Good Morning Marketing This Is Your Wake Up Call

Emerging after recent months of recent blogging hibernation I’ve started re-pondering ‘my research question’. I know that, all sounds very academic and a seemingly very obvious thing that someone doing some university research should easily get a grip of. It isn’t. Surely I hear you think, if you want to find something out, it’s because you have an unanswered question and there must loads of those! For me though, 2010 was the year of the ‘unidentified research question’. I need to crack on.

In order to break the log jam (hibernating beaver metaphor alert!) I’ve been reading a variety of articles about current issues in marketing thinking and management. One stood out. Are We Nearly There Yet? On The Retro Dominant Logic Of Marketing. Written in 2007 by Stephen Brown of the University of Ulster, this is a great example of his insightful, bitingly humourous, and thought provoking style. In this article he uses the metaphors of cars and journeys to talk about the state of contemporary thinking and practice in Marketing. Here’s a flavour:

“Once or twice per decade, a radically new concept car makes an unheralded appearance. Souped -up, fully loaded and kitted out, inevitably, with a paradigm shift as standard, this go faster model is universally lauded as the next big scholarly thing, and, for a short time at least, become marketing’s conceptual vehicle of choice, the car that that’ll carry our discipline to its final destination, the fabled city of Scienceoplis.”

To mash up the metaphors. In a nutshell Marketing is a fad rich environment which is strewn with empty new bottles that had old wine in them. A world where practitioners regularly wake up with a splitting headache after over indulging in marketing nouveau and mutter…never again.

Stephen Brown writes from a Critical Marketing perspective which seeks to bring to our attention the problems created by the all pervading dominance of the Postivistic tone and aspirations in marketing management thinking, writing and practice. The unswerving aspiration, in some quarters of marketing, to become a natural science, to become the fig leaf that covers up any academic embarassment and provide the unequivocal facts and direct causes and effects that managers crave. This is not merely an academic reverie. He does point to a serious issue for marketing. He urges caution towards management notions such as the ‘hot new’ Service Dominant Logic concept (the prime target of his article). He cautions us that such ideas merely serve as what he describes as a “conceptual comfort blanket, something that helps marketers face the reality of mounting marginalization and ever increasing irrelevance”

Now we start to get close to some questions. What is marketing capability? Where is it kept? Why would anyone want it? How critically aware are marketing practitioners? How do practitioners judge the value of new marketing concepts? What are the mechanisms that generate the tendencies towards the various forms of marketing deployment? Why does post modern marketing scare me? What is marketing realism?

Marketing has now gone Service Dominant, or has it? I don’t believe you can change reality by just changing how you talk about it (see Critical Realism and Bhaskar, Collier et al) Maybe that’s why marketing is marginalised by many because ‘marketing mystics and gurus’ believe you can and that doesn’t wash with everyday people like you and me because it isn’t ‘real’! Skunks aren’t pungently challenged…they stink!

Because it seems so many senior executives agree with Matthew Parris (writing in the Times on the 25th Novemeber 2010) that marketing is just communications, PR and word games. An after dinner game to played with nuances and innuendos, a bit of in the dark fumbling (Ambler) it is trivialised as a business ‘entertainment’ exercise. The marketing job can be dropped when times are tough because we know its all just flannel really.

Is it any wonder marketing is burdening under ‘ever increasing irrelevance’ (Brown ibid ). Parris wrote, “when hired to advise on improving the ‘brand’ of an organisation marketing professionals will usually find that clients already know and promote their strengths but shrink from confronting their weaknesses. Therefore the client will be professionally advised to identify and remedy brand weaknesses…the corporate image consultant is not hired to rethink the product itself.”

Question. Can there be a singular definition of marketing? How are product and service solutions originated? Time to read more from Stephen Brown who also seems to like penguins.

Is Cold Calling A Marketing Technique?

The BBC have reported on a Which Magazine survey says that most of us think that Cold Callers Should Be Banned. Ceri Stanaway Which Magazine Telecoms expert says “At best a nuisance and at worst an intimidating intrusion into our lives”. So doesn’t this beg a question. Is Cold Calling a Marketing technique? The answer of course depends on what you mean by ‘marketing’.

