The Ludicrous Invention of Ps

Is it laziness, ignorance or sheer perversity that leads to the creation of an ever-increasing and redundant pile of marketing ‘P’ words?  It is perhaps a little strange that the names of so many key marketing concepts and tools begin with the 16th letter of the alphabet: think positioning, proposition, personality, planning, portfolio, purchasing and profit as strategic descriptors and point-of-sale, packaging, public relations, premiums, etc. as executional elements.  This far from exhaustive list omits the most obvious and best-known Ps, however.

The 4Ps are one of the underpinning planks of modern marketing and have stood the test of time pretty well, despite a conceptual flaw at their heart.  Jerome McCarthy created the concept in 1960 to describe the key tools, or elements, with which marketers implement their strategies.  In 1981 Booms & Bitner expanded the 4Ps to 7Ps by the inclusion of further elements more relevant to service organizations, although their application to non-service industries as well was soon realised.  It is important to note that the People element refers to the human element of the service given to customers, not the end customer, Process refers to the operational aspects of the service and Physical Evidence to the need for tangible reminders of a service experience.  This then is the classic marketing mix: 

The conceptual flaw is the producer-led nature of the concept, at odds with marketing’s customer-led centricity, although it is not difficult to take the customer end of each variable as the start-point.  Some marketing thinkers have attempted customer-led versions of the concept, notably Philip Kotler’s 4Cs (taking the 4Ps above in turn: Customer benefits, Cost to customer, Convenience, Communications), but none have stood the test of time as well as these 4/7Ps.

The problem is that the list of Ps is forever being amended: sometimes by practitioners and academics, but more frequently by commentators and consultants with an axe to grind.  Sometimes the additional Ps have relevance and reflect an understanding of the toolkit/checklist-nature of the concept.  More often they are nothing more than a collection of words beginning with the letter P and a vague relevance to any aspect of marketing the author sees fit.  Not only are the words often ridiculous or platitudinous, but demonstrate a lack of insight into the role of the 4/7Ps.

An article in the CIM house magazine, The Marketer, a few years ago, proposed the four Ps of People, Planet, Pleasure and Profit as a new business model.  It is unclear whether the author felt that her model should replace the traditional 4Ps but it is pretty certain that, unlike the original, it is neither a practical and useful concept for a marketer to use, nor has it lasted any longer than any of the other revised models over the years.  More recently, the CEO of The Marketing Academy proposed in Marketing Week the replacement of the 4Ps with Personal, Professional, People and Purpose; why is really not clear.  Even the Chief Executive of the Marketing Society wrote of the “traditional five Ps of marketing” in 2014.

An item was posted on a LinkedIn forum for CIM (Chartered Institute of Marketing) members asking whether Profit should be added to the Ps.  As was pointed out by many members, profit is an outcome of marketing strategies, not an element to be deployed to achieve it, but the poster had many supporters.   Would members of the Chartered Institute of Accountants so blithely start redefining double-entry bookkeeping?  In 2018, Duracell’s International CMO was setting out the 7Ps that she said define her brand: Purpose, Passion, Profit, Politics, Planet, People and Points of Difference (to be fair, she was not expressly attempting to redefine the marketing mix).

Performance, Passion, Profit, Pleasure, Planet and all the rest are not levers that can be pulled to fulfil the requirements of a marketing strategy and achieve the marketing objectives, however valuable the notions might be in consideration of strategy development.  The apparent lack of understanding of one of the key marketing concepts amongst many of those involved in, and close to the profession, does little to create confidence amongst other disciplines.  It is in part a reflection of the fact that anyone can – and frequently does – call themselves a marketer, without the need for any qualifications.  A profession, unsure about one of its key conceptual tools, has a problem in establishing credibility.

A very pertinent contribution was made by Paul Polman, Unilever’s CEO, a few years ago, however.  He posited that Provenance could become an accepted part of the marketing mix.  Not only is this suggestion highly relevant to the development of appropriate sustainable marketing strategies – in terms of requiring an intimate knowledge of the supply chain by marketers – but it reflects a clear understanding of the concept of the Ps and their role in marketing, unlike so many other ‘P’ creators.  Possibly a similar argument could be put forward for Purpose, as a variable that can be added into the total offering to the customer; if so, it should no doubt encompass provenance.

The classic Ps still provide a very useful framework for marketers, and should not necessarily be seen as being set in stone.  Any proposed adaptations or additions need to be based upon a proper understanding of the role of the marketing mix, however, rather than a lazy throwing together of words that happen to begin with a particular letter.

Since the marketing mix – be it 4 or 7Ps – is such a central element in the development of the marketing strategy, and the preparation of the marketing plan, it is well for marketers to understand exactly what it is.

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.


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