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Just What Do Marketers Do, Anyway?

by Barbara Bix, Olga Taylor  |  
March 9, 2011

In this article, you'll learn...

  • Why a product's value is not intrinsic to it—and is not defined by quality and price
  • How marketing, when done right, makes selling possible
  • Why the secret to product success is in decoding the behavior of buyers

How much is masterpiece music performed by an internationally acclaimed virtuoso worth to an audience of a thousand people? .

About $32, according to the Washington Post.

In January 2007, the newspaper conducted an experiment about the influence of context on people's perceptions and priorities—and their ability to "recognize beauty." As part of the experiment, Joshua Bell, one of the world's best violinists, played incognito inside a Washington DC subway station.

During his continuous 45-minute performance, Bell played six pieces by Bach, Shubert, Massenet, and Ponce—some of the most powerful music written for a solo violin. His instrument: a 1713 Stradivarius worth about $3.5 million dollars. Two days prior, Bell had performed at a sold-out concert in Boston, where the tickets averaged $100.

But back in DC, 1,097 people went through the subway station. Only seven stopped and listened for a while. About 27 gave money but continued to walk past the musician. There was no applause at the end, and the total sum collected during the performance was $32.17.

What Is Beauty?

The Washington Post had its story. Headlined "Pearls Before Breakfast," it was filled with descriptions of the musician, the music, the instrument, and even the acoustics of the briefly infamous subway station. The goal was to assure the reader that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the performance.

The article went out of its way to prove that, if there is such a thing as sublime beauty, it was fully present in Bell's music. Yet very few people were interested enough to pay it any attention, let alone money or time.

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Barbara Bix is managing principal of BB Marketing Plus, where she helps companies enhance their brands by capturing and enhancing the customer experience.

Olga Taylor is a freelance writer and a former vice-president of marketing and business development for Quartesian LLC. Reach her via

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  • by Sara Wed Mar 9, 2011 via iphone app

    Thank you for this article. It is inspiring to marketers (or aspiring ones). well written.

  • by Dhana@Loyaltics Wed Mar 9, 2011 via web

    Nice article !

  • by Ravi Arora Thu Mar 10, 2011 via web

    A perfect case of creating a 'value' resulting in integration of core aspects of a business, leading it to the desired growth figures... Must Read !!!

  • by Antoinette Belton Thu Mar 10, 2011 via web

    Great article, so many great points and such an interesting comparison story with Bell...

    It is pretty wild how only 7 had stopped to witness the talent, and 1,090 continued to persue their day

  • by ListEngage Thu Mar 10, 2011 via web

    Great article that truly hits the nail on the head as far as seeing the "pains" of the marketer in finding their right audience at the right time with the right message!

  • by Claudia Fri Mar 11, 2011 via web

    Great article. Working day to day in marketing sometimes the essentials are forgotten, and they are priceless.

  • by Michael O'Daniel Sat Mar 12, 2011 via web

    The Joshua Bell in the subway story is a very long prelude to the crux of the article: "Before They listen to You, You Must Listen to Them."

    That point merely reinforces what the best salespeople already know: the number one requirement for sales success is good listening skills.

    Ask the right questions, let the client or prospect talk, don't edit. You'll learn a lot that way. And you may be able to direct the client to sell him/herself.

    Unfortunately, the last thing many marketers seem to want is direct contact with a customer. That's (holding your nose) a sales job.

    The other very valuable lesson to be learned from asking questions is, "It ain't what we want to sell -- it's what they want to buy." You might still be able to sell the identical product, but with different packaging and different messages, based on customer feedback.

    Customer feedback should help drive both marketing and product development strategy, rather than your trying to force a product onto an audience that really doesn't want it, or at least doesn't think it does.

    The customer will tell you not only what he/she wants, but whether your message is effective. Ask the right questions and the customer will even help you shape the message.

    This is not just theory -- it comes from firsthand experience in marketing, for example, graphic arts, technology, arts & entertainment, professional services, and a new, customer-driven approach to home remodeling.

  • by Marilyn Edelson Mon Mar 14, 2011 via web

    I loved this article! Just an added thought. Timing is crucial, too. I did some consulting near that subway station and the priority there is "get to work on time." Commuting in DC is a nightmare and that is one of the busiest stations. so, an aspect of this is about choice. We always have choices and frequently will need to chose the more compelling priority as opposed to the more pleasant option (listening to the music).

    I am not a professional marketer but I market myself and my business constantly and teach my clients (mostly small businesses) to do the same for themselves. If your timing is off. . . poof. An important question to ask a customer is what are the other competing priorities for them at the moment.

    Marilyn Edelson, President
    OnTrack Coaching & Consulting (Boston)

  • by Barbara Bix Wed Mar 16, 2011 via web

    Thanks for all the great comments!

  • by Warren @ CMG Partners Wed Mar 16, 2011 via web

    Nice succinct post at the heart of the Marketing function. At CMG Partners, we agree that Marketing is a strategic asset which must drive business results and the goal for lead marketers should be to set an agenda which maximizes the value that the company delivers to customers, employees and shareholders.

    We found similar views among 30+ CMOs we recently interviewed as part of our Third Annual CMO's Agenda Report. You may enjoy it...


  • by Alfredo Fri Aug 17, 2012 via web

    Thanks for this article, it is very inspiring and eye opening. Had read before about the Joshua Bell experiment, but never looked at it in that way.

    Alfredo C.

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