On Easter Sunday in 1929, a group of rich female debutants joined the annual Parade in New York City, and shocked a nation.

In one beautifully orchestrated moment, they pulled out cigarettes they had hidden under their clothes, lit them up, and strolled down the street smoking for all to see – including the press.

You see women at the turn of the 20th century did NOT smoke in public. It was something only a man (and women paid to sleep with men) could do. So you can imagine the newspapers the next day…..

But it’s not what you expect. Headlines across the nation called these women “powerful and independent suffragettes.” And they weren’t just smoking cigarettes, they were “lighting up torches of freedom.”

You see there was a marketer behind this, of course. There’s always a marketer behind these things. His name was Edward Bernays, and he had issued a press release the day before telling them what was going to happen, and armed them with that phrase “torches of freedom”.  You may have never heard that name, but as a consumer in the 21st century, Edward Bernays has impacted your life and the way you live it.

He was an American propagandist in World War 1, and after the war, companies needed to do something with all of the goods they were mass-producing. So they hired Bernays to create new kinds of consumers. The president of the American tobacco corporation, in this case, had approached him to solve what he felt was a problem. Only half of his market were smoking – just men. To sell more cigarettes, Edward Bernays needed to create a new kind of female– one that wasn’t ashamed of smoking in public like many were at the time. And so he used mass manipulation to link the cigarette to a sense of of independence, power, things important to women at this time in history, having just earned the right to vote. He single handedly created a new market for cigarettes with a marketing stunt.

And it worked. Women’s adoption of cigarettes rose steadily, jumping to $32 million in the year that followed this act.

And Bernays went on to replicate this model for all kinds of clients, from clothing brands to banks.. and create a framework for marketing that we are stuck with today.

It’s because of Bernays that we see product placement in movies. That we see movie stars and celebrities wearing certain brands. That the clothing we see in a magazine can be purchased down the street at a convenient department store. He’s the reason bacon and bananas are part of an all-American diet, and why cars are symbols of male sexuality.

He orchestrated a world where we have to buy certain things in order to be a certain kind of person.

And the model set up by Bernays is this: Here’s the product. Let’s use marketing to create consumers that fit this product. Product-centric marketing.

See, Bernays was kind of an awkward guy, in fact he rarely looked people in the eye. He thought of people in groups, not as individuals, and saw them as easily manipulated masses. What I haven’t told you about was Bernays’s family tree. He was the nephew of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

To Edward Bernays, this model for marketing was just propaganda. Mass consumer persuasion.

He felt that “if you could use propaganda for war, you can use it in times of peace.” But the irony here is that this model not only inspired what we know today as marketing… it inspired Hitler’s ministry of propaganda.

They saw people as faceless crowds, easily forged into a pre-defined way of thinking / feeling / acting.

And unfortunately we haven’t been able to shake this mindset as marketers. And that’s the problem.

Nearly 100 years later, we waste hundreds of billions of dollars every year trying to create the kind of consumers we want, mold those that fit our products. Marketing has become an all-encompassing force in our world. It’s everything. It’s everywhere. We see between 500 to 3,000 marketing messages a day.

And the response of marketers has been to create more noise across more channels in an effort to get their message out to more people! But this strategy doesn’t work.

Consumers don’t trust companies. They tune out the noise of irrelevant marketing, they skip the ads, ignore the commercials. You’re more likely to get into Harvard, survive a plane crash or win the lottery than click a banner ad.

We have failed you as marketers because we are the center of our own universe. We become experts on our products and think we know all there is to know about our buyers. The truth is we don’t.

When was the last time you interacted with a company and felt…. Man, they reallyget me. It’s rare. When it happens, it’s almost magical it’s like finding a unicorn. And you’re loyal to that brand, because they’ve taken the time to get to know you, and given you the type of experience you want.

And that’s the point.

A friend recently told me that the origin of the word company comes from the concept of breaking bread together. Isn’t that incredible?

Great marketing is personal. It’s humanized. You don’t need to be a marketer to know this. It treats you like an individual. It speaks to you on your terms. It respects you - it doesn’t make you feel like you’re not good enough. It uses your language, reflects your priorities, speaks to your hearts and minds… not your vanity, not your ego.

Nearly a decade in this industry has proven to me that this is the only way forward as marketers.  If we have any chance of earning, of deserving the attention of our overwhelmed customers, we cannot buy it. If we’re going to cut through the noise, we must demonstrate that we understand who they are.

This new model is simple… it’s customer-centric, not product-centric. And it would terrify Edward Bernays, because it requires a skill he did not have: empathy. Seeing the world through the eyes of another. We are hard-wired for empathy… unless you’re a sociopath in which case please don’t get into marketing.  And this is the most important skill for marketers in 2015. Empathy.

In this brave new world of technology and data, we are presented with the greatest opportunity to reinvent marketing since the advent of the billboard. To redeem ourselves for nearly a century of obnoxious marketing. It was never supposed to be this way.

So my question for you today is this: what if the next hundred years of marketing was customer-centric? Human-centric?

Thank you.


Katie Martell
Katie Martell