Why today’s advertising is just like a supermarket tomato

By Nigel Hollis, Chief Global Analyst – Kantar

The fundamental problem with the average supermarket tomato is that it is designed to travel well and look good but, as a result, it does not taste of much. A similar affliction applies to a lot of advertising today: it is efficient but not necessarily effective.

Here in the North East of the US we have now reached the time of year when local farmer’s markets are in full swing. Socially distanced and with everyone wearing masks it is not business as usual, but the attraction of fresh fruit and vegetables is too great to ignore. For me, this time offers a reminder of just how good a tomato tastes. The huge, often misshapen, heirloom tomatoes available at the local market highlight are juicy, fresh and rich tasting, confirming that the pale, anaemic fruits available during “California season,” when the vast majority of fruit and vegetables have travelled thousands of miles to get to the supermarket, are just no substitute.

The problem with today’s typical supermarket tomato was summed up in this segment with a quote from Harry Klee, professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida, “After World War Two, breeders intensively focused on improving varieties, increasing yield, getting disease resistance. Flavour has been neglected and it’s deteriorated dramatically.”

The problem is that taste is hard to track. Breeders focused on breeding for disease resistance, shippability and shelf life which could be measured and helped ensure a better return on investment. Meanwhile the taste of many tomatoes eroded. Today we all know that supermarket tomatoes taste bland, but our options are limited. You either buy what is easily available for your salads, sauces or sandwiches or grow your own, which is tough to do in the North East winter.

To me, the story of how we got bland tomatoes is similar to why so much marketing fails to engage its intended audience. Too much time and resource has been spent on figuring out how to get content in front of people on a cost-efficient basis and not enough on what content people might want to attend to once it gets in front of them. After all, it is easy to measure cost-per-impression or click, not so easy to measure whether the content made a lasting impression and will eventually change people’s behaviour.

Part of the problem with both the taste of the tomato and the effectiveness of marketing content is that the producers and distributors are not the consumers. Delivering tons of unspoilt tomatoes to a retailer is a bit like delivering thousands of display ads across an ad network. The distributor can say, “They got where they were meant to go, job done.” Meanwhile the metrics involved make it easy for the buyer to say, “Next time, let’s have the same again only cheaper.” The end audience does not have any say in the matter. All they can do is avoid engaging with insipid content or, if forced to watch, forget it soon after exposure. And yet, if the audience is not motivated or influenced by what they see and hear, why bother?

A new report authored by Paul Dyson and Kantar’s Duncan Southgate finds an apparent mismatch between what marketers believe drives advertising profitability and the relative importance identified by econometric modeling. Southgate states, “Marketers generally tend to over-estimate the relative importance of media mix allocation, balancing brand vs performance marketing, and targeting, while they tend to under-estimate the importance of brand size, creative quality and budget setting across geographies and portfolios.”

The problem is that the easily available data tends to ignore the biggest factor in terms of profitability: the creative. According to Dyson and Southgate, effective creative can have 12 times the impact on profitability as ineffective. By comparison, great targeting has 1.1 times the impact that poor targeting does.

To return to the comparison with supermarket tomatoes, if growers and retailers had wanted to track how the changes made to improve efficiency of production and distribution also impacted taste, they could have done so. New hybrids could have been tested with the people who would end up paying for them, to see whether the end consumer noticed a diminution of flavour. Provided a benchmark tomato was used in order to avoid “death by a thousand cuts,” where marginal decreases in quality from one variant to the next are statistically insignificant but add up over time to a big decrease, consumer taste tests could have helped us avoid today’s bland supermarket tomato.

And, of course, the same holds true for advertising. If you want content that people will attend to, and which will influence how they behave, it is perfectly possible to test your content before it gets distributed. In fact, thanks to Kantar Marketplace it has never been easier to quickly determine whether your ads will successfully engage people and deliver against your brand objectives.

The biggest reason to do so is not to avoid the opportunity cost of wasted media budget, it is the upside potential of being able to improve your content from supermarket bland to farm stand tasty, something that people want to devour, talk about and come back for more.

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