Marketing is possibly the most widely misunderstood business topic in the managerial world today.
The problem of marketing ignorance stems not from the difficulty of the topic. After all, marketing at its core is just about as simple as it gets. The problem is that to understand what a concept like marketing means is one thing, to actually apply the marketing principle to your day to day business life is an altogether more difficult challenge.
So, in brief. The philosophy of marketing revolves around a single, strikingly obvious idea. That idea is that we find out what people want before we start making and selling it….and yet when push comes to shove, they will continue to completely ignore the voice of the consumer when they actually make strategic decisions.
How can we account for this glaring mismatch of theory and practice?
Many managers seem to mistake market orientation for marketing orientation. Yes, there is a difference. In the former case, managers find out what the consumer thinks about their products and services. In the latter, the manager asks the marketing department what they think and they answer for the market. In doing so they demonstrate the presence of marketing gurus, possibly one of the most pernicious problems in the marketing world.
There are no gurus in marketing. To be a guru suggests you have immense knowledge, knowledge that can answer the strategic questions that a firm encounters. In marketing the last thing we need is a guru who thinks he or she knows what the market wants. The fact that they work for the company producing the product means they are just about the last person on earth who is likely to know how the customer is thinking.
The minute you sign up to work for a company you have also signed away any remaining sense of customer orientation. You are no longer a consumer, you are a producer. Producer and consumer may see the same product before them but the personal significance of that product could not be more different.
The customer sees toothpaste. The brand manager sees the toothpaste too. But while the consumer then sees fewer trips to the dentist, clean teeth and fresh breath, the brand manager sees her career, her company car, her future social standing and perhaps her pension plan. When a manager/guru confidently describes what the customer wants they are actually simply describing what they assume/hope/imagine the customer wants.
One of the most humbling experiences for managers is to ask them how they think the customer thinks and then take them out onto the street to actually find out. The results are always revelatory. Another is to point out, in a room filled with senior marketing managers from a leading Wall Street bank, that not a single person in the room (barring yours truly) has ever had to actually purchase a mortgage because the bank provided them as a perk.
At Business School we train our marketing rookies to avoid this potential pothole by instilling in them a single, simple phrase that wards off marketing guruism. That phrase is: ” I am a tool”. We make them say it over and over until our lecture halls resonate to the sound of it. Typically, our MBAs spend the summer in internships with big blue chip organizations and, equally typically, some of them are asked by their managers to take a look at the latest company advertising, packaging, branding, price levels. They have MBAs in marketing after all – who better to suggest a strategic direction.
It is in these situations that our MBAs, or at least the ones who have been paying attention, raise their hand meekly and declare: “I am just a tool”. A tool that connects market with manufacturer. A tool that avoids speaking for the market and instead goes out to the customer to get real, lived consumer perspective. A tool that then brings that information back into the organization and uses it to influence decision making.
No gurus. The only gurus in marketing are fools. Its all about tools. Different tools of course for different jobs. Sometimes you need a very powerful tool. Sometimes a very cost efficient one. Sometimes one that gets the job done super fast. Sometimes one that uses quantitative data. Sometimes one that uses qualitative data. But always a tool.
So repeat after me. What am I?
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