Marketing is a pervasive theme in modern business. This is understandable when it is recognised what a magical effect it can have on the fortunes of a product. Unfortunately this contribution is often obscured by it being seen by some as a sort of voodoo art whose use is akin to selling snake oil. This is often due to a perception that marketing is complicated and expensive. Much of this prejudice stems from confusion as to its actual nature.
When using any term there needs to be a clear, commonly agreed, understanding of its meaning – that’s the purpose which dictionaries serve. With the word “marketing” this seems to be elusive. A simple test is to ask anyone involved in marketing to define it. Often this question is met with incomprehension or garbled mantras. If someone is unclear as to what a concept means then, by a simple process of deduction, they are operating from a rather shaky foundation when practicing it. This results in the many misapprehensions around marketing.
There are several supposed definitions of marketing. The American Marketing Association states that it is: “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large”. This gobbledygook contributes little other than confusion. It is not even a definition, in the sense of expressing the essence of the concept, rather it is merely a description. There are other so-called definitions. One cliché is that it involves meeting consumer needs. But if those citing this would reflect for a moment they would realise that this is the province of new product development rather than marketing. The essence of marketing is competition, so this needs to be part of its definition. A more grounded definition is: “the achievement of competitive advantage through meaningful differentiation, in terms of product or perceptions, and the exploitation of this to the full.” At its core is the importance of being clear about how your product is different, particularly in terms of perceptions.
Contrary to beliefs, marketing does not need to be either complicated or expensive, often all that is needed is thought and curiosity. A good example was the Pilchard in the UK. This was a fish whose name was toxic, being perceived at a level similar to Spam luncheon meat. Curiosity revealed that the Pilchard is a member of the Sardine family, only a little larger than other varieties. So they were called ‘Cornish Sardines’ – an invented name, but an accurate description.
In 1997 the average price paid to fishermen for a landed kilo of ‘Pilchards’ had been £0.015 and the total annual catch was seven tons. By 2003 the average price paid for a kilo of ‘Cornish Sardines’ – the very same fish – was £1.00, a 67 times increase in value[i]. By 2008 the quantity landed was 1,596 tons. The reality had not changed, just the perception based on a simple change of name which cost virtually nothing.
A good example of a similarly toxic name in the wine industry is “Sherry”. This covers a broad spectrum of what are, in effect, different wines but they are all put under this umbrella because represents the region. Unfortunately the default perception of Sherry in the UK is of something slightly sweet and old-fashioned and this is inevitably applied to all Sherries, even to Fino and Manzanilla, the dry wines with the greatest growth and potential. The name Sherry is like an Albatross around their neck.
Moving on from the word “marketing” there is another, directly linked to it, which appears to confuse even more – “brand”. Because it is a term which is used frequently, it has come to be referred to as if it is a thing. In fact it is nothing more than subjective thoughts, being the sum of perceptions the consumer has of a particular product. Unsurprisingly, consumers’ behaviour in relation to a product is based on their thoughts, which are gathered in the concept of a brand – much like a bundle of reeds. A good distinction is that a product is something people buy for its functional benefits, whereas a brand they buy for emotional benefits. This emphasis on the emotions is particularly potent as the rational basis for choice has been proven to be shaky by many, such as the Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman. As Alexander Segart, managing director of a Swiss PR company, which had great success in political advertising, said: “we’re successful because we know how to reduce information to the lowest level, so people respond to it without thinking”.
A key basis for emotions is a relationship. Gavin Fairburn of Leeds University noted that, “storytelling is central to most of human life. It is also the most startlingly simple and direct way l know of encouraging the development of empathy”. In his book, Mindwise, Nicholas Epley gave more flesh to this when he stated that: “you define yourself not by the attributes that make you the same as everyone else – has two arms, two legs, breathes air – but rather by the attributes which make you different from everyone else – spent time in the Peace Corps, works as a physicist, loves to go fishing, and so on.[ii]”