What we need in marketing today is more explorers than warriors: Suman Srivastava

May 30, 2016 / 0 Comment

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Marketing is not a science; unfortunately, it has become formulaic selling and it’s not working, Suman Srivastava tells Ritwik Sharma

In your book, Marketing Unplugged, you have refuted a number of marketing truisms. What are the major changes in the discipline in recent years that have compelled you to question them?

First of all, most of the tools that we use in marketing were invented in the ’60s or before. Now, ’60s was an era where there was basically FMCG, packaged goods was the main thing that was being advertised. The main medium of advertising was television and mass media. Obviously media has changed dramatically since then. The kind of categories that we deal with has changed with much more services, much more retail, and many new categories. Apart from that, the environment has changed in the sense that consumers are now much more savvy than they used to be, so they can see through the marketing tricks if you like. Everything is a lot more competitive now than it used to be. Even at that time some of the tenets that I am talking about such as “the consumer is rational” were followed. Actually, everybody knew consumers are not rational. But an assumption was made in economics because they didn’t know how to do the math. Today there is a whole branch of economics, behavioural economics, which does not assume that consumers are rational.

Similarly, we say that marketing is war. All our language around marketing is warlike – you win the share, you beat the competition, you mount campaign etc. Actually, when you think of books like Blue Ocean Strategy, it’s more about how you have to be an explorer rather than a warrior. If you think of the Indian Premier League, it is a combination of reality television and a cricket tournament. You have created a category which is perhaps the most valuable brand India has created in the 21st century. So, that is what is great about marketing – innovative marketing. These are the kind of tenets that I’m talking about. Increasingly, as (Paul) Polman of Unilever says, if brands don’t have purpose then brands are going to get killed. And increasingly now brands are saying, “What’s the purpose?” “Why do we exist?” and “What can you do for society?” Essentially I have looked at these tenets.

Why are marketers not making adjustments instead of sticking to theories that have been around for half a century?

It’s always hard to change ideas. You have a certain way of working and you continue with that. But the other thing is that marketing has always tried to become a science. And it’s almost like we think we want to be predictive so that how magically if you do some process you will always get success. Now, the reality is that even physics which is a science is not as predictive, it has unpredictability and principle of uncertainty (Heisenberg) and so on. The world is pretty unpredictable and when you start talking about human beings even more so, which is why somebody calculated that 88 per cent of all brands that are launched fail. If you look back and ask what are the biggest successes or strongest brands that have been created recently, you will find that none of them has come from so-called professional marketing companies. Basically, I am saying marketing is not a science, it is an art. What we need in marketing is more explorers rather than warriors.

The biggest guru of data is a guy called Nate Silver. In his book The Signal And The Noise, he says that if you think big data is going to give you some theory, some insights, you’re wrong. You have to start with the theory and then use data to prove the hypothesis. And people are being seduced by big data into thinking somehow magically it will tell them the right way to go. And that’s not true, that’s not going to happen. You have to still have your hunches, your insights, your theories, then you can use the data to prove or disprove that theory.

In digital world, access to big data could be disabling since you also claim that “marketing is not a science”, right?

That’s true. A financial services client sent out in one year 700 different campaigns directed at sales, based on insights that came from data. At the end of that, they came to us and said none of it’s working. The point is while data and analytics are quite sophisticated the solution wasn’t. The point is, do less of analytics and spend more on thinking and creativity, and come up with better ideas on how to target the customers.

Is there a conflict or discord between consultants who are armed with data today and marketers in terms of how they feed off each other?

I agree. There is this whole problem that marketing is getting a bad name, with consumers and also CEOs and business people saying it doesn’t work or “I don’t have time for marketing”. Increasingly, it’s becoming even more discount-led. There’s this whole thing that brands do not work etc. This is a wrong solution to the problem. Just because you create an ad doesn’t mean you are doing marketing. Just because you put a name to a product doesn’t mean it becomes a brand. Think about brands a little bit more deeply, you have to have that irrational insight if you like, more innovative. I would say marketing is basically innovative selling. What has happened unfortunately is that the innovation has gone out of marketing. And therefore, marketing has become formulaic selling and it’s obviously not working. If you change the formula and become innovative, I think it will work again.

What would you identify among ‘traditional’ marketing principles as most relevant today?

Actually when you get down to it, you can say that the 4Cs of marketing may still work. But the problem arises if you make it into some checklist. If you innovate, you can innovate around the product, around pricing. To be honest, it’s a catchy way to enter into the book, into the consumer’s mind rather than saying none of the principles work.

What are the key challenges for marketers in the internet and social media age?

The biggest challenge is to be relevant in a conversation. Everybody has figured that it’s all about community, conversation with consumers and so on. Just because you have the tools doesn’t mean you have to use all of them first of all. Why should you have a Facebook page, what role it’s going to play in your marketing campaign? Now we are faced with a situation where there are millions of mobile apps and we hardly use any. The biggest challenge for marketers is to not follow fads, but have a clear-cut strategy based on insights and ideas. Then everything will fall into place.

This article appeared in the Business Standard. You can see the original by clicking here


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