Marketers used to be hunters - what happened?

Neurothinking principal, Dr. Peter Steidl
By Neurothinking principal, Dr. Peter Steidl | 1 August 2016
Neurothinking's Peter Steidl

Marketers used to be hunters. They were agile and focused on finding out what was happening around them – not by reading research reports but by observing, exploring and experimenting, training their own intuitive understanding of the market. Just like hunters they loved surveying virgin territory, seeking new trophies and fuelling new ideas.

But then something happened: marketing supposedly ‘came of age’ as some commentators put it. It was becoming more of a science, with facts and figures replacing intuition. The new generation of marketers proudly pointed to their stacks of research data, ignoring the very important fact that all research data is historical in nature.

Have marketers became settlers?

Settlers draw largely on the past. They work on yearly cycles when they sow their fields or harvest their crops. They take an incremental approach to this task. They are guided by what the market bought last year rather than exploring new opportunities elsewhere. They tend to follow common practice rather then develop their own approach. And they delegate innovation to other parties – generally the developers of agricultural equipment, fertilizer and seed companies.

What do marketers do?

They follow inflexible annual planning cycles, build incrementally on last year’s strategies, adopt conventional processes, concepts and strategies, and they tend to delegate innovation to consumers or to their agencies.
Marketers have become settlers. They have lost the thrill of the chase.

Let’s look at market segmentation as an example. Segmentation used to be an exploratory process. Marketers hunted for new ways of segmenting the market that would open up new strategic directions. This makes sense: there are literally hundreds of ways of segmenting a market, and the astute marketer ought to look for a unique segmentation approach that fits the particular qualities of their brand, opening up a unique perspective that serves as a catalyst for disruptive strategies.

Today, marketers tend to adopt a segmentation concept they buy from a research firm, typically selected on the basis that many other major firms also use that methodology. It’s more about managing risk by doing what others do than breaking convention and exploring new territory. ‘Let’s ask consumers what they want and give it to them’, or ‘let’s get the agency to come up with some great ideas’ seems to be all too common in today’s practice.

No matter that consumers don’t know what a marketer could potentially offer. They don’t understand marketing, nor the resources, capabilities, qualities or ambitions of the brand owner, technological trends, competitive trajectories or regulations, and they have no experience base they could draw on to set the marketer’s strategy.

Locked into a fragmented organisation

But even marketers who want to go back to the dynamic life of the hunter often find themselves stymied – locked into a fragmented organisation, a rigid planning and approval system, an inflexible set of suppliers who pursue their own ends, and staff who have been hired for technical expertise rather than their hunting skills.

I have no doubt that many marketers will accuse me of ignorance, arrogance or worse. But I also have no doubt that many marketers do know that they are saddled with structures, processes, suppliers and even staff that lock them into an unsatisfactory position. At the same time these marketers are under pressure to deliver an acceptable return on marketing investment in an increasingly difficult market.

But this is not the worst part of the story: marketing calcified during a period of growth that lasted for several decades. Being slow and cumbersome, inefficient, and locked into legacy systems isn’t a major problem when markets are growing. Remember the famous statement by Jeffrey R. Immelt, General Electric’s CEO: “Not only could anyone have run GE in the 1990s - a German Shepherd could have run GE.”

Consumer behaviour is impacted by global events

Today’s world is very different. Stalling, even declining growth has caused high unemployment and a fall in commodity prices, the value of shares and bonds, tax revenues, and the value of pension plans. Clearly, this has – or will soon have – a significant impact on consumer behaviour.

And this is only the start: now factor into the equation the refugee problem, terrorism, nationalism, increased military spending, the growing appeal of extreme right or left-wing political parties, corruption, a widening wealth gap creating a divided society and the possibility of another Cold War, and things start to look even less certain. On the horizon we see the impact of new technologies such as 3D printing, blockchains and artificial intelligence to name just three developments that will contribute to massive unemployement and de-stabilise some industry sectors.

Meanwhile politicians are talking about belt tightening and the media trumpet horror stories about the future. When times are uncertain consumers seek a leader that allows them to make sense of a confusing world but today we have a total leadership vacuum.

What we are witnessing is the emergence of a highly disruptive and unpredictable environment that will have a massive impact on consumer behaviour and make today’s conventions and practices irrelevant. Many marketers are still struggling with the digital revolution but what is just around the corner is going to be much more demanding – in fact I would suggest the most demanding operating environment today’s marketers have seen during their lifetime. In this environment agility will be more important than any other quality.

Marketing is next on the block

If a radical overhaul of the marketing function sounds like a pipe-dream consider the revolution manufacturing went through to move from an antiquated, inflexible, highly structured and siloed, slow to respond, expensive and cumbersome operation to today’s lean manufacturing, just-in-time, highly flexible and able to respond quickly and efficiently to changes in demand, often with multi-skilled staff that deliver much more advanced skills than ever before, using the latest technologies.

At the same time manufacturing had to demand new capabilities from its suppliers and force them to lift their expertise, expand their capabilities and, in some instances, reinvent themselves. The impact of the manufacturing sector has contributed significantly to corporate profits through increased productivity, cost efficiencies and flexibility.

Marketing is next on the block: it has to look at a massive transformation not unlike the one manufacturing went through toemerge as a highly cost-efficient and effective, adaptable and innovative operating unit – in other words, to bring the degree of agility to the table that will be a pre-requisite to future marketing success. For marketers it’s not just-in-time but first-in-time.

More about how to lift marketing’s agility in part two.

By Neurothinking principal, Dr. Peter Steidl

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