What Is Marketing? [A Rant]

 In Marketing Strategy

What is marketing, really?

There I was, minding my own business, resting after completion of a really awesome client workshop on content marketing strategy. And someone asked about my opinion on the difference between marketing and branding.

I was directed to read this article, Where Marketing Ends, Branding Begins by Clayton Wood on the KissMetrics blog. The article defines marketing as the set of tools and process to promote a business.

It defined marketing as “I am a great lover” vs branding which shows the consumer saying “I understand you’re a great lover.” (Update: the article linked above has been modified since I created this post to remove the reference to lovers.)

This got me a little fired up. OK, a lot fired up! So here I go, with another marketing rant . . .

Warning: This is Not My First Marketing Rant

I’ve already tried to define what marketing is is many times here. I’ve tried to address to the common perception of marketing as being all about promoting and selling.

And I’ve taken on the problem of advertising, mad men and their “big” ideas, and the shear idiocy of banner ads. Yeah I said it. Pure and utter idiocy. Banners Are.

Marketing starts by asking consumers who they are, what they want, and what they care about.  Marketing starts with a question. Marketing is not “I am a great lover.” Effective marketing simply asks “How are you?”

What Is Marketing?

I believe marketing has a marketing problem. Ask most people what marketing is and they think of some form of either selling (I am great and you should choose me because of reason A or B) or advertising (buy our stuff and you will have a better life, be more attractive, have more sex, attract better partners, be happier.)

But what I learned in college was that marketing is a conversation. Marketing is the conversation that starts between two people who don’t know each other well. Great conversations lead to understanding needs. Great insights like this lead to amazing products delivered through engaging customer experiences. THIS is marketing.

When I meet someone I don’t know, I ask them questions. I try to get to know them. I try to understand their dreams and problems and needs. I do NOT talk about myself unless there is a genuine interest from the other person to learn about me as well. But this only comes from true and authentic empathy. I have to actually care about this other person to earn their trust.

This conversation continues as we get to now each other better. And like human relationships, the brands who continue into deeper connections are the ones who seem to care more about the other person than they do about themselves.

Marketing is a Conversation

The brands who win more customers are the ones who put their customers ahead of their desire to sell more stuff.

They show potential customers that they are interested in solving real problems. They don’t just act like they care. They actually care and they prove it in the way they act. They genuinely seek to help their customer to improve their lives through their content, their expertise, their passion and, if they are lucky, through the stuff they sell.

And like in real life and common human interaction, Marketing means you have to give much more than you hope to receive. Great marketers are passionate teachers, giving away their expertise with only the hope that they are helping people. The business benefit is in establishing trust, and building an audience of people who believe in you to help them in times of need.

When given a choice, we only buy from brands we know, like and trust!

Marketing Requires Empathy

But how do you do you explain the power and importance of empathy to executives who don’t have any? How do you explain empathy when businesses only want to sell, and promote, and hang their logos on stadiums and golfers hats?

You have to show them that, as a society, we tune out ads, and promotion, and ego-driven marketing tactics. Promotion and propaganda don’t work in today’s world.

But we tune in to content and brands that helps us. The only way to accomplish this is for brands to create content that actually helps people. And lots of it. Because we have been burned many times. We are skeptical. We are tired, and angry with auto-play video ads on the sites we like to visit.

What is Branding?

I learned a long time ago that your brand is something that exists in the mind of your customer. Ads don’t change the perception of your brand. Branding is a judgement, a sentiment, a feeling, that is created by the sum of all the interactions I have with a company.

Only experiences change the perception of a brand in the mind of the customer. Brands must deliver amazing customer experiences. Not just in the products we sell, and how we well we deliver “features,” but in the way that we behave as companies, in the way your employees treat me, in the sum total of all those experiences, a brand is created.

I believe that Apple and Starbucks care about delivering great technology and good coffee. But I also believe that Apple delivers on the promise of easy to use products, simply and beautifully designed. I believe that Starbucks cares more about their impact on the world than selling more coffee.

True or not, this is the experience I have with these brands. This experience sits deeply inside my mind. And no advertisement, logo, or sales person could change that.

What About Advertising?

Advertising is great, for brands who can afford interrupting the content we want to consume. I appreciate some ads that tell a great story, or are very clever and open about interrupting my content with something emotional or funny. But I honestly don’t even remember the brands behind many of the ads that made me laugh the most.

I appreciate Dove for “Real Beauty.” I give them credit for what they were trying to do. I am sad that they stopped.

I appreciate Always for “Run Like A Girl,” but the impact would have been greater if they ignited a movement and created a real content brand from all that momentum. THAT could make a real impact on the world and would help change the brand perception of the brand.

Interestingly, the brands I mentioned earlier, Starbucks and Apple, do very little advertising. The best ad eva was Apple’s 1984, which told a story of disruption in a compelling way. But it was backed up and followed by products that truly changed my life.

But if we’re being honest, we don’t want to be advertised to, any more than we want to be sold to. And this is true especially for stuff we don’t need.

When a site plays me an auto-play video ad, I hate them for it. But I hate the brand even more. Because I know they are the one paying for it. Publishers have to make a living. So I give them some slack. But the brand gets the brunt of my frustration.

So we have moved beyond a time of tolerating ads to actually having interrupted ad-driven experiences cause us to think negatively about them.

