old advert for a steak restuarant

Should we treat learning like brand marketing?


Seth Godin is a provocative and quotable author. Feeling provoked, I will quote him here and ponder relevance to learning (as many have done before me). As an editorial note, this is very much pondering out loud. I’m interested to know what others think.

I have underlined many sections of This Is Marketing over the last few weeks. I found myself pausing for a while over his discussion of brand marketing and direct marketing. Brand marketing “creates magic”: changing attitudes and relationships and bringing ideas to life for customers. Direct response marketing is about causing a measurable action – getting people to react in specific ways.

Godin is refreshingly simple in his view, stating that brand marketing is about changing the culture. It takes time and cannot be measured. Unlike direct marketing, which has to be measured. Both are valuable and can work well together, but he warns us off confusing the two.

“If you’re buying brand marketing ads, be patient. Refuse to measure. Engage with the culture. Focus, by all means, but mostly, be consistent and patient. If you can’t afford to be consistent and patient, don’t pay for brand marketing ads.”

Seth Godin: This Is Marketing, 2019.

I was struck by the similarity with learning projects and that thorny quest for impact and measurement of change. Should we take a similar view and “refuse to measure”, accepting that it is meaninglessly difficult? Seems risky, no? Brand advertising is broadcast in nature and does not require interaction with the audience. Learning should have an active audience relationship.

There is something helpful, though, in that call for patience and consistency. Single interventions are also risky. Good brand marketing is campaign based, taking time to develop messaging and reinforce it through a variety of tactics over time. Clarity through consistency is required to develop the campaign. I don’t think he is exhorting us not to gather evidence, but to focus on cultural signals rather than narrow activity measures – and in addition to direct metrics, not instead of. That was my take.

The last sentence of the quote is highly relevant for learning design. If we are unable to take that time and attention, then we should not take that route at all. Or not expect to understand results. There is also an emphasis on all of our contact points as a business being part of the brand experience, from first message to final farewell. “Every slice of every interaction ought to reflect the whole”. Programme designers beware.

If this is the case, we should stick to direct tactics and take a close view of what our audiences do with what we make. Digital content design and management is our analogue here, along with managing the products that house it. We should only ever employ these if we are measuring them. If we are not ready to attract clicks and actions and record them, we should do something else. Data analysis is the oxygen of this activity.

Advertising goals are not the same as learning goals, clearly. (They are not always different, however). A conversion is not the same as a new skill developed or knowledge securely acquired. There are important complexities to understand, and we need to be careful of taking the analogy too far. And yet, we can learn from what Godin is suggesting as elements that can support our goals.

Audience relationships and behaviour understanding need to be a specialist strength of L&D in the manner it is for marketing professionals – we should be excellent at this stuff. The science of learning will take us in other directions for sure, but should not take us away from that. Metrics and analytics supplemented by insight from meaningful customer relationships is our shared foundation.

Anyway. It’s a good, read if you’re looking for recommendations.

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