"What a waste!" Polly muttered to herself as she stalked from the conference room back to her office at Best Goods. The brainstorming session for development of the oral care group's new product, a toothpaste, had seemed like a good idea when Polly first scheduled it. Yet the actual session had generated nothing but bickering among the participants.

The biggest hassle, Polly recalled, was the group's apparent inability to agree on how to define the new product's potential target market. Guy, from market research, was gung ho about launching a study examining different demographic groups to whom the toothpaste might appeal. Noreen, a chemist from the product development team, kept harping on the "cool" features (like "breath-mint crystals") that her team could design into the product. And Ted, from the marketing team, repeatedly advocated segmenting the potential market by lifestyle, such as "people who drink a lot of coffee and tea."

The session ended in chaos, with exactly zero action items. As Polly sank into her office chair, she snatched up her PDA and started tapping through her calendar. "We've got to book another meeting," she thought to herself. "This one was completely useless."

What Polly didn't understand was that another meeting would probably prove equally useless. That's because she and her fellow marketers had committed an all-too-common error: using undisciplined, ad hoc processes for key marketing activities.

The Problem With Ad Hoc

Marketing entails a world of processes—including segmenting markets, creating advertising campaigns, conducting customer research, and designing Web sites. And experts in the field can debate endlessly about how best to carry out these processes. For example, you could consult numerous books and other resources on how to segment markets, and you'd find a wealth of different (and often conflicting) suggestions.

The fact is, there's no one "right" way to segment markets. Different companies handle this process in different ways. And as Polly's story reveals, different professionals within a company may advocate very different approaches to it.

If you and your marketing team use an ad hoc approach to processes, you've got serious problems. For one thing, this tack deprives you of the credibility you need to earn your superiors' and peers' support for your ideas. When non-marketing executives sense that the marketing group is using ad hoc processes, they question those processes' reliability—as well as your team's professionalism. Non-standardized processes also waste time and money as people duplicate one another's efforts or work at cross-purposes.

In a recent survey of marketing practice, we at MarketingProfs asked marketers about whether they employ systematic and repeatable processes or unsystematic and ad hoc processes for specific functions, and the picture is not pretty. For common marketing processes, most marketers report the approach they use is unsystematic and ad-hoc. See the chart below. This, I believe, has serious consequences.

Click to enlarge

Think about it: Other managers in your organization establish transparent, repeatable processes—and thereby gain the stature and credibility they need to carry out their work. For instance, your company's finance professionals use a standardized series of steps to interpret numbers and report corporate performance. You must do the same with the processes unique to your field.

Perhaps you're chafing at the notion of standardization because you believe it reduces creativity. If so, keep in mind that process standards can actually enhance creativity. A mystery writer, for example, creates much more appealing cliffhangers when she employs the established style and tried-and-true formulas that define the genre.

Standardizing Your Processes

In setting out to standardize your marketing processes, remember that the point is not to select the one "right" process for each activity. Instead, settle on a process, communicate it clearly to others in your firm, and use it consistently.

Take market segmentation. At your company, you may group consumers into categories based primarily on demographics (such as older consumers or large families); behavior (for example, people who smoke); personality characteristics (for instance, individuals who value autonomy); lifestyle (such as people who are physically active); the benefits that an offering provides (for instance, preventing tooth decay)—or a combination of some or all of these characteristics.

Whether your company sells to consumers or other businesses—and whether market segmentation occurs during product design, product launch, or product lifecycle transitions—you need to develop a consistent, defensible method for dividing your market into distinct groups of buyers, or segments.

For example, suppose you were in Polly's shoes, and you believe that it's best to segment the toothpaste market according to the principle benefit that different groups of consumers want from the product. You identify the following segments:

  • "Sensories" want appealing flavor, appearance, and packaging.

  • "Sociables" care most about having a white, bright smile.

  • "Worriers" primarily value decay prevention and avoidance of plaque and gum disease.

  • "Independents" most want affordable prices.

Next, you point out to your colleagues that "segmenting by benefit sought enables us to craft clear messages to the market about the value that our products provide." Moreover, "it helps us determine whether we're delivering what the customer wants."

In addition to outlining these advantages of segmenting markets by benefits sought, you demonstrate the importance of testing your assumptions about these segments. For example, you conduct market research to determine whether the different segments you identified in fact prefer the benefits you've theorized. If you find that they don't, you reconfigure the segments and repeat the research process. How do you know when you've got it right? When you see that the segments you've defined are measurable—you can identify the segment's size—and when they're reachable through specific media.

Intrigued by your presentation, your listeners give you the go ahead to segment the market by benefits sought for the new toothpaste your group is developing. And when the product is finally launched, it scores a smashing success in the marketplace.

As this scenario shows, standardizing marketing processes and communicating them to key stakeholders in your firm saves your company from the wasting of time and resources that happens when people work at cross-purposes because processes are unclear. Equally important, it helps you build credibility—a key achievement for marketing champions.

Note: This article is adapted from the book I wrote with Allen Weiss and David Stewart titled Marketing Champions: Practical Strategies to Increase Marketing's Power, Influence, and Business Impact (Wiley, 2006). To learn more about the book, visit www.marketingchamps.com or order the book from Amazon.

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image of Roy Young
Roy Young is coauthor of Marketing Champions: Practical Strategies for Improving Marketing's Power, Influence and Business Impact.