Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Talk it Up

If someone tells you that they work in marketing, they really haven’t told you much. There are too many different types of careers which fall under the title of marketing.

For example, the person may be in personal selling or in a sales department and call that marketing. Or the person could be in advertising and call that marketing. Perhaps their position is in the field of brand management. That is often called marketing as well.

There are many other distinctly different job activities which often get classified as marketing as well. It can get very confusing. Are these people apprehensive or ashamed about telling people what they do? Does “marketing” make their job sound more glamorous?

When someone tells me they are a CMO, I’m sure to them it means Chief Marketing Officer. To me, it means Chief Mystery Officer—at least until I get to know them.

There’s something about marketing that draws people to it, like bugs to a light. Not only do many people like to describe their job in terms of marketing, an even greater number like to talk about marketing and advertising, even if their job has nothing to do with it.

I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a company where there wasn’t a majority of executives who thought of themselves as “a bit of an expert” in advertising. And even if they didn’t think of themselves as experts, they always seemed to have an opinion about the quality of the company’s advertising and were willing to tell you all about it (even if you didn’t want to hear it).

Developing and implementing strategy tends to require a lot of talking across multiple areas of the business. Unfortunately, it is common these days for people to not be nearly as eager to talk about strategy as they are to talk about marketing and advertising. So if talking is a key part of strategic planning, and people would much rather talk about marketing/advertising than talk about strategy, then perhaps one should take advantage of the willingness of people to talk marketing and use that as a hook to begin a conversation which you can eventually steer to strategic issues.

This is the second in an occasional series of blogs on “Stealth Strategy” (For the first blog, see "Minutes Last Forever"). The principle here is that many firms no longer show an interest in doing a formalized strategic planning process. They would rather spend time talking about and doing other things. If you overtly try to direct their attention to strategic issues, their radars will pick up on that and they will try to shut you down. Therefore, if you want to get a strategic dialogue going, you have to come in under the radar and get the discussion going in a stealthy manner. Advertising can be a tool to get in under the radar.

Since people love to talk about marketing and advertising, one can use that interest to strike up a conversation. Then, though a series of questions, one can turn a critique of advertising into an effective critique of the company’s strategy (without ever mentioning the word “strategy”). Although these discussions might not directly lead to a formalized change in strategy, they may lead to a change in the advertising message.

If you do your job properly, you may get the advertising message changed to talk about your product or company in a way that is more strategically sound. Then, once you’ve announced to the world this strategically sound message through advertising, it pretty much commits the company to delivering on that message. Therefore the company is compelled to operate the company around the strategic promise in the advertising. The end result is that people are acting on delivering an improved strategy, even though no formalized strategic planning process was used.

This is not that far-fetched. Most of marketing involves some form of communication with the customer in order to influence behavior which results in sales. Much of strategy involves developing a position for your firm/product which is desirable, unique and differentiating, followed by:

1) Building an infrastructure to deliver that position; and

2) Getting customers to believe that you own that position.

The goals of marketing and strategy are not that dissimilar. The most effective marketing message in the long run is a message based on a solid positioning in the marketplace. Good positioning is the best way to create profitable sales. Without a strong position, marketing must resort to deep price concessions or extra “goodies” to induce sales, which significantly reduces profitability. With a strong position, one is better able to create demand for your brand without these costly concessions.

Therefore, if you want to improve marketing, one needs to develop strong market positioning. Strong positions come from doing the work of strategy, even if you call it marketing. And then, once the position is developed under the guise of marketing, it is only a short leap to turn the discussion towards building the proper internal business capacities in order to deliver on the promise of the advertising.

Let’s take an example of how this could work. Let’s assume that you are walking down the hallway and you cross paths with a top level executive. The executive says to you, “Say, did you see our new ad on TV last night? I thought it stunk. What did you think?”

You could respond in many ways, depending upon your strategic agenda. For example, if you are trying to get a better strategic focus around who your customer should be, you could respond by saying, “The problem I had with the ad was that I couldn’t figure out who we were targeting that ad towards. Who do you think is the right type of customer to be targeting?”

If your goal is to create a unique position for the company, your response could be, “The problem I had with the ad was that you could have taken our name off of the ad and put any one of our competitor’s names into the ad and it still would have made sense. The ad did not give a compelling reason to choose us over any of those competitors. I think our ad needs to explain the ways in which we are uniquely superior. In what ways do you think we are uniquely superior, so that we can come up with a stronger advertising message?”

If your goal is to get the company to think about how the external trends are changing the landscape, requiring a need for a new strategy, you could respond something like this, “What was most disturbing to me was when I compared our ad to what others are doing. Their ads seem to be more in tune with where the trends are heading. Did you see the ad from company “X”? We normally don’t think of them as a competitor, but their ad is clearly changing the way people look at all kinds of options, including what we offer. If their ad gets people to look at the world in this new way, we could be in serious trouble. Don’t you think we ought to reassess our ad message in light of this?”

By now, you should be getting the idea. If you couch your strategic comments in an advertising context, they can appear less intimidating, and people may be more willing to talk about them. The talking can lead to changes in advertising which can be used to get complementary changes in the rest of the organization. For example, if you succeed in getting the advertising message to express the proper strategy, the next time someone asks you about your thoughts on the advertising, you can say,

“I love the message in the ad, but I’m afraid that our operations are not quite living up to the promise made in the ad. If we could just tweak a few operational issues, I believe the advertising message would be even more effective.”

If advertising is the subject that gets the talking going, then take your strategic ideas and “talk them up” in the context of advertising.

Because some people have had bad experiences with formalized strategic planning in the past, there can be some barriers to getting companies to discuss strategy. Since strategy is closely related to marketing, and since it is common for executives to be more willing to talk about marketing than strategy, marketing can be used as a tool to get strategy implemented. Just talk up strategy in the context of advertising (and don’t mention the “S” word).

Sometimes, the first person one should be talking to is the CMO. If you can get the marketing team as your ally in this process, you can use formal marketing meetings as a platform for holding formal stealth strategy meetings.

No comments:

Post a Comment