The seven deadly sins of marketing

Sept. 1, 2005
Don’t let your company (or you) fall into these easy traps

Don’t let your company (or you) fall into these easy traps

by John Graham

Good business owners can have fun and enjoy sizable tax breaks. Bad business owners may have more fun but may eventually find themselves in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service. That’s right - every business can legitimately deduct the expense of having fun, but they must play by the rules.

Bad things should not be allowed to happen on Friday, particularly late Friday afternoon. Yet, they do - and far too often. As you might guess, it was late on a Friday when the e-mail arrived from a client asking me to comment on the attachment.

Opening it was a mistake. Some salesperson had spent hours preparing a PowerPoint presentation for prospects. The format of the presentation was quite good. The problem was the content. It was all about the company for which he worked. He included everything he could do for his clients. It was also completely off-base.

Without even knowing it, he had fallen into the trap of the first deadly sin of marketing.

1. Starting at the end instead of the beginning. A sales manager sat across the conference room table and said to the marketing consultant, “Our job is to sell something.” Such words may appeal and impress the company president, but they are total nonsense.

Trying to make the sale is the wrong place to begin. Writing about the role of brain mapping in furthering the understanding of why we buy, Los Angeles Times writer Robert Lee Hotz makes this succinct comment, “The creation of belief is the essence of marketing.” With belief comes sales. Customer dissatisfaction and lack of loyalty come from buying without belief.

General Motors continues to decline in market share because buyers believe other brands are better. Ford came out with the “500” as the Taurus replacement. Sales didn’t take off and almost instantly changes were being planned for the vehicle. The same is true for the Buick LeCrosse, the car touted to solve the company’s “age” problem. What’s the problem? A lack of belief.

A major food processing company announces that all its cereal products are made with “whole grain” and, even though they cost more, they fly off the shelves. Why? Because we believe “whole grain” means healthy.

When there is belief, sales follow.

2. Spend time thinking about what you want. The salesperson who filled his sales presentation with countless facts fell victim to the second deadly sin of marketing. While he talked about “building relationships” with customers, he sent a different message - he was only interested in getting the order.

If it’s true that 80 percent of sales come from 20 percent of the customers, it may also be appropriate to spend 80 percent of your time letting customers do the talking, and perhaps more. Marketing is about connecting with customers and getting inside their heads, not trying to get something into their heads.

Why are most newsletters tossed before they’re read? These publications have little or no reader interest. They’re filled to the brim with “stuff” about the company - how wonderful it is, what it sells, and how long it has been in business. In effect, most newsletters ignore the reader.

Drilling down in an effort to understand what the customer wants to accomplish is the key. It takes time, expertise, and effort to get what’s going on inside the customer’s head. One company expressed pride in being open on Saturday when its competitors were closed, yet a survey of its customers revealed they preferred evening hours during the week.

The second deadly sin of marketing is thinking we know what’s good for the customer.

3. Confusing being busy with purposeful action. The late Dr. Sumantra Ghoshal, the brilliant management guru, said managers take purposeful action only 10 percent of the time. The rest of the time, they’re just “busy.”

Most marketing fails because too many ideas interfere with action. Successful marketing is thwarted by ideas popping like kernels of corn over the fire. They fly in every direction and soon burn out, leaving only an unpleasant smell.

Doing more becomes a substitute for doing well, and simply lengthening the marketing agenda only guarantees failure. When the marketing laundry list is long, a paralysis of action sets in.

As Dr. Ghoshal suggests, “Purposeful action requires active management of demands, constraints, and choices.” To test this thesis, make a list of every possible marketing initiative discussed, presented, and initiated by your company over the last year or so, then make a second list of those initiatives that were actually accomplished. These will undoubtedly be the ones with a history of success, meeting specific objectives, and being carefully developed and methodically implemented. That’s purposeful action and that’s what counts.

4. Being seduced by your own objectives. The major threat to a business is being blinded by its own objectives.

Marketers know the task is far different, and it’s true for firms of all sizes in all industries. Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, JetBlue, H-P printers, Dell computers, Volvo, and Toyota are all good examples. Wal-Mart has long prided itself on spending as little as possible on marketing, but the company’s employee problems and good neighbor difficulties have caused it to invest vast sums in advertising in an effort to better align itself with consumer values.

While there are exceptions, of course, large companies seem to understand the importance of shaping and preserving the way they are perceived. Others seem to view perception far less seriously, taking the position that it isn’t important. It’s the perception that the strong drive out the weak that allows consumers to embrace a Bank of America, an iPod, or a Cingular, for example.

5. Focusing on the short-term. “Our problem is that we need sales now.” Marketers constantly hear this refrain. Unfortunately, most fail to confront wrong-headed thinking head-on. It’s easy to shout about needing more sales. It sounds so gutsy, macho, and tough. Actually, it’s none of these.

A lack of sales is never the problem! While this may seem somewhat harsh, it’s absolutely true. The “what we need is sales” mantra is raising the red flag that there is a serious problem to be sure, but the problem is not a lack of sales.

There’s a fundamental issue lurking beneath the sales complaint - the company lacks marketing. The business is either failing to market or doing a poor job. It may also be acting in self-serving ways such as talking about its superior “customer commitment,” but failing to recognize it isn’t delivering on its promises. And, quite possibly, it may not be meeting customer expectations.

The “we need sales now” strategy inevitably is dependent upon gimmicks, extra commissions, and higher discounts. And, what is worse, it feeds on itself by producing a constant need for more sales.

6. Sending the wrong message. PowerPoint bashing is popular today and is an easy target. We find ourselves forced to sit through dull programs brought to us by painfully inept speakers. Since the common denominator is almost always a PowerPoint presentation, it’s easy to conclude that the problem is PowerPoint.

It isn’t. Why would anyone believe PowerPoint can transform a poor speaker into a brilliant presenter or a dull presentation into one that captivates the audience? The PowerPoint critics have fallen into the trap of blaming the messenger for sending the wrong message.

It’s the same with companies. Without exception, companies develop a picture or view of themselves that becomes their “message.” Polaroid went out of business carrying the banner of instant photography, while Kodak dodged the same bullet by proclaiming itself as “the imaging company.”

Figuring out the right message is the marketing mission. Without it, there’s trouble ahead.

7. Being seduced by the new. The new and different is always appealing in business. Salespeople pant and plead for new products. They complain they can’t make sales without them, thereby revealing they are more dependent on having something new to sell than they are on selling expertise.

Marketers can fall into this same “latest and greatest” trap. Racing through the orchard picking off the ripe fruit is the common sales strategy. It’s much easier than taking time and effort to uncover new applications and markets for existing products.

Companies without a strong marketing component are addicted to always having what’s new, while those with marketing support focus on ways to more fully penetrate markets and find new applications for their products.

Cutting-edge thinking is more valuable than having a cutting-edge product. Becoming dependent on a company’s ingenuity, knowledge, and expertise may be more beneficial in creating a sales culture over the longer term than chasing the latest widget. And that’s what marketing brings to the table.

The seven sins of marketing are indeed deadly. They drain the strength out of good companies and send them down a destructive path. And those who lead the way are the ones who feel they are the exception to the rule.