Here's why marketing still matters to successful organisations

Search “the death of marketing” or “marketing is dead” on Google and you’ll get hundreds of thousands of results, some of them linking to articles dating back more than a decade. There are, it seems, critics eager to assert that marketing as we know is on its way out.

However, it seems that marketing is only declining in importance to those who put very specific qualifications on its definition, characterising it so narrowly that their argument starts to look halfway plausible. Marketing, though, is only a narrow field if you really want it to be.

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, author, speaker and business consultant, Denise Lee Yohn, succinctly summarises marketing, when ‘done right’, as a broad and multifaceted endeavour:

“[M]arketing is and should not be executed merely through tactical functions of acquiring and retaining customers, as many companies practice it today. The search, content, and loyalty campaigns that most managers call marketing these days are common downstream tactics for generating or maintaining awareness or repeat purchase; the full, business-growing power of the marketing function comes way upstream — from creating markets. 

Understanding people’s fundamental needs and drivers, identifying customers, and developing the entire go-to-market and usage ecosystem are the essential aspects of marketing.”

If we take this wide-ranging definition of marketing as better than the limited ones used by the supporters of the “marketing is dead” line, it’s easy to see that marketing remains incredibly important.

In fact, as Yohn said at the start of this year, it matters now more than ever.

Innovation and marketing are intrinsically linked

If, as Yohn says, marketing is about understanding people, identifying customers and developing whole ecosystems of use, it logically follows that it’s inextricably connected with innovation. A business coming up with a new idea, a new product, a new take on an old concept or any novel application alone doesn’t guarantee success.

Three academics from the International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland, provide a stark illustration of this fact using the example of Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s short-lived competitor device, the Reader.

“All the creativity that went into [Sony’s] development was undone by a lack of originality in execution. Sony neglected to enlist the book publishing industry as an ally – a mistake Amazon did not make when it launched the technically inferior but hugely successful Kindle, 14 months later.”

Sony only “engineered an elegant device. By “approach[ing] unconventional partners, identify[ing] underutilized channels, and invent[ing] new business models”, by putting “as much creative energy into introducing and delivering offerings as [they] did into generating them” Amazon, on the other hand, designed an “original solution”.

Amazon succeeded because they got the marketing, using Yohn’s broader definition of the word, right. Sony concentrated too heavily on the product – the innovation – alone.

Why is marketing important for a successful business? Because, in short, it creates an environment in which a product or service can thrive.

Let’s look a bit more closely at how: 

Adventuring into the unknown

One of the ways marketing benefits business is the way it can help uncover what Yohn describes as “unmet and even unknown customer needs”. This is a long way from marketing as advertising and PR.

“Oftentimes, people don’t know they need a new-to-the-world innovation — and sometimes they have been settling for a workaround or poor substitute for so long that they don’t realize an alternative is possible.

“The marketing disciplines of anthropologically-based research and needs-based segmentation uncover the most significant holes in people’s lives that new products can fill. So instead of making assumptions about potential customers and their needs, marketing might help identify entirely new or different customers.”

Explaining complex concepts

Former Chief Marketing Officer at GE, Beth Comstock, wrote about her experience growing the business through marketing.

She explained that one of GE’s marketers’ most important jobs was preparing the market for radical change. In some ways, this is similar to what Amazon did – creating the right conditions for their new product – but in GE’s case, it was through communication (in addition to partnerships).

“The really good innovations – the ones that change the world – need to be explained before they’re accepted. We anticipate what our customers – future and present – will need, and describe it. Long before customers are clamouring for specific solutions, marketing is setting the stage.”

Giving potential customers the bare (digital) minimum

And then there’s something much more basic, but arguably far more important, than creating ecosystems and identifying underutilised channels. Without marketing, there are no websites or search engine optimisation (SEO). And, according to a report from Telstra, without websites and SEO, small businesses are at a distinct disadvantage to digitally savvy competitors.

“The 2018 Telstra Small Business Intelligence Report researched the marketing strategies of more than 1000 SMEs and more than 1000 consumers across Australia and found, on average, only half of small businesses have a website.

“[D]ata from the research suggests 62% of customers will stop considering a small business if they can’t find information about it online.”

The report also found that 83% of customers believe using search engines is “important” or “very important” when finding a business but that only 26% of small business owners say they are using search engine optimisation tactics to reach more customers.

Marketing isn’t dead. It isn’t even unwell. It remains critical for the smallest Australian business to the largest global corporations.

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