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Turning over a new moon

What can vampires teach marketing educators?

[Marketing]

Vampires are currently all the rage, and it’s intriguing how this longestablished horror genre has been revived. Gone are the campy, caped bloodsuckers— today’s vampire is romantic and sensitive. Films and TV series like Twilight and True Blood revitalised a dying genre and achieved mass-market success.

It’s unlikely such creativity was spawned in universities— marketing schools do a remarkable job of bleeding their students dry of creativity.

Over the past 15 years I’ve taught marketing across five countries, to a diverse range of students in polytechnics and elite research universities. I’ve always involved industry partners in my courses, usually allowing them to set the assignment (often a creative brief ). The results are always the same—hard-working, passionate students struggling to break the shackles of their training and come up with creative solutions for clients.

I’ve experienced this too often to believe students are to blame. Nor do I accept that the fault lies entirely with poor teaching, ivory tower academics, poor materials or a lack of industry involvement. Neither do I believe that such errors will be corrected in the workplace. Undoubtedly meaningless strategic documents and bog-standard, boring marketing will continue unabated when the students hit the workplace.

So just what are the problems with how marketing is taught? I believe marketing education suffers from two flaws—lack of soul and a heightened sex drive.

Soulless marketing

Vampires have no soul. As a result, they are cold, calculating and rationalistic. The symptoms of this are evident in the stereotypical view of many firms’ marketing departments as detached from market realities.

Identifying a lack of soul is easy—students will regale you with analyses usually using magical incantations such as segmentation, PEST, SWOT and hazy positioning statements often expressed in terms of trust, innovation, value and quality. The results are usually meaningless lists of customer types, strengths, opportunities, trends, threats and vague commitments, all of which can be copied by all and implemented by none.

This state of affairs explains the low value of marketing planning and segmentation studies, and why so many marketing campaigns are driven by empty value statements that fail to excite. It also explains why so many marketing students are genuinely perplexed when their 50-page reports remain unread by managers, and why they seem at a total loss as to how to create value when I remove all their ‘strategic frameworks’ from use.

vampires and sex have always gone together. just as the lack of soul means marketers lack implementation skills, heightened sex drive results in a large number of meaningless tactics

What many marketing programs ignore are activities essential to effective marketing: sales, logistics, innovation and design. Just check any course brochure. Few will offer sales, product development, logistics, public relations, design (in any form) and so on. Closer examination of many will reveal that while students may get exposed to models to classify customer behavior, they get little insight into the messiness of the customer’s world (instead they get Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). While students may study marketing communication, precious few will cover critical ‘doing’ skills such as writing copy and developing and designing campaigns. Often these critical doing skills are left to the so-called second-tier providers such as polytechnics or professional trainers.

The results are marketers who cannot sell, and distrust between marketing and production, sales and logistics, all of which means poor execution and wasted resources.

Oversexed marketing

Vampires and sex have always gone together. Just as the lack of soul means marketers lack implementation skills, heightened sex drive results in an inability to see the big picture. In marketing the symptoms of this are all too evident—large numbers of meaningless tactics usually expressed in terms of the four Ps of marketing (or seven, or even 36). One recent experience involved students repositioning a tired Australian supermarket by adding links on the company’s homepage to Facebook and Twitter. When queried as to how this would reposition a supermarket facing falling profits, the students immediately responded with more tactics (automated shopping carts, in-store experience zones and mobile phone coupons).

Lest you think such an approach only affects students, think of all the worthless web-based strategies companies adopt, the pointless brand extensions, stupid competitions and other ‘innovations’. What drove Dr Pepper to pledge free cans of soft drink for everyone should Guns N’ Roses fail to release its long-overdue album Chinese Democracy in 2008? Why did Harley Davidson launch a perfume? What was up with Microsoft’s Jerry Seinfeld ad? None of these gimmicks were driven by any notion of strategic positioning, and all (at best) wasted resources.

This disconnect between the strategic and the tactical is due to the split between thinking and doing in higher education. For example, those in advertising courses are often taught how to make promotional materials but are not exposed to any notions of positioning. The result? Awardwinning adverts that fail to drive sales, designers unable to articulate how their ideas address client needs, and salespeople who believe the solution to the firm’s problems are price promotions.

Moving forward

A read of Every Bastard Says No shows the success of 42 Below was made possible through the combination of strategy and brilliant execution—too much strategy would have stifled the business concept, too much execution would have resulted in creative awards and brand death.

This symbiotic relationship between thinking and doing is necessary to ensure the academy enhances the inherent creativity within every marketing student.

Students therefore need to engage in the craft of marketing practice, including selling, research, design and copywriting (among others). Only through trial and error (in response to a brief ) will they develop the tacit skills to be marketers. Such engagement with marketing’s crafts must occur early, in contrast to the theory-first, practice-later approach to curriculum design. Expecting creativity after two years of learned behaviour aimed at passing theory-driven assignments is unrealistic.

And academics themselves must become marketing craftspeople—after all, they have customers to satisfy and products to sell.

Michael Beverland is a professor of marketing at the University of Bath School of Management