Don’t erase your organisation's marketing memory: you can learn from past gems and mistakes

Professor John Dawes suggests that firms should maintain a library of their past plans and schemes.

Businesses often keep valuable reports and plans for only a few years. They lose them, or delete them, thinking the past is no longer relevant. But doing so throws away important organisational memory.

That information, or memory could be used to (a) stop bad strategies that have been tried before, (b) remind current managers of the possibly poor assumptions and undue optimism that that drove previous management, (c) highlight the true strengths of the brand, and (d) avoid doing needless research, that may have already been conducted in the past.

Businesses should carefully catalogue past marketing plans, KPI reporting and market research reports, and maintain them in a library (ideally online). New brand & marketing managers should be set the task of becoming familiar with these resources before spending money or making changes to the brand or its strategy.

Under new management

Brands can last for decades or longer, but managers come and go.

Often new managers often want to try new strategies, and commission research to fill the knowledge gaps. The trouble is that this activity can be inefficient as the new manager is ignorant of the useful evidence that has been gathered before, but discarded.

For example, think of all the market segmentation studies that have been done by new marketing managers. Studies that likely show the same obtuse and baffling results as the ones before.

After a presentation I gave on the strong similarities in the customer bases of competing brands a client once said, “ah, that explains why the three-quarters of a million pounds we’ve spent commissioned three big segmentation studies over the past five years were of little use”.

Grand ambitions and marketing plans

Next, think of the marketing plans written for your brand or business five to eight years ago. Marketing plans are often ambitious documents, outlining how impressive gains will be made, through strategies such as: superior execution, building stronger emotional bonds, more persuasive messaging, higher service levels, better targeting etc.

Before writing the marketing plan for this year, it would be sobering to peruse those from the past five to ten years. Perhaps they projected large sales and share gains from a new product launch, campaign or rewards scheme, or predicted market growth or lack of competitor activity. But did those projections occur? It would be useful for the new person in the job to see how the confident statements of the past reflected actual revenue gains. Especially if those strategies are being considered now.

But let’s not be unduly negative. Those past plans will also show the things that did work. The two-year period when the business focused on its core products, or when it ran a particularly likeable or well-branded ad campaign over a whole year. Those things - or whatever did actually happen – that worked. The key point is, one can be wiser by learning from the past. Past plans are valuable, they represent useful information gained through trial and error, and should not be discarded.

Building a library

Next, think of the new brand manager or marketing director who has energy and ideas. They want to know things: what do customer really think about us, why do they buy or not buy, are there identifiable market segments, does our advertising really resonate or do we need to change agency? However, as a new person, they have rather little to go on because the only historical information is two years of a brand tracker and some top-line results slides from a consumer study no-one remembers. Now, contrast that with the new person who can access an extensive library of past research. While it might not answer this year’s questions, it would go a long way to informing the new person about the ins and outs of the market, buyers and the brand.

In summary: learn from the past, whether it be via past mistakes or successes. Keep careful track of your marketing history, it’s valuable.

Associate Professor John Dawes is a senior marketing scientist and associate director at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.