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What the hell is marketing?

This is Chris Halliwell, Technology Marketing Center director, weighing in on the Leaders' Blog.


With a tip of the hat to Harvard Business School's wonderful Ben Shapiro and his seminal 1988 HBR article "What the Hell is Market-Oriented?"  Ben's thoughts came to my mind again recently in a couple of encounters with technology business executives where it became clear that there was strong desire to be more masterful at marketing, and equally strong fogginess about what that actually entailed.   Here, for your consideration, are summary comments after 30 years of trying to do whatever the hell marketing is.

The Marketing Department

The most tangible understanding of marketing is a job function that 1) supports sales with sales tools, communications programs, and specialized customer interaction; and 2) supports development and manufacturing with requirements documents and project management. Sometimes sales support reports to the Sales executive, while product requirements people report to Engineering, and Marcom goes off to corporate.  That's ok with me.  Seems you can nuke the Marketing Department and survive, and many companies do just that as the din of gripes about marketing from sales and engineering overwhelm the department.

Best Definition of Marketing, Ever

“Marketing must invent complete products and drive them to commanding positions in defensible market segments.” The equally wonderful Bill Davidow from Marketing High Technology.

By this definition marketing, like quality, is inherently a cross-functional business team leadership endeavor.  Again, it really doesn't require a separate function in the organization if the leadership team has the guts and the real-time planning processes to balance short term operational objectives with focused investment (time, money) in infrastructure and relationships (customers, supply chain) to sustain long term competitive advantage and protect value. 

My experience is that the typical technology-enabled business with sales-driven funding sources (venture, Wall Street, private equity) does not balance short and long term especially well.  Even the best of the clients I've worked with over the years (with some notable exceptions such as IBM or Corning) invest in longer term defensible barriers and future growth only during the high growth phase of the market, slashing these investments immediately under the lash of slower category growth cost cutting.

So who is the organizational advocate for value, when volume is the God of business success?  Not management and finance facing quarterly investment conference calls, not sales eyeing that shiny new red sports car, not engineering wanting to invent "insanely great", complex, feature laden devices.  Okay, now we are getting somewhere, this might be the grand role of marketing in the business!  Except that most marketing executives lack the leadership skills, toolkit, and fortitude to guide the business team to take a short term hit in order to protect an uncertain future.  If marketing leadership cannot present a compelling and credible view of opportunity for meaningful improvements to customer value over time, and realistic plans to capture that value, then today will always trump tomorrow.

The Marketing Hat Trick

If marketing leadership is to be held to this loftier goal of leading the business team to long term profitable growth, then we need a meaningful metric to evaluate this role.  Here is the one I like:  consistently taking market share at premium price.  Does an organization need marketing?  Businesses exist and even thrive for some time without achieving the Marketing Hat Trick metric, and if that is the case in your organization, then you don't need to know what the hell marketing is because you do not need marketing to maintain the status quo.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not down on marketing or overly critical of organizations that grow, provide jobs, and sometimes handsomely reward investors without strong strategic marketing skills or leadership.  I just hate to see the inevitable end of profits that flow from incomplete solutions and competitive price erosion.  And just to put my perspective in context, it is typically at this erosion point that the consultant's phone starts ringing.





Robert Derobertis


Excellent post. This article caused me to dig out my dusty ear marked article by Regis McKenna. After over 20 years, it is amazing how it still holds true today:

"Marketing today is not a function; it is a way of doing business. marketing is not a new ad campaign or this month's promotion. Marketing has to be all-pervasive, part of everyone's job description, from the receptionist to the board of directors. Its job is neither to fool the customers nor to falsify the company's image. It is to integrate the customer into the design of the product and to design a systematic process for integration that will create substance in the relationship."


I think it is through this focus on the customer and truly understanding their needs that enables the marketing hat trick to happen. This requires all groups that touch the customer from Sales to Engineering to the Webmaster to IT to truly understand the customer's challenges.

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