Surprise! Marketing is NOT about What the Customer Wants!

I bit my tongue when the instructor told our Social Media Marketing class that social media had changed marketing forever, because companies must listen to their customers now.

I don’t blame this young woman for believing she is witness to a revolution – every five to seven years, someone produces a bestselling book proclaiming the new secret to success: paying attention to the customer. The surprise is how many CEOs and Marketing VPs snap up these books and say, “Oh! Maybe we should try this!”

Emboldened by this new discovery, young marketing managers conduct focus groups, surveys, and research junkets to learn “what the customer wants.”

But anyone who has spent a single day working the front line already knows what the customer wants: everything, right now, for free.

Before you accuse me of a cavalier attitude, keep in mind that this marketing curmudgeon spent half his career at the front counter, face-to-face with customers. And I don’t mean the first half of my career – I’ve been blessed to work for companies that expect ALL executives to spend significant amounts of time serving customers directly. I doubt you will find many marketing execs who have walked as many miles in the frontline coworkers’ shoes.

So let’s cut the MBA jargon and remember the basics: We call it “marketing” because we study markets – the customer. The primary question is not what the customer wants, but what the customer wants to pay for. Really great marketing discovers what the customer is thrilled to pay for.

A while back, the New York Times tried to charge for its opinion page, which was a ludicrous idea, since opinions are the most abundant freebie on the web. If you’re going to sell what everyone else is giving away for free, you’d better know how to establish and promote the value proposition. Good luck.

A former coworker and exceptionally smart guy just launched a photography website that requires a membership fee for access to educational content, despite the fact that the web offers tons of similar content for free. That he initiated a dramatic membership discount this month suggests he may be facing the harsh truth that there is a huge gap between what customers want and what they are willing to pay for. Just ask the music industry.

I know all you marketing MBAs are concerned with brand equity and share of mind and psychographic positioning, but that’s because you’ve got to talk a good game for a couple of years until you get a more lucrative gig (escaping before you can be held accountable for your actions). I prefer to measure marketing by its contribution to profits. Now there’s a big revolutionary idea – marketing is supposed to help the company make money.

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2 Responses to Surprise! Marketing is NOT about What the Customer Wants!

  1. Emilia Doerr says:

    A.) You are not a curmudgeon! And B.) You make an excellent point that great marketing can definitely help you find out what your customer wants to actually pay ## for. But marketing can also serve your customers – in a way where you can serve your bottom line as well. This can be achieved in several ways, but most commonly by educating consumers on the value of your products and services – and the new media has given us tools that make this easier (and more FUN) than ever … whether you decide to give your music away for free (unsigned bands and platinum artists alike have both used this to strategically boost sales and $$ from endorsements) or issue free (there’s that word again!) content to help consumers learn more about you so they know what they’re paying for! It’s not necessarily a revolution, just a reminder that true marketing helps both the company and the consumer profit!

    • deanzat says:

      Right! The trick, as you’ve pointed out in class, is to know where each tactic fits in the strategy, and that the strategy itself serves the organization’s goals. Which always brings me back to profits…

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