Break Through the Noise in Marketing by Doing Less

Aug 16, 2021

Imagine having to break through the marketing noise in the most competitive market on the planet. 😱

Broadway theater, simply known as Broadway, is popular in New York City with 41 professional theaters (each with more or less 500 seats):

Broadway theater is a tough market to break through the noise

With more than 14.7 million people in 2018/19 buying tickets to see shows like The Lion King, Hamilton, The Phantom of The Opera, or The Book of Mormon, it’s arguably one of the most cluttered markets on the planet.

Broadway show producer and two-time Tony Award-winning Ken Davenport is known for his “marketing stunts” to cut through the noise.

Ken Davenport successfully broke through the noise and marketed a new Broadway show

In 2007, he raised $175,000 to build awareness for a show called My First Time, featuring "four actors in hysterical and heartbreaking stories about first sexual experiences written by real people ... just like you."

Pay attention to how he managed to compete against bigger plays that have been around for 20 years or more:

“I optioned a website called My First I combed through 60,000 stories anonymously submitted and wrote a play based on these stories: monologue snippets, funny stories, sad stories, and tragic stuff like everything you could imagine.

Sexual experiences are one of the few things that almost every person on this planet has in common. And that's actually what I believe makes for great theater or a great conversation and great marketing. I remember thinking, ‘Who should see this?’

Virgins should see this show because that is the most important audience for me because I wanted to demystify the experience. As I was writing it, I realized there were some awful statistics, with a very high percentage of people losing their virginity when they were drunk or under the influence of drugs.

The best way to educate, I believe is through entertainment. It's what I call the spoonful of sugar approach. People don't realize they're getting taught something because they're being entertained at the same time.

So I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this will be wonderful if I can get teenagers to come with their parents!’

Six months later, I'm about to open the show, and I'm trying to increase awareness. So what you need to do is something big to get attention without spending money.

Well, what's my mission for the show? My mission is to get virgins to see it. So why don't I let virgins come in free for the first performance?

That seemed like an interesting idea to me and a lot of people. And then I was like, ‘It's not enough.’ When I told people that story, they usually said, ‘But how could you tell if they were a virgin or not?’

So I hired a human lie detector, someone with a Ph.D. in nonverbal communication, reading, body language, handwriting analysis, the whole bit. And I put him at the front of the line at the box office to ask questions, ‘Where are you from? How old are you? Write your name.’ And he could tell if people were a virgin or not based on this little question. So.

As you could imagine, that story blew up. The associated press picked up on the press release and sent it worldwide. And that's when it started to appear on the homepage of CNN, TMZ, you name it.”

To break through the noise, Ken Davenport had to compete against more than other Broadway shows.

He competed against alternatives for entertainment in general.

There's a lot to do in New York City. There are more than 300 cinemas, 100 museums, 26,697 restaurants, and even one Britney-themed drag bingo at The Cauldron every Thursday.

All of those also have marketing budgets to compete for the attention of tourists and locals.

But that’s not it.

Ken also competed against Netflix, taking a nap, YouTube, Reddit, browsing through Instagram for hours, etc.

Those are all ways for people to alleviate boredom. And just like the others, they have the resources to make some noise and be noticed.

But that’s not it.

People have very, very, very little time to think about entertainment (or your brand, for that matter).

They have worries and concerns just like we do.

They have other stuff to think about.

A 2020 study amongst 20,000 adults in 27 countries uncovered what the world worries about the most:

Marketers compete for attention, so we have to break through the noise to be noticed and remembered

Ultimately, Ken Davenport, just like all of us, is competing against clutter.

Break through the noise in marketing by recognizing the real competition: clutter

Brand strategist Marty Neumeier, in his book Zag:

Marty Neumeier on how marketers have to work hard to break through the noise

How do we cope with it?

We satisfice (a mix of satisfaction and suffice), a term coined by American economist Herbert A. Simon in 1957.

We settle for something that we consider good or satisfactory instead of working hard to find the best product for us.

In other words, tourists in NYC don’t spend hours arguing over which on- and off-Broadway show they want to attend. They tend to settle for the best-rated or the one they’ve heard about on the news.

Byron Sharp in How Brands Grow goes one step further. He argues that:

Buyers, in effect, decide not to consider the vast majority of brands in the market. Evaluation is way less important than we all think. Buyers drastically restrict their consideration set depending on the circumstances; when they’re pressed for time, when they’re tired, or when they just don’t care.”

