Marketing is one of those things like fighting that elicits bizarre, overconfident behavior from people who have no idea what they’re talking about.

Imagine the machismo spewing forth from a huffing and puffing bro as he says something like “Man, if that guy had said one more thing to me, I would have knocked him out.”

How often do these huffers and puffers actually have experience knocking anyone out?

Do they have any conception of how difficult it is to knock someone out? Or the potential consequences they themselves would be exposed to in the process of attempting to knock someone out?

As an owner of some small businesses, I often get marketing advice from people that is just absolutely horrible.

And it seems to come from a similar place as the huffer and puffer claiming that he was “this close” to knocking someone out.

There are some things that are very challenging – like marketing or fighting – that most people have very little experience with. But, they assume that, if they were put in the situation where they had to engage in that activity, they would be successful based upon a bunch of half-baked ideas in their heads.

In the sphere of marketing, the common bad advice seems to fall into three buckets:

•Needing to “get the word out” – potentially through advertising, billboards, etc.

•Having a social media presence – since that’s the future and that’s where everyone spends their time

•Having a recognizable brand – since people respond to branding and slogans

Obviously, each of those things has a time and a place – and for many businesses, one of those pieces is the main element of a hugely successful strategy.

However, for a lot of small business owners, each of those pieces is a huge distraction and will at best have marginal returns as far as bringing in new clients.

As a skeptical person, I’ve never been quite able to square why advertising is so effective for major brands.

Conventional wisdom has it that implicit association with positive imagery and feelings created through advertising and sponsorships will nudge a consumer – staring indecisively at the shelves of Powerade and Gatorade – in one direction or another.

And, for large-scale products where consumers are making impulsive selections between similar offerings (Gatorade or Powerade, Michelin vs Goodyear, etc.), the marginal nudging through advertising is well worth the investment.

Contrast this to the school of direct response marketing, where hyper-niche audiences are spoken to in ways that demonstrate a deep, intimate understanding of their problem and are offered a solution – all while building trust and handling objections through long copy, testimonials, and storytelling.

(For what it’s worth, I think the direct response school is much more helpful for most small businesses, and everyone on this e-mail list has experienced it probably at least once from me.)

I recently read an article that transformed how I think about advertising – and it’s right here if you want to read the whole thing.

The thesis is essentially that advertising works to create a signaling environment in which you can say something about who you are as a person through your use of certain products.

You may identify as the “type of person who wears Nikes, drinks Corona and drives a Ford” – but that doesn’t actually do much good unless the cultural environment as a whole has some recognition of what one may be hoping to signal by wearing Nikes, drinking Corona, and driving a Ford.

So, does advertising potentially create marginal nudges in purchasing of consumer products? Probably.

But, the main lessons from massively successful global brands have to do with creating a cultural landscape in which you can signal something about yourself through which shoes you wear, which car you drive, which soft drinks you drink, which laptop you have, etc.

It’s not simply about creating an implicit association in a consumer’s mind between a product and fun, athletic success, attractive people partying, or suave, risk-taking behavior. It’s about making sure that the entire cultural landscape knows that the type of people who drink Corona are chill AF (or something). This is why it’s important to reach such large-scale audiences through advertising – the fact that everyone is exposed to the message is a key component of creating the environment in which one can signal something about themselves through product choice.

As such, small businesses need to be very careful about which lessons they draw from the advertising, branding and sloganeering of large, mainstream organizations – since the goals are often very different.