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What the Bleep is Marketing, Really?

July 12, 2010
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Next year will be my 30th anniversary of active duty as a marketer in the high technology world – much of it in the arena of communications technologies. I have served enterprises large and small, start-ups to international conglomerates – connectors, test equipment, synthesizers, filters, antennas, complex packages – the gamut. My formative years were in-house with Teledyne. In recent years I operated a boutique marketing communications firm, with in-between years as a consultant to some major league manufacturers.

In all these practice modalities, a persistent challenge to helping companies achieve improved revenue generation and stability has been a lack of understanding and appreciation for Marketing as a fundamental discipline to building the business. Quite often the folks that are designated as such have little or no background in Marketing (the discipline), and they function somewhere beneath the first two tiers on the org chart. These roles are in fact tactical and/or production-focused, disconnected from the big picture of the market and lacking a rich understanding of the company’s core capabilities.

Indeed, at some point the question often surfaces: ”What IS Marketing and what can it do for us?” Excellent question, and a springboard to a wealth of growth-producing conversations!

In an industry where advancement to the C-level (or ownership) is generally based on left-brain engineering brilliance or operational prowess, Marketing is commonly considered a luxury for companies with extra profit to burn. Data supports the exact opposite: companies that understand Marketing (with a capital M) and incorporate Marketing vision into their business strategy realize significantly superior growth, sales and profits versus those that do not. I’ve never seen a struggling company that had a solid marketing strategy in place. In contrast, every industry leader (measured objectively by competitive stature, not emotionally by insider opinion) that I’ve ever worked with drove their Marketing strategy from the top. This is something that a left-brain, data-loving engineering mind ought to find compelling. The world is not a technology meritocracy; the spoils go to the companies that most skillfully understand and satisfy the market.

In the current environment of rapid change, sluggish economic conditions, challenged profit margins and a revolutionized media landscape, Marketing has never been a more critical fundamental to building a stable and profitable business. It is the ticket to survival and prosperity in this era of globalization.

Marketing vs. Selling

What I am referring to as Marketing is not simply selling. Nor is it brochures, e-mail campaigns, or tradeshow handouts. To shed some light on this, consider this statement by Ted Levitt in Marketing Myopia published in The Harvard Business Review, July-August 1960:

• Selling focuses on the needs of the seller; marketing on the needs of the buyer;

• Selling is preoccupied with (converting) product into cash; marketing with…satisfying the needs of the customer.

And from the late Peter Drucker: “Indeed, selling and marketing are antithetical rather than synonymous or even complementary. There will always be the need for some selling. But the aim of marketing is to make selling superfluous.” Further, “Marketing is so basic that it cannot be considered a separate function… It is the whole business seen from the point-of-view of its final result; that is, from the customer’s point-of-view.”

To take the points above a step further – the practice of assigning someone with sales credentials or a “creative” bent to your companies’ marketing is generally self-defeating. “Sales think” is focused on the here and now, on specific transactions, on actions that secure a PO or contract win – good sales talent is wired and rewarded that way. In contrast, Marketing is strategic and requires a big picture view of how “wants and needs” are unfolding in the marketplace, an empathetic understanding of customers that is deeper than a one on one conversation. It is a view of the company and it’s offerings in the larger context of market trends and time domain.

For a successful Marketing strategy to emerge from an organization, it requires the best thinking and unwavering commitment at the top of the organization. It cuts to the heart and soul of the company – and that’s why firms that do it well are so distinguishable from the universe of competitors. The extreme example that everyone understands is Apple, but even in the realm of mw/rf components and systems there are companies large and small that have sophisticated and powerful Marketing.

It bears mentioning that great Marketing does not necessarily manifest as a large company, or as a company primed for acquisition. Some relatively small companies have brilliant Marketing strategies. For instance, many entrepreneurial companies are created as “lifestyle” businesses for the owners. These businesses exist to satisfy the needs of niche markets and the income/workstyle desires of the owners. Scale in these cases is not the measure of success – stability, lifestyle and pursuit of passion trump growth. Yet here too, Marketing is essential to business stability and healthy ROI.

How does a company with a weak or non-existent Marketing strategy get one? Many approaches and resources exist, all of which start with an honest internal appraisal of the long-term business goals for the organization, and a solid commitment on the part of the leader(s) to achieve those goals. The commitment must be strong enough to invest resource allocation accordingly.

Second, the management team needs a Marketing mentor in some form to guide the process and hold the team accountable to the work involved. Although this can be an internal player in the form of a CMO, that is a rarity for many reasons. There are many styles of firms and consultants available, but be cautious to make a selection based on a strong track record in the technology realm. Don’t settle for anything less than an executive level dialog. Beware of candidates that mention tactical moves at the onset; they are not strategy counselors. In your research and interview process, listen carefully to the approach the candidates use – you want a proven and disciplined approach from a group with an excellent reference base.

Companies that go through the process of developing a well-defined Marketing strategy always experience positive transformation, usually in short order. Just this past month we were part of an Investor Relations presentation for an international public conglomerate that required the top leaders to explain their businesses in terms of an easy to understand investment case (in other words, from a Market view instead of an operational perspective). This was a significant exercise that stretched, elevated and clarified the leaders’ understanding of their current and future position in the marketplace. It will be interesting to watch how that new intelligence trickles down into the organization.

Many excellent books can provide a useful starting place if you’re interested in learning more about Marketing as a discipline. If you’re a technologist, I suggest The One Thing You Need to Know by Marcus Buckingham. Many clients and friends have discovered that this quick read inspired them to invite someone with developed Marketing skills into their inner circle. Feel free to send me an e-mail and I’ll share a list of my favorites.

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