Recently, I took my three young children to the Barnum Museum, tucked away in an old rundown building in Bridgeport, Connecticut. My expectations were small, yet my patience for three children under the age of three, inside, on a rainy Saturday... was even smaller.
Not surprisingly, we were the only ones in the place (other than the security guard, who seconded as the cashier), yet soon the place would come alive with the magic that only a revolutionary marketer like P.T. Barnum could create. As my children roamed free, I read, looked, listened, touched, and began to taste and smell that P.T. Barnum marketing magic of a century gone by.
Over the last 50 years, marketers have been working overtime to legitimize our craft, and without question we have made important strides. Demming, Drucker, Aker, etc., have each trained us in ways to quantify marketing best practices. We have all learned to dutifully target, segment, and measure inputs, outputs, and performance. ACNielsen has built a multibillion-dollar business of gathering and distributing sales data for each of us to analyze and report with perceived expertise.
And our consumers and management eat it up. We have even gone so far as to refer to it as a science.
Case in point: Before joining BrandLogic, I worked with several colleagues to develop an approach to marketing analysis and execution we termed Six Sigma Marketing. We strove to mathematically analyze and design flawless marketing strategies for our clients.
Did it work? If you asked the majority of our clients, the answer would be "absolutely"; if you asked us, the answer would be "yes—to a point." Many times we lost the magic, and a little magic can make a good marketing plan quantifiably better, and in many cases great!
What was it that made P.T. Barnum so great, so famous, so revolutionary, and so rich in his day? He promised everyone the world, and he delivered it to everyone by packaging it in international opera stars, the world's shortest man, wild animals from every corner of the earth, food, atmosphere, tears and laughter, and the list goes on. He gave us the circus, the "Greatest Show on Earth," and so much more.
Did he ignore all of what we call today the traditional roles of marketing: segmentation, research, pricing, PR, promotion, advertising, etc.? Of course not. The reality is he went much farther to create Marketing Magic:
Meaning: What is it that you really want to share with others?
Accident: Great accidents are by design.
Guts: Your strongest marketing muscle is your gut, and it needs regular exercise.
Insight:Look beyond the words and numbers for the insight few people ever uncover.
Creativity: Creativity comes with age.
Meaning: What is it that you really want to share with others?
We all read books like What Color is Your Parachute? or The Road Less Traveled in our younger years, when we were searching for our true professional passions. But, ask yourself when the last time was you spent so much effort and experienced so much angst looking for the true meaning of the product or service you are, or were, trying to sell to consumers or customers. Not the benefits or permission, but the meaning.
A good corporate mission will attempt to verbalize a company's meaning for existence, yet rarely do we marketers reflect on, and more importantly, insist on that meaning's being conveyed in all of our product, service, and brand marketing efforts.
Southwest Airlines is perhaps the best example of this. Everything it does or says communicates that flying can be more fun and cost-effective than road tripping to a destination with family or friends.
Trader Joe's, a national grocery chain, communicates a small non-corporate passion for food and wine at an exceptional value. They do this with small stores, funky South Pacific uniforms and décor, specialty private label items, a newsletter, and specials written on chalkboards.
PetSmart is arguably passionate about pet happiness—its true meaning: 100% focus on pet products, services, and experiences.
Examples for corporate brands or companies are relatively easy to come by and understand. The exercise becomes more difficult when one takes it down to the product or service brand level. All too often marketers attempt to deliver something for everyone, and in the process end up losing their brand's reason for being, or its true meaning.
Over the last 10 years, most pet food brands repositioned themselves several times in attempts to attract new and lost users, only to end up losing even more. However, two brands in particular not only realized their true meaning but also stuck to it.
Iams did this by staying focused on pet health or, in more meaningful terms, helping your pets live longer so that you can enjoy their company for more years of your life. Fancy Feast, on the other hand, concentrated on delivering a gourmet feline eating experience, but (more importantly) on providing cat owners with immediate positive feedback and control. These are two very different approaches, and yet both are rooted in a keen and consistent understanding of the brand's true meaning.