If marketing is about understanding and responding to the needs of customers then it seems not. Cold Calling is about the need of the selling organisation to make sales regardless of what the customer wants. No matter how Cold Calling is rationalised by the people who do it Cold Calling isn’t about informing the customer of offers they wouldn’t have found out about, it isn’t about providing a better service, its about wringing every last penny out of the customer in a high pressure win/lose tussle.

The intrusive nature of early evening cold phone calls is deliberate and contrived. It gets people at a time when their psychological defenses are low after a long day. It gets past our psychological defenses because we are ‘at home’ and not in an alert buying mode. And from personal experience with my father companies don’t seem to care that they are trying to brow beat elderly people with complex and irrelevant service offers.

Cold Calling is not a marketing technique because it doesn’t care about the customer. To protect yourself why not use the Telephone Preference Service.

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Worried About Selling In The Value Of Social Media?

One of the key tasks of senior management is to notice and make sense of emerging events. This is a crucial aspect of dynamic capability (Teece) and something that Bob Garvey refers to as an ability to manage to ‘approaching events. The key issue of course is what happens when you delegate that job to others in the organisation. Invariably where they sit affects what they see.  So don’t be surprised what you are told about the purpose and value of Social Media and Networking if you abdicate your sense-making to geeks and technophiles.

As we know the business world is in a frenzy about social media and networking. There is fraught debate about how to prove R.O.I. however it seems the problem has been solved. Managers simply need to become skilled at Social Media buzzword utilisation. I came across this great post from the blog Passionate – Creating Passionate Users. I hope you find it as amusing as I did.  Just as a taster:

“With our shawdows aware API we can stay in perpertual alpha thanks to the user content eco-system”

You’ll also find posts with titles like:

  • You ARE the marketer. Deal with it.
  • Stop your presentation before it kills again
  • Brain death by micro management

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Marketing Speak Hijacks Business Minds

A bad habit of marketing ‘experts’ (and for that matter any other experts) is the over use of jargon. Specialised language is used to indicate that you ‘belong to the club’, to simplify conversations between experts, to shut out people who don’t belong to the club, and to pull the wool over the eyes of the less well informed.

An old idea that has been around for nearly 15 years (probably originally attributed to Tom Peters) is Personal Branding. In plain English this has been known for centuries as Reputation. We don’t need an expert to tell us that personal reputations matter. We don’t need an expert to tell us that we are responible for putting across our worth and value. Robert Louis Stevenson was saying this way back in the 19th century when he said “everyone lives by selling something”. Personal branding is nothing new and it is not complex.

Let’s get the toes curling. Paul Johnston – ‘transforming open minds for a competitive future’, Paul Johnston – ‘enthusaneer’, Paul Johnston – ‘defender of marketing innocents’. It is of course true that people and their names come to symbolise what they stand for. This is also known as celebrity. Mention a name, see a photograph and as Bob Cialdini says, ‘click whirr’ we make the association. Brand Management is in the business of pushing into the foreground the associations we want people to believe. The positives. In social influence terms it is a form of ‘landscaping’. Personal Branding is a compelling idea because of what it promises. However just ask Tiger Woods about the consequences of the difference between rhetoric and reality.

A curious habit we have is the way we ‘make sense’ of things through conceptual lenses. Jostein Gaarder in his wonderful book Sophie’s World explains it this way. The character Alberto Knox is talking to Sophie.

“Could you bring me those glasses from the table over there? Thank you. Now put them on”. Sophie put the glasses on. Everything around her became red. The pale colors became pink and the dark colors became crimson. “What did you see?” – “I see exactly the same as before, except that its all red” – ” That’s because the glasses limit the way you percieve reality. Everything you see is part of the world around you, but how you see it is determined by the glasses you are wearing”

The type of glasses we wear determines the way we deal with problems and solutions. I was recently told a story by John Kawalek of Sheffield University about someone he met who was utterly convinced that solutions to his company’s problems was ‘TQM’. Probing further John discovered that the person had recently joined the company a few weeks previously after being TQM champion for several years in his last post. Every problem was a TQM problem with a TQM solution.

