Magical Thinking Will Kill Your Marketing


In a nutshell, magical thinking is a psychological term referring to a common mental error of confusing a correlation to causality. A simple example is, “My sports team seems to win more when I wear my lucky hat.” In business, these mental errors cause major mistakes in marketing and management. We look at things other people are doing in business and misinterpret the effects and results, then try to apply them to ourselves in over-simplistic or misunderstood ways. I think the world of marketing is the worst offender bordering on insanity.

Logos Aren’t Enchanted Talismans

Worth $1,000,000? Nope.

Worth $1,000,000? Nope.

Pepsi spent a million dollars changing their logo ever-so-slightly in hopes of being more “relevant.” The actual results are almost impossible to measure, but it’s safe to say it didn’t meaningfully impact the sales of Pepsi. There is plenty of data to show that logos have very little, if any, impact on business or branding. In fact, changing them is almost always a negative impact on customer trust and familiarity. Yet, swanky marketing agencies still talk businesses into spending thousands upon thousands to get a new logo.

The reason for this is disheartenedly simple: People look at successful companies and notice they have nice logos (usually). So in our stupid habit of magical thinking, we conclude that their cool logo must have helped them succeed. It’s all ego and blind ambition motivating us to look for the easiest way to make it big. “If I looked like Nike, I would sell more shoes…” You know, monkey see, monkey do.

Propaganda is NOT Marketing

Here is an example of an ad appealing to the worst of humanity. Is this what your marketing looks like?

Here is an example of an ad appealing to the worst of humanity. Is this what your marketing looks like?

One of the greatest illusions of marketing is the success of propaganda. Propaganda is the primary tool of cults, political movements, and yes, certain industries like beauty and health. However, propaganda is not a universally-effective tool for marketing. There is a secret ingredient to propaganda that makes it work: subconscious desires.

We all want to be loved and respected. We all struggle with insecurity and fear. Propaganda taps into these desires and promises solutions that we are willing to believe because we want to. Propaganda campaigns ultimately all promise to help us control parts of our lives that are, in reality, beyond our control.

There are two big limits to propaganda: desire and believability. You can’t appeal to subconscious desires that aren’t there, and you can only stretch people’s beliefs so far. Also, markets grow immune to scams over time, so a lie that works today may not work tomorrow. So yes, if you are selling beauty cream, you may fool a few people. But if you are selling plumbing, it’s hard to tie that back, believably, to social status and ambition. In fact, the more practical your product, the more repulsed the market is by propaganda.

Let’s Do the Time Warp!

Now let’s get to the greatest victim of magical thinking: time. Things feel differently for us when are experiencing them directly compared to when we are watching them from a distance. A large company can run a national advertising campaign for a year, and we will feel like it “just happened.” This gives a false impression of how long marketing efforts take to work.

Many businesses kill otherwise decent marketing campaigns just because they didn’t work as fast as they wished it did. “Hey, this radio ad has been running for three weeks, and we have no ROI!” Well, if you gave it three months, you might have started seeing results. People take a long time to process new information, consider new ideas, and change habits. Persistence and patience are necessary ingredients of any successful marketing campaign. You have to learn to vet and refine ideas better ahead of time, then give them more time to take effect when you act on them.

Marketing Isn’t Magic, It’s Mechanical


Shows like Mad Men have proliferated the notion that marketing is all about being creative and clever. Well… it is, but only a small part of it. In reality, marketing can only do two things: Get your products and services out in front of your market and help communicate the value of your products and services. The new age of digital marketing has only added one more: Learn and understand your market better.

If your marketing strategy doesn’t make sense on a practical level, it won’t work on a creative level either. Work on making your products and services competitive and unique, build relationships and connections with your market, make sure you are visible where your market is, collect good data on your market, and have clear steps for your market to learn about and purchase your products and services. If you have all that going, your marketing will work… like magic.