Accident: Great accidents are by design
Accidents happen every day in every aspect of our lives, but the fact is that most of us view them as irritations rather than opportunities. As marketers, we have designed systems, research, and protocols in an attempt to limit, if not altogether eliminate, accidents. Unfortunately, this quest for perfection has also blinded us to the wonderful opportunities that accidents can illuminate for our businesses.
History books are filled with notable examples, especially in the area of new product development. For example, Post-it Notes was an accidental byproduct of an initiative by 3M to develop a super-strong, long-lasting glue. When R&D reported that their glue failed testing miserably and in reality could be released easily, some keen marketers said hold on, there could be a market for such an "accident."
The same is true of the Frisbee, which was originally invented by consumers who accidentally realized that throwing an upside down Frisbee Pie Company tin could be a lot of fun.
On a more serious note, when faced with the Tylenol tampering accident/tragedy, Johnson & Johnson embraced the opportunity to both do the right thing by its company's moral and ethical standards and also tell the world what kind of company J&J is. The result is legendary: Tylenol sales quickly recovered and grew, and J&J became and continues to be (almost 30 years later) one of the most trusted brand names in the world.
Guts: Your strongest marketing muscle is your gut, and it needs regular exercise
Intuitive decision-making is nothing new, yet it is increasingly being utilized and celebrated only in corporate corner offices. Over the last 10 years, thousands of studies, articles, and books have been written about the science behind "gut feelings" or intuitive decision-making in business, but the research has focused almost exclusively on executives residing in corner offices. Today it is not only accepted but also celebrated when a corporate executive proclaims that he or she "just went on a gut feeling." It communicates to us lay people that our leaders are somehow innately smarter than the rest of us.
The fact is, we all use our gut to help us make decisions. Unfortunately, we have been trained not only to distrust our gut feelings in our professional lives but also to be 100% led by the systems, research, and protocols developed to direct us in our decision-making. Yet we all know that these systems do not always work as planned.
Most scientists explain gut feelings as the ability of humans to make sense of a yet-to-be-discovered, intricately complex set of experiential patterns. This was perhaps best explained in the critically acclaimed movie A Beautiful Mind, which depicts a brilliant Yale mathematician who would inexplicably see complex numerical patterns resulting in the development of breakthrough mathematical theorems.
The other important component is the actual wherewithal not only to go with one's gut feeling but also to drive it through an organization, into the investment community, and ultimately to the customer. Financiers and entrepreneurs like George Soros, Warren Buffet, Michael Dell, and Charles Schwab are best known for this, and marketers at every level can benefit equally as well.
Senior executives frequently exercise their gut muscles out of necessity. Many explain that often the research simply does not exist, or that they do not have the time to develop or consume it when making critical, time-sensitive decisions. Consequently, over time they develop a keen ability to recognize and analyze important market and industry information by what appears to be magic. This valuable skill is increasingly attributed to experience-based pattern recognition.
It is our job as marketers to seek out as well as create opportunities to develop these skills, for us as well as our employees throughout our careers. One of the best ways to do this is by creating an organizational environment that encourages thinking beyond mere reporting. When people and companies excel at this, they gain competitive market insights that can dramatically impact not just categories but entire industries, for years to come.
Insight: Look beyond the words and numbers for the insight few people ever uncover
Marketers usually refer to insight in terms of data, which more times than not is only partially true when it comes to major insights that result in real competitive advantage. Real insights usually are not that obvious—or, in some cases, are so obvious that few people ever see them. Some people refer to them as "the idea behind the idea," whereas others use phrases like "it's not what the research said; it's what it didn't say."
A more holistic explanation in lay terms was relayed to me several years ago by a political consultant whose job was to uncover the key competitive issues that could dramatically alter an election campaign. She explained it as continually scanning the internal and external landscape for both anomalies and similarities simultaneously, until a pattern or breakthrough emerges: First, poring through every possible source of information, including but not limited to research, historical events, observation, situation analogues, and experiences; then, taking a step back and letting all the sources naturally merge and intermingle... until, almost as if by magic, an insight reveals itself. She explained that it was much like those 3D puzzles that one has to stare at long enough until fatigue forces them to relax, and voila!—a beautiful 3D image appears.
