On the top of many businesses wish list is “to be better at marketing”. But what does that actually mean? When pushed a little further many say, “I want to beat my competition”, “increase sales”, “get higher prices”, “improve margins” and similar.
So what businesses really want, unsurprisingly, is to be more commercially successful. They believe that being better at marketing is a means to that end. Which leads us to the questions, what is marketing and what does being better at it look like?
There is no simple answer, no single blueprint for success. Like any subjective enquiry all you will find are opinions. So here is mine, the seven behaviours that I believe you will find in great marketing led businesses.
1) Don’t focus on definitions, focus on outcomes
“What is in a name?” asked Shakespeare, rhetorically “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, meaning that the intrinsic nature of something should not be changed by the name it is given. This sentiment, often paraphrased, is used today to make a simple point. That names or labels don’t matter. But as any Shakespeare scholar would point out, he meant the opposite.
Names do matter and the name we are burdened with happens to be ‘marketing’. Lets be honest, marketing has an image problem. Which is ironic. It would not be unreasonable to expect that marketing would be in a position to fix an image problem. Unfortunately, it is not as easy as that.
A simple image problem is where you are perceived as one thing but want to be perceived as another. Marketing does not have a simple image problem. It has a complex one. Marketing is perceived as different things to different people. Some see it a lead generation function or sales support, others as advertising or promotions, while more cynical people see it as a malign presence that forces products onto people against their will or better judgment. Marketing does not really have an image problem. It has an identity crisis.
So stop trying to find a definition of marketing that appeals to everyone. You are flogging a dead horse. Marketing is an anachronism rendered useless by its promiscuous use. Focus instead on outcomes, what it is you actually do, the value you deliver. The outcome that marketing is primarily concerned with is the ethical creation of a customer, and the sustainable and profitable revenue that brings.
A bold move might be to ditch the name marketing altogether. Replace it with something that more accurately reflects the outcomes you expect to deliver. It is more important to focus on, and communicate, the outcomes you are producing rather than what you are called, or ‘by your deeds shall you be known’, if you prefer your references to be more biblical than Shakespearian.
If it up to me I would rename marketing something like ‘Customer and Revenue Growth’, but I’m not very good at naming things, as my children Trenchant and Biscuit would tell you.
2) Don’t isolate, integrate
Marketing (or whatever you’ve now decided to call it) can be a lonely department, detached from the wider business like one of those isolated tribes in the Amazon that occasionally make the news by throwing spears at a hovering helicopter.
Marketing busy themselves with their mysterious customs and practices while the rest of the business looks on from a distance, not quite sure quite what it is they are doing. This isn’t helped by the impenetrable jargon many from the marketing tribe use. This recent example landed on my desk “…the key unit of experience management has shifted to the “episode” And the core management method became agile. They flipped the organizational pyramid to empower cross functional teams…” That would push most bullshit detectors to eleven.
But Isolationism isn’t always self-inflicted. Marketing is often treated as the servant of other departments. The CEO says, “execute this strategy”, production says “promote what we have in inventory”, finance says “use these prices”, sales says “get me more leads”, R&D says “launch this new product”. Marketing should not be reactive.
In addition, success and failure are handled differently. Success has many parents but failure is an orphan. When a campaign is successful everybody stakes his or her claim. When a campaign fails then marketing fucked up. This does not foster togetherness.
The answer is to make everybody a marketer. Give everybody skin in the game. Create a common language and framework that everybody can contribute to and understand. Make marketing a hub of departmental activity. A coordinator. An orchestrator. People embrace what they create so give everybody an input. It is up to the CEO to make this happen.
3) Marketing and strategy should be a couple
Marketing and strategy should be close. Not just sitting next to one another at the boardroom table close. They should be living under the same roof, arguing about whose turn it is to take out the bins, complaining about the top being left off the toothpaste close.
In the Venn diagram of strategy and marketing the overlap is so big that they may as well be the same role. The ultimate strategic focus of any business is to maximize profits, usually by adding customers, growing revenues and increasing margins. Which should be the same goals as the marketing department. Even when the strategic focus is structural, such as the relocation of production, outsourcing of functions, restructuring of departments, and so on, the customer impact should weigh heavily of the decision.
