What is marketing?

What’s the first word you think of when you hear the term “marketing?” If you’re like most people, it’s probably “advertising.” The two activities have been so closely associated with each other for so long that they’ve almost become synonymous.

But in today’s world, advertising is increasingly becoming a dead end for many companies – or at least just a side road on the path to success. Now more than ever, we need a much broader, deeper conception of marketing, one that goes far beyond mere advertising and takes a more philosophical approach to the subject according to Seth Godin’s book, This Is Marketing.

Imagine you’re a marketing executive back in the 1960s. Your company has a product, but your sales team has a problem: not enough sales! So how do you solve it? If you took the traditional approach to marketing, it would boil down to two words: buy ads – preferably lots of ads, and get them seen by as many people as possible.

Call it the “Coca-Cola method.” As the world-famous soft drink company has done year after year, you would flood the airwaves and magazine pages with advertisements. Your objective? In a word, mass. You use the mass media to achieve mass saturation of the mass market with a mass message aimed at – you guessed it – the masses.

And what’s the message? Mass again. It’s about persuading your mass audience that your product is a part of the mass culture. For Coca-Cola, that meant convincing people that everyone’s drinking Coke – and enjoying it!

Back in the 1960s, when the United States had three main television channels, and nearly everyone was watching the same shows, that was a viable strategy. If you ran an ad on The Beverly Hillbillies, your message would reach millions of people – a large percentage of the television-viewing public.

But those days are long gone. Now the public’s attention is split between thousands of television channels and shows, and many people are watching YouTube and Netflix instead.

The internet is a game changer. On one level, it’s the most massive mass medium ever created, connecting billions of people. But on another level, it’s also the least massive medium. That’s because everyone can curate their own private version of it, with personalized Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds, and tailored YouTube video suggestions and Spotify playlists.

Just as mass media has splintered into numerous smaller media, the mass culture that used to be centered around it has fractured as well. The television show Mad Men, which ran between 2007 and 2015, chronicled this shift, and the show itself provides an example of the change that’s taken place. The show received a great deal of praise, yet on average, only about 1 percent of the US population watched it.

The mass-advertising approach to marketing no longer makes sense. Clearly, a new approach is needed.

At first glance, the internet would seem to provide the perfect medium for advertising – far better, in fact, than the three-channel television of yore. Sure, you can no longer reach a mass audience with a single ad on a hit TV show – but you can do something that’s even more effective.

You can precisely target the group of people you want to reach with your ads. Facebook, Google and YouTube offer the ability to do this with just a few clicks of the mouse. As a result, unlike in the olden days of television, you don’t have to broadcast your message to nearly everyone in the hope of reaching a particular demographic.

But wait – it gets even better! You can also reach your target group anywhere, anytime. You don’t have to wait until they’re in front of the television at 9:00 p.m. Your ad can show up on their Facebook timeline whenever they log on, wherever they are.

And here’s the icing on the cake: you can measure your results with a level of precision that would make 1960s advertising executives weep with envy. You can see exactly how many people saw your ad, clicked on it and bought your product as a result. That allows you to optimize your content and advertising budget, based on what works and what doesn’t.

There’s just one problem: every other company can do all of this, too. Thus, people are bombarded with ads just about everywhere they go online. So even if they’re precisely targeted, most of your ads will just end up becoming yet another thing to ignore.

Knowing this, many companies seek refuge in another approach to online marketing: search engine optimization, or SEO. Here, the hope is that by using just the right keywords, your company’s website will end up in the top results on Google when someone searches for the type of product you offer.

But most Google searches yield more than a dozen pages of results, and only a few companies will get their SEO so right that they’ll be presented on the first page. The rest will be on the dreaded second page (or worse).

Fortunately, there are some steps we can take to approach marketing more effectively.  The first step of effective marketing is as easy to say as it is difficult to do: make something worth buying. But wait – isn’t that the task of designers and manufacturers?

Yes, but it’s also a task for marketers. To see why, let’s drill down into what makes something worth buying in the first place. Consider a literal drill, with a quarter-inch bit.

As the Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt famously pointed out, nobody wants a quarter-inch drill bit for its own sake; they want it for the quarter-inch hole it makes. But no one wants a hole for its own sake, either. It’s just a means of accomplishing something else – perhaps installing a shelf on your living room wall. And that shelf is just a way of storing things, which, in turn, is just a way to make your home look tidy.

And why do you want tidiness? Well, maybe it makes you feel that you have control of your environment. Maybe it makes you feel admired by your visitors. Maybe a bit of both.

In other words, you don’t really want a drill bit. You want safety and respect – two of the most fundamental human needs. The drill bit is just a tool for fulfilling them.

Effective marketing begins by identifying people’s underlying needs and desires. These almost always boil down to deep-seated, emotionally-resonant aspirations, such as adventure, belonging, connection, freedom, strength and tranquility.

A product is worth buying if it provides a compelling answer to one or more of these aspirations. To see this in action, imagine a man buying an SUV. Why does he buy it?

Perhaps he’s attracted to its off-roading capabilities. But here’s the thing; he may never actually go off-roading, and yet the mere promise of being able to do so can be enough to motivate his purchase. Why? Because it speaks to his thirst for adventure.

Here, the task of marketing is to persuade the man that the SUV can quench his thirst – and the most compelling way to do that is to build an SUV that can actually go off-road and conveys this fact by having a rugged appearance.

Effective marketing therefore begins at the design and manufacturing stage. After identifying people’s aspirations, it guides the process of building products that speak to them with compelling, deliverable promises of fulfillment.

Check out my related post: What is Supreme?

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