It’s about Customer Focus, Stupid…

Marketing has been undergoing a slow identity crisis in recent years.  Most obviously, it has suffered the ignominy of being ranked with other pariah trades such as banking and real estate:

“Marketing is held in very low esteem.  Just as the theme pub receives more than its fair share of public disapprobation, so too marketing is a byword for gimmickry, dissimulation, flim-flam and exploitation.”  (Professor Stephen Brown, Professor of Marketing Research at University of Ulster)

Marketing has also become conflated with other related activities such as sales and communication, whilst many of those working in the numerous and growing (many of them digital) sub-disciplines seem to have lost sight of its core purpose and driver.  At the same time the focus of attention has become more and more short-term in nature.  Little wonder then that much of the outside world both misunderstands and denigrates marketing.

The core of marketing

In many ways marketers have been their own worst enemy.  For example, the CIM (Chartered Institute of Marketing) professional qualifications are unfortunately simply not a requirement for employment, or a licence to practise, as in many other professions. Marketers have also seemingly not sought to protect the core integrity of the profession, allowing a multitude of misconceptions to flourish on the back of poor practice and the ability of a vast range of activities to be labelled as ‘marketing’.

Perhaps the biggest failure has been the inability of marketing practitioners to hold on sufficiently well to the central tenet of the customer being the start-point for all marketing and business activity.  The ability of marketers to understand the different customer groups that an organization serves, or wants to serve, and to translate that understanding into products and services that meet those customer needs, better than the competitor does, lies at the heart of the marketing philosophy.  In so doing, marketers build brands that secure the profitable future for businesses, their employees and shareholders.

Nothing that the advent of digital and social media has introduced changes the centrality of this truth; the only recent modification has been the recognition of the need to understand and serve the needs of a wider range of stakeholder groups, such as employees, local communities, all the actors in the supply chain, society at large and – importantly – future generations.

The ‘frothy bit’

Marketing has become side-tracked into a concentration on communication.  The promotional ‘P’ of classical marketing plays a critical role, its primary purpose being, of course, to convey a compelling story about the product or service being sold, and the brand behind it.  The advent of digital and social media has added a lot of firepower to this activity, in particular due to its invaluable interactive nature.  But it’s not the core of marketing.

Helen Edwards has discussed the phenomenon of marketers increasingly being so caught up with the ‘frothy bit’ that they have forgotten about the core product, and the supply chain that plays an intrinsic part in the creation of that offer.  She has also stated that “marketers have lost their sense of what the word ‘brand’ actually means”.  This includes a concentration on elements that are usually of relatively minor importance, such as the original naming of a brand, the logo, colour scheme and other physical design elements.  These may occasionally make a significant difference, but what matters far more is the brand strategy – particularly the positioning, and its expression through every element of the marketing mix, not just the communication tools.  Unfortunately, huge numbers of agencies earn their living persuading clients otherwise.

The executional tools, rather than strategic considerations, increasingly dictate how marketing is organised as well.  Clare Sheikh, former marketing head at Vodafone, RSA and ITV has highlighted the rash of new marketing job titles related to the digital world and was quoted as saying: “The really scarce skill-set is the one allowing a marketer to judge the right proposition for the right target audience, the personality that will distinguish a brand from its competitors, the right price point and the right media mix to bring it to people’s attention”.

Marketing and sales

The slide towards a concentration on the short-term, on selling and on communication, has led some to propose that marketing and sales should be more formally merged at director level, whilst the CIM itself was recommending a merger of the functions in a report published in late 2011.  As many pointed out in the subsequent debate though, the two disciplines fulfil fundamentally different – but connected – roles; not least, one is concerned primarily with long-term strategy, the other with more short-term objectives and targets.

The irony will not be lost on those familiar with the history of modern marketing.  In the ’60s and ’70s many organizations, believing that they were being left behind, relabelled their sales departments as marketing departments and their sales managers as marketing managers.  Until they took on board that it was a substantially different discipline and mind-set, however, they inevitably failed at what they were trying to do.  Sales departments and marketing departments each have vital and complementary roles and can be managed successfully together or separately, but we are at risk of going backwards.

The separation of brand and marketing

Responsibility for the organization’s brand, or brands, has traditionally always been the preserve of the marketing function – and still is in most blue-chip marketing organizations (although it can always be argued that – conceptually, at least – the CEO is the ultimate brand manager).  But the tendency for marketing to become more focused on the short-term, and on sales and communication, has begun to result in the division of the marketing function into marketing (i.e. largely communications) and brand (i.e. the strategy) roles, with the appointment of brand directors alongside their ‘marketing’ counterparts.  This split in ‘brand’ roles from marketing roles, reflects the growing perception that marketing is concerned only with the tactical.   Giles Lury, in his book ‘The Marketing Complex’, develops the thinking behind this bifurcation, whilst emphasising the strategic importance of both elements.

The brand management role (created by Procter & Gamble in the 1930s) is still the classic marketing role in an organization that ‘gets’ marketing: the mini-general manager coordinating the company’s resources (the 4/7 Ps) to build brand equity and thus fulfil company objectives.  Other marketing personnel may well look after other sub-disciplines (including, critically, responsibility for the core product or service), but the management of the brand is seen as an integral part of marketing, driving the other elements, not a separate discipline.  To emphasise this, P&G renamed the marketing function as brand management in 2014.

The danger is that the separation of brand and marketing not only muddies the water, but serves to further reduce marketing’s strategic role, despite Lury’s persuasive argument.  A natural continuation of this trend might well, indeed, result in the merging of marketing with sales; the merged function being responsible for the communication aspects of selling, but all of it focused on the short-term.  Yet we have all experienced in recent years the consequences of a concentration on the short-term, particularly its calamitous results in the financial world.

The criticality of strategic marketing

The irony of all this is that the underpinning philosophy of marketing – of serving the needs of customers (and other stakeholders), thus creating stakeholder value, has never been more necessary.  As Hugh Davidson commented in an article in ‘Market Leader’: “Marketers spend too much of their time on external communications and not enough on ensuring that the customer’s voice is heard by all their colleagues.”

An editorial in ‘Marketing’ made a similar point: that it is critical for marketers to bring their understanding of the customer into the boardroom.  This is the strategic role that marketing ultimately fulfils – taking a long-term view of the outside world and identifying the challenges and opportunities for the organization.  Operating sustainably is an intrinsic part of this: as Amanda Mackenzie, CMO of Aviva, said at the 2012 Marketing Society Conference: “Marketing needs to be concerned about creating a legacy”.  Those who think it is primarily concerned with the latest tweet have failed utterly to grasp its history, purpose and potential.

The despair felt by those of us who remember when marketing was widely regarded and experienced as a strategically vital function in an organisation, rather than primarily a role for controlling a variety of tactical promotional tools, is exemplified by Mark Ritson’s exasperation.

A focus on the customer, and a strategic perspective, is the only appropriate starting point for the preparation of marketing plans.

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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