In today's competitive environment, most of us conduct and consume masses of consumer sales data and research. In many cases, it is actually the same information. In fact, a number of very profitable businesses have been built on providing the same information to competitors. For example, almost every retailer or CPG manufacturer not only subscribes to, but also provides consumer sales data to ACNielsen (with the notable exception of Wal-Mart); most food service companies rely on Technomics consumer and retail sales trend reports; and there are similar examples in almost every industry. As a result, marketers are increasingly coming to the same conclusions, which make uncovering real marketing insights that much more critically important and potentially impactful.
In the early 1990s, cell phone manufacturers Nokia, Motorola, and Erickson all targeted similar customer segments with similar phones that delivered similar features. The result was an era of cell phone development driven by continually adding features and cost, limiting battery life, and always producing it in the number-one-preferred color, black. It seemed so simple: the research was clear.
Nokia then looked beyond the standard industry research indicating that the market was poised to shift from business to personal use, and from upper income to mainstream. It took this information, along with research and observations on the emergence of individualism, self-expression, entertainment, and pop culture, and ultimately realized the insights that would dramatically change the industry for the next decade. Nokia hypothesized that cell phones could become affordable personal accessories as opposed to merely a communications tool if consumers were offered inexpensive phones that could be worn and displayed, communicating one's sense of style or fashion.
The icing on the cake was that when the phone was stripped down, eliminating unneeded mass-market features, battery life would dramatically increase, which became a real competitive advantage and core purchase differentiator.
Creativity: It comes with age
Most of us want to be creative, but very few of us are. As children we all were—investigating, discovering, solving, and learning with playful abandon. With age, most of us invariably conform to the norm. Rather than allowing our experiences to free our minds, as many older retired people do, those of us in the middle allow our experiences to act as blinders, hindering our ability to experience the joy that comes with real creativity.
Creativity can be very fun and rewarding, but as any copywriter, art director, scientist, or comedian will tell you, it is usually very hard work as well. Why are some companies so good at it while others never seem to be able to crack the code? Theories abound on the exact causes, but they usually end up focusing on organizational culture and leadership.
Steve Jobs at Apple is legendary for not only promoting but also demanding creativity—not only in design but also in business strategy, marketing, human resources, finance, etc. The organization embodies it. Branding, iconography, advertising—Mac, iMac, iPod, iTunes, etc.—are just a few of the strategic and executional examples.
All of us have attended brainstorming sessions where we either have had or heard what we thought were not just creative ideas but the proverbial BIG IDEA, only to see it fade away into distant memory and that all-too-common corporate well of "We have thought about that before."
The unfortunate truth is they really haven't thought about them, or, in other words, given them their fair marketing due-diligence. In turn, this negatively affects the organization's creative culture and results in even less creative and innovative thinking. Eventually, this vicious cycle results in an organization not merely stifling creativity but actually accepting and rationalizing that it is not critical to building and sustaining a profitable enterprise.
Innovative organizations build in systems that encourage, reward, and recognize creative thinkers. 3M does this by creating innovative teams composed of members with different skill sets, to ensure that ideas are transferred into concepts, testing, evaluation, and measurement. Microsoft does this by having an open-door policy at the highest level for employees' and customers' creative thoughts. Perhaps most importantly, creative cultures not only encourage creativity but also encourage innovative failure, which reverses the vicious cycle, in turn developing a cycle of ever-increasing organizational creativity.
One Last Word
Marketing as a discipline has arrived, so it is time that we stop trying to justify its credibility with science and instead reinsert the fun into the equation with a little bit of that old-time magic used by the likes of P.T. Barnum and the marketing masters of yesteryear—before the advent of computers, spreadsheets, and online focus groups.
So go ahead and establish the true meaning of your business. If it isn't something you can't wait to tell the world, go back and rework it until it is. Encourage yourself and others around you to step out and dare to make mistakes; you will be surprised at the results. Trust yourself and your instincts; they have evolved from years of experience that no computer can replicate. Look inside, outside, and in between for the insights that will dramatically change your course. Take off the blinders and free your mind to explore the creativity we all have bottled up inside.
Finally, have some fun. You are working in one of the greatest professions today, one in which you are not forced to choose between science and art, but are rewarded for having fun by magically combining both for the benefit of others.
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