Strategy is ultimately the responsibility of the CEO and their trusted advisors but marketing should have a prominent seat at that table. Marketing should be ‘first among equals’ or primus inter pares as the ancient Greeks would put it. For a successful, growing business, strategic discussion will nearly always be about customer, revenue and profit growth and for these debates marketing should take the lead.
4) Put principles before methods
There is no shortage of new or latest ideas in marketing. A quick search for 2018 marketing trends reveals experiential marketing, influencer marketing, account based content marketing, voice search, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, interactive content, etc. Not to mention the old standbys of segmentation, targeting and positioning.
But those are all methods. They are marketing activities. Marketing excellence comes from understanding the principles that sit behind the methods. Elements of psychology, sociology, anthropology, behavioral economics, statistics and so on. Understanding your customer at a fundamental level.
Methods constantly change and develop, while principles generally don’t and I am not suggesting that methods aren’t important – without methods nothing actually gets done. But I am suggesting that exploring the ‘why’ and not just the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ is critical in becoming a great marketer.
This is not a new idea. Harrington Emerson, an efficiency engineer and business theorist said, in 1911, “As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble”
5) Experience, experiment and follow the evidence
When my son was four he wanted a bike. He had to learn that forward momentum would create stability and balance. I sat him down and explained that the geometric parameters that aid stability are the wheel radius, the head angle, and the fork offset. After a few hours study we went outside and he promptly fell off his new bike. Idiot.
Actually that story is not true. He was six when he got his first bike. But the point remains. You can’t learn a skill though books alone. Theories and concepts will only get you so far. You need experience to achieve proficiency.
Learning comes from doing. The experiences you gain from applying different techniques and taking different approaches will put meat on the academic bones of book learning. You need a pioneering, experimenter mindset. Become an explorer. If you wait until you are confident you have everything understood you would be waiting forever.
Scientific knowledge moves forward through a never-ending cycle of theory and experiment. So does marketing knowledge. Think of it as a double helix. Theory and experiment, intertwined around each other. Each informing the other.
6) Don’t talk to customers, watch them
Ok that sounds creepy. I don’t mean watch as in ‘hide in the bushes, peer trough their windows, use night vision goggles’ sort of watching. I mean focus on what customers do, not what they say they do. “The trouble with market research is that people don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.” So said the late advertising don David Ogilvy.
Many market research efforts are doomed to failure and there are plenty of conspicuous examples. New coke was the most researched product launch in history and bombed, despite very positive market research. All in the Family, an American TV sitcom that aired in the 1970s, had terrible reviews during audience testing but went on to be the most watched show in the US.
Take a leaf out of the Netflix playbook. They are spending, at the time of writing, over $12bn on programming, $3bn to $4bn more than last year. That increase alone is bigger than HBO’s programming or the BBC’s. Yet they don’t audience test any programs. They know what you have watched, for how long and when. They know how you rated each show and can predict how much you would enjoy other shows based on your history. They don’t need to ask the 125 million households they serve what they think because they can see what they do.
Not every business can literally watch their customers like Netflix but use it as a template. Don’t ask when you can observe. Actions speak louder than words – get immersed into your customer’s world.
7) Finally, don’t be a dick
Marketing is like a baseball bat. A baseball bat can be used for fun and recreation. It can be instrumental in creating happy memories. Or it can be used as a terrifying weapon. When marketing is used ethically it can improve lives, add value and make customers, shareholders and employees equally happy. It can raise money for good causes. It can raise awareness of important issues. It can reduce anti social behaviour.
It can also persuade people to smoke. Increase sugar intake among children. Fuel the obesity crisis. Create an opioid public health catastrophe. Increase alcohol consumption. Agitate voters to make bad political choices.
Marketing is neither good nor evil. But it can be used for both. Morality is not an inherent characteristic of marketing. It’s who is doing the marketing that counts. Like the baseball example earlier, it’s only a problem when a dick is swinging the bat. Don’t be a dick.