Marketing Can Do Better
by: Umair Haque
Harvard Business Review
10:17 AM Wednesday October 20, 2010
Why are so many marketing campaigns brand-destroyers and money-losers? Why is "branding" becoming a devalued asset, whose returns are dwindling (witness Google building the world's mightiest brand with barely a penny of orthodox marketing expenditure)? Why do people and communities exact steeper and steeper discounts, price-cuts, and margin-crushing concessions from the beleaguered, besieged companies once known as the masters of the universe?
The half-life of companies is shrinking and the weary practice known as "marketing," adding little to no real value, seems powerless to help.
The unvarnished truth is that the fundamental assumptions behind "marketing" haven't changed for decades. Though you may be using slightly more efficient channels (like "social media"), more "creative" ideas, or more productive mechanisms (like pay-per-click), it's still a militaristic, adversarial school of thought that's largely about cramming "product" down the already overstuffed gullets of "consumers" by "targeting" "messages" jam-packed with illusory, imaginary benefits at them, in grand "campaigns" that make overblown promises ("See this beer? It's going to land you the girl of your dreams!!"). I'd argue that marketing as we know it is, still, largely about talking down. And that's not nearly good enough to send this Great Stagnation packing.
Marketing can do better. Here's how: Instead of talking down, start listening up.
Here is what I don't mean. Listening up doesn't mean surveilling your customers, and then discovering slightly cleverer ways to trick them (yet again). Listening up doesn't mean holding five thousand focus groups a year, and then price discriminating the daylights out of hapless customers. Listening up doesn't mean delving into mines studded with billions of seams of "data" about "consumers." Listening up definitely doesn't mean techno-stalking people in creepy, weird, and slightly sinister ways.
Here's what I do mean by "listening up."
The "up" is the really important part. It means having dialogues about what elevates and betters people, what raises them up to higher standards of living, doing, having, and being, what really makes them better of in meaningful ways that matter — and then igniting a movement to make it happen. When Wal-Mart talks to stakeholders in its ground-breaking value networks — as much as you or I might not like Wal-Mart — it's beginning to listen up.
Listening up means spending time actually talking to your customers, about not just their "wants" and "needs" but about their hopes and fears, their opportunities and threats, their greatest achievements and biggest regrets. It's not just about sating immediate desire with lowest-common-denominators, outsourced from the lowest bidder — it's about learning to help people achieve long-term fulfillment, in inimitable, enduring, resonant ways that rivals can't. Facebook's making many mistakes, but perhaps the biggest is slanting its platform heavily towards lightweight, subprime — and low impact — stuff like Farmville, and away from services that produce lasting, meaningful, high-impact gains.
Listening up means empowering as many people inside your organization as possible to spend time talking to your customers to have those conversations, and empowering them to talk to one another openly. To get there, it probably means rethinking the shape of your organization, from tall, to flat, to networked, meshy, and circular. Ask yourself: why is it that the only person you ever really talk to at most companies is either a powerless cashier or an even more powerless customer service rep, five billion layers of management removed from the boardroom? Because most companies, as much lip service as they might pay to the latest hip management idea, are still talking down.
Listening up means letting your fiercest critics rip away at you — and hearing them. It means empowering people to be heard, instead of just trying to shout them down or drown them out. It means responding honestly, instead of dissimulating and misdirecting. Here's my favorite example of just how much companies feel they have to misdirect and dissimulate. Why is it that customer service reps, in an act of farcical bureaucracy so awfully absurd it's worthy of Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition, have to fake their own names, and call themselves Bob, Steve, and Jim — when you know and they know their real names are probably Anup, Priya and Bayani? Because most companies can't deal with even the simplest, most basic level of human truth.
Listening up means investing not just in "market research" but in people. Relationships aren't just idle promises: they're patterns of mutual investment. Essential to the art of listening up is making those investments, so people can be heard. Pepsi Refresh is a simple, tiny, limited, imperfect example of investing in people, a small step beyond merely conditioning them to buy, buy, buy more self-destructive stuff (yes, Pepsi's in the sugar-water business — but at least a tiny chunk of its marketing bucks aren't anymore).
Listening up means asking questions that matter — and then being tough enough to hear that, just maybe, yes, you really, honestly do suck at having real, tangible, lasting benefits. No company's made it this far — yet. But you know who's getting a bit better, faster than others? Oddly, it just might be Steve Jobs — now notorious for responding to random emails about Apple. Hey, he might never admit he's wrong, but at least he responds to, well, people. How many other CEOs do you know who do that?
Listening up is the emergent, complex, and unpredictable joint creation of shared values, that build common cultural foundations and let customers and companies feel like they're part of a shared movement. It is more than a commitment to transparency, it is a deep dedication to real dialogue (as opposed to this). Yes, it's the lofty ideal — and no company I can think of has gotten all the way there, yet.
But there are some wise elders, young firebrands, and revolutionaries on the frontier. In recent history, I'd trace it back to the Cluetrain Manifesto gang. Today, Doc Searls' VRM is a giant leap towards building an economy where organizations listen up--instead of shout down. Jerry Michalski, with understated elegance, has been listening up for years. Philip Kotler's masterful Marketing 3.0 is in large part about moving from shouting down, to listening up (with emphasis on the way, way up). Jennifer Aaker's insanely, tremendously awesome Dragonfly Effect is an ode to doing meaningful stuff that matters — by listening up.
Getting from where we are to where we need to be is going to be more like a climb, and less like a stroll.
But here's what you might get in return. Instead of merely discovering the next "feature-set" for your latest, greatest snoozer of a product (yawn — It got copied by approximately four hundred different factories in Shenzhen, Da Nang, and Johor Bahru even before I finished this blog post) you might discover how to change the world. You might gain a little bit of empathy. You might smoke out your own weaknesses and limitations. You might discover what more abiding passion, bigger purpose, and steadfast perseverance really mean — and can do. You might just learn how to topple the status quo. And if you keep at it, you might even be able to ascertain how to, in your own tiny way, sow the seeds of prosperity.
If you can do that, the people formerly known as "consumers," the hard-working folks who've gotten a raw deal in this Age of Austerity, the ones who are inured to the cries of buy, buy, buy, the folks who have been tuning you out, well — they probably won't just be grateful. If you can actually help them flourish and prosper in meaningful ways that matter, well then, maybe, just maybe, they'll start to respect, admire and even love you a little bit for it.