The idea that you can build a robust company in the torrent of hyper-growth businesses without a brand at the core of your strategy is naïve.
Marketing is not a division in your company; it is your entire company.
Understanding this about marketing is the most overlooked fact in business today. While we place the great marketers on plinths and spend years worth watching documentaries, reading numerous biographies and books celebrating their insights, foresight and ability to create entire markets, we ignore what they really did for a living.
Very few will disagree that marketing is the impression you're left with when dealing with a company or brand. It's that emotion you get from watching an inspiring ad, the impression on your internal ranking system between cool companies and the ones you'll forget in a few minutes. It means that you'll pay a handsome premium for certain products over others that do exactly the same thing.
Marketing is also your first touch with a customer – It is marketing that reaches out into the big wide world and places itself firmly into the awareness of the people who are interested in what you can do for them when they need it. It positions your brand as a potential choice and tells a story about what you offer, then weaves that story into a dialogue with the prospect and engages them to turn the page and find out what happens next in the story. Often marketing can place the engaged prospect directly into the story and makes them the hero, helping them to take the next move while keeping them safe and secure in the knowledge that with your brand, they can't go wrong.
This journey that the prospect goes on is created through experience, constant listening, reading and learning. It is not a sales pitch (if it is, then consider yourself one of the brands that are forgotten about in a few minutes) but an experience, a subtle tapestry of fine threads woven together to develop something much greater than the sum of the individual threads. Often this is where the romance ends.
Alas, it is seldom the case that any of the above happens in most companies. Marketing today has been relegated to lies, damn lies and statistics. The word 'digital' has become synonymous with marketing, as has a need for 'data'. The problem with both of these terms is that they are functions or inputs; they are not marketing but a mere fraction of an equation. Listening and learning play second fiddle to digital and data, and both are on the wrong side of the marketing equation.
Digital is the predominant word in all new marketing roles, without dispute. Every company is looking for a marketing leader with great 'digital experience' and a demonstratable history of producing hyper-growth results through their awesomeness in digital marketing. Digital is, of course, only a set of levers that any machinist can operate, but without the right inputs, or content, digital marketing is nothing more than series of functional tasks.
Data is the next buzzword completely misunderstood by the majority of recruiters and leadership teams. All too often, data is an output of the marketing strategy rather than the input. Yet, data inputs help us understand the situation, market, demands, warning signs and fertile land. This allows us to develop a strategy aligned to the immediate market requirements and draw from the learnings beyond where we think we need to farm.
Both of these words are almost entirely misunderstood by many marketing leaders. The reasons for this are often related to cost and, unfortunately, ease of use. Weaving a tapestry is a lot more complex and costly than running an ad campaign with some paid for analysts charts or carefully positioned customer reviews. Do prospects really care if you are positioned by an analyst house they've never heard of or recommended by a customer you took to the Monaco Grand Prix last year?
If we consider that your potential customer is now able to access more 'data' through 'digital' channels than they have ever been able to in the history of mankind, do you really think that your marketing efforts are much more than noise? They block your ads, send your mails to the spam folder and conduct their research through valid peer networks long before they even consider you as an option. Look on the bright side, though, it's cheap!
It's going to get even cheaper as well. As the social media platforms and search engines develop their algorithms even further, you'll soon be able to get your positioning chart from analyst 'whoever' directly to Mr or Mrs Smith while they are in their best frame of mind. But, of course, that's providing that the same social media platform hasn't given him or her the ability to block annoying marketing nonsense so that they can have 10 minutes of respite from all the other digital marketing noise that gets thrown in front of them.
The days of the digital marketer are numbered. As automation technology advances and AI helps us to do the functional tasks of the digital marketer, the need for a single UI will grow stronger and we will be able to use a single system to reach into the digital world, without the need for machinists. These same systems will use data properly to compute multiple inputs and sources and get your positioning chart into the buyer's spam folder quicker than the blink of an eye. So where does that leave marketing as a discipline and if it really is your entire business, how the hell did it get into this mess in the first place?
In the technology world things are moving quickly, really quickly. We are seeing a surge in tech IPOs and today's valuations leave many scratching their heads. But there is method to this madness. AI is creeping into everything, quantum computing is no longer a distant conundrum to be solved and the demand for new power sources is not an option but an absolute necessity. This all means that investors are looking out across a new tech landscape of opportunity that has seldom been so fertile. They are placing massive multiples on first movers and while there are always a few suspect valuations, many of these big bets are starting to pay off as the companies invested in continue to grow at rapid rates, for a few years anyway.
As more money gets thrown into the tech world, so the tech advances ever more quickly. Brand matters less than product as potential buyers lap up new shiny things in such times of abundant solutions, to do more with less (the core promise of all technology). However, the same speed of creation is a threat to those who benefit from it early on. Technology doesn't get dumber, it get's smarter and staying consistently ahead vis product alone, in an endless race that you started out sprinting in, is not a sustainable strategy. This is where the core values of marketing are critical, just to stay in the race.
Without a strong brand strategy, no lever can get you back to the head of the race. This is the heart of marketing, externally and internally. The idea that you can build a robust company in the torrent of hyper-growth businesses without brand at the core of your strategy is a dream. Sure, you can survive the initial few miles, and if you're following the investors' tactics of an early exit, you and a few of the senior management team will walk away from the race very wealthy, but your company will not survive, nor will the majority of your employees. You will be passed by newer entrants with better tech and higher investment. And you will be entirely replaced by the company with its focus on brand and values.
Today's buyer is no fool and they are more open to critique than at any point in history. Everyone is online and everyone has an opinion which means that whether you're buying for yourself or your company, the product or service that you buy is a reflection of yours or your company's values. Remember that everyone you sell to is selling to someone else. Judgement is passed on an ever-increasing list of social consciousnesses, as we see in the importance given to ESG (environmental, social, governance) by both the consumer and the investor.
This pressure to do the right thing, clean up your supply chain, treat people equally and embrace diversity means that getting your brand strategy right now is critical. Marketing doesn't need operators; AI will handle that; it needs intelligent creators. People who help to forge the values that companies will need to embrace, across the business and beyond, into the societies that they serve and operate within. To stay in the race, strong brands will need to attract top talent and keep them, or they could end up with another digital recruitment campaign.
Great companies and great brands are the same thing. However, the economy is redefining what it means to be a good company, and what it means to work with average companies that pay lip service, rather than live their stated values. Everyone is watching and everyone has access; the days of flimsy leadership statements and a purely sales focused leadership styles is coming to an end. Marketing needs to take a firm hold of these rudderless companies and get out of the mindset that the lowest cost of execution is the most efficient solution. The long game involves societal impact, a constant drive to be better and a strong set of values that the entire company lives by.
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