You may have come across people who have been on management training courses and who have been introduced to Myers Briggs personality typoligies. All of a sudden, that’s how the world works. A new set of glasses and everyone is explained by four letters!

Problem. Credit Crunch, redundancy, fear of losing home, wife and kids. Solution….now let me see, which glasses should I wear? Is it a TQM problem? Maybe I need to sell my ESTJ-ness? I know, pass me my Marketing Glasses. The new, breakthrough, indispensbile glasses for guaranteed results. Hand me my Branding Glasses. I need a clear identity, I need to capture my brand personality, to create my image and develop the ability to convey my unique value differentials in an emotionally powerful way that taps into the hearts and minds of my audience.

For more CV power words I recommend Kevin Hogan, The Psychology of Persuasion and Covert Hypnosis. The real question of course is how has this post affected my personal brand I wonder?

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The Challenge Of Creating Compelling and Competitive Value Propositions

What comes first the chicken or the egg? What comes first the communications campaign or designing and delivering an appealling value offer that matches or exceeds the expectations of customers not what we ‘think’ they want.

A Marketing Communications strategy is not a Marketing Strategy. Crafting a Competitive Strategy a.k.a Marketing Strategy is fundamental to the success of any enterprise. It is, at its heart a strategic management process concerned with creating and delivering products and services that people want to use and buy.

As we know there are various levels of understanding about what the term ‘marketing’  means. A significant number of people exclusively and erroneously equate ‘marketing’ with advertising and promotions. A significant number of people understand otherwise. It’s purpose is to deliver competitive advantage.

There are various posts and comments on this blog which give a flavour of the ways in which the term ‘marketing’ is understood and how it should be deployed. Alexander Repiev (on this blog) uses the metaphor of the Augean Stables to discuss the amount of ‘marketing manure’ that has built over the years in the marketing profession. Regretably even some seasoned marketeers sincerely believe that the role of marketing is primarily one of marketing communications and thereby reinforce the misconception. This is sometimes given extra gravitas and importance by describing it as Branding. Jean Noel Kapferer amongst others explain Strategic Brand Management otherwise. Much to the chagrin of many marketing professionals they are sometimes ‘cast’ in that role by people who think the marketing job is to merely sell what the enterprise has on its shelves, or hopefully transform worn out products with a new wrapper.  This is invariably a forlorn hope. President Obama described activity such as this in more candid terms recently.

One of the snake pits of the ‘marketing is communications’ approach is that it invariably puts the cart before the horse. It predisposes management to hyperbole and self agrandisement. It fools people into believing that if you say it loud and often enough it is the truth.  Experience has taught many businesses the hard way that if you approach competitive strategy from that perspective its has its costs. A more effective approach in this sequence.  (see Kotler et al):

1. Define the value based on deep customer insight to create key benefit segments. Not all customers are alike. Don’t rely on guess work, high hopes, conventional wisdom, personal assumption or preference. What if Bill Oddie look alikes  and wellingtons symbolise a  significant high value customer segment? Do you disparage them because they don’t fit with a personal idea of the ‘ideal customer’?  Clearly and objectively gather evidence to answer the questions ‘why should anyone  buy from us?’, ‘what benefits do they tell us they are seeking?’, ‘what differences make a difference to our target customers?’

2. Produce and deliver the value. Not all customers are alike. Do the good stuff that transforms customer experience of products and services. Segment the offers. Provide the value that people seek not what you think the value should be.  Create a solid evidence based platform from which to shout from.

3. Finally communicate the value. Not all customers are alike. Talk about proven benefits in terms that are meaningful to the customer not in language that we ‘think’ is meaningful or could be meaningful if only the right meaning is used. The meaning of communication is the way it is received. Different segments want to hear different things said in different ways about the benefits they seek.

