AUGUST 27, 2003

By Christopher Kenton

Marketing's Biggest Challenge

It's not a matter of jumping on the latest trend. Rather, it's the need to define a role and goals in a world transformed by technology

Some people collect salt shakers, some people collect vintage cars. I collect definitions of marketing terms -- the meanings of words like "marketing" and "brand" -- that I find in books, on the Web, and in conversations with colleagues and clients. I know, it's the kind of hobby that should come with a pocket protector, but it's one of the few ways you can track the evolution of the marketing concept and keep it grounded in a historical perspective. This is something marketing as a profession desperately lacks.

Take, for example, the definition of "brand". You can see important shifts in the meaning of the word, depending on the date and the source. Advertisers often describe brand as being "an image in the mind of the consumer," something to be influenced and manipulated. Product marketers often talk about brand being "a promise of value to the consumer," something owned and safeguarded by the company. In more recent years, in part due to the rise of interactive media, brand has been increasingly defined as "an experience" and "a relationship" between the company and consumer.

SHIFTING SANDS. The shifting nuances of a word like branding may seem rudderless, subject to the rise and fall of various marketing specialties and mediums, such as the tremendous influence of advertising and television during the boom of mass markets after World War II. But if you follow the trajectory of words like "brand" and "marketing," you can learn a lot about where the concepts have already been, and where they may be headed.

About 100 years ago, marketing meant distribution. It literally spoke of the process of getting your products to market and into the hands of the consumer. Over the years, as business trends have come and gone, marketing has also been understood to mean promoting, selling, positioning, targeting, branding, innovating, and much more -- as well as as all of these notions at once. It is this fluidity in the meaning of marketing that is both its source of power and its undoing--it can change rapidly to leverage changes in the business environment, but it can also become bogged down in dead-end paradigms that languish for years.

While many books have been written about the history of advertising and PR, I'm not aware of one good book on the history of marketing that has been written since the 1970s, before the modern age of database marketing and the Web. If you look at the way marketing is practiced today, you can see that lack of historical perspective reflected in its weakness for passing fads and gurus. In fact, it's become nearly impossible for many marketers to tell the difference between a fad and the kind of trends that reflect the deeper currents of marketing's evolution. You certainly couldn't take the pulse of marketing by looking at businesses -- the organizations, methodologies and frameworks are as fragmented as if marketing had been invented in the 1990s.

CONFLICTING PERSPECTIVES. This fragmentation is one of the main reasons marketing today faces such a credibility gap, and it highlights an ironic shortcoming of the marketing profession: It's inability to position itself effectively and compete for market share in the boardroom. You might think that marketers who dispense costly strategic advice on how to position businesses and create competitive advantage would be particularly adept at positioning the practice of marketing, locking down its taxonomy, and building the profession's credibility. Unfortunately the cobbler's children have no shoes. While it's easy to find common ground in principle about the function of marketing, the actual practice of marketing belies a spectrum of beliefs. At either end of the spectrum you'll find two camps, the Big View and the Small View of marketing. The Big View of marketing is what you'll read in marketing textbooks, or what you'll hear from marketing consultants. It's marketing's view of itself as it stares lovingly at its own image reflected on the surface of the pond. In the Big View, marketing should have its hands in almost everything a business does, from establishing corporate strategy to building products and maintaining customer relationships. It's notable that in this view, sales is a subdomain of marketing, one small slice of the strategic customer life cycle.

Unfortunately, the Big View is what marketing should be, not what it has managed to become. If, one day, marketing can take up this mantle, it would be well for business. But the general failure of marketing to hold all of these reins and steer businesses to success supports the Small View of marketing. This is what you'll read in general MBA textbooks, or what you'll hear from most CEOs. It's the rest of the company's view of marketing, as marketing stares lovingly at its own image reflected on the surface of the pond. In the Small View, marketing is little more than lead generation and promotion. It's a general repository for creative types who live inside their emotions and believe in intuition. In this view, marketing is a support function for sales, providing leads -- which are rarely any good-- and support materials, which never include what the customer wants to hear.

RHETORIC AND REALITY. This is the dead-end paradigm in which marketing languishes today, and it's not only bad for marketing, it's bad for business. Amazingly enough, businesses know it. How many times have you heard a senior corporate excutive state that his outfit isn't a sales organization, it's a marketing organization? Sure, it's a marketing organization once a year, when it sets strategic goals to penetrate segmented markets in order to deliver customer satisfaction at a profit. The rest of the year, however, everyone still goes out and pursues whatever sale can be dragged over the doorstep -- even when that sale means the company will be blown off course by making commitments it isn't even remotely organized to fulfill.

You can blame businesses for this, but I lay the blame at the feet of my own profession. This is marketing's fault. This is the fault of a profession that has simply lost its bearings in a world that changed too rapidly. It can no longer provide effective leadership. How can marketing find its bearings again? Personally, I'm collecting definitions of marketing terms to get a breadcrumb view of marketing history and see where things might be headed. Here's an overview of what I've found so far.

The history of marketing shows very specific phases of growth, from distribution to merchandising, salesmanship, branding, advertising, database marketing, one-to-one marketing, and now, electronic marketing. There are a few clues in this history to the bigger pattern. First, marketing has always had a symbiotic relationship with technology. From the early days when getting your product to market required new forms of transportation, to radio, television, databases and networks, marketing and technology have always worked hand in glove. Second, the effect of this relationship between marketing and technology has been the steady reduction of the distance between the company and the consumer. In the early days, the company and customer might never cross paths, except by way of a physical product. Today, customers can increasingly buy products, obtain support, and interact directly with the manufacturer.

THE CHALLENGES. If you look at these two trends together, it says a lot about where marketing is coming up short today. Marketing and technology are natural allies, but while technology is in a phase of rapid acceleration, marketing is lagging behind. While some marketers have made effective use of new technology, far too many marketers are still just figuring out how to browse the Internet. There are many areas where they should be working together to reduce the distance between company and consumer, including the continuing evolution and deployment of effective customer-relations-management (CRM) tools -- an area still solidly in the hands of IT alone, just like a piece of software.

As the economy slowly stirs back to life, businesses need to examine their own definition of marketing. We need to understand the notion of profit as central to the meaning of marketing, and therefore demand greater accountability. We must understand the historical dependence of marketing on technology and, therefore, demand closer ties between marketing and technology teams. We need to understand that the tightening relationship between businesses and consumers is integral to success, and therefore demand a greater emphasis on customer experience as a core marketing function. Most of all, we need to understand that marketing plays a critical role in the success of every business. When marketing doesn't measure up, simply limiting its charter doesn't the solve the problem if the very definition of the concept is weak.