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The End of Marketing

The National Post’s Editor invited me to submit an article for publication in Canada’s national newspaper and, during the writing, the topic kind of shifted radically. I started thinking about what marketing’s present and especially its future would look like. Paul Pivato, of Magna International, and also Schulich’s media outreach specialist, was instrumental in encouraging me to develop my ideas a bit further.

The finished article is available online here.

We’re going to be blogging about it soon in a live chat that the National Post has set up.

I’m also putting up an earlier, extended version of the article here for you to check out. There are many ideas here that I am still developing, but it is pretty clear to me that we may need to start thinking about what a post-marketing age might look like.

The End of “Marketing”

It brings me no great joy to say it. But, as a marketing professor, a consultant, and a marketing researcher, I have had a fairly good vantage point from which to observe the slow demise of the field of marketing.

Marketing is dying. And by marketing, I mean that managerial discipline and area that devotes itself to understanding consumer needs, guiding the building of products and services to fulfill them, managing channels, and communicating and enticing consumers to buy.

But that is not what most of today’s marketers do. Instead, today’s marketers have been increasingly boxed in. Marketing has come to mean “marketing communications,” the broadcasting of commercial and promotional information. Marketers are the media folk. The writers of pamphlet copy copy, liaisons with ad agencies and media buyers, buyers of the occasional focus group, and planners of tradeshows. Perhaps they work with sales people. Perhaps they even are the salespeople. Sales and advertising, advertising and sales—this is what so much of modern, everyday marketing has become.

What happened? How did the mighty marketer– still the center of such consumer packaged goods titans as Procter & Gamble, Unilever, and Kraft– get so constrained?

We can blame managment. Marketing strategy– the segmentation, targeting, and careful positioning of promotional and advertising messages– has been the very core and key of what differentiates marketing from other fields. But, gradually, these techniques have been so successful that they been appropriated by general managers and management fields.

Fulfilling your customer? That’s not the job of marketers, that’s the job of all managers in organization, as Peter Drucker reminded us over a half century ago. Knowing your customer? That careful segmentation, that deliberate decision-making around the choice of target: that is now the terrain of the C-Suite and the Executive VPs.

We can blame design. Thanks to the success of design-oriented firms like Apple and IDEO, design as a field is gaining in prominence and popularity. But some of the so-called “design thinking” rebottles old marketing wisdom in shiny new ‘design-labeled’ bottles. User-oriented design used to be called customer centered product development. User-oriented research uses many of the same ethnographic and qualitative methods established in marketing research since the 1960s. Designers, along with R&D, product planning and other technology experts, have taken marketing’s chair at the innovation table.

We can blame the Internet. Thanks to the Internet, my Chicago Cubs online forum, my social media marketers Twitter feed, my friends and family Facebook group, my list of ten favorite bloggers and my digg newsfeed have more sway over my attention, and probably my purchase decisions, than the marketer’s purchased and obviously biased advertising. Consumers are increasingly making their consumption decisions after consulting with other consumers through online communities. Want to see a movie? Check the ratings and comments on Want to buy a new computer? Check the online forums to see if anyone reports any problems. A car? Don’t even think of buying it before you check the online forums for hot tips.

In the new world of digital word-of-mouth, marketers become just one voice among many, their broadcast megaphone removed, their once omnipresent shouting and flash power overwhelmed by consumer groups’ ability to create, filter, siphon, direct, communicate, legitimate, authenticate, transform, and debate all manner of text, image, and video information relating to whatever might tickle their collective fancy.

So where does that leave marketers? In a tight spot, for certain. Undervalued. Unappreciated. Unacknowledged for all that they have to offer. Relegated to the outmoded modes of advertising and sales, marketers’ cart is hitched to two dying breeds.

But where does that leave marketing? Ah, there’s the paradox. Because the essence of marketing has never been more vital, more valuable, or more alive. Relegated to outmoded modes of advertising and sales, the modern marketers’ cart is hitched to two dying breeds.

The walls that once separated marketers and consumers are crumbling. And marketing is the one field set up perfectly with the tools to help general managers understand and cope with this completely new reality.

Consumers are gaining power. Information exchanges between consumers and other consumers, as well as between companies and their consumers, are becoming more frequent. They are growing in depth and scope. The veneer of artificial and inauthentic “marketing”–the plastic portrayal of happy consumers happily consuming brands– is being peeled away, word by word, bit by bit.

What will be left when the wall is finished crumbling will be empowered consumers and surprised managers standing face-to-face, staring at each other. At that point, which we are quickly approaching, real understanding will be vital. In this bold new world where the obfuscating curtain has been pulled back, managers who take to heart marketing’s core principles, strategies, research techniques and methodologies, who understand brands and management, will have a distinct advantage.

Marketing will die. But, in its place, an exciting new field of consumer-centric management will be born. All managers will need to be marketers in thought and deed, astutely measuring and communicating with consumers on a day-to-day and even moment-to-moment basis.

Marketing and marketers will need to permeate the company as new, open, organizational structures, based upon cultural contexts, consumer segments and trends are found more nimble and effective than old silos and brand-based management. They will employ consumer-understanding specialists, as chipmaker Intel Corp. does with its now-well-established User Experience group, staffed by eight consumer anthropologists.

Consumer-centric managers will begin to develop and distribute intelligent new analytical tools, such as Palo Alto’s Netbase, keeping managers on top of the millions of word-of-mouth conversations flowing around the Internet.

These managers will provide continually refreshing yet powerfully branded platforms for a constantly changing and customizable array of consumer-oriented tools. Just looks at what Apple’s App Store or its iTunes offerings, or Google’s Android are building. Over time, these stacked platforms are incredibly difficult to compete against.

Consumer-centric managers will adopt transparency management and crowd-sourcing models like those of skinnyCorp and its Threadless T-shirts, or Etsy and its creative community, to bring the corporation into closer alignment with the power of consumer tribes. They will be insiders who also work outside, community members who communicate and build social value in ever-expanding and collaborative social media networks.

The perspective-previously-known-as-‘Marketing’ will move from an emphasis on internally defined segments to those defined by the consumers themselves. Who are we? We’re beer geeks, okay? We spend hours a day and thousands of dollars brewing our own home brews. And that’s how we want to be addressed from now on.

With an ever-expanding array of tools, techniques, and feedback mechanisms to endlessly deepen their understanding of, and communication with consumer groups such as the beer geeks, as they do business with them, microsocial-managers will arrive at the point where the inside and outsides of the company will become completely blurred.

Who speaks to the community online? Who communicates to the ever-expanding, ever-important networks of social media? Who handles the job of understanding and interacting with the omnipresent consumer of the business’s products and services? The consumer-centric manager, that’s who.

The Post-marketing field of ‘Marketing’ will move towards a more holistic view of the product or service, capable of handling every aspect of its development and continual refinement, from cradle to grave.

Evangelical managers and their Chief Ethnographic Officers will pioneer and champion new technologies and approaches, test them, visualize consumers’ intertwining consumption patterns, then plan every aspect of the product’s communal release and communication into a complex of local, regional and global cultural, political and economic environments — cutting to the very soul of The New Marketing.

And so, emerging from the still-hot embers of marketing’s implosion will be a brilliant new age of consumer-centric management.  I don’t know about you, Gentle Brandthroposophy Readers, but I can hardly wait for it to get here.

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