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What great marketers do well.

I’m giving a talk next week to the MBA students at the University of California, Irvine. I’m posting this outline to to invite readers to share their ideas and improve this list.

My goal is to give these MBA candidates the type of marketing insights that grad schools tend to overlook – mainly that all marketing challenges cannot be solved through statistical analysis and analytics. Many of us would agree that after spending a few years in brand marketing we learned that it is often the softer skills that define great brand leaders.

I’m not going to spend time going on about quality, integrated marketing, interactive media, etc. Price of entry ideas like these are more suited for a speech entitled “How to avoid being a mediocre marketer.”

When I think of the hallmarks that define great marketers I come up with this list.

Brand literacy: They understand that not all products are brands and that branding is not solely the responsibility of advertising. They understand how brand equity is built through experiences, emotions, design, pricing, distribution and the entire marketing mix.

Customer intimacy: They go beyond focus groups and one-size-fits-all quantitative studies. They know there is no such thing as a monolithic customer definition, rather the customer is a portfolio of segments and needs. They behave as commercial anthropologists, observing customers 24/7. They show empathy towards customers and try to see the market through their eyes. They are transparent, knowing that the internet has vanquished secrets and that customers will destroy brands they cannot fully trust.

Relevant differentiation: They know that underneath all the slick marketing must exist a product with a meaningful and unique proposition. To them, having a USP is not old school, it is how you win. They also know that differentiation for the sake of being unique is the fast track to irrelevance. We need to differentiate on things that matter to customers.

Storytelling: They understand the power of a compelling brand narrative. Great brands tell great stories. They understand the power of archetypes. They are the protagonist in an ever unfolding story. They understand the need to define what they stand for by being clear about what they oppose, because every protagonist seeks to overcome some challenge or foe. It is this journey toward a noble cause that makes them human and interesting.

Innovation: They know that markets and trends move at lightning speed. Innovations create an aura of infectious momentum for a brand. They innovate in brand appropriate ways because they have taken the time to understand the true essence of their brand and find new expressions of that core idea.

Test and learn: The great marketers know that many new ideas are doomed to fail. But instead of being paralyzed, they build learning cultures to improve their odds of success. They invest in learning opportunities – test markets, new designs, pricing, extensions. If something doesn’t work they celebrate the insights gleaned on how to do better next time. They are tenacious, they indeed do it better next time.

Design: They subscribe to the great quote (used by designer Yves Behar), “Advertising is the price companies pay for being unoriginal.” They know that we live in an increasingly visual age and that great design can not only better serve the customer’s spoken and unspoken needs, it can also convey powerful brand meaning.

Thoughtful interactions: They know that every interaction matters. The website. The packaging. The events. And the performance of the product itself. Customer interactions form the basis of the brand relationship and, increasingly, are a catalyst for positive creds in social media. Strategy sets a direction, execution determines success. Details matter.

Context: They know that brand meaning is not an absolute concept. Customers often form opinions in a relative manner. Where a brand shows up and the company it keeps can be powerful influencers. Media can shape meaning. Distribution choices can shape meaning. Associations and alliances can shape meaning.

Alignment: They know that a USP is most powerful when it is aligned and reinforced through every aspect of a company’s value chain. Pricing. Distribution. Sales force incentives. Training. Recruiting. A USP is not an advertising idea…it’s why the company exists. It shapes their corporate culture, and vice versa.

I have examples in mind for each of these, but would love to hear your candidates.