5 Things to Know about Marketing

By Kevin Lane Keller

13 May 2016

This post originally appeared on the Marketing Science Institute website.

1. The customer is not necessarily “always in charge.”

The fact is, only some customers want to get involved with only some of their brands and, even then, only some of the time. It’s important for marketers to face that reality.

You too often hear these days that “the customer is in charge of marketing now.” As a result, some people almost abdicate their marketing role. I think that’s a total cop-out and an excuse to avoid trying to do some truly inspired and innovative marketing.

One schematic that I find very helpful in thinking about customers is what I call the “brand engagement pyramid”—a way to portray the level of engagement your customers have with your brand. At the top of the pyramid are those customers who want to be super-engaged with the brand; they want to do more than just buy the product—they want talk about the brand, tweet about it, visit the website, and maybe even wear the t-shirt.

But at the same time, there’s a huge base of the pyramid who want to do nothing more than purchase and consume the product—“choose and use”—and that’s it. It is really easy to get swept up with marketing to the customers at the top of the pyramid and ignore the needs of those at the base in the process. Both matter, but they need to be marketed to differently.

The key for marketers is to ensure that they understand, literally, the shape and dynamics of their brand engagement pyramid. How many are at the top? How many are at the base? What is the flow of influence across levels of the pyramid? Any trickle down?

Stepping back, an even bigger question is, what are you doing to understand other differences across consumers and to address that diversity in your marketing? Customers are more and more diverse. Making sure your marketing is robust enough to work with many different kinds of customers is really crucial. Integrated channels and communications that are effective and efficient are essential here.

2. Storytelling is nice, but great product and service experiences are even better.

Storytelling and abstract notions like brand purpose or mission can help make brands richer and make marketing more meaningful, but the real engine of customer satisfaction and loyalty is great products and services. There is a myth that “all products are the same” now, that you can’t differentiate yourself anymore in many markets. I just don’t buy that. This is classic marketing myopia, and it can become self-fulfilling. There’s always potential to improve the customer experience and find new ways to satisfy customer needs, and that is the core of marketing.

Social media can be helpful and can complement other marketing efforts, but at the core of successful marketing is almost always great product or service experiences. If you don’t have a great product or service, you can tell all the stories you want, but you will more often than not fail to satisfy customer’s most important needs.

I have seen this firsthand. I’ve worked with Ford on marketing projects on and off since 1980, and when they had great models—as in recent years with Fusion, Flex, Escape and so on—it changed how well they could market. When they didn’t have these kinds of vehicles, it was pretty tough going. Or take Nike. They are doing all kinds of things to revolutionize the athletic experience, but the product is always at the core—great technology and design-enhancing athletic experience. They create incredibly powerful emotions with their marketing, but they link them to their products. That’s the name of the game for Nike and a lesson to all.

3. Simplify, but don’t oversimplify. 

A lot of so-called experts try to make marketing very, very simple. Marketing or branding is all about this one concept or that one idea. For example, some pundits advocate a one-word brand essence to guide all marketing. Although the purity of purpose that such an approach suggests is admirable, it ignores the reality of customer and competitive dynamics. Brands are more complicated, people are more complicated, and marketing is more complicated. Most consumers consider multiple factors and multiple brands in making their choices. Strong brands are often richer than just “one big idea.” The success of Coca-Cola, McDonalds, BMW, and others through the years has not been about just one thing; there are multiple, compelling core brand values that have defined those brands.

At the other extreme, companies sometimes get caught up in too much complexity. They obsess on all the subtle differences that can exist across consumers, markets, competitors, and so on. Again, although attention to detail is laudable, marketers would be better off focusing on those core essential truths about consumers, competitors, and the marketplace as a whole and how they can make brand marketing sufficiently nuanced to be highly effective and efficient.

Striking the proper balance in planning and execution is so important in marketing. Academic thinking can really help here. As academics, we strive to offer theories, concepts, and frameworks to help marketers structure and solve problems in insightful and productive ways. For example, I have used a positioning model for years—defining points of parity and points of difference—that invariably helps companies better understand their brand strategies. There are many other simplifying tools that similarly provide richness and insight without over-complicating.

Frankly, this is where MSI plays a crucial role. So much of marketing is about asking the right questions, and the wisdom MSI collects and disseminates helps marketers think about how to approach and define their problems, and then how to move forward in the right direction.

4. There is no silver bullet in marketing. It’s all about mixing and matching.

Any particular marketing activity affects consumers differently at different stages of their decision journey. The art and science of marketing is pulling all these activities together in a thoughtful and creative way. That’s what brilliant marketers do—they thoroughly understand the consumer decision journey and provide an end-to-end marketing program that offers just the right information and experiences for customers every step of the way. In academia and industry, we tend to hone in and fine-tune different options—what makes a great app, how should marketers invest in Facebook vs. Twitter. That offers some helpful “bottom-up” analysis, but the reality is that you have to pull it all together. You need to also adopt a much more macro, “top down” view to fully integrate all marketing activities.

The good news is that there are so many touchpoints that marketers can integrate to help create that rich experience. A metaphor that I like a lot in thinking about marketing integration is painting. As a marketer, I’m trying to “paint a picture” of the brand in the minds and hearts of consumers. I want the richest, most vivid, most beautiful painting to represent my brand, so I’m not going to use only one color, one paintbrush. It won’t be compelling enough. I want to “mix and match” and skillfully combine and blend all the marketing that I do.

5. You have to strike a balance between continuity and change.

The best brands are constantly moving forward, but in the right direction and at the right pace. They are not necessarily always trying to take big leaps to do so. Nike is one of my all-time favorite brands. It’s remarkable what they’ve been able to achieve over the past 30 years. In a highly competitive marketplace, they constantly innovate with product development, balance customer acquisition and retention, and launch new marketing initiatives, all to make sure the brand is up-to-date and contemporary. 

The key to long-term success for any brand is to understand what to preserve—what makes the brand special—but to also recognize what things might need to change. Either too much change or not enough change is deadly. You have got to strike the balance between continuity and change through relevance and innovation. 

IBM is another great example. They’re willing to change in very fundamental ways, but there’s still this core analytical component to all that they do. That’s the key: staying fresh and relevant. It sounds simple, but it is one of the hardest things to do—to be continually moving forward.

I think extreme solutions are way oversold. I’m all about percentages and a balanced approach: mix and match, integrate, innovate and stay relevant, make sure the product experience is the core, understand customer diversity. As a marketer, you can cover a lot of ground if you just make sure you are always making steady progress.

Learn more about Tuck Executive Education