Cargo Cult Marketing

Welcome to the beginnings of the Paul Fifield essays/blog.  Before we begin with any new content, I have précised one of my previous essays, the first in my book “Collected Essays in Marketing Strategy”


On a recent business trip, I came across a reference to the cargo cult Indians of Papua New Guinea.  Various cargo-cults exist, including one on a Pacific island with a memory of Red Cross aid where the islanders dance in front of red-painted crosses and wait for food and other gifts to descend from the sky.  On other islands natives worship at an office-like shack where holy men exchange pieces of paper just like bureaucrats.  In every case the locals have a similar belief – just continue faithfully carrying out the rituals that they have witnessed and one day the materialist Gods will reward them and bestow upon them all the things that they need.

We may not dance in front of red painted crosses, well not quite, but are we really acting differently to the cargo cult islanders of the Pacific?  I wonder.

Red-painted Cross No1 – Costs: 

As soon as the business looks like turning down, get in the cost cutters.  The time and money spent on cost cutting exercises is vast but rarely stimulates revenue generation.  But we have danced round the cross – and been praised for it.

When cost cutting fails to produce better profits………. see cross No 6

Red-painted Cross No2 – Systems: 

Systems are “a good thing”; they make us more “efficient”; because they can generate a “management information system” to tell us how well we are doing.  But they don’t sell and, more often than not, they don’t play a major part in satisfying customers’ needs either, but we spend valuable time creating internal upheaval to “upgrade” or installing new systems.  We know the painted cross and how to dance round it – it helps us take our minds off the difficult problems for which we have no answers “How do we better satisfy our customers’ needs and so attract more business and make more profits?”  Nevertheless, we “know” that as soon as the new systems strategy is in place, we will be awash with business again.  So that’s all right isn’t it!

When we are not awash with business……….see cross No 6

Red-painted Cross No3 – Databases

Some businesses have almost been taken over by The Database and the Data Warehouse and countless hordes of acolytes exist purely to satisfy its unquenchable thirst for more data.

This red-painted cross has been growing at an unspeakable rate.  But what is it all for?  Spending all week hunched over the computer is not the same thing as meeting and talking to real, thinking, breathing customers who can tell you, face to face, why they bought what they bought and what they will want from you in the future.  Unfortunately, until the business depends on satisfying the needs of machines rather than human beings, the organisation is better off employing people who can do more than just spell “empathy”.

When the Perfect Database fails to improve profits……….see cross No 6

Red-painted Cross No4 – Capacity

How often have you seen the numbers manager push for major investment in plant, production capacity or people based on meticulously researched and prepared financial forecasts (technically known as “a wing and a prayer”), and without any attempt to assess likely customer demand?  Just like the office/shack in the mountains, let’s build the capacity and, as if by magic, the new business required to fill it will turn up just because the capacity has been created – neat!

When the capacity turns out to be a cost; not an investment……….see cross No 6

Red-painted Cross No5 – Fad Surfing

And “Management by Objectives” begat “Management by Walking About” begat, begat, begat CRM, begat….. – and each would solve all our ills.  And of course they didn’t.  How can this have happened?  It has happened, quite simply, because most fads concentrated on measuring the easy things like standards, controls and internal customers that can be classified, processed and boxed rather than difficult things like external customers who don’t always know exactly what they want but do pay all our salaries.  This red-painted cross says that working hard to create change internally will, somehow, give the customer exactly what he wants – if only.

Ah yes but it’s not our fault it didn’t happen……….see cross No 6

Red-painted Cross No 6 – Blaming those who are doing the business

It we are giving prizes for longevity, this must be the oldest Red-painted Cross in the clearing.  For thousands of years, managers (those who stay at home) have been successfully laying off the blame for non-performance on the poor grunts who have to do the work.  The biggest problem is that dancing in front of this particular cross, is not a ‘neutral’ activity, it can actually do harm.  As the people in the business realise that, in spite of the elegant mission statements and quality promises, what really matters round here is not the customer but the internal System, they either:

  1. Leave, or more likely,
  2. Dump the customer; spend more time in the office and get down to some serious politicking.


Like smoking, there is never a good time to give up dancing in front of the Red-painted Crosses.  You have to believe it is better for you and that eventually you will be rewarded.  Common sense alone says that it must be more profitable to concentrate on looking after the customer rather than the Internal System, because that is where the revenue comes from.  Nevertheless, you can be sure that the way will be strewn with obstacles; you should bear in mind the following.

  • Never forget the customer is the business
  • Never let anyone else forget the customer is the business
  • The business will survive by what it does outside, not inside the business
  • The internal System can stop you succeeding, but cannot make you succeed
  • If the old ideas didn’t work, try something different
  • Don’t be infected by the panic of the non-visionaries
  • Those that shout loudest typically know least
  • Don’t confuse motion with progress
  • Allow yourself to be distracted from your customers and you will have lots of free time to spend dancing in front of Red-painted Crosses.


The full text of this article, and others, including:

2  Customer Strategy

3  Snake Oil

4  Marketing Dogma

5  A Nice Pair of Wings!

6  Do You Feel Lucky?

7  Jack in the Box

8  Excess Stone

9  The Rain Dance

10  The Shape of Things to Come?

11  The Management of Customer Expectations

12  Net-nonsense?

13  The Road to Brighton Pier

14  Market Segmentation in the Services sector–The interview

15  Going Down?

16  Generation Brand Strategy

17  Harder than Baked Beans

18  Market Strategy – the “SCORPIO” Approach

19  Strategic Marketing and Scenarios

20  Mediocrity Kills!

.. Can be found in “Collected Essays in Marketing Strategy” by Paul Fifield (ISBN 978-0-9554241-0-6) available at