The marketing machine, as illustrated, is a visual metaphor and as such, it can’t be built in any literal sense. Which, as an opening line for an article titled how to build a marketing machine, is a breach of promise so quick as to make a politician blush. But we are not talking about building the steam-driven contraption created by my overactive imagination. We are talking about turning your whole business into a metaphorical marketing machine. And that is something you can build.
The ‘marketing machine’ in question is a set of methods, frameworks, tools and systems, embedded in your business, and wrapped in a common language, that will grow your customer base and drive profitable growth. It is the focal point for the collective intelligence of your enterprise (which, incidentally, is the most underutilized asset you own). It encourages interdepartmental collaboration that will continually refine your offer, optimise your pricing, and improve the effectiveness of your targeting and messaging. It will adjust to changing market conditions and competitor activity. It will help you see over the horizon and create the next generation of products and services.
Now at this point, you may be thinking this all sounds a bit fanciful. The sceptic in you may suspect that any machine, metaphorical or otherwise, that could do all the above, belongs in the same category of plausibility as Santa Claus and the easter bunny. And you would be wrong. Or maybe you just think it sounds like a nice idea in theory but will collapse when faced with the practical realities of implementation. In which case you would also be wrong.
It is perfectly possible and practical for your business to build its own marketing machine. All you need is a commitment, energy, focus and determination. Which is, of course, why most businesses don’t have one and why, when you build yours, even if it is an early prototype, you will enjoy a competitive advantage. Admittedly, it may initially be a sort of ‘in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king’ type of competitive advantage, but it is an advantage, nevertheless.
And that advantage will only grow over time. Your shiny, new, prototype machine will gain efficiency and effectiveness the more it is used. Unlike a real machine, that wears out over time, your metaphorical marketing machine just keeps getting better and better. It will take a while to power up, it will take time to optimise, but once is operating at peak performance it will require little maintenance and will give years of profitable service. You will wonder how you ever got by without one. So, with the preamble out of the way, we better get on with building one.
The first thing you will need a is a reliable power source. An uninterrupted, constant source of energy that will drive the machine over the long term. This means connecting your machine to the chief executive. Or at least to the C suite. A direct feed from the very top of the organization will get you the horsepower you need. Without this continuous, powerful energy source, your new marketing machine will eventually run out of steam. It will be destined to sit motionless, abandoned in some backroom, quietly gathering dust. Sharing its fate with the thousands of exercise bikes sitting in spare bedrooms around the country, bought with genuine enthusiasm and good intentions but ending their days as expensive and impractical coat hangers.
Persuading the CEO to provide the required energy source lies on the critical path of successful implementation. Without it, you may be embarking on a fool’s errand. But securing it shouldn’t be that difficult providing growth is high on their agenda. Simply showing the blueprints that explain how the machine will work, what exactly will be required and, what results can be expected, should be sufficient to get the green light. In any event, better that you find out there is a lack of support before you start building than after.
Once you have secured a sufficient power source your next step is to develop the software. If this were an actual machine this would be the artificial intelligence module but, as we have already established, it isn’t. So, what we are dealing with is real intelligence. Specifically, the collective intelligence of your entire business. Harnessing this most under-utilized of all your assets requires a two-step process. First, you need a framework of tools, techniques, and methods to create a common language and a uniform approach to problem-solving. Second, you need to train the individuals in your business how to think simply, empirically and objectively (and how to use the tools, obviously).
Selecting the right tools and frameworks can be daunting. A consequence of the popularity of marketing and strategy as a management discipline, over the past fifty years, has been an overabundance of tools. Some of these are very useful, many are intellectually interesting but impractical, others fall somewhere between misleading and useless. The tools you choose will become the core of your marketing machine. The operating system if you like. So, you need to choose wisely, but what are the right tools?
The right tools are those that generate insights and help you make evidence-based decisions. Unfortunately, these are less well known than the simple tools that many businesses favour. Many of these popular approaches merely collect your thoughts and present them back to you. Take the SWOT analysis, perhaps the most ubiquitous tool there is. Once you have completed your list of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats you stand back and say, “so what?” (‘So-what analysis’ would actually be a better name). The right tools will help you think, critically assess, and decide, they won’t simply reflect your existing beliefs and prejudices.
The specific tools you select will depend on the type of business you are, the challenges you face, and the sort of data you have at your disposal. Most marketing machines can be built with ten to twelve tools, at least initially. And while these ten to twelve tools selected will vary by individual business, they are selected from a pool of just twenty core tools.
Whatever configuration of tools you go for they will be crafted together as one framework. It is important to note that these tools are not stand alone, they are integrated so the output from one tool becomes the input to the next. Together they are the common language and approach that will be the operating system of your marketing machine.
What makes the operating system truly powerful is how all the assumptions and beliefs, that lead you to a particular course of action, are documented. A complete audit trail of your thought process can be viewed. When new information becomes available you can overwrite the previous input. When market feedback modifies your understanding, adjustments can be made. It is an adaptive, flexible system constantly looking for an optimal solution. This degree of dynamism is only possible with skilled operators.
You have a suitable power source connected, you have you ‘operating system’ configured. Before you hit the start button you need to train the operators. A marketing machine is a complex piece of equipment with multiple inputs, configurations and feedback loops. At the risk of using a simile to explain a metaphor, it is like learning how to drive a car, the basic controls are all simple enough to understand but you will need to get some education and practical experience under your belt to achieve any level of competence.
To get the most out of your marketing machine you need to train more than just the marketing department on how to operate it. Its strength doesn’t just come from creating a robust and repeatable process, it relies on harnessing the collective knowledge of your entire business. This means that your operator training class should include a wide range of people from different departments. The more eclectic the group the better the quality of the inputs into the machine.
The classroom training should be minimal and designed simply to get the operators to a level of proficiency sufficient to begin their journey to expertise. As any educator will tell you, effective learning takes place in the real world, not behind a desk. A few days of classroom training supported by online modules and coaching support is all you need to unlock the growth potential of your business. It is a moderate investment for a potentially huge return.
Ready to hit the big green button?
Well, hold your horses sparky. Just for a little longer. The marketing machine is not a simple contraption designed to efficiently perform a single, repetitive job. It can turn its hand to multiple tasks. It all depends on how it’s configured. You may want to launch a new product, face off against an aggressive competitor, expand into new territories and any number of other strategic activities. Each objective will require a different setting.
You need to program the machine with a specific task in mind. What product are you focusing on? Who are the customers are you aiming at? Where is the geographical area? How is success to be measured? When is the timeframe? Each run of the machine needs to have a specific goal and objective in mind. It can handle as many challenges as you wish to throw at it but only one at a time. Like most of us, it works better when it is focussed.
The marketing machine is a discipline that any business can adopt and benefit from. It uses the collective knowledge of your business to explore solutions to challenging marketing problems. It creates a common language and framework to encourage departmental co-operation, it is an iterative approach that can test multiple hypotheses before landing on the most advantageous solution, it is an evidence-based approach with real-time feedback to refine and optimise your value proposition.
Installing such a machine requires some investment and a degree of patience. Rome not being built in a day and all that. But it is eminently possible to design, build and install a marketing machine in your business in just a few weeks. Getting it to peak performance may take a little longer.
As stated at the beginning of this article, the reason most of your competitors don’t have a marketing machine is because of the commitment, energy, focus and determination required to build one. Which is as good a reason as any for you to start thinking about building yours.