What exactly is marketing?

Marketing: Leading the horse to the water

Marketing is not one of those ancient disciplines inherited from the Greeks. It is not a branch of science, and it may not pass muster to be considered an art form. There may be elements of marketing that can be considered art, such as advertising creatives. There are some advertising visuals that can be far more artistic than actual art pieces in a museum or art gallery. But the whole of marketing is not about them. Similarly, there are elements that employ science and scientific principles and processes, such as the rigors involved in product development, manufacturing, and research. But again, marketing as a whole is not about science.

In studying marketing, there are no dogmatic ‘truths’ to be swallowed whole like what is found in revealed religions. There are no precise scientific formulas that are carved in stone like physics or chemistry. No complex mathematical equations like those used in statistics to be rote-learned and remembered. Instead the only essential skill required to excel in marketing is common sense, which ideally, should come with the ability to learn. To learn from your mistakes and the mistakes of your competitors – because many marketing lessons were actually developed through trial-and-error. If you do not believe that last line, consider this: many major manufacturers always run test market exercises – as they have done for decades (and continue to do so) – before they launch any new product. If that is not learning by trial-and-error, then who knows what is.

Marketing is simply common sense on steroids.

The problem with common sense is that it is not that common. Not exactly logical, but reasonably valid nonetheless. Most people will acknowledge that they make the dumbest mistakes when they forget their common sense at home.

So what exactly is marketing? Let us use that old saying, “You can lead a horse to the water, but you cannot make it drink” for our analogy.

All of marketing is leading the horse to the water. Every element of marketing is designed to bring a prospective consumer to the point where he or she will purchase the marketer’s product. It can be as subtle as recognizing the car used in a movie scene – correctly identifying it as a Mercedes-Benz, for instance, because it had a three-pointed star in a circle as a hood ornament. This was quite common among older films, especially the ones shot in Europe. On a grander scale, you can have an entire movie dominated by images of a particular brand of automobiles and presenting them as the real heroes of the movie. This is what the Transformers movies are to marketers – they are full-length two-hour video commercials for Chevrolet. This tactic is known as product placement – where a product is inserted into a movie scene – or script – on purpose, in order to display the brand to the movie audience in a more subtle manner, as opposed to a regular 30-second video commercial shown before the start of the movie. At the other end of the spectrum, it can be as in-your-face (literally) as the free samples offered as you walk by the different food stalls in a mall food court. It is about as direct as you can get – actually offering the product for free, and for immediate consumption right in front of where you can buy it. It is a better example of what people call direct marketing, versus the usual junk mail that clogs up mailboxes.

Between these two ends of the spectrum, there are infinite ways by which marketers try to influence consumer behavior towards making a purchase. The most visible element of marketing is advertising. It is a very powerful tool, and it actually powers large chunks of society and the economy. Advertising is inextricably linked to mass media. For the most part, media would not be feasible without advertising. Throughout its history and development, most of mass media, particularly broadcast – TV and radio – have only been possible because there was advertising to support it. Think about it – all those years that people watched their favorite television shows, and listened to their favorite programs on the radio, it was all very nice… but who was paying for it? It was always the advertiser.

Even in today’s digital environment, we take a lot of things for granted. Take Google, for example. How is Google able to provide so many services for free to the general public? You can search for anything under the sun, get all the information you want, watch all sorts of videos on YouTube, or avail of email services – all for free. Where does Google make its money? The simple answer: advertising. It is the same with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. – they are all advertising-funded.

There are countless books written about advertising and the media. But as elements of marketing, they only need to be understood for the roles they play in the grand scheme of things marketing. They actually belong to the last of the Four Basic P’s of marketing: Product, Price, Placement, and Promotions. But because they are the most visible elements of marketing, it is easy to see why they are the ones that get the most attention.

Marketing was created when a product needed to be marketed. First things first… it is the product that is at the heart of all marketing. If a company had a good product, it only had to make that product available to the consumer and that was it. If it could be sold at a price where the company makes a decent profit, then the company was in business. But consumers needed to know where to get it. In other words, the product needed to be distributed. And then there were consumers who were not convinced they needed the new product. So it became necessary to promote the product to them. Promotions became important otherwise people may not buy the new product at all. For many pioneering or breakthrough products, such as cutting-edge tech and pharmaceutical products, the marketing function is mostly dedicated to educating the consumer about the new product. Promotions were mainly informative and educational in nature. Many pharmaceutical companies still do this by having an army of medical sales representatives who visit doctors and explain the new drugs to them, hoping to get them to prescribe the new products. Initially, like with many new pharma products, these products had little or no competitors. Hence the dictum, “Build a better mousetrap and the world beats a path to your door.” When competitors entered the scene, marketing became imperative and an integral part of the manufacturer’s overall business model. Welcome to modern times.

At the bottom of all of this, what is it that we expect marketing to accomplish? Make no mistake about it – there is only one goal for marketing: make a sale. That is, get the horse to the water.


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