Will The Real Marketers Please Stand Up...?

Photo by  Mike Wilson

Photo by Mike Wilson

I’ve always believed that the purpose of marketing is to create enough value for customers to earn a place in their lives. After all, as Sam Walton famously said “There is only one boss. The Customer.”

Yet I’ve been struck by the gulf between the concerns of the marketing industry and those of customers (and the students that take my class) over the last twelve months.

The marketing industry seems to have turned inwards.

First, there’s the preoccupation with transparency in digital media. Of course, measurability, viewability, ad placement and fraud are all important technical issues that need to be resolved, but they have little to do with creating value for customers.

Then, there’s the debate over data vs creativity, and how consultancies are going to eat advertising agencies for breakfast. Certainly, finding the perfect marriage of data and creativity is essential going forward, but it’s an industry rather than customer issue.

And more broadly, there’s the endless fascination with technology, and its potential to rescue or destroy the marketing world. Social media, programmatic advertising, martech, virtual assistants, chatbots, VR, AR, AI, the list goes on and on. But all too often, the discussion is about what it could mean for marketing and brands, rather than how it helps create value for customers.

That's not to dismiss the importance of these. They all impact the marketing industry. Yet, talking with customers (and students) over the last year, there are two issues which should really be sounding the alarm.

First, in the world of fake news, there’s an increasing suspicion of fake brands: brands which say one thing but whose actions betray another. It’s a narrative that keeps being fed by such delights as the Volkswagen emissions scandal, United Airlines forcibly ejecting a passenger, Pepsi’s tone-deaf black lives matter ad, Dove’s Facebook ad seemingly reinforcing white stereotypes of beauty, and pretty much everything Uber. The net effect is that brands are increasingly assumed to be fake, until proven otherwise.

But perhaps even more concerning is a growing frustration with the invasion of privacy by brands. Not simply in the narrow sense of collecting data, but in a much broader sense of intruding into people’s personal space. As one student put it, “What gives a brand the right to interfere in my life?” Of course, advertising has always been based on interruption, but now the opportunities to intrude are much greater. As Mark Schaefer recently observed “In my own beloved profession of marketing, the primary application of technology is to find increasingly sophisticated ways to annoy people.”

There's an irony to all this. Go back two or three years, the key topic of the day was the need for customer-centricity, which was supposed to put customers at the center of a business’s philosophy and operations. It was a recognition that in a connected world, brands are increasingly defined by customer experience, rather than traditional marketing. 

This need has not gone away. Today it's more pressing than ever. So surely, it’s time for real marketers to again stand up, and get back to creating value for customers...