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Marketers can’t shake the Industrial Age

Marketers look a lot different today than they did 25 or 30 years ago when I first started covering them. Back then, they were virtually indistinguishable from executives in sales or even accounting. It was all blue or gray business suits for men or women—if you happened to run across a female VP of marketing, that is. (CMOs had not yet been invented.) Now influential marketers wear jeans and sneakers and are as apt to have started their professional lives as computer hackers as they did as P&G brand managers. Their companies have funny hybrid names with lower cases at the front and caps in the middle. They tweet and do data analytics. But you can’t fool Don E. Schultz. Marketers may be able to talk and dress a good game, but to him, they’re all still refugees of the Four P’s.

Schultz, this year’s winner of Caples’ Emerson Award, is hailed as the “Father of Integrated Marketing Communications.” At Northwestern University in the early 1980s, he and luminaries such as Dick Christian of Burson-Marstellar, Tom Harris of Golin Harris, and Ted Spiegel of Spiegel Catalogs put their heads together and decided that advertising agencies as they knew them were an endangered species. That customers as they knew them were a breed on the rise. And that marketers as they knew them had to change or perish.

 Schultz and company led a new department at the university, one that replaced its renowned graduate advertising program, and taught students an entirely new path to market. It wasn’t a one-way street, or even two-way, but a commercial communications cloverleaf that wove in and around marketers and their customers and supporting players in untold unique patterns. Marketers, professed Schultz and his cohorts, needed to learn to navigate a new landscape peopled by dynamic, ever-changing customers who could not be approached en masse. Yet 30 years later Schultz still sees marketers beating a well-worn path from factory to marketplace.

“Marketers are control freaks, and they don’t want to recognize that. Marketers have the product already in hand, they decide what the communications will be, they establish the distribution channels,” Schultz says. “But they’re losing control and that upsets them. They’ve lost control of the system, the brand. None of them are willing to admit they need to co-create with their customers and start to think about them as partners.”

Schultz holds that marketers are born linear, and linear is what they want to remain. Get the product, give it a price and brand identity, send it out to consumers—whether by TV ad or Facebook post or mobile email—and wait for consumers to respond. The problem is that marketers can’t control whom customers respond to. Very often these days, it’s to customer service, or tech support, or retail associates–“all people who don’t talk to marketing,” notes Schultz.

Product, price, place, promotion. Marketers have tattoos these days. They may as well tattoo those well-worn words on their forearms and have done with it.

“Part of the problem is that we’re talking about markets of one, but everything the marketer does is based on economies of scale,” Schultz says. “They’re using Industrial Age concepts to deal with a radically new market. The customer has all the access. The customer is the one who is going to create the funnel. Go to a search engine and enter the word bicycle and you’ll get 16 entries. Bikemaker, what are you going to tell customers that they can’t find?”

Schultz leaves marketers to ponder that question at seminars and lectures he still gives worldwide. Though still healthy and intellectually charged, he is 78 years old. A generation has passed since he and his fellow innovators set out to revolutionize the marketing world. But marketers who were not yet born when Schultz and his colleagues began their important work continue to go on about their business as if the integrated marketers had never existed. Schultz has a warning for them.

 “Marketing worked really well,” he says, “when consumers were dumb.”

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