Trust your gut marketing

Friday, March 15, 2002

You may be more of a marketer than you think

by John R. Graham

Far too often, marketers turn out to be their own worst enemies. It seems easy for them to commit the unpardonable sin of business: they start believing their own baloney. What they attempt to pass off as marketing principles often turn out to be little more than marketing prejudices.

With all their limitations, warts and crazy ideas, marketers can play a critical role in the success of a business. Unfortunately, they are often overruled by management and, more often than not, the sales department.

The 2001 holiday selling season saw an astounding number of large specialty retailers lining up like lemmings to sell sweaters -- all of which looked alike except for different "designer" logos. Sweaters were the feeding frenzy.

And where were the marketers? At the head of the line urging the store buyers on?

In the end, of course, the retailers were awash in sweaters. And they were still up to their eyeballs in sweater inventory even after taking up to 70 percent discounts early in the Christmas selling season.

Is it fair to blame marketers for these horrendous mistakes? Perhaps. Perhaps GM's marketers were not involved in the development of the Pontiac Aztec and the Buick Rendezvous. Let's hope that their loud protests were ignored.

There are more examples, of course.

It may be that the recommendations of marketers are ignored or not even sought because marketers sometimes shoot themselves in the foot when they make others feel uninformed and even stupid.

Marketing is neither mysterious nor esoteric. It's about real-life issues. This why marketers need to open their doors far wider than they are today and give up some of what may be nothing more than nonsense.

Branding is bull -- at best

Jargon always confuses, never clarifies. Branding is a prime example.

To call branding bull is heresy or worse. Big names have made big bucks touting branding as the solution.

You can't pick up a business publication or attend a seminar without encountering "branding." But "creating the brand," "protecting the brand," "managing the brand" and "branding it," are nothing more than high level abstractions that may make for interesting cocktail party conversation, create a certain level of phony superiority, and even cause a bit of excitement -- but these terms don't mean anything concrete.

If you're looking to be profound then figure out what's of value to the customer. What makes the customer's heart go pitter-pat, not what turns you on. Nurturing that value is serious business. Doing everything possible to align with and then stay close to the customer takes talent, commitment, and zeal, not jargon.

Marketing research is often a slight-of-hand trick

Don't be intimidated by anyone who attempts to dazzle you with screen-after-screen of charts and countless columns of research results. It's rare if it means more than a good consulting fee. The problem is that we are intimidated by nonsense, particularly when it is passing in front of us at breakneck speed.

The biggest con job of all comes from the folks who provide "focus group" meeting facilities. Of course, the major feature of research palaces is the "viewing room" where the client, ad agency reps, marketing managers, and assorted other executives can gather to eat, drink and make meaningless banter while watching those who are being paid to voice their prejudices.

Where did Chrysler's idea for the fast-selling P.T. Cruiser come from? Not from a carefully planned and superbly executed marketing concept. It was born from the experience of a man who loves cars and knows the people who buy them. Bob Lutz. To its credit, General Motors finally figured out that all the marketing research money can buy may not be as good as the insight of a Bob Lutz at age 70.

Avoid "Let's make a big splash" mentality

Far too often marketers get their jollies from what they like to call "Wow." They seem to think they are doing something when they spend lots of money to make lots of noise. They love attacking the market with full force -- they thrive on making a big splash.

And then "pfuff." It's all gone -- both the budget and the customers.

Big splash means fun for marketers. They get to party, drink, party and drink. This is why those trying to break into marketing light up when you ask them what area they are interested in. "I want to get into event planning." That's where the "wow" is.

Why is it so easy for marketers to forget what marketing is all about? Nobody expressed it better than Theodore Leavitt, the legendary marketing expert at Harvard Business School, who pointed out that marketing is all the little, seemingly insignificant and often bothersome things that a company does day in and day out to attract and hold a customer.

Put marketing ideas, strategies to the only test

There is always the feeling that to justify your existence it is necessary to make the simple look complex and the easy ever so difficult and complicated. Marketing is no exception.

But marketing is too important -- too valuable to a company -- to permit it to be distorted and misunderstood.

While it takes lots of skill and a creative mind to be a good marketer, it takes just one thing to determine if marketing is on the right track. In other words, there is a simple, accurate -- and infallible -- test. Here it is:

When faced with making a marketing decision, just ask this question: Does it make sense to you? Does it square with your experience? Is it easily understood? Or does it make you wonder if it will work? Does it raise questions or create doubts? If you ask questions, do you get reasonable, common sense answers? If the explanation you're given doesn't compute, don't do it. That's it. Nothing more.

Marketing is about what you do every day to get closer to the customer. It's about making sense.

John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm in Quincy, Mass., 02170 (617-328-0069; fax 617-471-1504); The company's web site is

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