According to Dr. Philip Kotler (and let’s face it, he knows a thing or two about marketing), “marketing is a terribly misunderstood subject in business circles and in the public’s mind. Companies think that marketing exists to support manufacturing, to get rid of the company’s products. The truth is the reverse, that manufacturing exists to support marketing. The company can always outsource its manufacturing. What makes a company is its marketing offerings and ideas. Manufacturing, purchasing, R&D, finance and the other company functions exist to support the company’s work in the customer marketplace.”
In our experience, there’s no doubt that the theory is right. Successful companies meet the needs of their customers. Customer needs are identified first, then products and services developed to meet those needs.
But the reality is that marketing is often perceived as simply “selling”, or “promotion”. Something you do once you have built a product or developed a service. As a result, it’s not seen as integral to the success of a business – and it follows that there is a lack of representation on company boards – marketing is regularly demoted to a departmental function. It becomes a series of tactics deployed by the company rather than an integral part of business strategy.
A survey by US Campaign magazine last year found that the role of the marketer was seen as more executional than strategic. Only 13% of respondents thought the marketing team had a role in driving business strategy and 10% thought they drove product development and innovation.
It’s particularly true of small to medium sized businesses. Research conducted by The Really Helpful Marketing Company showed that a significant number of businesses don’t have a marketing plan. And where marketing plans do exist, these are often simple (or complex) activity plans. Marketing people work hard to deliver activities, to improve response rates, to increase awareness and engagement, to develop the customer experience and to “sell product”.
But all too often, the reality is that the service or product being offered is fundamentally undifferentiated. Probably no more so than in the field of professional services – take accountancy for example.
Accountants are trained in accountancy. They set up their own practice. They take on partners – also accountants, fee earners. As they grow they bring in support services – administration, HR, operations…and marketing. But what does the marketing department do? It organises events, manages the website, does some social media, produces leaflets. It’s usually tactical stuff, getting the company name “out there” and selling the service on offer – which is Accountancy.
The problem is that fundamentally (as far as most potential customers are concerned), all accountants offer the same service – professional expertise and advice, book-keeping, tax advice and returns, payroll services… and given that most businesses turn to accountants because they don’t really understand accountancy, it’s difficult for your average customer to differentiate between potential suppliers, and identify those who can provide a service that’s truly relevant for them.
Business strategy remains in the hands of accountants. Skilled in accountancy, skilled in running a business efficiently – but not skilled in identifying new target markets, understanding customer insight, and developing differentiated propositions.
And it’s the same story for solicitors, insurance brokers, financial advisors… the list goes on. All selling their services based on skill, knowledge, experience, and reputation. It’s no wonder they all look the same.
So what’s the answer? Well, marketing directors and consultants (good ones) are expensive resources – and investing heavily in talent at this level is a risk, particularly where available budget is limited. The key for SME’s is to start thinking about marketing on a strategic level. Before you even think about promotional activities, there are two key processes to consider:
- Opportunity identification
Spend some time identifying potential target markets. What types of businesses are you trying to attract? Start-ups? Growth-phase businesses? Established companies? Any specific industries? And what are the needs of your target audience? What are they trying to achieve? What issues are they facing?
- Product / service development
How can you develop a service that solves their problem for them? Why is your solution better than the other options (from your competitors) available to them? Or how can you position an existing service in such a way that it answers an identified customer need?
Only when you’ve done this should you think about promoting your service. Remember, marketing is not just about promotion. Marketing starts before there is a product to sell – it’s the homework you do to understand what the market needs and what service or product you should offer.
Get this right, and you’re in a much better position to understand how to sell your service – and as a result your promotional activities, your targeting and your messaging become more focused, and ultimately more effective at delivering sales.
If you’d like some support with your strategic marketing planning then don’t hesitate to get in touch – we could really help.