If you want to do great marketing, never use this word

As long time readers will know, my views on business begin and end with one simple belief:

Business is the practice of delivering value to people.

That’s it.  Each and every company is nothing more than a system designed to give value, and thus receive it in return.  Sure, you can create a business that doesn’t do this – even an extremely successful one, financially speaking.  But that’s a corruption of the game, not the game itself.  Real business, the pure sauce, is all about value provision.

It’s the simplest, most effective, most ethical, and most enjoyable way of doing things.

Now if you share this belief you will be led to a further conclusion: that marketing is the most important activity a business undertakes.  Why?  Because marketing is the process by which you determine what value you’re going to offer.

Think about it.  Marketing quite literally means the process of “navigating the market”: in other words understanding the market and all the other forms of value being delivered within it, and thus where there’s a gap for you to add your own.  Value after all is something which is determined from outside of the company; it exists where the business meets the real world – and since marketing is the one and only externally focused discipline in the organisational mix, is the one that does the big job.

In short, for the value-focused organisation, marketing means deciding and articulating what the business actually does.

Pretty important stuff.

Still, although you might agree with me here in theory, I dare say that the picture I’ve painted above bears little resemblance to marketing the way you’ve seen it done.  How often have you seen a marketing department “decide what the business actually does”?  I’m guessing never.  Most businesses don’t only suck at marketing; they don’t even do it.  And this isn’t because they don’t invest in it or don’t care about it – on the contrary, in my experience investment in marketing is often inversely correlated with actually doing it properly.

Heck, I’m even going to go out on a limb and say that if you want to know something about marketing, don’t ask a marketer.  (OK this is going a bit far, but let’s have a bit of rhetorical fun here).

I’ve thought long and hard about why this is – why “marketing” is so bad at actual marketing – and here I want to reveal my conclusion.

It all comes down to one little word.  A word which, if you allow it to pass your lips, has the potential to sink you.  A word which I would advise you to pretty much ban from your organisation if you want to excel at marketing.

The word?


Yes, the word marketing itself is the biggest enemy to the marketing function, and I don’t only mean this rhetorically, but sincerely.

The reason, as many good marketers may sadly know, is that “marketing” no longer means what it used to mean.  In the past it meant just what I described above – the process of navigating the market, and figuring out what a business should do if it wanted to deliver value.  This is why the famous “4 Ps” of marketing were developed – product, price, place, promotion.  Taken together these represented pretty much the entirety of a business’s presence in the outside world (i.e. in the market), and thus represented the whole business from the point of view of an external observer.  All other disciplines (finance, manufacturing, HR etc.) were internal operational functions which made the cogs turn, but were always in humble service to final manifestation defined by those Ps.

Now however “marketing”, in its common usage, only means one of those Ps: promotion.  It is seen simply as the discipline of “spreading the word” about the business.  Of “packaging” it as nicely as possible.  Of making a noise.  This is what marketing departments, marketing agencies, marketing directors, etc. invariably do.  This and little more.

I should stress right now that there’s nothing wrong with this per se.  Firstly definitions change, often for good reason, and if that’s what the word “marketing” means now then that’s fine, no problem.  Also let’s make no mistake that the modern promotion-focused form of marketing is still extremely important – more so than ever.  Many marketers do a great – and crucial – job with this more limited remit.  And many great brands have been built on the strength of packaging and promo alone.

No, the issue isn’t really with what marketing has become; it’s with the vacuum that’s been left behind.

Quite simply there is no “word” for the discipline of deciding what a business does from an external, value-oriented perspective.  The closest we have is “strategy”, and I often use the word for this purpose, but strictly speaking it’s not 100% correct.  For one thing strategy is, in theory, broader than just the value-oriented parts of a business.  And for another, as we know, nobody knows what it means anyway, so it’s hardly an effective replacement!

