Thursday, June 26, 2008

Is marketing still fit for purpose?

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

Is marketing no longer fit for purpose?

Mass marketing emerged to deal with distance. To bring products from a marketing department in one city to small towns in Idaho and Italy.

Brands were a tool of that process - a ‘wrapper’ for all the rational and emotional attributes of a product that enabled that idea to survive intact when fired in the marketing cannon from Cincinnati to Cassadaga.

In the first place, it was the development of mass media that enabled this communication over distance – initially through newspapers, which followed the growth in literacy under the Victorians.

Before, many products were commodities – sold unbranded by local retailers. Soap (cut from a large bar), butter (bought by the pound).

But having first enabled the creation of brands, mass media evolved to deliver them – networks first of radio stations then of television, syndication, local opt-outs, national reach. The techniques of mass marketing were honed over many years to make it work better, and they were developed in an environment where the tools were limited to broadcast and print.

These were all techniques that were designed to work at a distance, and when consumers had little access to another view than those of the owners of brands and the controllers of media.

But digital has changed that. Digital has rendered distance unimportant. Our friends on Facebook can as easily be in Auckland as Altringham, and teenagers number their friends in the hundreds in these social networks, because they’ve shaken off the bounds of geography.

And we take our friends’ views as seriously as we do professionals. An AOL/Henley Centre survey shows that respondents regard the opinions of other consumers as being just as important as those of experts when considering a purchase.

So our circle is wider, and our attention is divided now between the noise of advertising and the voices of other consumers – and those consumers are becoming more influential as our culture and our economy become digital.

The wrapper we call brand is a thin one. It remains intact only if consumers’ experience of us is consistent with the idea we’ve communicated.

Now, though, our performance is talked about. It’s shared. It’s public (and measured). Ask anyone in financial services, where Moneysupermarket compares their products for consumers, making clear the performance differentials. See how USwitch exposes the differences between utility providers, whilst hundreds of websites have sprung up reviewing and publishing data around schools, consumer electronics, cars, and neighbourhoods.

What has emerged is proximity.

Now, consumers can get close to brands. They can see under the wrapper, without having to buy – know our flaws, our shortcomings, our benefits and our strengths.

So now, we have to do two things.

Engage – listen, support, connect, involve our consumers – both in development of product and delivery of service.

Deliver – do what we say we will, avoiding what Chris Clark at HSBC calls that ‘mind the gap’ moment.

To an uncomfortably large degree, a marketing department isn’t operationally concerned with either of these. It commonly lacks the tools even if it has the will to engage with consumers in any meaningful or sustainable way, and misses the support of the rest of the organisation to deliver on the wishes of consumers – whether that’s HR, operations or finance.

So it’s a challenge that shouldn’t be underestimated for marketing departments. But success here means the wrapper we put round products becomes stronger, more robust. It strengthens brand premium, supports differentiation, promotes loyalty.

Because whilst in the past, distance might have allowed us to get away with a gap between brand promise and product delivery, consumers are close enough to see now.

If marketing yesterday was about conquering distance, today it’s about mastering proximity. And marketing will have to reflect this if it’s going to be fit for purpose tomorrow.