When I was invited to talk to a group of executives on the topic of ‘Digital Marketing’, my first question was: ‘What do you mean by “marketing”?’.
Admittedly, this may seem a very weird question, specially coming from someone who teaches marketing for a living. Yet, those that work and teach in the field know all too well that perceptions about what marketing is and what marketers do vary widely (and they aren’t always positive ones, either).
At one end of the spectrum, marketing is perceived to be about coming up with catchy names and memorable slogans to promote goods and services some other department in the organisation created. At the other end of the spectrum, marketers are deemed to have incredible powers of manipulation and deception to control consumers’ behaviours and lead them to act against their own interests.
If the first view of marketing is reductionist and does not do justice to the range of issues studied in the discipline or the value that marketers can bring to organisations, the second one is not helpful, either. It leads to marketing being blamed for many social problems, from child obesity to consumer debt. And it leads to unrealistic expectations being placed on marketers regarding their ability to increase sales, generate brand loyalty, etc…
What is this thing called marketing, then?
The definition I usually refer to is the one developed by the Chartered Institute of Marketing. It describes marketing as…
‘The management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably.’
The fact that marketing is a management process means that it needs to be systematic, guided by goals and subject to monitoring and performance assessment. It should also be supported by relevant documentation – a marketing plan, for instance, though others may also apply.
In order to be able to identify customer requirements organisations need to conduct market research. Unless marketers understand what customers think, feel and do, they will not be able to offer propositions that address their needs. I am talking about addressing needs, instead of creating them, because I believe that needs are inherent to humans, not created by marketers. For instance, nobody needs an iPad and Apple certainly did not create the need for one. However, there are several needs that the iPad fulfils better than the existing alternatives (see figure), such as convenience, portability, ease of use and so on. If it didn’t, it would not succeed. What marketing does, therefore, is to create solutions for existing (sometimes unconscious) needs.
To anticipate needs, marketers need to understand customer behaviour – for instance, how consumers experience brands, what they buy and why. This branch of marketing science draws on insights from psychology, sociology, anthropology and other fields. In terms of marketing practice, Customer Relationship Management programmes can provide insight into unmet customer needs.
Organisations supply customer requirements by offering a product, delivered in a way that meets the customer’s preferences and priced in order to maximise the value obtained by both parties. Communication with customers is another way of creating value, for instance by disclosing useful information.
The last part of the definition above mentions ‘profit’. Increasingly, marketers recognise the importance of monitoring the outcomes of their decisions and assessing the contribution of marketing activities towards the financial and non-financial outcomes of the firm.
In summary, marketing is much broader than simply promoting products. It is important, however, to distinguish marketing as a discipline or activity from marketing as a function. Obtaining marketing insight, creating value, monitoring outcomes, etc… may be performed by more than one department in the organisation, or even be outsourced (as is often the case with market research). All these activities belong to marketing, even if they are performed by other departments.
Does this view of marketing surprise you? Does it sound familiar?
What other definitions do you find useful?