That was five years ago. Ever since then Tony has worked mightily hard to keep his business going. He’s tried selling meat direct over the internet, at farmers’ markets and even learned the art of sausage-making to try and find a suitable source of revenue. Everything worked but nothing worked well enough to satisfy the wage bill and crucifying profit margins of a small, provincial meat producer.
Then one day it all changed. He won a contract with a national meat distributor on the look-out for grass-fed, organic beef – exactly the kind of niche that Tony could fill. The distributor agreed to buy a certain proportion of beef each week and, provided the meat proves popular with the independent butchers that the company supplies, Tony is suddenly profitable.
After the deal was signed, I suggested we head off and visit many of the metropolitan butchers that his new distributor served. He made some calls and we arranged a busy day meeting and talking to butchers of all shapes and sizes in their own stores about their meat and, most importantly, their customers.
What’s fascinating about all this was Tony’s reaction. On the morning we met to do our visits he was clearly unnerved by the whole process of meeting and talking to his potential customers. This from a man who has taught himself to be one of the most skilled slaughtermen you could ever hope to meet. A man who spent his Christmas holidays re-painting his kill floor single-handed. Someone who has spent the past four years working non-stop, against enormous odds to keep a small business afloat.
And yet today, he was deeply uncomfortable. What would he ask? Would they have time to meet him? How would they feel about him inspecting their shops? These, and other concerns, came spewing out over an initial coffee before we started our meat odyssey.
Eight hours, 60 miles and 11 butchers later, my friend was awash with ideas. All reticence was gone as he talked about the obvious flaws in his business plan that had, until today, seemed so robust and obvious. He listed the changes he would make and then reviewed the long day with a deep and unyielding reverence. “Without today I would have been fucked,” was his final assessment.
It was a great day to be a marketing professor. Great because among all the horseshit that surrounds agencies and social media and the charlatans who drearily and regularly announce the “re-invention of marketing” – the real truth of our discipline could not be simpler. The ultimate purpose of marketing is to get the producer to understand the needs of the consumer and for them to then adjust their strategy accordingly.
It’s a deceptively simple definition for such a sinewy subject like marketing but for me, this is what we all ultimately do. The catch, as Tony so neatly illustrated, is that most producers initially don’t think they need to listen to or understand consumers in order to develop strategy and be successful. The vast majority of marketing strategies are devised without the appropriate amount of insight from the market. Big companies, small companies – they all make the same fundamental error. People come up with all kinds of excuses not to talk to consumers: they don’t have time.; it will cost money; it will stifle innovation; Steve Jobs didn’t do it. The excuses are endless.
And these excuses are the enemy. Forget about content marketing and bloody Facebook for a minute. They are mere cake decorations on the top of the massive gateaux of market orientation. Our primary marketing challenge is to reassure, cajole, frighten and intimidate the people who make the big decisions to spend time with their consumers before and then after those decisions have been taken. It’s a vision of marketing that could not be more simple, or more difficult, to achieve.