A view from Rory Sutherland

Why we should study accidental marketing

Rory Sutherland may be "a crap version of Jeremy Bullmore" but he's not about to get churlish about it.

I suspect Campaign will put a sentence at the bottom of this column: "Jeremy Bullmore is on holiday."

They mean no harm, of course, but if you want a lesson in positioning, you couldn’t do better than that. Just five words and I’ve been depositioned. I’m a stand-in – what you get when Jeremy is away.

The Pepsi to Bullmore’s Coke. The Android pay-as-you-go substitute for his contract iPhone 7. I don’t mind. I’d be perfectly happy with an epitaph that read: "A crap version of Jeremy Bullmore." And, besides, that sentence is a fascinating example of what I call "accidental marketing".

Accidental marketing is what happens when some action or wording not intended as marketing at all nevertheless has a profound psychological effect. Putting ice cubes in cider might be one example of this. Done out of necessity, it seemed to have magical effects on drinking behaviour.

The Kent coffee shop where I am writing this has had many incarnations and, until recently, never thrived. A year or so ago, some new owners bought lightweight metal chairs to replace the heavy benches that previously sat outside. Business seemed to go much better.

It occurred to me: see, the chairs weren’t only a place to sit – they were also a signal to passing motorists that there was a café in that place and that it was currently open. Unlike the benches, which were immovable, the chairs provide proof that the shop was open – since the owner would obviously store them inside after closing to prevent people stealing them. It is what biologists would call an unfakeable signal, as there is a cost (stolen chairs) to misinformation.

Currently, the owner takes the chairs in when it rains. I’m recommending that she leave them out. They are more valuable as advertising than as chairs.

I was on a plane taxiing to the airport recently when the pilot said something I’d never heard before. "I’ve got some bad news and some good news," he said. "The bad news is that we haven’t been able to get an air bridge, but the good news is that the bus will take you straight to passport control, so you won’t have far to walk."

It suddenly occurred to me that this previously unspoken upside of bus transfer was always true; sadly, no-one had told us before. We churlish passengers just assumed that we were supposed to resent the bus. Now, as I had two heavy bags, I suddenly felt grateful for the bus transfer. The pilot was a genius.

It is a great mistake to look for marketing inspiration only among intentional marketing ideas. Like penicillin – like most scientific discoveries, perhaps – I think the most interesting advances are made by accident. We should study them more.

Jeremy Bullmore is on holiday.

Rory Sutherland is vice chairman, Ogilvy & Mather Group.