In the middle of the 20th century, marketing and advertising were easy. Three major television networks directed us to a handful of brand choices at the grocery store, and big box retailers were decades away. Simplicity ruled. Simplicity of communication channels. Simplicity of product choice.
Today market advisors encourage companies to actively engage the newest forms of communication, because the old forms of communication no longer suffice. New social media demands that we all say something to our customers in order to stay relevant and top-of-mind. So small-to-midsize business executives that still can’t figure out how to operate their computers without calling the IT department for their own personal MacGyver are now trying to figure out how to make friends on Facebook, tweet on Twitter, and add their work history on LinkedIn. I suspect that many of them – unless they pay someone to monitor their social networking for them – end up with 14 friends on Facebook and a profile on Twitter that looks like 150 following, 72 followers and 4 posts. Big corporate executives don’t even struggle with this step. They assign the marketing department to set up accounts on all these services. But they fail to share strategy goals in a meaningful way, so the marketing department approaches social media as another form of advertising. And the tweet goes on.
There is something significantly different about marketing now than marketing 40 years ago – something beyond the plethora of channel and brand choices. Back then, we all watched the same primetime television shows, during which we were told which products we could and should trust when cleaning, feeding, and caring for our families. Our social relationships were fairly fixed. We generally lived near not only our families, but also the people we went to high school and grade school with. We worked with the same people for 15, 20, 30 years. Why does that matter? Because what we bought, used, and displayed had influence on our friends, neighbors, and family – they knew us enough to trust us.
So when Donna Reed told you to eat Campbell’s Soup, it came, not from the star of a reality show you may never have watched, but from the personality of a home-town girl you had grown to love after watching her movies and television shows. When your father said “we don’t buy Cadillacs, we buy Fords,” that statement informed your personal identity. And when the sugar your neighbor lent you was G&H, you realized that it would be important to lend the same thing back when she asked.
In other words, we had inferred relationships with the products we purchased because we had relationships with the people who sold them to us.
But even as the iconoclast Marshall McLuhan tried to warn us about how media would ultimately shape our understanding of the world and indeed, the world itself, the economics of globalization were creating confusion between the concepts of comparative advantage and competitive advantage, and the result was an explosion of just-like-me products and undifferentiated services. Unable to sell any inherent value, marketing became about selling. This was when SPAM actually began.
Marshall McLuhan’s argument went beyond how media was changing the world. He demonstrated that the decentralization of modern living would ultimately thrust human experience back to the life of the tribe.
Our customers no longer trust marketing, which they perceive to be synonymous with advertising. It’s not. But as we stretched our understanding of business communications to encompass progressively more media channels, we thinned its content to a mere schmear of superficiality. Nearly all modern advertising presents product, price and place, with a superficial nod to style, design, or sex appeal. None of which contribute to relationships.
Without the support of wild growth based on expansion, we must return to offering things of inherent, comparative value. Relationships are once again essential to business success. Relationships within the business, and relationships with the customers, vendors, and communities the business depends on. But has our understanding of relationship become superficial as well? Is paying on time a good relationship, or just a component of a good relationship? Is delivering on time at the promised price a relationship, or a common courtesy? Is giving the customer in-depth product information a relationship, or a savvy business move?
Each industry, community, and business must manifest this concept in different ways. Before I offer specific suggestions for marketing through business relationships, I’d like you to have a chance to consider these ideas for yourself. I hope you’ll join me tomorrow for Part II of this discussion.
© 2009. Andrea M. Hill