What is marketing? That can only be decided by businesses

Definitions of marketing are wide-ranging and inconsistent, but it’s up to organisations to work out what it means and how it can help them.

Question mark
Source: Shutterstock

Working in marketing, I always find it tricky to answer the question “So, what do you do?” in a way that makes sense to ‘normal’ people.

The responses are an indictment of the identification challenges which marketing faces.

A typical interaction by the side of a kids’ sports pitch goes something like this:

Normal person: So JC, what do you get up to when you’re not watching small children attempt to play sport with varying degrees of success?
JC: Well, normal person, I work in marketing.
Normal person: Ah, so you’re conning me out of my money.
JC: No, but there are some crap marketers out there who might be…

Or maybe like this:

JC: Well, normal person, I work in marketing
Normal person: Oh, you make adverts?
JC: Well, I’d call that advertising so…

Or this:

JC: Well, normal person, I work in marketing
Normal person: I hate social media… is that you?
JC: I hate social media too…or is that you?
Normal person: Can you redesign the school website?
JC: [Tries to leave]

At least the conversation goes somewhere, I suppose. I might try answering “I’m an actuary” one day, just to find out what silence feels like.

The point is, we work in an industry which lacks definition in the outside world. But the bigger problem is that we work in an industry which also lacks definition inside business. If you asked 100 random people to define marketing and its role you’d get 100 different answers. I expect if you asked the small group of people leading your business you would also get a mixed response.

It’s not like that with sales, or HR, or finance. Broadly speaking, we know that:

  • HR looks after the people.
  • Finance looks after the numbers.
  • Sales looks after, well, the sales.
  • Logistics move stuff around.
  • IT ask you “is it actually plugged in” after you’ve waited on the helpline for 15 minutes…

And what is marketing?

  • “A science” (Byron Sharp)
  • “Not that sort of science” (Mark Ritson)
  • “An attitude as much as it is an activity” (Joe Glover)
  • “The management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably” (The CIM… excitingly)
  • “Dead”, you hear a lot, obviously, but let’s not open that box again

A workable definition of marketing

“Go on then JC, what’s your definition?”

Thank you for asking, for I do indeed have one…but I fear it will not solve the problem. Personally, when I’m asked what marketing is, I say: marketing is customer insight used to deliver competitive advantage.

And I then break it down into it’s component parts to show off the genius of my definition:

Customer insight

Proper bloody insight. A deep-rooted understanding about customer motivations which can be used to unlock growth. Not a fact or a figure, or a long-winded story. Not a 25-page deck of digital metrics. And certainly not the fact that everyone reshared the vaguely connected YouTube video on the school WhatsApp over the weekend.

I mean deep knowledge (not assumption) based on research of all sorts and a lot of time thinking about what makes your specific customer tick, in a way which you can exploit as a business for the purposes of making money.

Customer insight…used

Marketing is an active function; you have to use it. As someone I interviewed once said, “It’s the only business function with an ‘-ing’ on the end of it. Unlike finance, or sales, or HR.” 

He was right, marketing is very much a ‘doing’ part of the business.

Having customer insight is one thing, but it’s the use of it which really matters. Put it to work in service of the business. Feed it into everything, from customer service centres through to employee onboarding processes.

Customer insight used…to deliver

Delivery. Results. Know what you’re trying to achieve. Align it with other teams. Measure it. Make it better. But make it your purpose to deliver.

You’ve got to get stuff done and be able to show the results, otherwise the sales director will be there with another wise-crack about colouring in.

Customer insight used to deliver…competitive advantage

The actual meaning of competitive advantage as defined by its creator, Harvard professor Michael Porter, is underused. He defined it as anything which enables you to charge higher prices or secure lower costs, or both.

That definition has loosened somewhat over the years, but I like the brutality of it. It’s about making money – profit, specifically – by being able to charge more and/or spend less.

And it’s about beating the competition: understanding your place in the category, who else is fighting to win there and using that knowledge to find ways to make yourself more profitable.

The struggle for agreement

So that’s it. My clever-clogs definition of marketing unpacked: customer insight used to deliver competitive advantage. But how helpful is it really? Does it actually clarify what your actual marketing department does in your actual business? I don’t think so.

Customer insight comes from everywhere in a business – beyond the marketing department. It gets used across all functions, including those outside of marketing’s direct control. It delivers competitive advantage in all sorts of different ways, not just metrics which marketing measures. I that sense, marketing is more a discipline than a department.

That can give marketers the clarity that part of their job is to use their customer insight to influence other functions, but it cannot change the broader perception of marketing. It can’t make my conversation by the side of the sports pitch any easier, or help marketing teams influence better and deliver better results.

The funnel isn’t really a funnel at all, but seeing it as one makes it easier to manage

For that to happen, marketing leaders need to lead the definition of marketing and what it does within their businesses. CMOs need to ask their peers what they think marketing’s role is, and if the answer’s not clear, they need to clarify it.

CEOs need to ask CMOs what they mean by marketing, and work out if they’re on the same page. CFOs and CMOs need to align on how investment into marketing is going to lead to more profitable outcomes. Marketing teams need to have these conversations amongst themselves, to clarify what their purpose is within the business and beyond. And as an industry we probably need to accept that how we define marketing doesn’t really matter all that much for anyone except ourselves. Not really, not if we want to change anything.

If you’re looking for the answer to ‘what is marketing?’ on the internet, or using an AI or a textbook, you’ll only ever find broad, sweeping definitions (some of them as neat as mine). The real definition of marketing, and the impact it can have, can only happen inside businesses, one business at a time, based on their own unique challenges and opportunities.

Johnny Corbett is an independent marketing specialist who has worked in marketing and commercial leadership roles for large corporate businesses, startups and agencies, in sectors including food and drink, technology, financial and professional services, politics and the public sector.