marketing clutter

There has never been a greater level of marketing clutter. Yankelovich Consumer Research charts that “we’ve gone from being exposed to about 500 marketing messages a day back in the 1970s to as many as 5,000 a day today.”

At the same time, marketing communication is often little more than a string of adjectives: bigger, better, faster, cheaper, etc.

So we marketers are interrupting consumers more, but with fewer meaningful things to say. I like how Professor Youngme Moon characterizes this dynamic in her business book, Different:

“Today we have more of everything. More brands. More products. More choices. But it all just feels like more of the same. A great big blur of similarity. And most companies are stuck on a competitive treadmill, competing like crazy trying to keep up with each other. But this only makes them just like everyone else.”

Against this noisy backdrop, it’s important to remember that we can’t break through the clutter by adding to it. We can’t draw attention by shouting louder. Instead, we break through the clutter by sounding different.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post. I’ll pick one comment by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

  1. Hiro Funahashi says

    It’s so true, Tom. I looked back at our ads and realized that our ads are full of our-products-will-cut-your-production-cost-less-and-increase-your-productivity-more kind of advertisement. Instead we should simply say: “We will cut your cost -15%!” – be concise and different!
    Your cartoons are great and insightful!! Thank you!

  2. Beth Wingate says

    Astute message. Applies equally well to my profession – proposal management, where we constantly bombard proposal evaluators with messaging that really needs to be focused on differentiators – what makes our offering stand out from the crowd.

  3. Kim O'Rourke says

    I completely agree: I think businesses of all sizes have lost their soul and passion. They seem to spend all their time chasing the money (understandable to some degree in times of economic austerity) and get more and more desparate to find a way to say why or how they’re different from every one of thier competitors saying the same thing.

    If their message comes from the heart and soul of the company (easy with a small business, harder work with a blue chip), and they are truly passionate and love the services or products they provide, then surely that would make “the difference”?

    Sure, in marketing terms, you should “zig” when everyone else is “zagging”, but you need to find a place to do that from: a place that is true and genuine to the company. Find and communicate your message from that place, from the heart and soul of a business, and that message will rise above the rest of the noise and clutter out there.


  4. Bill Carlson says

    Rise *below* the clutter!

    Sounding different is certainly ideal where there is actually something different to say though of course, that becomes the next thing that everyone says…

    And of course, there’s how you say it — with a never-ending barrage of creativity in trying to capture consumer interest. Which oddly and perhaps contradictorally translates to increasing the clutter because some new marketing campaign on steroids from one brand forces competitors (actually, everyone!) to elevate their efforts as well. Sort of like being the first car to go faster than others — pretty soon everyone is going faster in an absolute sense but no real gain in a relative one.

    One way to stand out from the ever-growing marketing “noise” is to increase your relevance. Today’s digital tools combined with knowledge of consumers at an individual level make it possible to deliver more personalized messaging. Highly-targeted emails and online ads, social media, etc., which offer messages that are more focused on the individual target may rise above the generic onslaught…

    Adding individual relevance to the targeting and messaging strategy also helps marketers to address the differentiation challenge mentioned in the last cartoon — different differences (sorry for that wording!) may resonate with particular consumers. Rather than one broad claim of “best” or “faster”, marketers can deliver one or the other to audiences who prioritize those factors differently.

    We all seek to match message to a segment but today’s marketers looking to stand out from the clutter will see the market as being comprised of over 300 million consumer segments of one consumer each.

  5. Kimmra says

    Great message here, and it just takes a trip down the aisle to see it in practice. When we become too internally or category focused, we are often talking to ourselves vs. seeing what is really meaningful difference to our consumers. Thanks!

  6. Concetta says

    Tom, great message as usual. The thought comes to mind in reading it, though, is that the problem may be in the marketing, but also in product development. Have any of these companies stopped to think if we need *another* variety of Product X? So often I’m seeing a product that has 10 different brands in the space, with no discernible differences between them other than the Batman-like Bigger! Faster! Colorful! Cheaper!

    Companies need to go back to the product development line and admit that its ok to not have a product in every category at the store unless they have developed something truly different that can stand alone. Gilette’s ProGlide Styler comes to mind – the men’s razor category is full of “Me too” offerings, and its rare to find one that stands out from the others. Instead of issuing the newest “X number of blades” razor, Gillette decided to try and issue something different that fills a real hole in the marketplace.

  7. Phyllis Stewart says

    Your email was the first I opened this morning. I like to start my week with a fresh perspective. Today’s cartoon and message are spot on.

    I remember when there were 4 choices to make in the toothpaste aisle – gel or paste by either Colgate or Crest. I hate buying toothpaste now. My brain freezes when I survey the choices. Do I want white teeth, or healthy gums? What about tarter control and sensitive teeth? If I choose to have white teeth – does that mean I cannot have tarter control? I tried the new one – it promises white teeth, tarter control, healthy gums, and fresh breath. It tastes like industrial cleaner.

    When it comes to toothpaste – I don’t want it all. I don’t want to give 10 minutes of my time to make the choice. I just want a tube of the original Colgate Gel. Tastes good. Works just fine.

  8. Sue says

    Brilliant, timely ‘toon, Tom!

    That’s why I prefer shopping at Trader Joe’s I like FEWER choices.

    “Never in history has the human brain been asked to track so many data points,” says Dr. Edward Hallowell (author Driven to Distraction/psychiatrist who specializes in treatment of ADD) He calls it: “Attention Deficit Trait” and says it is rampant in business world and “purely a response to the hyperkinetic environment in which we live.” Its hallmark symptoms mimic those of ADD. He says the challenge “can be controlled only by creatively engineering one’s environment and one’s emotional and physical health.”

