Brands need to speak to “unchanging man” not data

by Nigel Hollis | May 28, 2018

A recent article by Sean O’Leary challenges modern marketers to learn from history not dismiss it as irrelevant. He speaks to the power of identifying things that do not change rather than fixating on the shiny and new. It will come as no surprise to people who read the blog that I agree with O’Leary wholeheartedly.


While O’Leary ascribes refusal to learn from history to the younger crowd that work in ad agencies, I would suggest it extends to most marketing domains. A month or two ago I presented to a group of CMOs about the need to both prime demand and activate it to maximize the value of a brand. There was a lot of head-nodding from this more senior crowd. I asked, if they all agreed, why did so few brands not act on their understanding. Their basic conclusion seemed to be that it was the younger entrants and middle management from other disciplines who failed to appreciate the importance of priming demand rather than trying to directly influence search and shopping.

Because I am one of those old people to which O’Leary refers, I have seen marketers shift focus repeatedly from one trendy marketing tool to another, ignoring the fact that the one thing that has not really changed is human motivations. Technology and brands may satisfy those motivations differently but they are still need to speak to the same needs, wants and desires.

O’Leary quotes Jeff Bezos who suggests that people always ask him what will change in the next ten years and suggest that people rarely ask,

“’What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.”

O’Leary complements this viewpoint with a reference to Bill Bernbach, one of the advertising greats,

“It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.”

In his article O’Leary then pulls lessons for today from a planning guide written in 1974 by Stephen King, the godfather of modern strategic planning. As O’Leary notes,

“It’s eerily accurate and still incredibly applicable to the modern problems brands face.”

So if the key to success in brand building and marketing is to identify what has not changed in human nature why do you think people seem to get so fixated on what is changing? Or maybe you disagree with the premise? Please share your thoughts.


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  1. Mark R., June 05, 2018
    I also agree 100%. As to why our business is fixated on what is changing ... because change is exciting and interesting, not same-old, same-old. And change opens opportunities for new things, widgets, and businesses that otherwise can't break into the system. The best way for the entire digital community to sell itself to marketers is to promote the notion that everything has changed and everything old/existing is dead. I can't count how many presentations I've seen where some breathless guru from a new industry tells us everything we know is dead and continuing to adhere to old practices will make us dead too. All of the new stuff is related to media - how we reach our target. What we need to say to our target (the creative message) hasn't really changed much.
  2. Edward Rutland, May 29, 2018
    I agree 100%, human motivations don't change but the marketing tools that create awareness, desire, and purchase certainly evolve!
  3. Ed C, May 29, 2018
    I totally agree with the premise. Though (just to debate), if man needs X, but Y is the latest/greatest way to get man X (i.e. instant delivery, customization to make it "just right for that man," etc.), I can see why it could be fair to focus on Y a bit, especially if anyone can deliver X just by itself.

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