What exactly is marketing? (updated)




What is marketing? First, let us define it by identifying what it is not.

Neither art nor science, Marketing is not one of those disciplines inherited from the ancient Greeks so beloved by academics. It is not a branch of science, and it may not pass muster to be considered an art form either. There may be elements of marketing that can be considered art, such as advertising creatives. Many people say that award-winning advertising creative materials can be truly impressive works of art. True, there are some advertising visuals that are far more artistic than actual art pieces in a museum or art gallery. The most notable ones are the visual illustrations that combine elements in such a way that the creators are able to embed additional layers of meaning within the same visual display that we see on a simple two-dimensional plane. The best examples are clever logo designs that incorporate hidden meanings in them, or visually illustrate the concept behind the brand. A popular favorite is the old logo for Formula 1 Racing – it only has the letter F in plain black and a field of red horizontal lines next to it. But the space between those two elements is shaped to form the number 1, and the horizontal lines give the impression of motion at a very fast speed. Incredibly clever and artistic.

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, or the complex computations involved in the logistics part of distributing the product, or the near-esoteric field of audience measurements involved in media planning and buying. But again, marketing as a whole is not about the science behind these specific activities. They are all merely elements of marketing.

In studying marketing, there are no dogmatic ‘truths’ to be swallowed whole and blindly followed like what is found in revealed religions. There are no precise scientific formulas that are carved in stone like what you have in physics or chemistry. No complex mathematical equations or formulae like those used in algebra and statistics to be rote-learned and remembered forever. Instead the only essential skill required to excel in marketing is common sense, which ideally, should come with one’s 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, or even just a variant of an existing one. And yet, in spite of all the painstaking research and preparations involved in any new product introduction, many manufacturers still come up with duds and lemons, even today. If that is not learning by trial-and-error, then who knows what is.

So, what IS marketing? Marketing is simply common sense on steroids.

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

Let us dissect that further to determine 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 simply 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 – this is called the point of purchase. The point of purchase is the end-goal, or finish line – the point at which the “push” part and the “pull” part of marketing converge. If both sides of marketing do their jobs, then the point of purchase will in fact be realized as an actual purchase happens, and a sale is concluded. On the push side, it is all about getting the product to the shelf, and on the pull side, it is all about getting the consumer to that shelf. That is where they meet and the whole marketing process is concluded. For the most part, the push side of marketing is quite invisible to the consumer. The push side is pretty much providing the water for the horse, and the pull side is bringing the horse to the water. We will tackle the push side in subsequent articles, and the pull side in later articles after that.

But just to get an idea of how it is done, i.e., bringing the horse to the water – 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. A very good example would be the series of James Bond movies, particularly the one where Pierce Brosnan drives his BMW remotely, using his Nokia phone as a remote control device. A more recent notable example would be the red plastic cups or tumblers sitting on the table in front of the judges in the popular television show American Idol – they all carry the Coca-Cola logo very prominently. 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 help getting itself sold. Originally, products filled a need and therefore did not need any help getting sold. But life often gets complicated. Whatever the reason – there were more products in inventory than what the market was willing to buy, or alternatives became available – it became necessary to push harder to get the items sold, lest they go stale. 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. As the saying goes, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.”

Secondly, if that product could be sold at a price where the company makes a decent profit, then the company was in business. If the price was right, consumers would see and appreciate the value being offered to them by this product and they could be reasonably expected to make repeat purchases, presuming the product satisfied the consumer’s need for it. Whether that need is real or imagined does not matter.

A product that satisfies a need at a price deemed reasonable by both buyer and seller. Does that complete the circle? What else do we need? But wait…  consumers and manufacturers are often not in the same place at the same time, so a regular venue where consumers could find the product became necessary.  Enter Marketing P number three: Place. Manufacturers needed to get their products to this venue, and consumers needed to know where it was. In other words, the product needed to be distributed – i.e., “placed” where it could be sold.

And then there were consumers who were not convinced they needed the new product. Finally, Marketing P number four: Promotions. It became necessary to promote the product to these prospective consumers. Convert them from prospects into actual consumers. Preach the gospel proclaiming the good news – that is, the benefits offered by this new product. Remember the dictum, “Build a better mousetrap and the world beats a path to your door”? Well, it is now quite obvious that the world first needs to know that you have invented this new and better mousetrap. 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 pharmaceutical products, these products had little or no competitors. But when competitors entered the scene, marketing and promotions 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 marketing is expected to accomplish? Make no mistake about it – there is only one goal for marketing: make a sale. In other words, get the horse to the water.


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