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Marketing is NOT dead….believe it!

‘Can Asians Think?’ – that was the title of the book written by Kishore Mahbubani, a thought leader, a former Diplomat and today, the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. The book’s title is rather provocative and certainly attention grabbing. It caught my attention which is why I gave it a good read. And a good read it was – providing some great context and perspectives to arguments that support the statement, that goes against the statement and arguments that sit on the fence taking a neutral stance. But the provocative nature of the title of the book represents the oldest and most traditional forms of marketing – sensationalize the headlines and grab the attention.

And recently, that’s what an article on HBR did as well. The title of the article read – Marketing is Dead by Bill Lee – and it appeared on August 9th. A stunning headline that grabbed the attention of many and generated a large number of conversations on the blog. There were some great perspectives but the article generally evolved to claim that traditional marketing is dead. A valid claim but something I’d challenge, having worked in both developed and developing regions. This post might not make it to HBR but I’d thought I’d share a little perspective, from the East.

There is a complex chemistry of change taking place today in the Marketing world. A change driven by the ‘Consumerization of IT’ which today in my opinion, is going one full circle leading to the ‘IT-ization of the Consumer’, where IT dominates the everyday lives of the consumer. The power a large organization once had from the time of the Industrial Age is now gone and where it still stubbornly exists is being severely challenged. From the Industrial Age once upon a time to the Social Age today – technology is at the core of this change and has democratized power, control and influence; In the course of it – empowering consumers and giving them a voice and in many instances, a faceless one. And this evolution has driven significant change in the discipline of marketing but it’s not killed it!

With this new sense of empowerment, consumers today now have easy access to information, opinions and knowledge in general which in the past resided with the big and powerful. With knowledge comes power and with power comes the ability to exercise one’s voice – to the benefit or detriment of the brand. And this has given rise to a whole new form of activity on the internet leading to marketers having to deal with a new phenomenon. A phenomenon where the journey goes from generating insights to ultimately, advocacy for the brand thru great new experiences, conversations and engagement, all enabled by various technology solutions. And that will require engaging communities, listening to what’s being said, participating in conversations with a genuine curiosity to want to hear from the customers, getting consumers engaged in the process, engaging the most vocal ensuring they become your biggest fans, etc…. Technology has given birth to new, easy and very accessible ways for the everyday person to communicate, engage and share. Whether it’s the web, social media, blogs, forums, etc… They are all new ways for consumers to talk and express themselves – in full disclosure and anonymity. Sounds simple enough? I reckon so, but what sounds simple isn’t really so. The technology paradox is whilst life gets easier for consumers; it’s actually getting harder for businesses. The change is significant and to some obvious. Implementing this change is more significant. And figuring out how to innovate when platforms keep changing – that’s an even more significant challenge. Where should one begin?

And speaking from experience, the theory is obvious but the practical implementation is not. Traditionalists exist in every organization – not just in terms of the physical being but in terms of mindsets. Transforming the way one markets requires strong leadership and change management. It requires business leaders to ask the most fundamental question – What is the role of Marketing in my organization today? Answering this question and coming to a common agreement is critical as it will mean dealing with change in culture, capability of marketers, & the function of marketing whilst still delivering on the business!

I won’t attempt to answer this question in this blog post today. But it’s clear – marketing as a discipline has, is and will continue to evolve. It cannot be a complete science and neither can it be a complete art. The two will need to co-exist. Just like the new forms of marketing thru digital will need to co-exist with traditional forms of marketing. Traditional forms of marketing are still alive and kicking – more in some parts of the world than others. Hosting events, engaging influencers thru face to face interactions, bringing audiences in for seminars, organizing tours and workshops, organizing summits, just to name a few are all forms of traditional marketing.

The difference is that you can now be more targeted in your messaging and invites, you can scale your marketing efforts in a digital or viral form to reach many, and you have a stronger ability to measure impact! But the reality still stays that the old and the new must co-exist. Even in high digital content driven business like ESPN – they still hold public events, etc… They deliver great sporting digital experiences – but continue to host live events to promote various sports! Human engagement cannot be completely replaced by digital interactions. Emerging economies in return have a different dynamic from their more mature counterparts. Countries like Indonesia still have a huge amount of advertising taking place thru traditional formats.

There are other complexities that such economies need to overcome (like infrastructure for instance) before they can see broader and more widespread adoption of digital forms of marketing. And from a demographic perspective, there’s been a lot of discussion about the growing middle class and their natural adoption and use of tech. But let’s not forget the growing aged population that’s plaguing many developed countries like Singapore – these folks are not digitally native but have the consumption power. Just going digital will not be enough to win over their hearts, minds and wallets!

There are many reports that can be quoted to support various arguments. But I choose to share some thoughts based on experience having worked in both emerging and mature markets and having been in the throngs of driving change and coping with this evolution of marketing. The co-existence of traditional and new forms of marketing is essential. The mix will depend on the markets and the industry in which you operate in. Organizations must get their heads around this change, embrace and evolve. Boards must start to combine the exuberance of youth with the experience of age if they are to change and thrive in the Social Age.

The social age has increased connectivity and given organizations a beautiful chance to crowd source ideas, solutions and make their customers a part of their success. Never has there been such an opportunity to do this at scale. But we need to do so with the customer in mind. And sometimes, in doing so, it may mean using traditional means, just like how the Dabbawalas do in India. These groups of people called the Dabbawalas pick up food in a tiffin box from the homes of office workers, from various places in Mumbai and deliver them in an organized and timely fashion everyday, despite the heavy Mumbai traffic, for lunch. Everyday, approximately 170,000 meals get delivered with a 99.99% success rate. That’s higher than the up time of some servers in certain organizations! And from speaking to various people and through many readings, this is a phenomenon that is being studied in the world of management consulting – where there is a lot of work taking place to research and better understand ways to drive teamwork, time discipline and human and social inventiveness without the use of technology.

Emerging economies yesterday and today provide a different challenge for marketers. On Sunday, April 6, 2003 – some time ago I acknowledge – American ground forces were getting in position on the outskirts of Baghdad, about to make their final assault on Saddam Hussein’s capital. At that time, I quote, “34 million copies of a magazine featuring Greg Mortenson’s picture on the cover and a headline declaring “He Fights Terror with Books” saturated the nation’s newspapers.” (Taken from the book Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin). This was a great example where good old fashion marketing needed to be employed to communicate a message to millions. We can’t call a sport where only teams from the US and/or Canada compete, the World Series. Likewise, we can’t say traditional marketing is dead when one size of marketing doesn’t fit all types of markets.

The doomsayers many years back said that software is dead. Today, both on premise software and cloud computing co-exists and the ecosystem continues to thrive. And in the same token, both traditional and digital will co-exist. The marketing discipline will continue to evolve. Charles Darwin says it well – “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” And change is genuinely the only thing that will be constant. And if you want to win, than the curiosity of experimentation and learning must be a core competency, for the individual and the organization. And with this change, there is a new currency that is emerging. A currency all organizations and marketers must work hard to earn. The currency of TRUST! A currency that can be earned through both facades of marketing, old and new.

And, yes – I do believe Asians can think, contribute thought provoking views and provide perspectives that can help drive the co-existence of eastern and western cultures, values and mental models, in the borderless world we all live and operate in!

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