“Mad Men” Provides a Market Concept Tutorial on Television Each Week

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The hit television drama “Mad Men” recently began its third season to rave critical reviews and spectacular viewer ratings. The program, which is focused on the professional and personal lives of the associates of a New York City advertising agency in the early 1960’s is a magnetic period piece, featuring the fashion, lifestyle, dalliances and social interactions of a diverse group of contemporaries employed by the Sterling Cooper Agency.

The pace is languid, but the viewer is drawn to the varied storylines that weave together the pursuit of professional achievement and the wildly divergent private lives that the agency’s employees live out in each episode. As a marketing consultant by trade, I am particularly drawn to the near classic client case studies that confront the staff of Sterling Cooper in each program. The use of real product and corporate identities adds significantly to the realism of the series. Lucky Strike, Proctor & Gamble, American Airlines, Schraft, Campbell Soup, Playtex and Heineken Beer are only a few of the famous corporations and products that provide vexing marketing problems for the team to solve each week.

In particular, I am impressed with the stoic, incisive, probing mind and problem solving that the agency’s Creative Director, Donald Draper, continually produces to soothe client relations or gain new business for the firm. For product marketers, Draper’s resolute search for answers, and his ability to simply, and clearly convey fresh, strategic guidance provides an excellent study in the practice of early Market Concept theory.

Before the middle years of the 20th century, marketing was considered a backwater of business study. Manufacturers had adopted a “sell as much as you can” strategy which did not recognize the reasons individual purchases were made or the importance of building consumer and distributor relationships. The Market Concept theory, which came into popular use in the 1950’s and 1960’s, suggested that the producer should FIRST know the consumer or buyer of a product, research what they want, and only then, design, produce and market the item to fulfill that well researched need. This was the reverse of prior beliefs that simply producing a product would drive sales.

Market Concept acceptance lead to a rapid expansion of study and research on consumer preferences. Demographics, target audiences, focus groups, test marketing, branding, product loyalty and sales models all became important tools for product marketers to utilize when introducing new goods and services.

Donald Draper is a master at practicing the art of Market Concept. In a recent “Mad Men” episode for example, he was faced with a recalcitrant Heineken Brewery management team. The famous Dutch brewer was not present in the American market in the 1960’s and believed the brand could only gain a foothold through tavern sales of draft brew. Draper astutely sold the idea that a test market, in select exclusive neighborhood supermarkets, supported with end cap displays, premium pricing and co-marketed with upscale snacks, would drive sales by appealing to housewives desire for a more exotic product.

The test confirmed the assumptions that Donald Draper had identified in his analysis of Heineken’s problems. As a draft product sold in taverns, it was just another beer, a commodity. By targeting housewives, trend makers, the beer could be positioned as an upscale offering, different from competitors, more desirable and exclusive. Heineken enjoys this market niche to this very day.

Each episode of “Mad Men” offers a broad palette of the business and personal foibles of the 1960’s. Lots of sexual escapades, drinking, chain smoking, infidelity, professional jealousy, competitiveness, insecurity and deeply buried personal conflicts are necessary elements of the storyline. However, the opportunity to see a marketing master at work each week is another great reason to spend an hour on Sunday evenings with Donald draper and “Mad Men”.

Geoff Ficke has been a serial entrepreneur for almost 50 years. As a small boy, earning his spending money doing odd jobs in the neighborhood, he learned the value of selling himself, offering service and value for money.