What is marketing, really?
Marc Crouch
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There is a great deal of misunderstanding around what the concept of marketing actually is. Many people, particularly in small businesses, consider it a bolt-on aspect of their company's daily existence, something ephemeral whose role is to promote some vague concept of "brand" in the hope that new customers will mysteriously appear. They think of shows like Mad Men, of influencers on social media platforms, of famous TV ads and legendary publicity stunts. Or else they're a bit more grounded and think marketing means putting ads in papers, or the modern equivalent of  buying ads online and waiting for the leads to roll in.

And so, most people create a marketing department, or outsource their marketing to an agency and just let them get on with it while they focus on the day to day activities of running their business. This is a mistake.

My favourite quote about marketing is this one:

"Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department.”
- David Packard

What people tend to think of as marketing (the ads, the promo events, the "branding") are merely parts of the machine. Marketing, as a whole, is the umbrella term that describes everything you do in order to generate, convert and retain customers. It involves everything from branding to sales to customer service and, yes, even finance and operations. To be truly successful at marketing, you need it to touch every part of your business.

To put it another way, marketing is everything you do that generates money. And in the end, that's what business is all about.

The correct way to think about marketing

“Business has only two functions – marketing and innovation.”
- Milan Kundera

When you think of marketing, you should be thinking about the entire end to end process of getting people to discover you, nudging them towards liking and trusting you enough to buy from you, all the way through to them becoming ecstatic repeat customers who will promote your business to their friends and associates (the famous "word of mouth" marketing). It's a systematic process of moving the psychological needle on your prospects so that they go from never having heard of you to being so into your product or service that it sells itself.

People lining up outside your store to buy your product? That's marketing.

Because of this, there is no silver bullet for your marketing approach. You can't just run the odd advertising campaign promoting your services and expect consistent success from that. In fact, you're setting yourself up for failure if you do so, because more than 95% of the people who will be exposed to your ad campaign will not even be ready to buy. To put it another way, you'd be wasting £95 out of every £100 you spend. That sounds like a terrible deal, doesn't it?

Nor can you just dump all of your marketing onto a hapless "marketing assistant" and tell them to write some blogs and post things on social media. Everyone in your company has a role to play, whether intentionally or not. Think about this: a software developer working for your company goes to a networking event where they are asked about their job. Whatever comes out of their mouth about your company is marketing. The financial controller sends out an invoice with a little personalised note that reflects your company's messaging and delights the customer. That's marketing. Every touchpoint a potential or existing customer has with your business is a marketing opportunity, and realizing this is one of the most important lessons any business owner will ever go through.

So why doesn't my marketing work?

If you're asking this question, it's probably because a lot of the above applies to you. Or perhaps you don't think so. Perhaps you've got a top-notch marketing person working inside your business who's churning out ads and content all day, but the results just aren't up to your expectations. Perhaps you're working with an agency who's ticking off lots of todos on the monthly project management dashboard that you share, but doesn't really feel like they're delivering good value for money. Is the solution, in either case, to fire them and find someone else?

Quite possibly. But before you do so, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Have you written down your main customer personas?
  2. Do you have a clear visual of your typical customer's buying journey?
  3. Do you have a list of your company's main marketing goals in SMART format?
  4. Are these being actively tracked and measured?
  5. Is there a document somewhere that contains your brand values, messaging and style guide?

If the answer to any of the above is either "no" or "I don't know", then it's likely your marketing isn't working because of a lack of a coherent strategy behind it. If your "marketing person" or agency hasn't talked to you about this - or even better, provided it for you - then you should fire them.

Without a marketing strategy, you're playing a game of trial and error. It's likely that some marketing tactics will succeed, but most won't. The problem is that you're spending money on all of them, which means you're wasting most of your marketing spend. And by spend I'm not just referring to the cost of ads, but you have to factor in all time spent by anybody in the creation of social posts, blogs, leaflets, emails or any other marketing activity you have engaged in previously or currently.

The reason it matters is that most businesses try to sell features, and employ pushy tactics in an attempt to ram their product or service down prospects' throats until they buy. This is wrong on so many levels, but the primary reason is this simple truth:

People make buying decisions first and foremost with their emotions. They then justify those decisions with their logic.

