who are choosing a certain product in order to craft their identity. It’s an honour to help create the context and meaning for the items that people use in that way. We’re all about making a meaningful impact, and what I mean by that is that we want our clients to feel like the products and services they are putting to market can be meaningful, and that doing the work itself can be enjoyable; and ultimately, we want the end users-whether it’s a doctor prescribing medication or a consumer buying a new hat for a vacation—to be the ones who feel the meaningful impact of our client’s work most deeply.

You’ve mentioned that creating meaning sometimes requires introducing new, potentially “disruptive” ideas. Can you tell us a little bit about what that means?
Yeah, you know, it’s funny. Many years ago, Ries and Trout wrote this book called The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing—and I preach this all the time—the number one rule of marketing is that it’s better to be different than just to be better. And of course, Ries and Trout were proven to be right by the neurology experts. The human brain registers things that stand out from the pack. However, critical to this approach is knowing what the category conventions are. And if the category conventions are such that many brands align with a particular cultural norm, then we disrupt that by saying, “Well, let’s not go down the same path. Let’s look at another cultural force and figure out, could that help us build a proposition that is different, that is disruptive to a category?”

If you can understand the domain of culture, and actually use it to build strategy, you can build the smartest strategies. In particular, you can build strategy that aligns with the values that people have.

So where do you go from here?
One thing is unquestionably true in marketing right now: every successful marketer has learned that success is often about execution. You can have the best strategy in the world, but if you don’t execute well, it’s useless. You will not succeed.

The problem is, execution is sometimes a client’s only focus. I want to say: “I know you’re executing and that’s awesome, but if you pause and take a look at what you’re executing, you might actually recognize that you’re not differentiated or you’re not relevant, because the world has moved on and you haven’t been paying attention.”

And as we’ve worked with our clients on this kind of awareness, some have actually asked us to move into execution as well. It’s a big move! We’re creating deliverables that essentially started as inside deliverables but have ended up being shared in the marketplace. So there are really no boundaries for us anymore. We can be a fully integrated marketing agency that provides a level of thinking that is very unique. And as a result, our clients have started to engage us from the other end of the spectrum, saying, “Hey, we need a new website.” Because we’re an insight-strategy-to-execution company, we start from the beginning and say, “Okay, let’s understand who your customer is.” And of course, being a research-based organization, we’re able to actually do that in a way that has a lot of credibility and power. That’s a big opportunity, and I think that as Peeps, goes on to really normalize the use of culture and anthropology for a wider audience, it will build momentum behind this kind of proposition. So I think our kind of company will be able to grow.

The idea that anthropology and cultural studies can have a greater voice in the field of marketing is absolutely critical, I think. We see it as our responsibility to help normalize, if you will, the use of anthropology and an understanding of culture for business.