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Surely marketing message disasters happen only to sad little mom and pops run by two guys and a German Shepherd selling plastic garden furniture to consumers living inside the Arctic Circle?

Afraid not, folks. It can happen to anyone. Even you.

Across all the industrialized markets, millions are wasted every year on business communication that doesn't work because the basic message and the thinking behind it is flat-out wrong.

As the Marketing Communications Fire Department, teams of people like me are often called in to extinguish as much of the erroneous thinking as possible, rescue what little there is that isn't charred beyond recognition, then try to make it work as a piece of communication.

And all that without the benefit of 10,000 gallons of thick foam and pressure hoses that could knock an elephant over from 20 yards away. Give me a forest fire any day.

Now. Where's That Message Gone??

Take one of the UK's leading automobile clubs, or “motoring organizations.” It invested seriously big bucks (well, pounds or “quid” as the colloquialism goes) in a wonderfully created and produced advertising campaign based on their vision of mobility in the future.

Its vibrant new marketing director noisily shared her multiple “Eureka!” moments and although nobody else in the client team quite understood the storyboards for the commercials, everyone nodded wisely and agreed that because they couldn't understand it, it must be really clever.

They even kept on nodding when they got to the bit where it said people should think more in terms of riding bicycles to keep the planet clean, and ditch dirty old cars. After all, that's politically correct.

Just Our Luck to Get Stabbed By the Sharp End

Enter me and my colleagues. We were charged with the unenviable task of trying to convey this pile of bull to a mere 3,000-odd employees and another few thousand staff working for their supplier organizations. (You ever tried telling a 7-foot, 45-year-old car technician to leave his car at home and ride a bike 20 miles to work? Me, neither. I prefer my face the shape it is now.)

Under the leadership of probably the best and longest-suffering bizcom creative directors I've ever worked with, we managed to persuade our audience that the associated re-organization was probably a good idea and might help secure their jobs. At least someone was going to get a benefit out of it somewhere, irrespective of how idiotic the consumer message was.

Egg on Their, Er, Face

Within 24 hours of the consumer campaign breaking, the UK gutter press splashed the organization's name across front pages in 200-point caps right next to the giant bare bosoms, along with extremely rude and extremely true jeers about the confused hypocrisy and pomposity of the message. The organization's market share crashed down and dribbled through the floorboards like so much spilled capuccino.

At long last the senior wallahs in the organization saw the light, fired Madame Eureka-Moment, hired a good ol' marketer who had been around the block a few times and started running ads that sold high quality motoring services which is what they're good at and the market wanted.

After a few weeks the damage limitation kicked in and within a few months their market share began to go back up again. But it was a close one.

That Could Never Happen to…

So, I can hear you ask, how can a disaster of that scale happen to a big organization employing hugely expensive executives with resumés most of us would commit patricide for?

Is it really a hideous example of the emperor's new clothes, with no-one wanting to admit they'd got it wrong? Did they honestly believe they could take a marketing stance that was driven by political-correctness which--whoops!--totally opposed the values of their core business and customer base?

It wouldn't be so bad if that were the only example I can quote. But it isn't. There are several more. And not just small businesses who can be forgiven for not being marketing experts.

No, no. Another recent example I could entertain you with is that of a huge UK financial services corporation a lot bigger than the motoring people. Then there was the government-funded business organization. And the children's clothing retailers, the construction materials wholesalers, the car manufacturers, the...well, all those and more for another time maybe.

Reality Checks = Butt Protectors

The point is this: No organization is immune from getting a marketing message wrong. Sometimes you just can't see the wood for the trees, whether you're in your backyard or a Brazilian rain forest. And even if you do hear alarm bells going off in the distance, it's tempting to shut the door on the noise rather than investigate it.

Of course when you're trying to think noble marketing thoughts while fighting off corporate, political, social, ecological and other clutter a reality check can be hard to do. But really, all it needs to be is an honest answer to this question: Never mind the other considerations, have we got the marketing message right and is it right enough to work?

That honest answer--plus its resolution if relevant--can save your organization a lot of money and save your butt from a lot of discomfort.

In fact, almost as much discomfort as my butt suffers when I ride a bicycle.

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Suzan St Maur ( writes extensively on marketing and business communications and is the author of the widely acclaimed Powerwriting.