A study by the same Byron Sharp across retail banking found that 73% of people looking for a new bank considered only ONE brand (while 17% considered two).

On average, those buyers considered 1.4 brands:

To break through the noise, you have to be top of mind to customers

But I don’t need to mention studies after studies to prove my point.

Just think about the last items you’ve purchased.

How do marketers typically try to break through the noise and deal with clutter?

One word: MORE.

More products.

More features in each product.

More messages.

More elements in each message.

More buyer personas to target.

More categories to go after.

More channels to test.

More, more, more.

This just adds to the clutter.

It's like trying to play bowling with a bucket full of tennis balls.

Sure, you might be able to brush against some of the bowling pins, but none of them will fall.

The bowling pins are just too heavy (1,600 grams vs. 60 grams for a tennis ball).

Break through the noise in marketing by throwing one bowling ball

Remember Ken Davenport’s story?

He did NOT hedge his bets across multiple segments, messages, channels, ideas. It would have diluted all of his efforts.

Instead, he spent all his energy (and $175,000 investment) on one 8kg bowling ball aimed at one bowling pin (making virgins watch his play and building a story around it) to have the highest chance of throwing a strike.

To break through the noise in marketing, sharply focus how you grab people's attention

Don’t try to fight clutter with more clutter.

Aim to be noticed, then understood, then thought about in buying situations, and then shared with others.

8 steps to cut through the noise in marketing

Step 1: Identify one underserved segment...

in one specific category, and lead with one core pain or desire.

Step 2: Create a SHARP product.

The more specific your segment, the more precise the value, the more you can spend time and energy developing a product or service that will serve them (and the more they will talk about their experience with people like them). Throw a bucket of tennis balls and run the risk of being noticed by no one.

Step 3: Be noticed with one single core message.

A study commissioned by global research agency Millward Brown (now Kantar) showed that the more messages an ad attempts to communicate, the lower the likelihood of any single message being communicated:

To break through the noise, you need to send only one message to your market

This can be explained by Miller’s Law, which dictates that the number of bits one can hold in one working memory is between 5 and 9 (for 10 to 15 seconds only!). Less is more.

Step 4: Be remembered by looking for gaps.

The Von Restorff Effect predicts that, when multiple similar things are presented, the one that differs from the rest is more likely to be remembered:

To break through the noise in marketing, be radically different

​​The Bizarreness Effect also predicts that incongruent/surprising things are more memorable.

“Researchers measured the brain activity of respondents, who while wearing EEG caps, read a series of sentences of which some contained semantically incongruous words like ‘Turtles are not as smart as mammals like socks or dogs.’

The data showed a large spike in brain activity when participants read the incongruous word in the sentence, suggesting these words resulted in a significant degree of involuntary attention and processing.”

To break through the noise in marketing, surprise people even in little ways

Step 5: Find one interesting channel.

Dave Gerhardt, CMO at Privy, explains:

Who are your dream 100 customers? Where do they hang out, in person and online? And I just make a whole list: they go to these conferences, they read these blogs, they listen to these podcasts, these influencers. They typically live in these areas.

Then I would go and look at the competitors in that industry. How do they go to market? Oh, they're running ads. What keywords are they using? What content are they creating? Oh, really interesting. Nobody in this industry has a podcast. Okay, then that's a huge gap.

I'm always trying to find the gaps because everybody's doing the same things in marketing. It's really about finding the channels that I could have a competitive advantage on.

It's all about finding those opportunities first, and then you can start to get creative and figure out how you're going to stand out in those channels.”

Step 6: Develop a specific set of distinctive brand assets…

And never change your distinctive brand assets, so it's easier to build memory structures in people's minds. Remember, people are busy and couldn’t care less about your brand.

Use brand assets to break through the noise in marketing

Step 7: Show up consistently for months with that single bowling ball.

Use the compounding effect of one sharp product for one underserved segment with one specific and differentiated message in a particular channel to cut through the clutter.

Step 8: Start small and then expand.

Offer more products to that underserved segment, explore more channels, or expand to more markets by using the momentum you’ve built, just like Ken Davenport did by producing more Broadway shows.

To summarize

  • Your biggest competitor is CLUTTER. Not just from direct competitors, but also from competitive alternatives and everything else that people have on their minds.

  • The knee-jerk reaction is to throw many tennis balls to try to knock over that bowling pin… But it’s counter-productive.

  • Less is more.

  • Break through the noise in marketing by focusing on ONE sharp product, for ONE underserved segment, with ONE differentiated message, in ONE channel and show up consistently.

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