Opinion: Marketing Society - The past is a great teacher

I recently attended a marketing event, where I met someone who had worked for the confectionery company that had been my first client when I started working in advertising 20 years ago.

We began talking about new product development and he began to tell me about a brand the company had tested with spectacular results. Sales were so impressive that it had invested in a new factory, at vast expense, to roll out the brand. However, sales of the product stalled unexpectedly, the brand was withdrawn and a costly factory was left standing idle.

The story interested me because exactly the same thing happened when I worked on the company's account. We had launched a countline brand in Tyne Tees. Sales were beyond everyone's wildest dreams, leaving Mars bars in its wake. A factory was planned and the marketing team began to plot what to spend their bonuses on. Suddenly, however, the brand was in freefall. It seemed plenty of people wanted to try it, but few liked it enough to carry on the experiment. A year later and the brand was history.

But history is supposed to teach us, to allow us to learn from our mistakes. A simple A4 synopsis kept on file would have saved this company millions by prompting it to interrogate the sales profile, look at repurchase patterns, set up a consumer panel and so on. Arguably, this should have been done anyway, but it wasn't.

Expecting a company to keep archives for 20 years may be optimistic, but it struck me that very few firms I work with keep proper records. One has relocated and lost a large proportion of its staff, as well as anything not deemed important during the clear-out. It is already regretting the loss on both counts.

Financial performance is meticulously documented and kept for years.

Irrelevant memos take up space on servers. However, valuable properties such as NPD ideas, concepts boards and research reports are routinely junked; people move on and the knowledge and experience is lost. Wheels are routinely reinvented at vast expense.

So here is a suggestion: make sure you treasure your information; don't let it become forgotten like a Rembrandt in the attic - of enormous value, but forgotten by all. Create a knowledge management function and encourage 'off the back burner' thinking, making the important, but not apparently urgent, a key priority for future strategies.

The role of knowledge management is to keep a brief record of every campaign you run, covering what happened against expectation and why. In addition, digitally capture every concept board you create; run annual brand workshops at which all beliefs and hypotheses are aired and captured; ensure the knowledge and opinions in people's heads is routinely reviewed; have an archive of key events in your brands' history and make sure everyone reads it.

The alternative is to have an old know-it-all like me telling you what you should have done when it is already too late.


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