This story originally appeared on Forbes.com on September 29, 2021.
Over the last 20 years, I’ve been lucky enough to play in a wide variety of positions across the field of marketing. More recently, I’ve started to realize that this “game” isn’t what most people think it is. Through my work on culture and change, I believe that this misperception is causing many leaders to ignore marketing’s true value.
Let me explain.
Imagine a group of brilliant automotive engineers designing cool features into a groundbreaking new car. Compulsive tinkerers, they optimize for granular personalization with all the bells and whistles they’d want if they were designing it just for themselves.
They build the car, then hand things over to the marketers to convince customers these features are what they want, too — and that they should pay a premium for them.
While this might sound like the root of a solid marketing campaign, this scenario has the role of marketing upside-down. Great marketing always starts with the customer, not the brand or product. Yet many change leaders still start with the thing a company wants to do, then try to persuade employees that they want it, too.
What Good Marketing Is Not
At a basic level, many people understand marketing as one of its outputs: the TV ad featuring a movie star driving the new car, a voiceover delivering breathless words about adventure.
Some think marketing’s goals are inflationary, selling a good cup of coffee for the price of a great pint of beer.
Some think marketing places style over substance: premium packaging for a less-than-premium product or experience.
These assumptions all ignore how highly sophisticated consumers have become. Now, more than ever, people are highly trained BS detectors. Try to sell them with hype and they’ll cut through it instinctively. Need proof? Watch a teenager rapidly scroll by ads on Instagram. They approach brands jaded and wary of believing in them.
In a recent LinkedIn poll our firm conducted, two things bothered consumers most in a brand’s marketing:
• Hype: Falsely inflating the value of something beyond its actual worth to the consumer.
• Dishonesty: Making claims that are incongruous with the consumer’s lived experience.
And those savvy consumers? They’re also your employees, just as discerning on the job as anywhere else. They sit bored in town halls and scroll past company-wide emails with equal skepticism.
What We Think Good Marketing Is
The center of all great marketing is your audience — starting with people rather than product, brand or change initiative. It’s the orientation of everything a company does around the customer you seek to reach. Think this way, and everything matters — how you show up in every interaction, not just in your polished advertising.
Audience orientation starts with the realization that — as I wrote in a recent article — what matters to you does not necessarily matter to them.
Once you understand this, the direction of your thought process flips. Instead of starting with the product and figuring out how to sell it, you begin with the audience. Instead of starting with the plan for enterprise change, you begin with your employees and ask what they need to fulfill their true potential.
Those questions lead to insights that inform a compelling story, around which you craft a marketing campaign.
As Peter Drucker once said, “The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service fits him or her and sells itself.”
Do car buyers actually want a car with infinite software settings, or do they want to configure the structure of the car itself? Ask Ford, which is letting buyers customize their own Bronco.
Is customer loyalty deep enough to carry a brand into other categories? Colgate learned the hard way with its expansion beyond minty oral hygiene products to frozen dinners.
The answers are never self-evident. (You should be wary of any that seem so.) You have to go out and meet people, ask lots of good questions, listen well and test all of your hypotheses. See what it’s like inside their world, through their eyes.
This gives you insight into your audience: the foundation of any effective marketing campaign and of any successful change initiative, too.
Steve Jobs once said, “The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values, and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.”
Good marketing creates a story from audience insights — an honest yet emotional narrative in which customers or employees (never the brand, product or company) are the heroes.
A story is not a laundry list of fancy features you think they want. It’s not a rational argument for why they should choose your brand or support your plan for change.
A story is about their problems, their desires, their journey from struggle to hope, and empowering their success and satisfaction.
According to writer and digital marketing expert Ann Handley, “Good content isn’t about good storytelling. It’s about telling a true story well.”
Good marketing dedicates time, expertise and effort to craft a campaign that tells a story consistently over time, in a manner that’s interesting and inspiring to consumers, employees or anybody we want to engage.
Craft is the care good marketers give to every word and moment of interaction with their audience. Craft infuses every aspect of the customer or employee experience — the lighting in the car showroom or the precise blend of essential oils to leave your mouth feeling minty fresh — so that your message and your audience’s lived reality are completely aligned.
Insight, story and craft. When done right, they can transform apathy and ambivalence into caring and belief by connecting people to brands, products and visions that are genuinely valuable and meaningful to them.
It’s not remotely easy, but the continued successes of some major consumer brands demonstrate marketing’s potential. Leaders can enjoy the same long-term success as employees. Because, no matter what group of people you’re trying to reach, good marketing should inspire meaningful change.