JANUARY 4, 2005

By Christopher Kenton

Good, Bad, and Ugly Marketing

The new year will see fresh ideas hit mainstream awareness -- and many pitches exploiting them in a way that may not benefit clients

I promised in my last column to introduce some of the marketers and theorists who are on the leading edge of marketing's accelerating trend toward financial measures and analytics. I should have checked my calendar -- everyone at the top of my list has been away for the holidays. So in this, my first column of the year, it seems appropriate instead to look forward to the next 12 months, to see what might be in store for us -- the good, the bad, and the ugly.

If you look at the process of how systems change, you'll see an interesting relationship between transformational and incremental change. Every revolution is nine-tenths evolution, the saying goes, and the same is certainly true for marketing. It takes long periods of incubation before an idea turns into a wild fire.

VOLUME, NOT PRACTICALITY. A number of researchers and companies have been doing a lot of hard work uncovering the mechanisms that connect marketing strategy with tactical execution. If you want to find them, just pick up any marketing periodical with a title that starts with The Journal of... and put on some sensible reading glasses. The Journal of Strategic Marketing. The Journal of Marketing Research. The European Journal of Marketing. It's heavy reading and often pretty esoteric -- like looking closely at one small piece of a large puzzle.

In this crucible is where many of the ideas that will eventually transform marketing begin -- a good example being the "Balanced Scorecard" put forward by David Norton and Robert Kaplan. This concept, a strategic-management system, emerged in the early '90s and spent many years being picked apart, analyzed, and refined before moving toward mainstream business awareness. In my look ahead, that's "the good" -- though it takes time, a lot of solid research and analysis is going on into how businesses can improve strategic effectiveness.

"The bad" is how this fertile material gets translated into a form designed for profitable consumption. Let's just say that in the marketplace of business ideas, practical application often takes a backseat to volume and vigor. I can give you a few specific examples that came up only in recent weeks, in the wake of my last column.

PUSHING POISON. I received a number of e-mails from companies who saw the clear PR opportunity in being labeled a thought leader for a current trend -- everyone from financial analysts who specialize in marketing to established software vendors looking for an edge in a rapidly growing niche. Some of these concerns look quite interesting, and I'm eager to explore what they're up to and relate it back to you. But others seemed far more savvy to the machinery of promotion than marketing's new mechanics.

One consulting group I had seen at a conference provided slides of its presentation, which contained screenshots showing its potential capabilities using another outfit's marketing dashboard software. Reviewing the information, I saw that the consultants hadn't bothered to change a thing from the dashboard template, except to add their logo at the top. The slides had no original content, just irrelevant material that happened to be on the demonstration software. I don't know about you, but that doesn't say a lot to me about thought leadership.

Taking shortcuts in the name of self-promotion is bad. It qualifies for ugly when you do this in the name of making a buck at the expense of your audience. One of the outfits that called me to promote their products sent a white paper written by a well-known management consulting firm that bills itself as a leader on customer-focused strategy. The consultants produce a lot of popular content on the value of customer relationships that I applaud.

But like a lot of hired guns, they shaped their white paper to position the strengths of their client's software as the key to marketing success. This is troubling to me not because I'm na´ve about gurus shilling products, but because this white paper, to make a dollar, explicitly perpetuates the notion that technology selection is the secret to success, which is poison to their audience.

TAUTOLOGY. What's even uglier, and what troubles me about the promotion wave that's coming, is that many outfits will heed such advice and drop a bundle of cash on technology for marketing automation and analytics before they've even figured out the business processes they're trying to automate and analyze. It certainly isn't the fault of a white paper that companies make bad decisions, but when gurus in the spotlight encourage spotty thinking, they should be called on it.

Think I'm being unreasonably hard? Here's my favorite line from the white paper: "How can you be sure your marketing strategy is the catalyst behind better performance? The clearest indicator of success is if you're outperforming competitors." So, if you're winning, it means you're successful? And if you're successful, it means whatever you were doing was right? That success may have nothing to do with the potentially misguided automation and analytics.

If you can take that advice to the bank, more power to you. For my part, I'll be looking for ideas and inspiration in some of the less popular places this year. I hope to see you there.

Happy new year.