promiscuous limbs, stop watches, and the old customer sausage grinder

Americans developed a need to pick up a gun, aim it at another human, and pull the trigger fairly early on in our history. No sooner was our country born in the heat of revolution that we needed some elbow room, only to find our path blocked by other people already occupying the greener grass of the other fence side. Guns were, and to an extent still are, personal empowerment devices.

While guns of the time were beautiful examples of handicraft, if some little piece got broken or bent it was off to the gunsmith for an extended visit. The notion that you could pull a part out of one and promiscuously place it into another was a pipe dream. Necessity being the mother of invention, it wasn’t long before a cooper from Maine, John Hall, applied a tremendous amount of thought to solving the problems of precision manufacturing.  Developing solutions in better machining tools and the creation of rigorous processes resulted in American armories overflowing with rifles that could be easily assembled, and reassembled using parts from other rifles.

Process would later come under the scrutiny of tennis champion and machinist, Frederich Winslow Taylor, who is credited with the development of “scientific management”.  He and his protege, Henry L. Gantt (the developer of the popular project management tool, the Gantt Chart) were also some of the first management consultants. Taylor endeavored to measure the incremental steps in various tasks, such as filling a wheelbarrow with dirt – carefully measuring each constituent sub-task – both to better understand how the work could be made more efficient, and as a means for management to estimate the effort required for any job.

Some of the challenges that Taylor faced in making those kind of measurements included the time required for an individual to rest between shovelfuls. The fact that different people need different rests resulted in a bit of a fudge factor in Taylor’s formula, thus subjecting Taylor’s thinking to quite a bit of criticism.  The approach, however, lives on in Total Quality Management, Six Sigma, and Capability Maturity Model – all modern means to process maturation and improvement.

Marketing from 19th Century

Considering how late in our history we developed more methodical approaches to manufacturing, it’s no wonder that many historians consider marketing to be a product of the 20th century.  While PT Barnum might have been a pretty adept maker of publicity, he wasn’t exactly applying modern marketing concepts to his advertising, he was simply remarkably intuitive in his abilities.  The same could be said for Thomas Edison in his aligning of his competitors’ products with lethality– great intuitive thoughts in brand management – but again, hardly modern marketing.

In 1900, divers discovered a wreck off the coast of Crete, which not only yielded ancient sculptures, but a mechanism that has been described as a mechanical calendar, replete with miniaturized gears.  The discovery of the so-called Antikythera mechanism meant that historians had to dramatically rethink notions of the advancement of ancient engineers.  Likewise, a couple of years before the discovery of the Antikythera mechanism, an American thinker was devising some approaches that to me look like marketing.

Advertising manager, Elias St. Elmo Lewis devised a diagram to help salesmen better understand how to induce customers to purchase.  The diagram that came to be known as the “purchase funnel” was based on the notion that customers had to move through several stages:

  • AWARENESS – the customer is aware of the existence of a product or service
  • INTEREST – actively expressing an interest in a product group
  • DESIRE – aspiring to a particular brand or product
  • ACTION – taking the next step towards purchasing the chosen product
While later pundits have added stages (such as advocacy, or intent to act again), and modified some of the descriptions, the fundamental gist of the Purchase Funnel has been taught for over 100 years.

I can imagine how on being presented this model for the first time, salesmen and executives at the National Cash Register Company (now NCR) experiencing a wonderful “aha!” moment. And that afterwards, they would always be able to tidily  see their relationship with their customers in that light.

Lately, however, many thinkers have been questioning the linearity of the old Purchase Funnel.  Do consumers really behave in such a straightforward fashion? A group of authors writing for McKinsey Quarterly wrote, “A more sophisticated approach is required to help marketers navigate this environment, which is less linear and more complicated than the funnel suggests.”

David Armano, digital and visualization impresario from Edelman has presented another model that like the McKinsey model, emphasizes the cyclical nature of our relationship with the consumer. As Armano writes, “We come together with others who feel the same way.  We instantly bond with them over our shared interests and experiences.  Community forms.  Then one day, someone who’s never tried brand or service X hears about it from a friend.  A member of some community.  They fire up their digital device of choice and the interaction begins once again—a new spiral is formed.”

((image used with permission from David Armano

Other critics of the sales, consumer, or purchase funnel have pointed out that the visualization of the data has no real mathematical relevance.  The ratio of Aware to Interest is not captured in the diagram’s visualization.  But then, that is a weakness of the funnel diagram in general, not the use of the diagram in visualizing the stages of a consumer’s journey.

I have a feeling that neither that criticism nor any of the newer models necessarily obviate St. Elmo Lewis’ concept.  In broad brushstrokes, there is an underlying, if not obvious reality, that consumers go from being unaware to being aware of a brand.  True, they might become aware, forget, become aware again, and so on – but as I stated, it is a good approximation of what happens. Thus, as a tool, why should we discard it? At least with those proverbial broad brushstrokes, we can consider the ROI of awareness (link) or of the increase in advocacy.

On the other hand, the newer models do underline the fact that our relationships with our customers is richer and deeper than we imagined, and that our own “aha!” moment is about taking that in.  Like a person who has learned to differentiate a maple from an elm from an oak tree sees the trees in the forest, we may come to see our markets within the context of greater complexities.

Some extra references:

Connected TV vs. Over the Top: What’s the Difference?

New Year, New Strategy: 3 Elements for Digital Strategy Success in 2022

Meet Elizabeth Banks, Archer Roose’s “Uninvited Guest”

Marketing in the Time of Coronavirus