Most people seem to have a reasonable idea of what engineering (design and build stuff), finance (manage the money) or sales (make money by selling stuff) do in a business. Marketing is another story altogether, being confused with sales in the best case or perceived as a money-sucking black hole in the worst. It is likely the most misunderstood part of doing business.
Marketers, in turn, are often perceived by other employees as spending the company’s money on flashy ads or on exhibitions and junkets that involve travel to resorts and fancy meals. The words ‘entertainment expenses’ seem to dance before their eyes when they think of marketing. While some or all of this may be part of marketing, they don’t make us a marketer any more than reading the business pages of a newspaper makes any of us a stockbroker.
So what is marketing and what are marketers supposed to do? And why should you care? Theodore Levitt, the American economist, in his seminal book The Marketing Imagination asserts that “marketing … view(s) the entire business process as consisting of a tightly integrated effort to discover, create, arouse and satisfy customer needs.”
He also makes the distinction: “Selling concerns itself with the tricks and techniques of getting people to exchange their cash for your product. It is not concerned with the values that the exchange is about.”
Even if entrepreneurs agree that marketing is important, they sabotage themselves in a number of ways stemming from not comprehending how best to go about it. The real or often perceived expense of marketing is the most common concern that cash-strapped start-ups have.
When company founders are technologists, there is a belief that superior technology or product performance sells itself. Marketing, I argue, is a critical function for entrepreneurial ventures. It is every employee’s job, starting with the CEO, and is too important to be left to the marketing department alone.
The dictionary definition of the word discover is to “determine the existence, presence or fact of.” Discovering customer needs is rarely as simple as asking them — though that is always a good place to start. And it helps if you begin this even before you start building your product or service.
Once customers state a need or requirement, repeatedly asking the question ‘Why’ helps. When a mother states “I wish I had more time to exercise” or “I wish I could feed my children healthier food,” she may be talking about the lack of household help or her commute time or how much organic food costs. So understanding the core problem to be solved is important, and many a time the customers themselves may be unaware of it till they go through this multiple ‘Why’ questioning. Even when the desired outcome is clearly stated, such as “Increase the gross margins for our digital cameras” or “Shrink our order fulfilment time by 50 per cent and reduce mistakes to one part per million,” asking ‘Why’ ensures you are working on the right problem.
The first job of marketing is to discover the pain points for the target customers and define them as requirements. Once we have a well-defined set of questions (what and why), we can look for the answers (how).
The challenge for entrepreneurs or start-ups is that they usually get started due to a perceived gap in the marketplace such as “Buying tickets for inter-city bus travel should be easier than it is.” Being men (and women) of action, they immediately set out to solve this problem. Of course, once you have a part of or the whole solution and then get it out there in front of people, you find that your product or service is not exactly setting the world on fire. This is why discovery prior to product development is an important piece of your marketing success. In real life, you don’t do discovery only at the beginning, but iteratively at each stage of your product or service’s lifecycle.
Creating and arousing demand
The most mystifying aspect of entrepreneurship is that once you have built that better mousetrap, not only is the world not beating its way to your doorstep, it’s not even returning your calls when you try to tell them about your solution. As a good marketer you did your homework and discovered that people found buying inter-city bus tickets painful. So you developed your easy-to-use, Internet-based online bus ticket booking system and yet it’s greeted with a great yawn. Creating and arousing demand, what technically the marketers call demand creation, is a critical marketing step. In a previous article, I noted “Build and they will come” only works in films. It is for marketing to get customers to move from “I have a problem” to “This is a good solution to my problem,” where ideally “this” is your product or service.
Creating and arousing demand will require re-acquainting the customer with the learnings of the discovery phase. Tell your customers, “Adding GPS to your digital camera is a good way to differentiate yourself from the competition and it will allow you to hold your price and hence stop the decline in your gross margins.” This way you state the key problem they have, your solution for the same and how the solution works.
Satisfying the demand
The most dangerous stage (and cause of much teeth gnashing for marketers) is the transition from demand creation to fulfilment or satisfying the customer need. Having comprehended the customer’s needs in the discovery phase and evangelised your solution in the demand creation phase, if you don’t execute well in this last phase, your competition is likely to satisfy the customer and enjoy the fruits of your labour.
So having a clear plan to fulfil the demand you’ve created and executing it is key in this last stage of marketing.
Satisfying the demand created rarely ends with product delivery as this only highlights other unmet needs or even the gap between the expectations raised and the reality of your solution. Ensuring customer satisfaction through sustained support and a new iteration of discovery, creation and satisfying is needed. So don’t begrudge your poor marketing guy’s dinner expense — he’s on a tread mill, get on it and support him and sign that darn expense report!
This article first appeared in the Business Line print edition dated May 5, 2008.