Marketing is fundamentally the communication of value. Some people reduce it to sloganeering and jingles and advertising, but that’s really just a tiny bit of the entire beast.
A marketplace is a network of relationships where goods and services (and ideas) are exchanged. There are certain rules of engagement that emerge that we take for granted- rule of law, the value of money, financial services, and so on.
If marketing is the communication of value, what is communication and what is value? How is value agreed upon and how is it communicated?
Marketing happens even in a world without marketing professionals. Everybody is a marketer. Everybody is communicating value every single day with almost every single action we take. The role of a marketing professional, or of marketing itself in the context of this discussion, is to hack the process. To make it something that is deliberate and understandable rather than vague and happenstance. You could say that a marketer is an idea-communications-hacker, but ew, what an ugly term.
Marketing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Marketing is about the spreading of an idea. We are all idea-peddlers whether we like it or not, whether we realize it or not. We all have things that we like and don’t like, and we’re all communicating our version of reality to ourselves and one another all the time.
I dare say that effectiveness in this regard is fundamental to the flourishing of a human individual. Being able to influence reality by communicating ideas in a manner that’s persuasive. That’s very empowering. Imagine if you could have all your ideas and perspectives well-understood and appreciated by everybody around you. What would that be like?
Of course, nobody is always right all the time, and you may discover that your ideas and perspectives are actually shit- they don’t correspond with reality and they aren’t useful or meaningful to people. There’s a slight possibility that you might simply be decades ahead of your time, but more often than not you need to revise your ideas. Bad marketers refuse to do this, and that’s where we get terms like “spin-doctors”. Communication is a two-way process and you can’t simply force your ideas and products down people’s throats- you have to find out what they want (and often, as Ford and Jobs have pointed out, people don’t actually know what exactly they want). You have to find out what they want and give it to them.
That’s the exciting challenge of marketing- done right, it means making the world a better place. The problem is that few people are willing to sit down and yield themselves to this process beyond their immediate wants- you want more sales so you hire a marketer and ask her to help you force your shitty product down more people’s throats. I think an enlightened marketer needs to say, first and foremost, that I cannot and will not sell something that I don’t personally believe is a good thing.
This isn’t idealistic kumbayah stuff- good marketing is grounded in real value. We could get into a discussion about what real value is, I guess. I’ll just say that where I stand, it makes far more sense to market electric cars than it does to market tobacco products.
But you know what, marketers aren’t at the frontlines of marketing either product. Jimmy Wales said on Quora that a Tesla is more prestigious than a Rolls-Royce or a Bentley. Tony Stark drove off at the end of The Avengers in a Tesla roadster. I’m not sure if Tesla paid for the shout-out in the latter, but they surely didn’t in the former. (Well… it could be complicated. Maybe Jimmy Wales owns Tesla stock. But the question then arises- IF Jimbo has Tesla stock, why did he buy it? Nobody paid him to do it- the Tesla itself did it. Elon Musk did it just by being Elon Musk.)
Same for cigarettes- most people pick up smoking (I did, anyway) because of peer influence. Tobacco companies didn’t pay my friends to smoke. Create something compelling enough and people will pay YOU for the privilege of talking about your product and your ideas. BMW has a marketing department called engineering.
Marketing is the communicating of value, and lots of people naturally distrust most marketers. (I could be gloriously wrong about this. You coukd survey people and find that they say they distrust marketers, but find that their purchasing decisions tell a different story.) Okay so maybe people will say that they’re distrustful of marketers, but they’re still influenced by familiarity and recency. Oreo has put out some witty advertising on their Facebook page lately. I might say that this has no influence on whether I buy some Oreo soon or not, but I could be totally wrong.
But here’s the point I really wanted to make- whether people listen to marketers or not, people definitely listen to their friends. We watch the movies that our friends watch, so that we have something to talk about. If value were something that were passed from person to person- a Dawkinsian meme- it would make up the bulk of the collective conversation. This is at the heart of tribe marketing or referral marketing or community marketing… or really, this is just what marketing is about and was always about.
Marketing is about the communication of value. The bulk of communication isn’t b2c but p2p. The goal of every marketer then is to communicate great ideas to people so effectively that they have to talk about it to all their friends. Simple concept, requires a lot of humility and patience and listening to execute. This is why Converse and RedBull make contributions to their communities without demanding sales in return. You can’t really force people to buy stuff anymore, if you ever could.
In the land of the idea-peddlers the ideasmith is king. How do you create something that people can share easily? Urban legends spread without any designated marketing effort because they’re so damn sticky, visceral, frightening, spooky, troubling… you just have to tell them to other people. The usefulness here is the social utility of a cool story. (Remember that Subway guy who lost a bunch of weight eating Subway everyday? What a memorable story- counterintuitive and compelling.)
Starbucks doesn’t pay celebrities to buy their drinks, so why do they keep getting photographed by paparazzi with a Starbucks drink in hand? Starbucks doesn’t sell coffee. They’re not in the coffee business.
I really do think it’s better for the world if everybody understood marketing better. How to craft something that’s compelling and worth talking about. The actual craftsmanship is a whole other skillset, but how sad is it to realize that people build stuff (to sell) that others might not care for? I honestly do feel some irritation and annoyance everytime I see a crappy online store because it’s such a waste, such a shame. A wasted opportunity to do something exciting and meaningful.
Referral marketing isn’t anything new or vogue, it’s a boring, simple idea that’s worked as long as people have existed. People tell other people about stuff that they like. The idea of incentivizing that isn’t too new either- tell us who referred you and we’ll give them a discount. That’s called a referral program. What’s somewhat new is the development of automated referral programs in ecommerce. And that’s what I’m working in. It’s fun. Ok I reached work kbye