As a result of this vacuum most brands are content to simply not do real marketing at all, which means:

  • Not asking the question of what value the business actually provides
  • Allowing that question to be answered either randomly or though subconscious copying of competitors (therefore delivering the same value as everyone else)
  • And then trying to make up for it with effort, promotion, and cost cutting (the key “strategic levers” of 95% of brands)

Perhaps this sounds familiar.

So if that’s the gripe, then what’s the solution?

Well there are many great “proper” marketers out there who are aware of this problem, and are fighting the good fight in order to restore marketing to its proper definition and place.  I’m sure a lot of them read this newsletter.  Perhaps the most famous of these (though he doesn’t read the newsletter so far as I know) is Mark Ritson, who does a brilliant job of educating marketers in what they’re actually supposed to be doing.  However I was at an event of his a few weeks ago, and I asked him how much confidence he has of wrestling the word back to its original meaning, and the answer was, in essence, “not much”.  When broad cultural forces, operating at a higher level than any of us can unpack, successfully change the meaning and function of an entire business discipline on a global level, it’s pretty ambitions to think you’re going to be able to “undo” those effects.

That’s why my suggestion is to simply abandon the word altogether.  Or at least to let it mean what it wants to mean (promotion), and to start having proper marketing conversations using different language in a different space.

You see a funny thing happens when a business doesn’t think about marketing or talk about marketing.  They actually start to do marketing.

I’ve witnessed this effect with a number of clients who had either non-existent or extremely weak marketing departments.  Invariably they did a better job than those who invested a lot in the function and were supposedly “marketing led”.  The reason for this is because when nobody is doing marketing, everybody starts to do it – which is exactly how it should be.  Marketing, as I’ve stressed, is a “whole business activity”, which needs to shape all decisions and bond them together as a unit.  In businesses with a marketing department, marketing decisions get sucked into a silo which isn’t empowered to direct the rest of the organisation, and so the whole process effectively vanishes.  But when there’s no marketing department these decisions become the concern of the everybody, including the CEO – which means they are able to take the precedence they deserve.

I dare say you’ve heard the phrase “marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department”?  Well, that’s what this means.  It means in a world where marketing departments are only empowered to do a small part of the marketing job, the rest of it needs to be picked up at a higher level – or indeed by the whole business combined.

These conversations won’t be framed in the language of “marketing”.  Because everyone’s brains are so attuned to the modern definition that would quickly make the conversation descend to a promotional level.  No, they will be framed in much bigger language:

  • “What are we doing here?”
  • “What is the point of this?”
  • “What do we do for people?”
  • “Where can we get leverage?”
  • Etc.

This is real marketing, but you mustn’t tell anyone, because if you do you’ll be talking about ads and taglines in no time.

How this will be shaped will be different for every organisation, but just to get your juices flowing, imagine if in addition to having a marketing director (who looks after promo), you also had an “offering director” or “value director” who looked after the existential stuff.  I’m not proposing this as a solution, but merely illustrating the kind of paradigm shift that’s required to get businesses to start focusing on this stuff again.

Elsewhere, while my advice here is primarily for business leaders, this principle counts double, or even triple, for anyone who is somehow engaged in “marketing services” such as an agency or consultancy.  You might be the finest “proper marketer” in the world, and understand everything I’ve written above far better than I do, BUT the very second you tell a client you do “marketing” they will never  give you the remit to make proper high level marketing decisions.  You will be boxed into promo, and there’s no swimming up stream from there.  Your fate will be sealed.

Bottom line here, I don’t think “marketing” (the word) is coming back.  It means promo, and that’s totally fine, and the industry should continue to develop and thrive in that direction.  It’s exciting, powerful, and important work.  However I do think that marketing (the discipline) can come back.  All it needs is decoupling from its terminology and it will thrive.

Trust me, people are crying out for it.  Businesses need it.  Professionals want to do it.  And yet it’s barely done at all.

What an opportunity right?  So together let’s try and make it happen.

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