If you haven't tried to connect with customers on an emotional level, you're relying purely on their logic and playing a numbers game. Do you want to know how many people are in the "ready to buy" stage when launch the average cold marketing campaign? 3%. Meaning that 97% of your marketing effort is targeting people who just aren't ready to care yet (more about this a little later).

How do you make people care? You have to connect with them, multiple times. You have to seem authentic, and you have to have a conversation with them. Nowadays, in the digital marketing era, people have become smart and tend to ignore most advertising unless it's by a brand they already have some connection to.

And in order for them to be able to build that connection, you need to work from the ground up with a holistic, coherent marketing strategy.

The fundamentals of a marketing strategy

Now, you may recoil at some of the terms I've used in the previous section. Certainly, "persona", "buying journey", "SMART goals" and "brand values" reek of marketing jargon, and your immediate response might be to dismiss them as irrelevant to you. You know your business, you don't need to waste time on buzz words. I get it, I was a business owner way before I was a marketer, and it took me some time to understand that in order to be successful, being a business owner IS being a marketer.

So let me explain why these terms matter, and why it's worth spending your time on them.

Customer personas

A customer persona is quite simply a snapshot profile of the typical person you want to buy your product. Going through the process of building a customer persona is enormously beneficial for a number of reasons. Firstly, it challenges you on exactly who your target market is by forcing you to think about why on earth they would want your product or service. Secondly, it pushes you to get inside their heads, which in turn will help you to understand how to connect with them on an emotional level.

Customer buying journey

Humans are rarely impulse buyers. We are racked with fear, doubt and suspicion of anything we're not familiar with. That's why big companies invest so much money on their branding: they're working to break down the barrier of familiarity to embed themselves as a trusted, known entity that people will feel less worried and/or suspicious about buying from. Then, they create desire by pushing some emotional button that triggers the buying process. Do most people need a new iPhone every year? Of course not, but they really want one and trust the brand enough to not have to think about whether the product will be good or not. It comes down to simply whether they can afford it or not. For smaller businesses, investing in branding like this is not viable because the sheer scale of exposure required to become a household name requires millions in investment. But you can take your prospects through a journey of interactions that will gradually build up the trust, and then the desire, in exactly the same way.

A well-structured buying journey can have a huge impact on sales. In fact, implementing even a simple nurturing funnel can increase your total addressable market from around 3% to up to 40%, an enormous difference.

SMART goals

Having goals in place is critical for two reasons: one, it allows you to measure success in a specific empirical way and two, it helps you to align the whole business around a single purpose. SMART is simply a framework for setting actually useful goals by forcing them to be Specific (nothing vague like "more sales"), Measurable (put a number on it), Achievable (aka realistic), Relevant (aligns with the broader goals of the business and isn't just some vanity project), and Time-bound (has a start and end date so you can measure it correctly). Without SMART goals it's very hard to keep track of whether or not your business development in general is working, which in turn makes it hard to fix and improve your tactics.

Branding and style guide

This isn't just about having a document that lists your fonts and logos, it should also contain your origin story, your company values, your elevator pitch and your messaging. This is a crucial and often overlooked step, but it's essential in helping you to connect with your target audience on an emotional level. It will inform many of the decisions you make around copy, design and other aspects of your marketing material. It's also a really powerful document for distributing internally in order to get your team on board with the overall purpose and values of the company, as well as being helpful for things like recruitment.

Put together, these things form some of the main building blocks of a marketing strategy. Personas help you identify and understand your customers; buying journeys help plot out your connections with them; goals help you measure and adapt to tactics; and the branding and style guide helps you go define the language you will use to speak to your prospects so that they will care.

I've got my strategy, now what?

Once you've got your fundamental strategy, the next step is to start implementing it. That's a whole article on its own, but the biggest tip I can give you here is to research, try different tactics, measure and adapt. Repeatedly.

The real key to marketing success - and, therefore, business success - is the old adage of "try, learn and adapt". Soon enough you'll find an approach that works, and from there on it's a matter of tweaking, refining and focusing on growing your business.