How to Save Marketing

Marketing is not in great shape. What can we do about it? Flashing back, some of you may remember when marketing was poised to take over the business world. Marketing was on the threshold of becoming the nucleus of the modern organization and everything else – engineering, operations, sales, and even finance – would be satellites orbiting this function.  

After all, The Customer is King and who better to understand and communicate with the customer than marketers?  It was a logical argument therefore it must be true, or so the thinking went.

The years have flown by, and this marketing-centric business world has yet to emerge. If anything, my sense is that marketing has lower stature than thirty years ago when I chose marketing research as my career. Beginning in the late 80s, business consultants advised their clients that marketing research was not a core function and, therefore, should be outsourced and, consequently, few companies developed large, well-funded marketing research departments. While the number of marketing research agencies grew dramatically in the years that followed, they often chased the same “premium” clients with the very similar offers.

Because in-house marketing research functions have usually been understaffed and underfunded, the level of marketing research sophistication in many companies has remained low. There is vulnerability on the demand side, and more than a few client-side marketers and marketing researchers are easy prey for slick sales pitches which are complete nonsense.

Had marketers gained the respect within their organizations that many had predicted, most likely this would not have happened. Perhaps marketing would not have become the center of the universe, but it would now be more coequal with other organizational functions. Instead, marketing is more typically regarded as fluff and, in the words of one veteran marketing consultant, marketers are seen as salespeople who can’t sell.

Psychobabble is often perceived to be the native tongue of marketers, and what we do is viewed as pseudoscientific, not scientific like engineering, finance or operations are thought to be. Its contributions to the bottom line are hard to quantify. What about marketing mix modeling? It has thus far failed to save the day. Part of this owes to its inherent complexity – it is sophisticated causal modeling, after all, and causal modelingis very challenging. Frankly, over-promise and under-delivery have plagued that corner of marketing research for years. 

These are my impressions, at any rate, though some are supported by data. I may be imagining things, but many other marketing research veterans are seeing essentially the same picture. Some sense a sharp decline. As one contact put it, we have raised a whole generation of marketers who don’t understand marketing.

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So how do we save marketing and, along with it, marketing research? We need to have a long, hard look at ourselves, what we promise and what we deliver. We need to look outside of marketing and marketing research for ideas and inspiration, not just for new sales gimmicks, but for things clients actually need and things that really work. In the Data Age, many of us will also need to crack the books and learn a lot more about research methods and statistics. Marketing researchers, in particular, need to raise their bar.

We need to be less concerned with style and more concerned with substance. We must stop the stampede from one panacea to the next. We need to practice what we continually preach – understand the customer. In this case, the customers are decision makers in client organizations, mostly outside of marketing.

We need to make clients understand that marketing is much more than direct marketing and targeted ads. We must also make them realize that marketing is more than liaising with ad agencies, and definitely not about starting price wars. We need to remind them that branding works and that brand building is a vital part of marketing that should not be shoved aside.

And then there’s new product development…is throwing something half-finished on the market, and waiting for customers to complain on social media in order to find out what’s wrong with it really smart business practice?

Good marketers understand the psychology and sociology that lies beneath shopping and consumption. Good marketers know not just when to target and who to target, but how to communicate with the target.

We need to remind ourselves and our clients of the fundamentals of marketing.

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