Do marketing departments stand in the way of great marketing?

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This piece first appeared in Management Today.

Type Coca-Cola into Google and you get 160 million results. Being extremely charitable, Coke probably didn’t create more than 1% of that information, meaning that the genuine life of the brand exists entire out of its hands. As Jeff Bezos said, your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room, meaning that if the other 99% of information floating around about you is positive, the 1% that you control – your advertising and marketing messages – wouldn’t necessarily matter that much.

This is certainly the way the public feel. In a new piece of research from Basic Arts, people are starting to express a belief that a truly outstanding business wouldn’t need to “do advertising” at all, because all of the impartial information now available through the internet and connected networks would allow the cream to rise to the top organically. They are all familiar with a new generation of brands such as Lush and GoPro who they feel earned their place at the top rather than buying it, and are now on the lookout for other brands adopting the same behaviours. The source of information they claim to use to do this is “journalism, reviews, news, and other impartial coverage”, followed by the opinions of friends, colleagues and family, with brand-created messages (including everything from traditional ads to social channels) languishing at the bottom of the pile.

Such cynicism towards advertising is nothing new – and neither is the observation that the increasing democratisation of information is allowing people to bypass “approved’ messages. The question is, how are brands responding? Who exactly is responsible for making sure that the 99% of impartial information is saying the right thing about the business?

It is, of course, our marketing departments. We employ them to transmit the right messages that will make people feel positive about us. They are there to set the conversational agenda. This is all fine in principle – someone needs to be thinking about this stuff – the problem is the narrowness with with they operate. Marketing and advertising have become far too synonymous, with marketing departments busying themselves primarily with creative media outputs whilst the rest of the business just gets on with the “real work” – manufacturing, customer service, distribution, and so on. The issue here is the subject matter of all those independent conversations – “the 99%” – are not your marketing output; they’re your real work.

People primarily don’t talk about advertising, they talk about businesses. How is the product to use? How was the service? Where was the outlet? How was a problem dealt with? Who works there? In the past all these fact based conversations didn’t really matter, as they died with the couple of people who were having them – they had nowhere to travel, they couldn’t grow. In those days 99% of the information readily available about a brand probably was created by the marketing department, as information needed money to spread. Now it doesn’t. What this suddenly means is that everything you do has the potential to be marketing. Every single movement and moment of your business could make you or break you. Your company is being judged holistically, but you are only applying good marketing thinking to your media output.

Now this is not the fault of marketers per se. They are doing thing right thing, they’ve just been given a very limited canvas to do it on. By making marketing a department, you imply that the other areas of the business – the ones doing the real work – are free from having to operate in a joined-up, strategic, and creative way. How often have we heard that marketing is the “fluffy stuff”? Well far from marketing needing to become less “fluffy”, the real solution is that the rest of the business needs to become more. If you apply a consistent and unique message (the kind marketing is meant to create) to all of your actions, then they will start to become more unique, connected, and interesting. Suddenly, you’re giving people something to talk about.

It is this holistic approach to brand building, where marketing is distributed throughout a business rather than being a “department”, that creates businesses people go crazy about. It is what connects the likes of Patagonia, Airbnb, Tesla, GoPro, Lush, Monster and more. Those last three actually operate a “no advertising” policy as a matter of course, and yet their marketing envied (Lush were voted the UK’s most admired brand in Basic Arts’ research, and Monster are the “most tattooed brand in the world”). What does a marketer do in a business who refuse to spend money on media? They turn their attention to the business itself.

How then can you apply this same approach to your business? The crucial insight is to change the way you see marketing, away from a department, and towards more of a whole business approach. This might mean making marketing an umbrella department which sits over and advises all other parts of the business. Or it might be scratching your marketing department all together, and instead placing one “brand thinker” in every team in the business, who’s only responsibility is to make sure that each one acts in a connected and interesting way.

To become a business which makes the connected world work for you is not easy, and is not quick or tactical. That’s because ultimately all people are looking for now is brilliant businesses, businesses which bring something unique to the world, which are authentic, and which are clear – and there’s no shortcut for that. A new view of marketing is simply the place to start.