Marketing is misunderstood

Marketing. Misunderstood, mismanaged and misinformed

Ross Munro Williams Marketing, Opinion

I started this year with a statement that I couldn’t shake. 

Marketing is the most misunderstood aspect of business management.” 

After so many years of leading strategic guidance for clients, I realised that this misunderstanding isn’t because of the services, the know-how, the prior work, the proof, the talent or the team.

The fact is, marketing is completely and comprehensively misunderstood by the leaders of many companies. I have hundreds of examples over the years where marketing has been seen by business leaders as the quick-fire way to get more sales:

Regardless of whether the brand has just launched, the startup has close to zero product-market-fit, has a new product and thus new types of customers, or has zero differentiation or demonstrable benefits for their target audience, the belief is the same: just do my marketing for me and get me more sales immediately.

I don’t mean this to be harsh at all. It’s simply a realisation that can help so many businesses thrive, which—at the end of the day—is all we want.

Most leaders are either ‘numbers people’ or ‘product people’ and for good reason; healthy management of financials is crucial. So too is a great product.

However, what is gained in financial acumen or product expertise is so often lost in understanding the soft skills of persuasion and the marketing fundamentals to achieve it. 

Influencing people at scale to choose your brand over others requires a vastly different skill set—one that requires the empathy to understand your ideal customers in a much deeper way. They’re much more than mere numbers on a spreadsheet, aren’t experts in what you offer and probably have no idea what they need. 

One realisation made this all a lot clearer to me: understanding marketing is similar to grasping a foreign language. It’s intricate, complicated, has rules, has rules that should be ignored and changes over time.

Looking at it this way, it’s easy to see why marketing:

1. Is often underfunded compared to sales (which tends to have an oversubscribed headcount)

2. Has the short-termism and a scattershot-approach problem, making knee jerks the order of the day

3. Hires underqualified and inexperienced people to manage what is a CMO-level role. You wouldn’t hire an underqualified accountant, yet in marketing this is rife.

4. Teams are often short-staffed, spread too thin and underpaid to boot. The expectations of what a marketer should be able to do often border on the ridiculous. You wouldn’t confuse a plumber with an electrician or a landscaper with a bricklayer, yet in marketing the expectation is that the in-house hire should be able to execute SEO, paid search & social, manage organic social media, be a copywriter, a graphic designer and a website optimisation expert. Oh, and don’t forget email marketing as well! No wonder average is the order of the day when it comes to most of the marketing we see.

5. Expectations of ROI are overly ambitious and often overestimate what is possible in relation to market size. As the timeframe to execution becomes ever shorter, the marketing team’s hand is forced into doing what executives expect the department should be doing.

6. Tactics rule over strategy and why great sales pitches from single service agencies or “gurus’ get the green light.

7. Ignores true brand building in favour of promotions and hacks to try to drive short-term revenue lift to the detriment of long-term financial viability.

8. Sees customers as numbers on a spreadsheet instead of actual living, breathing humans with agency in their purchasing decisions. Most, if not all marketing discussions invariably focus on ROI instead of placing the ideal customer, their behaviours and their attention at the centre of all discussions to create better marketing that resonates when given time and space.

9. Rarely approves bold, creative or hard-to-measure activities due to leadership being too risk-averse. These businesses end up in the sea of sameness while their leaders rue the slow uptick in new acquisition

10. Lacks unique market positioning and differentiation because they’re misunderstood. Marketing can only ever be as good as the positioning of the company in the marketplace and no amount of ad spend and tactical genius on SEO or conversion optimisation will solve that.

The irony when I speak to various business leaders is that they all want to be like Nandos or Apple—in other words, they understand the impact that great marketing has had on those businesses and will gleefully watch their creative output—but when it comes to their own businesses they struggle to see the value of investing in marketing correctly unless it has a sales-driven purpose behind it with an immediate call-to-action nearby.

The result is a marketing department that is essentially a de facto lead generation machine or promotional outfit that is hamstrung from doing any real marketing that resonates with the ideal audience. 

And so, here we are, surrounded by stunningly boring, stale “marketing” efforts that are uninspiring to both the marketers and the audiences they are trying to woo. The net effect is a lot of busy-work, plenty of money being spent with the digital ad giants and very little or no growth in actual market share.

All thanks to a misunderstanding of marketing. 

But for those leaders who are ready to admit this and are eager to truly understand marketing, huge opportunities await.

The leaders who embrace their shortcomings in this part of their skill set will achieve phenomenal outcomes over time. The more they strive to understand marketing, the less they interfere which ultimately leads to a better marketing operational system and department, improved hiring methodology, a vastly improved understanding and empathy with their audience (and the problems associated with reaching them in a way that moves them to action) and ultimately growth in market share.

To be like Apple you need to believe in and understand marketing like Jobs did. 

And to do that, treat it a little bit more like a foreign language—accept what you don’t know and put the steps (and people) in place to broaden your understanding.

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