Marketing struggles to win status

Research published at last week’s Marketing Forum indicated that marketers are very low in the pecking order. The profession needs to extend itself beyond its traditional communications role and focus on delivering exactly what what the custom

If marketing is so important to commercial success, why doesn’t the world of business worship at its feet? Indeed, why is marketers’ influence within organisations apparently waning rather than waxing? Marketers returned to this theme at last week’s Marketing Forum, held on the Oriana, this time backed by the results of new research commissioned by the Forum’s organisers which they could chew over. Pretty sobering they were too.

When City analysts and investors consider a company’s potential, they hardly consider its marketing prowess as a separate factor. And within the company itself, marketers seem to be living in a fool’s paradise. When asked, finance directors put investment in IT, research and development, human resources and training ahead of marketing. They also said that when it came to making cuts, marketing would be first on the list. And when their peers across the various functional disciplines were asked by Synesis to rank marketers’ skills, how they saw marketers’ performance contrasted starkly with marketers’ own view.

For example, nearly 70 per cent of marketers thought they were either good or excellent at strategic thinking. But only about 30 per cent of finance, logistics and production people thought the same of them. Over 60 per cent of marketers rated their results orientation as good or excellent, compared with about 30 to 40 per cent of their finance, logistics, production and sales/customer service colleagues. There were similar mismatches across commercial ability, communication skills, creative problem solving, executional excellence, people skills and so on. Overall, when asked to assess marketing’s service to other departments, over 50 per cent of marketers rated it as good or excellent, while barely ten per cent of their peers could muster the same opinion.

In a separate study, Pegram Walters International investigated consumers’ attitudes towards marketing. PWI came up with four broad attitudinal groups: the generally positives (32 per cent) who were open and accepting of marketing and “played the game”; the nervous positives (29 per cent) who are similar to the generally positives but are genuinely concerned about the possible misuse of personal information; the junk mail rejecters (18 per cent) who are negative to marketing because they don’t understand its necessity; and marketing resistors (21 per cent) who are cynical about marketing.

“In general, it seems as if marketing is part of the ‘game of life’ in which most consumers see themselves as active players,” says PWI’s report. “However, they (marketers) are not respected for their honesty or caring. Marketers are kept at arm’s length; consumers respect their intellectual and professional capabilities, but have very little trust of them.”

For a profession that puts building trust and the nurturing of relationships with consumers at the heart of what it does, these results are equivocal, at best. But here again, delusion is at work. When a group of three senior marketers was asked to analyse these results and report its conclusions to Forum delegates, its presentation ended with this statement: “The consumer is king. And the consumer loves us.”

The big question, however, is where all this belly-aching and navel-gazing is getting us. One view is that the research findings are not as depressing as they seem. On the contrary, if the Marketing Council’s quest for “pan-company” marketing is succeeding, these are the sort of results we might expect to see. For example, it makes sense for City analysts to judge a company’s marketing mostly by the coherence of its business strategy. And when finance directors put investment in IT, human resources, training and research and development above marketing, that may be a perfect expression of the pan-company marketing philosophy.

After all, we all know it is good marketing to have databases that instantly display customer profiles and histories, so that their queries can be handled immediately on the phone. Likewise, we know that staff who act as brand ambassadors are critical to marketing success. And haven’t marketers been pulling their hair out over the critical need for innovation? All these require investment in IT, human resource and research and development capabilities.

The pessimistic view, on the other hand, sees the results as symptomatic of an even deeper problem. Delegates at the Forum tended to respond to their peers’ criticisms in two ways. The first was: “We are good at what we do – we just need to communicate it better.” The second was: “We really do need to smarten up our act.”

Perhaps there is a third option, however: while marketers’ existing act may be very smart, it’s just not the right act. This is the view of Simon Knox, professor of brand marketing at Cranfield and Stan Maklan of CSC Consulting, who suggest the values brands are supposed to bring to consumers are “increasingly being delivered through processes outside the marketing function”. Nowadays, the real test of a company’s marketing prowess is not being found in the brilliance of its communications, but in the appropriateness and excellence of its operations: how staff treat customers, whether they have the right tools to deliver service excellence, whether they can deliver the right produce to the right place at the right time, and so on.

In other words, if pan-company marketing is being implemented, it’s not being done by marketers in marketing departments. This is the real challenge facing both marketing and marketers. As too many marketers demonstrated at the Forum, they still assume that marketing and marketing communications are synonymous.

Marketers may criticise advertising agencies for their “the answer is advertising. Now, what is the question?” approach, but if they take the same approach within the firm with regard to communications budgets, they are just asking to be marginalised. Perhaps that is why, when Marketing Forum delegates were asked, anonymously, to sum up how their colleagues saw them, wisecracking throwaways, such as “flower arrangers” and “arty farty bollocking marketing”, dominated.

If pan-company marketing is taking root, marketers will have to carve out a new role for themselves, helping their peers define and focus what the organisation as a whole needs to do to meet customer needs. And it may just be that what the research is telling us so far is that the slowest group to embrace pan-company marketing has been the marketers themselves.

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