Marketing and Branding

Marketing can impact the brand in a positive or negative way. Marketing can help create a positive brand experience by having positive, helpful, and empathetic conversations with their customers.

Marketers can hurt brands when they interrupt our TV shows and web experiences by showing ads of men with pretty girls on one arm and their product in the other.

Companies that think that a million dollars in sexist, promotional advertising, logos splashed everywhere, grumpy employees, and aggressive sales people are simply lost. They don’t understand the world we live in.

Marketing Helps To Build Great Brands Through Experiences

In the perfect world, marketing supports building strong brands. Great brands do great marketing. They act as teachers to their audiences. They deliver amazing products. They treat their employees with respect. They act like concerned global citizens, thinking of the generations to come. And they consider the planet that their children will inherit.

Great brands show us who they are in the experiences they deliver. Marketing seeks to understand what a great experience should be. Advertising interrupts our experiences and sometimes we don’t hate them for it.

What do you think? Am I alone on this?

Interested in building an amazing customer experience for your customers? Contact me here and let’s talk about how we can help.

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Michael Brenner
Michael Brenner is the CEO of Marketing Insider Group, former Head of Strategy at NewsCred, and the former VP of Global Content Marketing at SAP. Michael is also the co-author of The Content Formula, a contributor to leading publications like The Economist, Inc Magazine, The Guardian, and Forbes and a frequent speaker at industry events covering topics such as marketing strategy, social business, content marketing, digital marketing, social media and personal branding.  Follow Michael on Twitter (@BrennerMichael)LinkedInFacebook and Google+ and Subscribe to the Marketing Insider.
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Showing 10 comments
  • Heidi Taylor

    Thank you Michael Brenner! But the larger question is why does marketing ‘still’ have such a marketing problem? And even an inferiority complex! Perhaps we need to focus on marketing outcomes instead of the outputs.

    • Michael Brenner

      Thanks Heidi,

      I totally agree. Marketing needs to focus on results. The challenge comes when you get told by the boss what marketing programs are important because of ego or sales team pressure. NOT because of results. When I meet with CMOs I ask them the same question every time: what is your biggest challenge. The unanimous answer is “my relationship with the CEO. If you are told to hang your logo on stadiums and trains, it’s kind of hard to say marketing is focused on results.

      Now I don’t let them (us) off the hook with pointing fingers. So this post was ranted because I think we need to educate, push back and land on solid footing about what marketing is. Once we have agreement, and hopefully a contract with the business to focus on results, then we can move beyond education and get to the business of driving measurable business results.

  • Martina Bloch

    Hello Michael,
    you hate audio plays but do use a popup at your website.
    This I hate.
    Because it disturbs my try to read an article and wants me to do something I am just then not in the mood to do.
    Don’t you think, others think likewise?

    With best regards
    Martina

    • Michael Brenner

      Hi Martina,

      You make a great point. While I don’t advertise with banners or video auto-plays, I do focus my entire content experience on delivering great content while driving email subscription. So I am constantly monitoring and testing content, user experience, and subscription pop ups.

      I do appreciate the feedback and will look at the settings and continue testing to make a better experience.

      Best,
      Michael

  • Michael Barker

    Hi Michael. Nice post and I like how you separated marketing as an “inside out” function and branding as more of an “outside in” concept.
    I’ve stopped using the terms ‘marketing’ and ‘Branding’ altogether; or as much as I possibly can in our work. Firstly, it’s refreshing and allows you and the client to think differently about situations and secondly it breaks the organisational silos of which you speak (CMO/CEO relationships etc.).

    So my solution is let’s start a campaign to get rid of these terms altogether. We will still be here explaining them in lengthy blogs and lectures in years to come if we don’t change the narrative.
    If it’s all about the customer then organisations could think creatively about structuring departments that address customer needs and preferences and strongly link these to commercial gains. That’s a sure way of getting CEO’s and CFO’s to lean forward!!!

    There endeth my rant 🙂

    • Michael Brenner

      I’m with you 100% Michael. The focus should be all about delivering an amazing customer experience. I am hearing some momentum on that term “customer experience.” Whatever we call it, I agree we should focus on solutions and business results.

  • Mitch Mitchell

    That’s a very interesting take on marketing. I can’t disagree with it in the least, it just makes me think of it differently.

    I did a video last year where I said the most important thing for everyone to do if they want to improve their lives is learn how to market, aka promote and talk about themselves and their accomplishments in a way to get others to pay attention and better know who they are. My take on it is that the best marketers are people who keep getting promoted, know how to ask out or impress the person they want to have a long term relationship with, etc. I didn’t make it just about sales, but about life.

    So, in my own way I’m thinking we’re saying the same thing, even if we’re talking about different topics. At least that’s how my mind’s working right now. lol

    • Michael Brenner

      Thanks so much Mitch, I really appreciate the support and your thoughts. I totally agree these ideas can be applied to business as well as life. Whether it’s dating, getting a new job, trying to persuade people of anything, I think it’s always best to start with a question and authentic concern.

      Have a great holidays!

      • Al

        “Marketing is the process of anticipating, managing, and satisfying the demand for products, services, and ideas.” — Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

  • Al

    “Marketing is any contact that your business has with anyone who isn’t a part of your business. Marketing is also the truth made fascinating. Marketing is the art of getting people to change their minds. Marketing is an opportunity for you to earn profits with your business, a chance to cooperate with other businesses in your community or your industry and a process of building lasting relationships.” — Jay Conrad Levinson