Making marketing work

Nov. 1, 2008
There’s a certain amount of skepticism in most companies over expense accounts, the personal use of e–mail and the Internet, sick days – and marketing.

By John Graham

There’s a certain amount of skepticism in most companies over expense accounts, the personal use of e–mail and the Internet, sick days – and marketing. In the case of marketing, the doubts may be justified.

While much of what passes for marketing is inappropriate, unnecessary, irrelevant, poorly executed, ill conceived, and misses the mark – and often all of these – it was the late Peter F. Drucker, the incredibly incisive management consultant and author who wrote, “Innovation and marketing are the only two valuable activities of a firm. The rest are costs.” Without question, Apple currently epitomizes both of these qualities. It was no accident that its stores were among the busiest during the holidays.

Unfortunately, there are often forces within companies that make it difficult, if not impossible, for marketing to work. Peel away the many layers of the marketing onion and, lo and behold, everyone is shocked to discover that at the core is – the customer. This is surprising because far too many executives believe that marketing is all about putting the spotlight on what they want to sell.

If there’s any doubt about this, it can easily be dispelled by going through their press releases, ads, newsletters, sales materials, and Web sites, which are filled with hype and hyperbole on the one hand and are self–serving on the other. Most of what passes for “marketing” is little more than propaganda. It’s all what the company wants from the customer, but fails to focus on what the customer wants from the company. Are there exceptions? Of course. But they are few and only serve to prove the rule.

To help get marketing right, Professors Sunil Gupta and Donald Lehman suggest a simple but effective concept that complements Peter Drucker’s view. In their book, Managing Customers as Investments: The Strategic Value of Customers in the Long Run, they suggest that because customers are the source of profits, marketing and customer service are primary drivers, and a company’s value should be measured by the lifetime value of each customer.

What does this say about making marketing work for a company?

Making sales is in, but selling is out

While this may seem elementary and obvious, there’s more talk than action. When the Ford Motor Company killed the midsized Taurus and the full–size Crown Victoria, it brought out the Five Hundred as an in–between size sedan as a replacement for both. Two years and a disastrous sales record later, the Five Hundred name was scrapped and the Taurus name was back. Having earned a stalwart reputation and eliciting tremendous customer loyalty, why did Ford kill it for an unknown vehicle and a nondescript name? It seems doubtful that they bothered to ask their customers what they thought about it.

Dictating to the customer was a primary role of marketing up until the very recent past. Even so, it’s still difficult for companies to stop talking about the wonders of their products. The customers are the deciders and if they think they are being told what they want, they’re gone. Just ask Ford, as well as others.

In the same way, the designer–salesperson for a reputable home improvement company met with the homeowner who described what she was looking for in a new bathroom. Yet, he sent a proposal that included the words, “This is based on what most people want.” Unfortunately, it didn’t contain what the homeowner wanted.

Whatever the industry or the size of the business, trying to sell something today without specifically understanding what the customer wants to buy is courting disaster.

Selecting appropriate marketing activities

When Anton’s Cleaners, a Massachusetts–based chain of 43 dry–cleaning stores, turned its attention to increasing business at one of its suburban Boston locations, the combination of a community relations program, media stories, and a modest advertising program was implemented. The number of visits to the store locator on the Anton’s Cleaners Web site for the particular store increased 900 percent during one month of marketing activity.

Whether it’s a large multifaceted regional or national marketing effort or a single local store, the principle of engaging customers in ways that are appropriate to the situation works. A clear mission, careful planning, responding to opportunities as they arise, and consistent implementation coupled with evaluation make the difference. As the IBM ad series exclaims, “Stop talking. Start doing.”

Becoming an innovative enterprise

The genius of Apple as a marketing company is in creating truly intuitive products, whether it’s an operating system, computers, or the iPod and iPhone. Many companies make good products, but how many can say that consumers love their products? That’s innovation, and customers are willing to pay for it. Dell, on the other hand, touts laptops in various designer colors. The difference is not only deep, but also definitive.

Getting the customer involved

YouTube, FaceBook, and literally thousands of other Web sites tell an unavoidable story: People the world over don’t want to be told; they want to tell, and 80,000 new blogs a day serve to underscore the point. This is not to suggest that all these Web sites or countless blogs are effective, or that they won’t disappear or morph into something else sooner or later.

The message running through all this, however, should not be ignored. Not only do people everywhere want to be noticed and their voices heard, the technology makes their wish a reality. Even if no one reads your blog, you have found a way to express yourself. At the same time, there are other blogs that keep business, politicians, and the media honest. That’s all to the good.

Just having a blog for the company CEO misses the point. What’s critical for any type of marketing is inviting customers to participate in designing the customer experience.

Making a commitment to consistent engagement

Even with a carefully crafted message, marketing can still fail and often does due to a lack of consistency. Merely running ads is not necessarily engagement and neither is sending out a constant stream of e–mails.

Costco is certainly a progressive retailer, but of late e–mail “ads” have been showing up every few days. Instead of engaging customers, they seem to be counting on a low price and discounts to move merchandise and build loyalty. Just keep putting out enough “stuff” and the customer will buy is the old way.

Zagat is equally persistent in e–mailing to its customers, but the effect is quite different. In presenting restaurants, their goal is to create experiences that the customer may relate to. Menus are secondary; the experience is primary.

Whatever the marketing tactic, the task is to engage the customer consistently.

Taken together, these five concepts form the core of a successful marketing effort. More often than not, however, a lack of commitment keeps it from happening.

John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. He is the author of “The New Magnet Marketing” and “Break the Rules Selling,” writes for a variety of business publications, and speaks on business, marketing, and sales topics for company and association meetings. He is the winner of an APEX Grand Award in writing and the only two–time recipient of the Door & Hardware Institute’s Ryan Award in Business Writing. Contact him at 40 Oval Road, Quincy, MA 02170, (617) 328–0069, or [email protected]. The company’s Web site is