    In other words: Less is more.

    I love The Scream, that IS how I feel trying to pick out my favorite A&M baking soda toothpaste….I have to read thru so many other new & improved choices to find it and I often end up buying the “wrong” formula by mistake…I don’t realize it til it tastes weird.

  9. George says

    In most cases it is not a challenge of being “different” it is a matter of being “in fashion”, having the “go-to product” that makes for a successful product. The iPod is just an mp3 player but no one buys it because they want to be different they buy it because they want to be in fashion. Having product easily perceived as different may get you attention and consideration but if you are going after a market with an established leader or entrenched product being too different can actually hurt chances for success. In this situation the challenge is to be different in a “good” way.
    True break-through products are the real different but in a special class by themselves with their own set of marketing problems.

  10. DSprogis says


    Another great toon and timely with the Munch reference too!

    I feel this way all the time when buying a new product and it shouldn’t be so difficult. My worst experience with this was sorting through diaper options as a new parent. There was no guidance on the packaging or on the web about the different styles. As far as I could tell, the only difference that mattered was size.

  11. Matt Harrison says

    There is only one cheapest, the rest need to do something different. The best and more successful companies have something unquie and so marketing takes car of itself.

  12. Kenan Nashat says

    I love this one Tom. We often don’t take responsibility for the impact our profession has on our unsuspecting audience -the ‘somebody can clean up the mess as long as it’s not me’ approach, is prevalent.

  13. John E. Smith says

    Hi, Tom – more good stuff. I particularly enjoyed the video and have shared it. I cannot speak to the mega-corporation, but I have some thoughts around the small business or sole practitioner on this issue.

    If you are trying to be truly different than someone else, you have to offer a different product or service. Too often, we forget that and try to make our version of “whatever” sound different than someone else’s version.

    This leads to a focus on superficial aspects, such as packaging.

    The world is full of folks who offer a good quality experience of some type. Many of these are going to be pretty similar. The best are based on some type of research, so a natural reduction of variance sets in.

    Take coaching, for example, which is a service. Some agreement exists about what makes for effective coaching, so the reputable coaches will offer services that, past the superficial stuff, are pretty similar.

    What makes the difference then? The personal qualities of the person … how they sound, look, and act.

    Now we have to focus on how to tell the difference between “flash” and substance:)

    Thanks for stimulating my brain cells a bit on this rainy Monday morning.


  14. Suzanne says

    How timely! I literally was shopping for a hair dryer yesterday, and a total stranger and I ended up staring at the aisle in utter confusion. We both decided the only true differentiator was color, and maybe whether the cord retracted…neither of which speaks to product performance. It was just frustrating. (Do any of you work for Con Air? Please stop.)

    So often I get hit with the opposite issue. In the world of food products I often hear marketers thinking equal preference means equal product attributes. How wrong that is. Yes, you do need products to be different to be preferred, but a person can equally prefer products that are very different. (Think cars…I can distinguish a Porsche from a Ferrari, but I might like both of them equally well.)

    Bottom line…you do need to be different to be distinguished from others, but that’s no guarantee you’ll be preferred. The difference has to have meaning or relevance to your consumer (not just a different color or a retractable cord).

  15. Martha says

    You got that right! As someone who helps all sorts of clients develop concepts, it is shocking how many think these types of words are helpful. Getting clients to think about own able and unique differences is a huge challenge. This is universal across the diverse categories in which I work – cookies to chemicals!

    Thanks for a good Monday laugh – always a great way to start the week.

  16. Diah says

    Hi Tom,your article is very much addressing to our situation especially in Consumer Market. To be “different” is always what marketers want, but at the end we will end-up in the same basket as others because “different” means “never been exist before”, need deep deep insight and thought to find it, its quite a challenge.

    I really like this, thanks

  17. Sarah Farrugia says

    Like the Purple Cow before it, I expect this book will inspire us to help ourselves and those we work for to do the right thing, to create a diverse world and culture that reflects the real evolution we are experiencing, the creative evolution. Not survival of the fittest, but expression of the creative…thanks for giving us even more permission to be who we are as people and as organisations.

  18. Priz says

    Topical, funny and insightful at a number of levels. Edvard Munch would be laughing. Well done.

  19. leucome says

    Ok I remember my girfriend being addict to a X brand. She said her mp3 was the best thing ever and the service was so good because the player broke 3 time and she got and new one each time whitout any question. I remember her player was about 3 time more expensivee too. And how someone can think something is good when it’s alway broken. So I often feel like if it’s kown and expesive inproved faster and better sure I will need there good sevice because they now forgot to just build something that works and last.. So maybe doing sometyhing different is a good thing but not just because it’s diferrent because they put all their efforts for it.

  20. Julian Sharples says

    We break through the clutter by being who we really are. Which by definition is unique. But more importantly it is true. Genuine. This is what consumers are short of – authenticity – in a world of “made up-ness” it cuts through and touches people’s hearts.

  21. says

    Hi all,

    Thanks for the great banter and insights this week. I learned a lot from all of you!

    This week’s cartoon goes to Kim O’Rourke, who brought up the importance of purpose to this discussion. It’s not just about zigging instead of zagging, it’s about standing for something that matters to your audience. It reminds me of the the Simon Sinek quote, “People don’t buy what you make. They buy why you make it.” It’s not about the marketing superlatives.


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