Opinion: Mike Hutcheson on why marketing is everything

“The business enterprise has two – and only two – basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs."

So said management legend Peter Drucker. Why don’t more organisations recognise it? I have a theory that marketing lost its place at the corporate top-table after the stock-market crash in the late 80s. That event coincided with a recent and growing influx into corporateland of marketing graduates from our universities. Their arrival introduced the notion of marketing as a separate discipline within a business, and sadly it slowly drifted into the organisational mist, out of sight of the top-floor corner office.

As share prices tumbled and fortunes were lost in the crash, investors installed accountants and financiers to run ailing corporations and put the brakes on runaway growth. The corporate control pendulum swung away from entrepreneurial marketers to cost-cutting bean counters and has not yet swung back.

I believe it’s time for it to reverse. We don’t hear of companies calling out for more accountants anymore, but we do hear of them calling for more innovators and marketers. Like Drucker, it is my firm contention that marketing isn’t a function within a business – it is the fundamental purpose of the business. It is the umbrella under which all other functions should sit.

A business having a Marketing Department is as ludicrous as a church having a Religion Department. Sales is a function, advertising is a function, finance is a function, distribution is a function, manufacturing and procurement are functions, but marketing is a philosophy – it’s the reason the business exists. Marketing is about running a business with the end-consumer in view – understanding why customers want something and making sure they get it at the right price, where, when and how they want it.

It is a constant cycle of staying curious and understanding how to meet unfulfilled customer needs, be it for products or services. Marketing both asks and answers the ‘why’ question. By way of differentiation, the sales, finance, distribution and advertising functions within a business answer the how, what, and when. The Advertising Dept creates awareness and desire, the Sales Dept pitches the products to the customers. Distribution gets them there and finance makes sure they’re paid for. They are operational departments and are transaction focused. They are dedicated to business-as-usual, achieving results day-to-day and generating income. However there is always tension between short and long term horizons and short is the enemy of long.

A sales driven strategy will tend to focus on appeals to the head rather than the heart – on product features rather than deeper motivators – whereas a holistic marketing approach will focus on feelings triggered by brand benefits. So a power-tool advertisement written by salesman is likely to amplify the A1734XC model’s features – its self-adjusting, titanium coated, 65mm recoilless drive-spring and the handy weebling-grommet – incorporating the salesman’s favourite fantasy ie a demonstration by a Pamela Anderson look-alike with very few clothes on. Unfortunately the features approach fails when a rival drill manufacturer runs an ad offering a lower price, with a more pneumatic woman with even fewer clothes on and the cycle of claim and counter-claim spirals intellectually downwards.

At Stanley Tools the penny dropped when a marketer realised the average home handyman is less interested in the drill than the hole. “At Stanley, we don’t sell drills. We sell holes.” That’s the difference between a marketing and a sales approach. Marketing is focused on understanding why customers buy. It’s more about heart than head.

To engage the heart you have to tell stories. The customer has to love you, not use you. You have to know what people really feel to understand their behaviour. And that’s about asking the right questions. There is an old conundrum that goes; if a tree falls over in a forest and there is no one there to hear it, is there any sound?

The answer lies in semantics not in physics. By asking the right question a storyteller is more likely to get the answer than is a physicist. A storyteller would go to a dictionary rather than a science textbook. He would look for the meaning of sound. He would know that all the measurable physical conditions exist to enable sound to occur, but sound is defined not as waves, but as the action of those waves on the organs of hearing. Ergo: no one there; no organs of hearing; no sound.

You just have to ask the right questions to discover true meaning . That's what marketers do. 

This article first appeared in Idealog issue No 54