The Press, August 2012

Last week the esteemed Harvard Business Review declared marketing ‘dead’. Like rock and roll, radio and Oscar Wilde I think that the reports are exaggerated – marketing is not dead, it just needs to grow up.

“Traditional marketing — including advertising, public relations, branding and corporate communications — is dead,” opined HBR blogger Bill Lee last week, pointing to three indicators of its terminal ill-health.

Buyers are typically using sources, mainly online, other than traditional ‘marketing’ channels like advertising to find and evaluate products; CEOs are growing tired of marketing’s inability to prove its contribution to the bottom line; and marketers and sales people often don’t understand their customers well enough to engage with them successfully online.

Like many bloggers (and radio talkback hosts) before him, Lee is being provocative to get a reaction and therefore interest in his column, but there is an element of truth in his thesis.

As customers have so much power in the age of the internet, marketing is actually more relevant than ever, because it helps a business understands its’ market and how to engage with it. The challenge is ensuring that marketing is ‘mature’ enough to deliver in this tough, new online world.

With potential customers doing so much more of their searching and product evaluation online, marketers need to be there connecting with them. Of course this requires knowledge of the various online channels, from your own website through the myriad of social media platforms, but more fundamentally it demands a maturing in the way we market.

As marketers we need to be less like a teenager. As any parent of a teenager will tell you, even those blessed with cheerful and positive youth in their family, that they are incredibly self-absorbed.

Teenagers can struggle to see beyond their own issues, tending to relate anything to the effect it has on their life. You come home after a long day at the office, and the first thing they ask you is ‘where is my dinner?’. Narcissism is the term the psychologists use.

As marketers we can be too narcissistic. Too often we communicate to a market about our company, our products, our services, our features, our this, our that. Great marketing needs to be all about the customer, their world, their needs, their challenges.

The opposite of narcissism is humility, the quality of being modest and respectful, which most of us try and develop as we age. Instead of shouting about how great you are, you have the maturity to listen and show some respect.

An example of a mature marketer is the US outdoor equipment and clothing manufacturer Patagonia. The company was founded by Yvon Chouinard, who published a well-received business how-to book in 2005 called “Let My People Go Surfing.”

In a seemingly counter-productive move, Patagonia built a campaign encouraging their customers to consume less.

Last December Patagonia launched a major advertising campaign with the message “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” The advertising campaign was launched in the midst of Black Friday, an orgy of commercialism that kicks off the North American Christmas shopping season.

According to their website, Patagonia contend a thriving business can be built on the basis that “everything we sell is useful, multifunctional where possible, long lasting, beautiful but not in thrall to fashion.”

Instead of shouting at their customers about how great they are, they understand the kind of customers who are interested in Patagonia gear are likely to share their view of being environmentally responsible.

They are being mature and humble enough to understand their customer’s lives and provide a solution that fits. It’s a much more mature conversation than one that shouts about their company, their products, their fabrics, their features, their prices.

It has also worked – Patagonia recently reported sales had increased by 30% since the campaign began.

You don’t have to go as far as Patagonia, but the average company can definitely mature the way they market. Every time you are going to do some communication to your market you need to think about a couple of key questions.

First, becoming crystal clear on who your typical customer actually is (how can you have a mature conversation otherwise), what problems your product solves for them and how is the way you do that different from your competitors?

Second, how will a particular piece of communication (an advertisement, a tweet, a blog post, a press article) actually benefit the customer, rather than simply seeing it as a way to blow your trumpet? Will they get some useful information, or perhaps feel better after consuming it? That’s a more mature approach to marketing.

Marketing could die an untimely death if it doesn’t adjust to a world where consumers have so much more power, with access to huge resources of independent information and analysis of your products. What’s required is growing up, acting less like a self-absorbed teenager and more like that humble old lady who lives next door.

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