Communications preferences in a commercial context should never be judged by whether someone likes or dislikes them on entirely subjective grounds. Talking about strapline preferences ‘as if’ they are merely the stuff of subjective opinion tivialises their true purpose. It’s not about whether somebody ‘likes’ or ‘dislikes’ a strapline its about whether the strapline is effective in purpose.   Marketing Communications has a purpose. It also goes much further than ‘salience’ or capturing peoples attention through shock or controversy.  I prefer to judge a communciations campaign on the commercial effectiveness of its  social influence.

Marketing Communciations is what it ‘is’ and Social Influence is what it ‘does’.  Any communcications endevour can therefore be measured in terms of how effectively it changes attitudes and consequently behaviours. There is however no guarantee that a change of attitude will translate into a change of behaviour (see criticisms of the Hovland Yale model and AIDA).   It can’t ever be described as money well spent simply because the advertising ‘stands out’, or the thing advertised has become more ‘top of the mind’, it can’t ever be decribed as good value for money just because people have worked hard on it and created alot of ‘stuff’ that people can use.  However commendable the effort, this misses the point.

It should also be remembered that changing a behaviour can change an attitude without the expense of marketing communications collateral. A positive experience is often more powerful than any ‘top down’ marketing communications claims.

If you communicate what you believe to be the value before you’ve provided it, you preach before you practice, you have no evidence that you have matched customer expectations. It is nothing more than a well intentioned aspiration. Actions speak louder than words.

There is a crucial philosophical and theoretical point here and as Kurt Lewin said “there’s nothing so practical as a good theory”. Our theoretical understanding of marketing determines how we do it in practice.

So let’s imagine we are deeply involved and experienced in a particular business sector. This business is facing some competitive challenges. We know that our competition has increased over the years  and there are more appealling choices for our once loyal customers. We also know that the experience we have delivered has been below par in some instances. We also know we have good things to sell too and we can’t rely on other people to do this for us. We know that if we stand idly by then our business is likely to dissapear. What do we do about that?

A good place to start is point 1 above. It seems self evident that we should provide ‘quality’ but and here’s the rub… What does ‘quality’ really mean? Whose ‘quality’ are we talking about? We can only establish the ‘quality’ that should be delivered by understanding the needs and expectations of the diversity of customer segments. What does ‘quality’ mean to them? What are the critical choice factors that customers, present, lapsed and new say they want. Do we have evidence directly from them.  Is there any correlation between what we think is of value and what they think is of value? Getting this right is marketing.

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So Where Exactly Is Competitive Advantage?

Reading an article by Alexander Repiev struck a chord with me. Intringuingly titled The Augean Stables of Academic Marketing I had to confess I didn’t know what Augean meant. Googling to find a defnition I was shocked at the bluntness of its meaning.“extremely filthy from long neglect” said Princeton.

“Requiring heroic efforts of cleaning or correction” said the freedictionary.com

“resembling the Augean stables in filthiness or degradation.” said dictionary.com

Is this really state of marketing theory? The notion of Augean coming from the fifth labour of Hercules whose task was to clean up the stables of King Augeus who had been remiss in keeping on top of the job for years.

Alexander Repiev has choosen a powerful metaphor for his take on extant marketing knowledge and practice. I have a hunch he’s on to something. The marketing stable probably needs a spring clean.

No more so it seems than with the apparent uncritical reliance on classic marketing frameworks and tools. Do the analysis and out will pop the answer. Those “Quenchers of Creativity” as Alexander calls them. I agree. Yes they are helpful in mapping a version of reality, and as he goes on to say “At best those matrices, chains, “analyses,” etc., are reminders, visualizations, etc.”

They nevertheless pre-dispose the marketeer to sterile analysis. To grey descriptions of ‘facts’. They make someone highly proficient at flying a ‘desk’ and completely unskilled in the social skills of business. When has a PEST analysis inspired anyone? How can a SWOT analysis encourage the spotting of patterns that connect? (Bateson) when their purpose and method is splitting into parts. Where is the conversation about issues of categorisation, where is the talk of both/and instead of either/or? How many times do we have to hear the puzzled calls of ‘so which box does this fit in?’ or ‘this could fit in more than one box!’.

