What is the role of marketing in the modern age? Is it to take any product or service and say whatever it takes to persuade people to buy it? Is the internet just a way of getting the same old distorted message to more people?
According to some of the participants in a recent LinkedIn discussion that’s exactly what we do. In fact it’s worse. ‘Half-truths, misrepresentation and downright lies’ were the main features of the job spec according to one person – and he clearly wasn’t alone.
Be honest, is there a little part of your brain saying: ‘you know what, there is some truth in that’?
But – even if it has ever been true – would that approach actually work today? We’re in a digital age where a customer’s version of the truth is a hare that will outrun the hounds of any corporate marketing machine. Lying isn’t sustainable.
At its heart, this debate had a basic misunderstanding of what marketing is, or should be. Remember though, this discussion was on a business network – it wasn’t Mumsnet.
These misconceptions about marketing are potentially dangerous for any business that holds them (even slightly). So, I’ll try to put the record straight.
More than ‘leads and sales’
I know that some businesses have a view that the operational side of the business comes up with the products, clever ideas or services. It’s then the role of marketing to find customers for these things. I know this because I’ve worked in businesses like that.
But there should be more to it than this. Effective and properly used marketers understand what the market really needs. They have a clear route to feed this intelligence back into the design, configuration and positioning of the offer.
There’s no need to bend the truth when you know, for sure, that your business is meeting a real need. And we’re better placed than ever to understand those needs if we use social networks to have a conversation, rather than as a way of pumping out more marketing pitches.
Business guru and visionary Peter Drucker went so far as to say that Marketing and Innovation were the only two basic functions of any business. Everything else is an overhead.
Just think about that for a while.
Drucker’s analysis is based on the simple truth that if you don’t have paying customers you don’t have a business. And if you can’t innovate continuously then you don’t have a long term future.
If you’re one of those people who believes that the purpose of a business is just to make money or increase shareholder value I’ll point you towards this Forbes piece by Steve Denning: http://onforb.es/1aeGGWp.
It all makes more sense when you understand the broader perspective of what marketing is and what it does. Everyone in a customer-facing role should be integral to your marketing effort. What they learn through day in, day out, customer contact should drive the innovations you need to give you the edge in your marketing and in your business. But how often do they get asked?
Are we all marketers now?
The classic (and sometimes antagonistic) disconnect is between sales and marketing. In the digital marketing age this makes less sense than ever.
I’ve actually worked in a large organisation where we had a sales team whose job was to close new deals; operational managers (as I was at the time) who needed to get the work out, turn a profit and nurture existing accounts; and a small marketing team who seemed mainly to organize trade shows and look after the website and corporate brochures.
We all saw our functions as distinct and we all had our own narrow focus. We consistently struggled to create a coherent vision for the future of the business.
Core function or a sideshow?
So how about your business. Is marketing the (or even a) core function? Or does it feel more like an add-on?
Do you have a crystal clear understanding of what your customers need, what problems they are looking to solve, what pain they feel? And do you have services, products and marketing arguments to show how you are answering all of those issues?
Where does marketing (as a process rather than a department) fit in the hierarchy and the functioning of your business? Is it a core function or a cost centre that has to be constantly tamed?
Truth will outrun your hype
And what if your product or service doesn’t quite hit the spot? Is it then the role of marketing to use a bit of poetic licence to convince potential buyers that what you offer is what they need after all? This is a dangerous path.
If misrepresentation has ever been successful in marketing, the success has always been temporary. If the reality doesn’t match up to the promise, the truth will out. If the reality gap is a yawning chasm your brand may be irreparably damaged. This is the age of authenticity and trust.
In the past, truth could take a while to catch up with exaggerated marketing claims. In today’s connected world, truth (particularly the negative variety) is viral. Calamity can happen in an afternoon.
More positively, marketing based in truth and authenticity, backed up by independent comments and positive customer reviews is hard to argue with.
So what do marketers do?
Of course marketers use techniques to promote, persuade and induce people to take action. We might use clever images and clever words to connect a product or service more directly with your needs and your situation. But the day we start overstating the capabilities and value of what we are selling we are in trouble. We are in even more trouble the day we lose sight of what it is people actually want or need, and why.
And a final thought: if a smart marketer persuades you to buy something that doesn’t do everything that was claimed – who are you going to tell? Probably everyone! And if disappointment becomes the norm, no marketing amplifier will be large enough to drown out the noise.
Looking to make sense of marketing in the digital age?
Main picture credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/indiamos/2294965204