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What’s in a word? A look at history to define the future

In the spirit of “no fear”, I’m prepared to start a series of posts discussing the history, evolution and proposed revolution of marketing. My premise – in this world that has pre-conceived notions about the bad and ugly of marketing – is that we need to redefine what we do. In many aspects, we’ve been trying to do this for years, but I’m not confident we’ve gotten very far. Just as we argue that businesses that sacrifice long-term vision for short-term gain will get left in the dust, I argue that if we continue to sit on an evolving definition of marketing, we will lose the true value marketing can really bring. It’s time to consider a revolution (not an evolution).

Over the next series of posts, I will present – what I hope will become – an exposé of where marketing came from and some thought starters on the marketing revolution we need to internalize, adopt and act upon. It’s time to start a movement.

In all good “movements”, history is a good teacher… so, let’s start by taking a look at our (marketing) history.

Some history of marketing

According to the online etymology dictionary, the term – marketing – dates back to the 1560s where it essentially meant, “buying and selling”. So, where sales was a matter of taking the wares you had and simply offloading them in exchange for some form of currency, marketing was a process where businesses – in their increased sophistication – bought from a supplier and sold to a consumer. Marketing was the “middle man”.

A number of academics: Keith, 1960; Dawson, 1969; Bartels, 1974; and Kotler & Keller, 2006, offered marketing “periodizations” as follows:

  • Production
  • Product
  • Sales
  • Market
  • Customer

The idea, put into words by Robert J. Keith[1] in 1959, was that businesses – like Pillsbury – were created because of accessibility to raw materials and an idea from the founder. Companies were not created because there was a market need or desire. Over time, business people realized, like scientists before them, that the “centre of the proverbial universe” was not what they thought it was. Businesses realized that the consumer was at the centre of the market – not the business itself. This was news. From the new perspective, businesses built marketing departments and teams for each product; then each was responsible to grow their product(s)’ market.

Keith dubbed this categorization and period change: a “marketing revolution”; it shifted business thinking to focus on the customer.  Keith suggested that this new system worked; in fact “it worked better and better as maverick marketing men became motivated toward tonnage and profit”.

Even Keith, however, made it clear that his marketing revolution was not over – he closed his article with the following statement: “Soon it will be true that every activity of the corporation – from finance to sales to production – will be aimed at satisfying the needs and desires of the consumer. When that stage of development is reached, the marketing revolution will be complete.”

It’s now over 50 years later, and folks – we are not there yet. I say this because if the goal is to essentially get the entire organization rallied around satisfying the needs and desires of customers, I don’t believe we’ve achieved this goal. Do you?

Think about procurement. The role of the procurement department is to acquire goods and services at the lowest possible price point. I understand that I will get the argument saying that the point is not to transact at the lowest price point, but rather at the highest value; I’ll let you be the judge of whether or not that has actually transpired. In either case – lowest price point or highest value – the second argument will be that if the elements are purchased at said “best price” then the consumer’s end price is also at its lowest. Agreed. But here’s the issue – there is proof (to be discussed in later posts, but certainly that you can think of now) that consumers are not always looking for the lowest price. Consumers truly are looking for the highest value. And, to a consumer, the highest value is often determined by an intangible element that can’t be priced by traditional methods. How else do you explain the success of a five-dollar cup of coffee?

Now, if that is the case – that consumers seek high value – then the procurement department in its traditional sense, still in existence in some businesses today, is not rallied around the cause of satisfying the consumers needs and desires. Therefore, although Mr. Keith’s concept was born over 50 years ago, it has still not come to completion.

Even if it had, I would argue Keith’s closing comment – the marketing revolution will not be complete when the entire organization is aimed at satisfying the needs and desires of the consumer. In fact, the marketing revolution will only truly begin then… It will only begin because it will only be then that organizations will truly be able to be a genuine part of their consumers’ communities: not only aimed at selling their products and services to satiate, but aimed at making the communities they operate in better and sharing in the citizens’ duty of thriving for a better future.

The true marketing revolution will elevate the role of the business from making money to satisfying consumer needs and desires to making genuine contributions in their communities (local, national and global).


[1] Robert J. Keith was Executive Vice President, Consumer Products area and a Director with The Pillsbury Company

Photo source: Philadelphia Courier-Post (Jan 3, 1996)

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