What is marketing’s role in a business?

Marketing is probably one of the most misunderstood of functions – particularly in startups. Product development or even sales seem easy enough to understand but the average entrepreneur struggles with marketing. One of the reasons for this is our common confusion of activities (what does marketing do) and outcomes (what should marketing accomplish). The emergence of the internet, mobile and social media has only muddied the waters further.  Popular media, particularly television and to a lesser degree the movies haven’t helped, painting a picture of marketers as either slick Madison Avenue types or slimy snake oil salesmen.

Theodore Levitt, the American economist, said “marketing … view(s) the entire business process as consisting of a tightly integrated effort to discover, create, arouse and satisfy customer needs.” Whilst I certainly agree with Levitt’s definition in his book “The Marketing Imagination” I’d simplify it to the following assertion:

For startups, at any stage, marketing has to achieve only one goal or outcome – profitable growth!

I’d argue there are only one of three ways to achieve this.

  • shorten the selling cycle
  • optimize the selling price
  • maximize profit in absolute terms

A little math before we jump into each of these. Regardless of whether a business offers products or services, profits boil down to

Profits (P) = Revenues (R) – Costs (C)

This would imply that anything that improves revenues or decreases costs, is likely to increase profits. So ideally marketing will increase R and decrease C thereby maximizing P. As our Chairman was fond of saying, there’s the minor matter of managing cash – it’s better for money to come in today rather than tomorrow – in other words we could be profitable on paper but still fail as a business because we ran out of money.

So what should marketing do? Marketing needs to be doing whatever is required to achieve one or more of these objectives which will result in the desired outcome – profitable growth (in case you missed it the first time).

Shorten selling cycles If your customers buy whatever you are selling sooner (than they would if you didn’t do any marketing) then you are doing something right. So if the brand value (or recall) will help shorten selling cycles you’d do that. If educating the customer (inbound marketing) or free trials (freemium), partnerships or Google ads shorten the selling cycle you’d do those. Alternately, any of those if they have no impact on shortening selling cycles, you’d abandon them.  In other words, rather than doing what you did in your previous job, or what your competitors are doing, or what TechCrunch or HBR say is the hottest marketing trend, let the results drive what you do. You may use some or all the previous methods, but measure and keep only those that shorten your selling cycles. So any time your marketing team proposes a campaign or a strategy, you’d want to know will this shorten my selling cycle.  Shortening selling cycles is the knob that you likely have the most influence over.

Optimise Selling Price One way to shorten selling cycles is to drop your price – it’s also a good way to go out of business or rush to the bottom at least. If you make a loss on each unit, no amount of sales volume is going to make it up. And dropping price alone does not make selling (or revenues) easier.  Ask all those mobile app developers trying to sell a $0.99 app. And if that is hard, making a $2,500 course or $60,000 service, you’ll discover takes even longer. Selling at the highest possible price, that the customer is willing to pay or market can bear (real estate anyone?) is one way to maximise revenue. However, this may affect the number of units you may move and the time it takes to make the sale. The market for 5 million-dollar homes is finite – say you make one a year. Then again you’d have to sell fifty (50) $100,000 homes to make the same $5 million revenue, which may mean one a week!.  So marketing has to make two critical determination – who’s our customer and what are they prepared to pay and how do I get them to pay me the best price? Again brand perception, may command a high price ($120 white T-shirts) or positioning – can you afford to risk your family’s safety (Volvo) – the cost of alternates or non-purchase (insurance)  are all things marketers may do – with the optimising selling price. Different segments (homeowners vs farmers) may consume the same product (insecticide) in different volumes (frequency of use), form factors (storage constraints), and therefore price. The higher unit sales, at lower price (but high margins) of homebuyers may underwrite the lower price (and margins) at high volumes of farmers (which drives unit cost of production down). So segmenting, positioning and pricing are strongly correlated.

Maximize absolute profit  “We make 200% (or even infinite) margin on each unit we ship,” would be a true statement for products such as software – where incremental unit costs are negligible or even for a sandwich or burger. But such unit margin is illusional if you take the cost of all the software engineers or cooks (and the rent to house them). Unit (or gross) margins are important, but high or at least positive net margins are nicer. Even if you make a profit on each sale, funding new product development or growing your revenue requires more money – in which case profit (gross or net) cannot be a matter of only measured in percentage terms but in absolute dollar terms. Almost for any business (there are exceptions) this means growing revenues while maintaining or even growing margins, so that you can at least keep up with inflation that leads to increasing salaries or other input costs, even if you don’t wish to innovate or grow. Marketing can help achieve this by bringing growth – be it demand creation (new markets), greater market share (revenue growth) that will not just increase revenues but profits.

Everything else, you’ve learned or heard about marketing whether the four Ps (product, price, positioning, promotion) or four Cs (consumer, cost, communication, convenience), inbound or content marketing, paid or earned media or any other flavor-of-the-week are all mere methods or tools to achieve these objectives.

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