Russell Parsons: Marketers need to remember good habits, not just forget bad ones

Unlearning inherited behaviour can be a challenge but given customers have changed brands and marketers must learn to change with them.


The need to ‘unlearn’ has been a commonly held belief in business for some years – shedding habitual behaviours in how you carry yourself and in business process, operations and management. The need to rethink has become particularly acute in the wake of digital disruption, where legacy thinking is plain daft.

Marketers love a buzzword more than most, never happier than if demonstrating bleeding-edge thinking as the primary change agent, or something. No surprise then that they have grasped the concept of unlearning so enthusiastically. With spring now here, there have been renewed calls to dispense with the established order and think again about everything from the marketing funnel to media investment, from innovation to insight and beyond.

Our feature looking at why brands are hiring marketers with no sector experience focuses in on the ‘outsider’ and the riches that hiring new recruits from outside your sector can bring. The urgency and fresh perspective that new thinking, unencumbered by established practice, introduces to an organisation are seductive. Indeed, hiring at a senior level from a pool you wouldn’t ordinarily go fishing in can help hasten the unlearning process that brands so covet.

Our feature on interim marketers explores similar ideas. The need for brands to employ an interim might well reflect budget constraint, a failed search or vacillation. It is also an opportunity, as the feature details, to bring in someone who will challenge the established order, to drive the kind of change that only someone operating with a single objective in clear time limits can manage.

I would encourage all marketers to test themselves across sectors. However – prepare yourself for a new entry into the pantheon of jargon – the reason for my urging is not to unlearn but to relearn. It will force you to go back to basics.

As Mark Ritson teaches in the Marketing Week Mini MBA, market orientation is one of the most undervalued tasks in marketing but is one that is easily boiled down: you are not the market you serve. All opinions you have about the product or service, about previous campaigns and branding, are useless and even dangerous. Understanding customers – what they think and feel and not what you think and feel – is your primary task.

Putting yourself in an alien environment – in a sector you haven’t worked in before, in a category targeting a demographic you don’t sit within, or tasked with growing a brand you wouldn’t use – might well be the best thing for every marketer. It will focus your attention on the need for market orientation. If you have no personal experience and you are free of legacy thinking you are forced to go back to the marketing drawing board.

There is an imperative to unlearn inherited behaviour. Customers have changed, and brands and marketers must change with them. But equally, the best way to best serve customers is to relearn core elements of marketing. Not only will they benefit from it, so will your career.

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