Marketing can take over your life to the extent that you don't even notice it
Marketing can take over your life to the extent that you don't even notice it
A view from Will Harris

Marketing can take over your life to the extent that you don't even notice it

Knowing what goes on behind the scenes, and seeing it in any consumer experience, is an occupational hazard for marketers; but, writes Will Harris, it...

Dating a girl whose father ran a McDonald's was a little bit of magic.

During an earlier, mildly disastrous, relationship, I dated a Canadian girl whose father ran a chain of successful McDonald's restaurants in Northern Ontario.

Like anyone who grew up in the very early days of the brand in the UK, McDonald's had a special place in my childhood. Occasionally we were taken to the one in Wimbledon, and I remember hoarding the orange Styrofoam burger boxes for weeks, until my mother discreetly threw them away.

So, dating a girl whose father ran a McDonald's was a little bit of magic. He even had business cards that you could redeem for a Big Mac at any one of his outlets. Genius.

Ruining the magic

The one time we called by to see him at work, I was excited. Here was a brand that I had venerated as a child, drifted away from after university, and was suddenly confronted with as an adult. He offered to take me behind the scenes and show me how it all worked, and I jumped at the chance.

What a mistake.

In one moment, the magic was gone. Boxes of dry, bagged burger buns ("sugared so that they crisp brown when they go under the grill"), stacks of frozen patties patiently awaiting complex industrial hot grills that cooked six at a time, stacks of Day-Glo-yellow cheese, and vast bubbling witches' cauldrons of fries ... it was a world away from the magic of Ronald and the Happy Meal.

I felt I was staring into my own professional grave

I was devastated. It wasn't a hygiene issue, or anything to do with what they euphemistically referred to as a "foreign body". The place was cleaner than most hospital wards, and certainly better-run. It was just that the difference between back of house and front of house was laid bare. Stripped of the complex and well-funded brand veneer carefully crafted by people like me, over decades, it was an industrial kitchen like any other. I felt I was staring into my own professional grave.

It was a hard-learned lesson, and one that came to mind when my agency started working with Belvedere on Bond 24, or Spectre, as it is now known. Like everyone else, I'm eagerly awaiting the film, but in my case, I need to know whether two years of hard professional toil, with occasional glimpses behind the scenes, have robbed me of my lifelong love of the Bond franchise. I dearly hope not.

Occupational hazard

It's an occupational hazard. Marketers are not consumers. Where they see celebrities, Facebook campaigns and timely ads, we see bought influence, video-seeding and targeted ad buys.

As a marketer, you should not be able to flick idly through a newspaper without studying and decoding the ads, guessing the strategy, the audience and the objective

As a marketer, you should not be able to flick idly through a newspaper without studying and decoding the ads, guessing the strategy, the audience and the objective. If your background is PR, then, worse still, you spend the whole time deciding who placed a given story, and why that journalist has written it for that newspaper.

There is no respite away from work, either. Most people coming out of Rugby World Cup matches are chatting about the result, the spectacle of play and their heroes and villains. Marketers may not voice it out loud (that would be gauche, right?) but their heads are swimming with pouring rights, advertising hoardings and title sponsorships. Did they get value for money? Who cut through? Would I have done that? Marketing can take over your life to the extent that you don't even notice it.

Is this a bad thing? On one level, no, clearly not. The more intensely we live our brands and their consumers, the better our advice and execution will be. But it does make for some odd moments. Returning from a hard day at Wimbledon a few years ago, I told my wife that the best part of the day was the total lack of brands in the All England Club. Apart from 'Rolex' on the clocks, the place was a tranquil, unbranded green; a day's detox for a marketer's soul.

Do you want salad with that?

So it was with some trepidation that I pulled into a McDonald's on the outskirts of Perigueux, in South West France, last summer. I had 15 minutes for a fast lunch before catching a plane, and was determined to eat and run - haunted, still, by the backstage horror of 20 years ago.

The marketer in me saw a new way of ordering and paying, through touchscreens and credit-card swipes. No more rabbit-in-headlights scanning the boards, frantically deciding what to order. I relished the ability to swap fries for salad and soda for water. The eating area was clean and comfortable, the coffee as good as Pret. There was a kids' area, a segregated adults' area (bliss) - and, although I might be imagining it, I think there was even table service. In short, it was a near-perfect customer experience, matched by food from a post-Super Size Me era that left me satisfied rather than bloated.

Recounting tales of this when I got home, I tentatively ventured that McDonald's would take some beating for a quick, cheap, healthy family dining option. "Over my dead body," came the reply. Clearly it still has work to do on its brand image. Perhaps there are some advantages to seeing life as a marketer.