The skill of analytical thinking is celebrated in the stable of Marketing to the exclusion of everything else and large numbers of marketeers are wading around knee deep in the muck it generates. Ah I hear you say ‘where there’s muck there’s money’, so let me be clear, I’m not arguing for a cessation of analysis. I am arguing for a re-balancing, a re-thinking, a re-imagining of what matters in marketing practice. Its as if the ‘skill’ of marketing is only regarded as skilled use of analytical problems tools. Use the analytical frameworks ‘properly’ and you ‘know’ how to do marketing. Know of a range of analytical frameworks and use them ‘properly’ and your competitive advantage will spring off the page. The personal responsibility for making sense is abdicated to a matrix.

The challenge facing the Marketing stable is its stability. Its stability of subject matter (despite claims of new and different, just how ‘new’ is viral really?) Its stability of Positivistic ontological and epistemological assumptions.And lying deep within its underlying core are ideological principles of awareness and understanding of ‘other’, of sense-making (Weick) a concern with challenging paradigms a passion for innovation, skill in generative thinking, systemic thinking, leadership, entrepreneurship, social influence, and organisational learning. These notions however have all been hived off from the essence of marketing thought into separate subject specialisms all stepping out on their own Herculean labours in the search for competitive advantage. Subject Specialisms that would rather be anything than associated with an intellectually adolescent-subject like marketing that is seen to be trapped in the lower reaches of Blooms taxonomy.

It seems Competitive Advantage has left the marketing stable, and perhaps the horse that’s bolted needs to be caught and brought back. Once the stable has been cleaned of course!

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Valentine’s Day Guilt and Pleasure

If you are employed in marketing should you care about how sales are made just as long as they are? Are there limits to what is acceptable practice? Of course there are rules about offending people, and making misleading claims, but what I’m really thinking about are the subtle consequences of manipulating people’s sense of inadequacy and playing with their expectations.

Is Valentine’s Day just a bit of harmless fun in a troubled and stressful world? Or is it the delibrate exploitation of superficial material and consuming passions for the mere gain of business? It might seem that the school that banned Valentines cards in Somerset UK was over reacting. I’m not so sure.

Marketing Management exhorts us to think about what the product ‘does’ rather than what it ‘is’. We’re not in the greeting card business we’re in the ‘making people happy’ business. The question is whose happiness are we talking about. Let’s not forget that Valentine’s Day in the modern sense is a retail ploy to get sales going after the Christmas lull. Sure the receiver of cards and gifts will feel happy. We only have to check out Steven Reiss’s work on the 16 basic motivators that define our peronality to see a suggestion that Valentine’s day taps into some fundamental motivations that drive purchases. ‘Lurve’ being one of the strongest motivations to buy things.

But if what our product ‘does’ is play on emotions, confront people with rejection, create a sense of guilt, engender a feeling of inadequacy, fool people into believing that the square footage of the card is directly proportional to the extent of love intended surely this is just as unethical as a misleading product statement and offensive images and language?

What if something more profound for society is going on? The constant drip, drip, drip of messages that pervade the air waves, digital spaces, and public spaces surely sets a social ‘tone’. Everything sincere becomes ‘tokenised’. Buy this gift and it will represent how you truly feel, buy this card to make a statement of your love. In this sense Valentine’s day simply adds another drop of water to the social stalactite of uncritical thinking and irresponsibility.

How many people got up early this morning to belatedly shop for flowers, gifts and cards? Not because they loved their partner any less today, but out of fear that their love was not being overtly demonstrated in the superficially expected way retailers tell us it should be. Makes you wonder if the person you are with has become so beguiled with the ‘retail message’ that they actually believe you don’t love them if a card doesn’t accompany this mornings boiled egg and soldiers.

How many people have Marketing professionals made unhappy today I wonder? Unsure you are in love? check out Am I In Love to find out!

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