Should Marketing Be a Linear Process?

Don E. Schultz
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways

What? Linear concepts dominant Western civilization, but they are antiquated in modern marketing.

So what? Consumers now engage differently with marketing campaigns. Don E. Schultz argues marketers must consider nonlinear customer journeys.

Now what? Not all old concepts can be thrown out the window, Schultz says. Customers still respond to many of those. However, new concepts and ideas are clearly needed as consumers find new and many-numbered paths to purchase. 

​July 22, 2016

Linear concepts and approaches drive how we live, but should marketers always follow a linear process?

Western civilizations have always been about lines. Think of the R​oman legions whose basic fighting structure was a box-shaped phalanx. We still line up for school activities. Many, if not most, of our organizational structures are based on lines and boxes. We read in a linear fashion, one word after another, one paragraph after another, one page after another. No wonder much of our marketing and communication planning and implementation is focused on and driven by linear concepts and approaches. 

Compare that to the Eastern cultures where eating is commonly a group event, conducted on round tables. In the East, there are few hard edges. The most common response to a difficult question is, “It depends …” Even Native American discussions, conferences and powwows are conducted while everyone is in a circle. Linearity seems to be unique to Western culture. 

Linearity has pervaded marketing philosophy. The most dominant marketing concepts have developed out of linear processes used to structure marketing plans, advertising campaigns and even media programs. All are planned, developed and implemented via linear structures. Just look at our planning process: We start with a situation analysis, then move on to marketing goals, then linearly flesh out those with advertising programs, followed by linear media plans. All linear. All one step followed by another. At the end of the marketing process, unless we can avoid it, we try to measure the results, again with linear models. All those seem to assume consumers move in lock-step through the marketing systems we have developed. 


For example, we use funnels to guide and direct our linear programs and control consumer behaviors. We put prospects at the top, apply our marketing and communication magic and then see them come out as enthusiastic brand supporters at the other end. We’re always in control, and prospects are always pliable. That’s the way it has always been, and that’s the way it’s going to be, or at least that’s the way we think it should be. 

I began musing on this linear marketing process several months ago, wondering how it started, how it developed and whether or not it makes any sense in today’s interactive, multilayered, circuitous, increasingly social media-dominated marketplace, where one post can start a landslide of public discussion and change of opinion. 

It seems much of this dominant linear marketing and advertising thinking started in the early 1960s with the still-dominant concept of the hierarchy of effects as proposed by Robert Lavidge and Gary Steiner.  

The hierarchy-of-effects approach, seemingly the mother of all linear marketing processes, was hypothesized by two Chicago-based marketing research gurus. They speculated that the basic model for marketing and advertising practice followed a linear process that started with awareness and led to consumer knowledge from which preference was developed. Finally, conviction completed the process. At that point, it was assumed consumers were ready to buy. Lavidge and Steiner argued that while their process didn’t lead directly to sales, as it was only a communication model, the end result came out the same. The key point was that marketing communication activities led prospects through the process. Therefore, the more marketing messages delivered, the faster the prospect would move to “conviction” and likely purchase on the next occasion. The model was all outbound and all controlled by the marketing organization, which made it particularly attractive to marketing managers focused on growing their brands and justifying their budgets and spending.  

While the hierarchy-of-effects approach was a useful methodology for marketers challenged to grow sales and profits in the last century, it is not so much the model itself that challenges marketers today as it is the marketing and media fallout it has created. For example, the concept of “share of voice” grew directly out of hierarchy of effects thinking and planning. If marketing communications directly drove prospects through the process, and, if I, as a marketer, outspent or out-communicated my competitor, I would move more prospects more quickly in the direction favoring my brand. Likewise, the hierarchy-of-effects model provided an easy and convenient way to track and measure the success of any marketing communication program. The marketing manager could watch prospects move from knowledge to preference, thus justifying the communication investments. 

Another fallout of the hierarchy-of-effects model has been the reach and frequency approach, which has developed in media planning. Reach is simply how many prospects or consumers were exposed to the marketing messaging. The question then became, how much frequency was required to generate movement through the hierarchy-of-effects process? Lavidge and Steiner never really addressed that issue, so it was done by someone else.


Herbert Krugman, research director at General Electric​ in 1963, speculated that “television worked through three exposures.” In the first, the consumer said, “What is it?” The reaction to the second exposure was, “I understand it,” and the third exposure resulted in, “I don’t need to see it again,” or audience saturation. Media experts lifted this approach and applied it to the hierarchy-of-effects concept so that all media planning is based on this optimization of reach at three exposures. That is considered the base for all media planning. There is no real support for the concept, but every media optimization model around the world uses the “three exposures” as its optimization base. 

But, what about today? New media forms, new technologies, new mobile forms of communication; new everything—except the old linear models which support them. No wonder we have so much difficulty getting agreement on how we should communicate, at what level and what effect to assume or measure.

The greatest problem with these linear models and their fallout is that this is not the way the world works today. Prospects aren’t malleable and pliable receptors of marketing and communication messages, no matter how they’re delivered. They simply have access to too much external information. The traditional brag-and-boast approaches delivered to undifferentiated audiences are simply no longer relevant. Dressing up these messages and incentives in “engagement-stimulating activities,” such as price-reducing coupons and freebies, doesn’t seem to work either. 

So, what to do? Clearly, we can’t toss out all the historical research that has been done and start over. There are still too many customers and prospects who use and believe in traditional advertising and marketing communication to discard what we know works. Nor does it seem possible or practical to accept all the new concepts and approaches to interactivity. There just isn’t enough evidence of a hugely committed social media audience (with money) to keep a business afloat. We clearly need some new concepts, approaches and thinking to get over this transition hump. 

First, most of the hierarchy-of-effects models and their kith and kin treat all customers and prospects alike, assuming they all go through the process at the same rate with the same level of interest and acceptance. What if we simply created some groups of prospective customers based on their media consumption? Then, we treat them as individual audiences, moving them through the various stages based on the media forms they use. Same concept, different views on how to use it. 

When it comes to optimization, what if we flipped the model around? Not how to optimize media distribution, but what if we found ways to optimize consumer income flows that return to the marketing organization? Same principle, different view of the value.

Or, what if we scrapped the entire idea of a linear model? What if we accepted the increasingly recognized idea that consumers start, stop and reverse themselves, try new approaches, go out of the market for a while and even get to the “altar of purchase” and then simply walk away? We’re quickly learning that customer journeys aren’t linear or predictable; they’re more like a bowl of spaghetti that is all tangled up, messy and not very coherent. What that seems to require is starting with the customer and working back to the product and the problem to be solved so we can develop some type of understanding. 

In the classroom I use Legos and Tinker Toys to illustrate this concept. I ask students to build a consumer behavior model from the toys. They quickly learn that Legos only go together in one way and that is driven by the linear concept on which they are based. Tinker Toys, however, can be put together in infinite patterns based on the ingenuity of the student. They quickly grasp the concept. Maybe that’s what marketers need to do as well. 


Author Bio:

Don E. Schultz
Don E. Schultz is a professor (emeritus-in-service) of integrated marketing communications at Northwestern University.
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