A concentration on ‘activation’
A growing group of marketers seem to see digital marketing, or a sub-set of it such as social media, as being a more contemporary version of ‘traditional marketing’. This is actually quite dangerous for the people concerned, the organizations that employ them, the brands they look after and the profession within which they work.
The problem is that much of what passes for contemporary marketing, primarily under the umbrella of ‘digital marketing’, is substantially not really marketing at all, but a form of tactical promotion – or ‘activation’ as current jargon has it. These tools are perfectly valid, and frequently very productive, but they are concentrated on the bottom end of the sales funnel: the tactical activities with which they are primarily concerned will only occasionally have a significant impact on the primary marketing purpose – to build brands that fulfil customer needs and provide long-term returns to all stakeholders.
Data on individual customers is similarly used too often not to develop insights that could lead to improved and personalised customer experiences, and thus to brand-build, but to try to activate sales at any cost. My local garage has recently been acquired by a much larger dealer franchise; as a result, I am bombarded with texts and calls informing me that my car is due for a service. The reality is that whenever this has happened my car has not been due for a service, and even it had been, I would prefer to initiate the service appointment myself. Many customers might well value the reminders, but learning about customer preferences is precisely what a customer-focused, technology-enabled, marketing process should look like. Instead, this company is adopting a crass, one-size-fits-all approach to its customers, putting at risk both short-term sales and any hope of developing a stronger brand franchise.
The short-termism problem
The current emphasis in marketing appears to be firmly on the short-term – to promote and therefore sell more – but without the framework of a proper marketing and brand strategy much of the effort and expenditure can be misdirected. Research shows the growing scale of the problem of short-termism in marketing, the impact it is having on effectiveness, and the reasons behind the shift in focus from brand building and longer-term profitability. This reinforces the work undertaken by Les Binet and Peter Field, which highlights the danger of myopically looking at the short-term metrics to judge progress. The requirement to satisfy the underlying needs of customers and to differentiate yourself in the marketplace – in terms of the core product and service offer, as well as via communications – remains the touchstone of marketing, just as it has since Theodore Levitt wrote his seminal article in 1960.
Real marketing is based upon driving the business from the outside in. It is based upon strategy, not tactics. The Marketing Manifesto, launched by the Marketing Society, succinctly sets out the simple customer-driven imperative that lies behind strategic marketing. Poor social media use, for instance, that often lies outside such a framework, will act like a loose cannon, risking brand reputation and achievement of strategic objectives, and result in sub-optimal use of resources. In the longer term the silos that are being created within organizations to manage tools such as social media can risk brands’ ability to compete effectively and may stunt the careers of over-specialised practitioners who get stuck in them.
The neglected marketing mix elements
Above all, however, what seems to have been forgotten – or never understood – by so many organizations and their marketers, is that the core product or service should be the most fundamental preoccupation of marketing. Unfortunately, in many industries and organizations – notably much of the financial sector and utilities – the marketing function never had responsibility for the product or service (hence the frequent appalling customer experience). Additionally, marketers recruited from communications agencies will not generally have had experience in looking after the core product or service either (other than design aspects), although the good ones will have tried to influence it. Finally, the growing practice of creating communication job silos can give an impression of there being many strands to an organization’s marketing, but it is all concerned with just the one communications element of the marketing mix.
Inevitably, faced with a marketing role within an organization where the core product or service is immutable, the emphasis is placed upon how to sell more of it, not to check whether it actually meets the needs of various customer segments. Yet understanding customer needs and aspirations, in order to provide a differentiated product that meets them, lies at the heart of what proper marketing is about – it is the central driver for the discipline. A similar case can be made for ensuring that the pricing strategy is appropriate, that the customer is able to access the product or service in a timely way, and that all the service elements meet or exceed the experience that customers expect.
The ultimate frustration
In organizations that fail to understand marketing, where the non-communication elements of the marketing mix are handled by non-marketing functions (true to an extent in even the most sophisticated marketing organizations, but to a lesser degree), marketers must find ways of influencing and guiding those other functions towards a customer-responsive focus. To do otherwise is to abnegate the marketing role, sell oneself frustratingly short as a marketer (and hinder career progression), lead to misallocation of resources and missed opportunities, and ultimately put at risk the profitable future of the brand and the organization.
Who – as a properly trained marketer – would want to continue to promote a product or service that they knew needed improving, did not really meet identified customer needs, had the wrong pricing policy, was being sold through inappropriate channels and came with poor service? This should be the ultimate frustration for a marketer, but in such a situation the real problem comes when the marketer is not frustrated, because they do not understand what marketing is really all about. As Martin Glenn, formerly The Football Association CEO and CEO of United Biscuits, has said “It is really interesting what you can do in the social space, but it is ephemeral. That’s good when you need rapid response, but you also need to be building great products and services based on a thorough understanding of what consumers need and will pay for, and that takes much longer and requires a lot of patience.”
The preparation of good marketing plans needs the development of a long-term, customer-focused strategy. Yes, hitting the short-term sales objectives is important, but the marketer’s most important job is to help guarantee the future of the brand – and the company – so that all future objectives will also be fulfilled.
Further discussion of this topic is welcomed.
Check out the ‘How to’ resource library for a comprehensive range of documents relating to the preparation of marketing plans, as well as the practical and conceptual issues surrounding their preparation and role within the organization. The resources include some downloadable templates and guides.