From fads and trends blah-blah to hard working marketing

A great brand never killed a business but a bad business destroyed many iconic brands, writes Shubhranshu Singh in this week's Simply Speaking column for Storyboard18.

By  Shubhranshu SinghApr 1, 2024 6:26 PM
From fads and trends blah-blah to hard working marketing
In marketing, as in all businesses, the adage holds the truth: "Shortcuts make long delays." Lasting success relies on taking the more difficult but rewarding path of building relationships through trust earned step-by-step over time, writes Shubhranshu Singh. (Image source: Unsplash)

I was at more than a few ‘summits’ this past month and I saw the glib irrelevance to which marketers have reduced themselves play out on stage again and again. I felt like laughing and crying at the same time. I am a business leader and a marketer. Earlier to my present dual role, I have spent a career in businesses run by marketers. I wasn’t taught to distinguish between the business and brand realities.

Brand and business are two frames for the same reality. We are living in times when more will change than ever before and in a shorter time than we have imagined. Disruption is not any longer a violent, cataclysmic change but a routine occurrence, emerging from hitherto unanticipated quarters. Marketers must understand, promote and deliver innovation that is - hopefully - disruptive in a value creating sense.

The seed of disruption lies in innovation. Innovation needs disciplined experimentation. But before you experiment you need a hypothesis - Can your marketing team generate enough? Are they trained in consumer shoes? Is there insularity or openness in developing brand building programs? Are you acting today with tomorrow’s logic or with yesterday’s logic? Progress heads, like a river, only in one direction. So does time. Therefore the only scientific basis for the proof of progress is the validation of ideas via experimentation and its consistency in results.

Experimenting should be done on business essentials. Only then can we expect faithful abiding by the results. Manifest reliable results on scale. One can’t race a speedboat in one’s bathtub. In a spray and pray model, success remains a lottery – the survival of the lucky few by a cosmic draw of lots.

In many brand unconscious businesses, marketing can be seen as indulgent, peripheral and non serious. Digital has made it more tactical and ephemeral. Being obsessed about clicks, swipes and likes without considering the return journey back to real business outcomes.

Much of marketing today slides down into a rabbit hole in a frenzy of activities without an agreement on business asks. Then, detached from business, they mouth purpose, authenticity, empathy, etc which makes them appear unconcerned and self-indulgent. On a voyage without a destination, these ‘blah boats’ inevitably careen over to a beach that doubles as a graveyard. Leaders compound this dysfunction through chronic underinvestment and understaffing of capabilities.

Good marketing balances both art and science to form resonant connections between companies and consumers. Bad marketing relies on guesswork and superficial cleverness without a deeper purpose. This disparity fundamentally impacts everything from profit to brand sustainability to lasting consumer relationships.

Every business leader today bears responsibility for fostering good marketing. And marketers need to invite criticism, challenge and rejection. Instead of living in a small echo chamber, they need to deliver the business results and get every function in business on board. Inviting dissent while analysing and generating options may be the right way forward.

Much of the criticism about marketing is also concerning ‘hype today, never heard of again’ so internal communication is critical as is bringing about objective closure. Good marketers take the long view, with a long-term vision, to anticipate future needs instead of simply reacting to urgent requests. They understand the difference between activity and results. Rather than chasing quick wins like social media milestones, they focus on driving key performance indicators (KPIs) that matter: pipeline generation, customer acquisition, and revenue.

Cisco CEO John Chambers once cautioned employees: “I don’t confuse hard work with results.” Chambers understood that meaningless activity is useless without outcomes. Superficial publicity tactics should never disguise what’s inside the marketing theatre. If efforts do not yield measurable strategic gains, companies must refocus priorities rather than celebrating the empty facade of progress.

Unfortunately, the misdirected activity of light weight, jargon heavy, trend obsessed ‘light marketing’ dominates the external communication about what matters. Since they are much celebrated, inconsequential activities displace essential campaigns amidst daily fire drills. Quick fixes override long-term goals. Departmental silos suppress customer needs. Yet this culture thrives because bad marketing thrives by camouflaging itself in contemporary priorities. It flourishes by mimicking the forms of strategic marketing - the dashboards, slogans, and buzzwords - without the substance.

But Chambers’ wisdom holds the answer: link all marketing directly to measurable business outcomes. Align culture and leadership to this standard while ignoring the theatre. Then, channel resources toward work generating pipeline, revenue, and acquisition wins rather than fleeting buzz.

“The most common source of management mistakes is not the failure to find the right answers. It is the failure to ask the right questions." Wrote Peter Drucker.

Indeed the only question that eventually matters is about result outcomes.

When in doubt ask ‘why’ before ‘what’s and ask ‘how much’ before ‘how’. One should practice a data-driven approach and conduct A/B tests. The marketing leader is also the data keeper and information lead. Action without testing invites failure.

The dangers of 'bad marketing' stem not just from wasted budgets or missed opportunities but also from mediocre talent that violates customer trust. Ed Catmull of Pixar got it right when he said: “Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better. If you get the team right, chances are they will get the ideas right.”

The bone marrow of branding is TRUST. In an era of unprecedented corporate access to consumer data, marketers bear immense responsibility for transparency, privacy, and consent issues. Yet headline after headline reveals brands overstepping boundaries in shady data practices or manipulative targeting. Such ethical missteps produce disastrous consequences that outweigh any short-term gains.

Authentic branding comes from listening to stakeholders' needs instead of talking to them through one-way messages. It comes from building a community - both inside and outside company walls - based on inclusivity, diversity, and care for all people affected by the brand. And it comes from decisive leadership commitment to restraint when legality and ethicality diverge.

Finally a word about risk aversion. It’s an endemic issue. It’s safest when you do what others have done or do what you’ve done before. No wonder the marketing herd falling prey to the carnivores of circumstances. Opportunity is as important as risk. Risk won’t kill you or your project if the upside breaks forth in green shoots. For fat-tailed risk, it’s crucial to spot and eliminate dangers at source. Successful marketing leaders focus on not losing, every day, while keeping a keen eye on the prize.

In marketing, as in all businesses, the adage holds the truth: "Shortcuts make long delays." Lasting success relies on taking the more difficult but rewarding path of building relationships through trust earned step-by-step over time.

Shubhranshu Singh is vice president, Chief Marketing Officer, Tata Motors CVBU. He writes Simply Speaking, a column on Storyboard18. Views expressed are personal.

First Published on Apr 1, 2024 8:28 AM

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