Marketing: Why Is It So Tough?

Last night a colleague and I had an interesting conversation as we drove home after an especially tiring day. I was in no mood to talk or think but his question intrigued me. “Why is it so difficult to succeed with a brand, especially when you know exactly what to do?”, he asked. I hadn’t thought about this earlier and so we began a conversation which was most interesting.
We analyzed our work place and its reputation. The company we represent has a reputation for having outstanding employees and past achievements are very impressive and their seniority and qualifications are excellent. Even after all this, coupled with the fact that not one person in office is free or whiling away time, the organization is struggling. We reviewed examples of good and bad marketing practice and looked at some case studies and concluded that marketing is all about finding out who our customers are, understanding what they want and then making sure they get it.

The problem for my colleague, and I suspect the organization at large, is that this sounded extremely obvious. Worse still, it appeared a relatively simple goal to achieve. As we hobbled along on Mumbai’s sad excuse for roads, he wondered aloud how it was possible to fail if the subject was so simple.

This set me thinking. When I reached home, I wondered to myself whether marketing really was that difficult after all. I thought about a recent project that I was managing. We thought we had a tremendous advertising campaign (and budget to boot) and a comprehensive marketing plan, but failed all classical tests of marketing competence.

Was the entire organization falling into the same trap? We had very little idea who our customers were, certainly no clue as to what these mysterious individuals wanted and consequently, despite good sales figures, no real idea what value we were providing. We were in fact ‘innovating to kill our business!’ Did we mean to do it? Certainly not!! But by not stepping in and demanding drastic reviews and a change of the business model, we were, (i repeat!) in fact, ‘innovating to kill our business!’ How do we expect to get to aspirational growth targets if year after year we did exactly what we did for the last 4 decades?!

What we need to do, IMHO, is seemingly simple. First, identify our customers, listen to them and do something about it. This is hardly a complex mantra. Yet the complexity of getting this done lies in its simplicity. The reason marketing is so hard to execute is because of all the practical barriers that spring up when an organisation attempts to listen to customers and then change the way it does business as a result.

It costs money. It takes time. The sales force won’t agree that they might not know the right customers. As managers, we are afraid to find out bad news. We don’t know who our customers are, so we can’t listen to them. Worse still, in a highly regulated industry such as pharmaceuticals, most of the time, customers might want something we don’t provide. To be fair, the Sales Team is not to blame all the time. Most times, customers don’t want to talk to us and don’t seem to know what they want even when they do.

This is the true challenge of marketing: breaking down the practical barriers that emerge to prevent us from fulfilling our most important function. Our focus is the customer and our first job is removing any impediments that prevent us from maintaining that focus. Unfortunately, the higher a marketer rises in the organizational chart, the less direct interaction he/she has with his/her customers. This is sad since this means that as our relative power to make a difference and usher in change increases, so do the barriers that prevent us from knowing our customers.

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