Let’s try and define “marketing” shall we?

There isn’t a business term that I know of that means so many different things to so many different people than the term “marketing.”

Particularly in the industries that I’m most familiar – namely growth-oriented consumer Internet companies – there is a vast spectrum of opinion about what marketing actually is.

In one alarming trend (for marketing weenies like me), there’s an observable groundswell within parts of Silicon Valley that has eroded, in some cases, the importance of the function and role of marketing. The notion is that marketing strategy and programs are superfluous (and soft) in the face of simply beta launching world-class products loved by their audiences. This perspective is especially true, I’ve found, amongst the ever-growing cadre of technology-oriented founders, many of whom have emerged from the post-Google world – a company founded and run by engineering talent and who have created the world’s most financially valuable brand (recently valued at $86 billion in brand value) in an organization with a single VP with the word “marketing” in their title out of 54 listed top executives.

Which is, frankly, hard to dispute. But, we’ll get to that later.

In the meantime, in the interest of contextualizing the discussion on endorsement marketing a bit, humor me in allowing me to share my thoughts on the definition of marketing itself.

The American Marketing Association (whoever they are) recently revised their definition of marketing in October 2007 as follows:

Definition of Marketing: Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.

Wow, pretty rough stuff from a bunch of marketing experts who should know better about messaging and positioning.

Personally, I’ve landed on my own two definitions (yes, two definitions) of marketing which differ significantly based on overall scope, and are useful depending on the context in which you are thinking about marketing.

The first, which, a colleague aptly referred to as capital-M “Marketing”, is the broader act of bringing to market products or services that exceed the expectations of customers in addressing a real customer want or need.

The key idea here is the broader concept around “bringing to market.” With big-M Marketing, bringing to market piece holistically integrates (1) insights derived from understanding actual customer wants and needs, (2) developing awesome (and profitable) products and services that meet exceed those needs, and finally (3) getting the word out about these products and services in a way that will make customers actually pay attention, care, and act on them.

Let’s pause for effect here. It’s the basic fundamentals of building a real business, whether you are in the organic pickle industry or offering financial planning services. Markets are made when products or services meet customer needs. Full stop.

However, I dare say most people in business really only think that (lower-case m) marketing is solely about the 3rd part of this equation. For most people, “marketing” equates to “getting the word out” as measured primarily by how many new customers have you acquired.

People used to call this sort of stuff MarCom – short for Marketing Communications – and in big companies it’s not uncommon for MarCom to have entire dedicated organizations who focus exclusively on messaging to stakeholders (customers, employees, investors, partners).

MarCom folks sometimes get a bad rap for being spin-doctors who are seen as tradeshow-going, PR firm-picking, ad agency-schmoozing, color-picking, boondogglers who build brand-definition documents, throw parties, and only very occasionally gather actual customer insights through research.

Depending on how disconnected these functions can be from the broader Marketing objective, these roles can be death-traps. Particularly in today’s emerging consumer Internet companies, most of those activities listed above have become obsolete. They are expensive and especially un-measurable in terms of developing ROI (return on investment) on money and time spent. And because those activities tend to be fuzzy (i.e. difficult to measure and quantify), they especially don’t stand up well against modern “Internet marketing” techniques which rely much more on science than art.

While my general management instincts feed a personal bias toward being more big-M oriented than small-m oriented in nature, what matters most is that organizations and teams make sure that they are on the same page on marketing in regard to bringing stuff to market versus getting the word out. Word.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Let’s try and define “marketing” shall we?

  1. Nice subject matter Brad. I am glad that you are revealing that marketing professionals are capable of developing more than just cheeky promotional strategies.

    I have argued some of those points with professors repeatedly. Most of them believe that all that it takes for your product to be successful is getting the word out and targeting the product towards the appropriate consumer segment.

    It seems that all to often the case that if the product fails, there are typically adjustments made, and it is then reintroduced. This can eventually lead to an ongoing trial & error cycle, which results in consumers having a negative perception of your company’s product in the future. This of course can make it hard for new products in the future to ever gain acceptance, despite how closely they may conform with consumer specifications.

    I say, spend most of your time conducting primary research, avoid secondary research as much as you can, and get the product or service right the first time.

  2. Dave Steer

    This post is sheer brilliance, particularly the notion of big-M marketing. Look at any customer centric brand and what you’ll find is the interplay of the three components which Brad points to — insights from customers (or potential ones) and needs, developing and bringing relevant/meaningful products to market that exceed those needs, and getting the word out.

    Love it!

  3. I hear and understand what is being said here but i would to know if Marketing is an art or a science? I would love to have more information on this subject as this help me enhance my level of knowledge in terms of marketing as i am doing BBA degree( Bachelor of business Administration)

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