Helen Edwards on Branding: On the road to know-how

Helen Edwards on Branding
Helen Edwards on Branding

Marketers can gain a vital insight into customer behaviour by accompanying their sales teams.

When was the last time you got out on the road with your sales people?

When did you last meet customers where they work or shop, rather than peering at them from behind the mirror of the research-viewing facility, glass of chardonnay in hand?

If you happen to be at the beginning of your marketing career, it might well have been quite recently, as part of your induction process. The tough sales call, with a sporting chance of having a door slammed in your face, has long been an industry rite of passage.

If you're a senior marketer, however, it's more likely that you've not clocked up many miles alongside your sales reps in recent years, or perhaps not even within recent career hops.

Why, indeed, should you? Marketing is a very different thing from sales, as the academic Theodore Levitt classically observed in his landmark 1960 paper, 'Marketing Myopia' (see 30 seconds on ...). 'Selling focuses on the needs of the seller,' he stated. 'Marketing on the needs of the buyer.'

Some purists even object to their departments being referred to as 'sales and marketing', claiming that it is no more rational than naming a department 'finance and despatch'.

Marketers, in this paradigm, are permitted to sit above things, forming relationships with agencies and researchers, seeking insights into customers through the lens of the research debrief, but not up close and personal, if you please.

Who can blame them? The agency meeting room is a more agreeable prospect than manning an in-store demonstrator stand, or sitting opposite a cold-hearted professional buyer.

Could these stay-at-base marketers be missing something, though? Are there marketing truths best discovered on the road? I'll venture three.

First, you see what customers are like when their guard is up. In focus groups, or depth interviews, respondents can sometimes be a little too relaxed. You might as well know how objections feel in the marketplace, expressed in clipped, uncompromising language or, worse, a 'so-what' shrug.

Second, the solution to complex marketing problems can sometimes be glimpsed from a customer interaction. In theory, you could simply talk to your sales staff about customers, rather than accompanying them, but they are often blunted to the marketing significance of what, for them, are everyday exchanges. There's nothing quite like getting out of the office yourself, and allowing the serendipity of a chance encounter or customer remark to set the cognitive wheels whirring.

Third, it's not all about the end customer. Sales teams are marketing's first, internal customers. Unless you get them on board with your brand strategy, they will not do it justice when they expose it further along the buying chain. Spending time on the road with them is a way to understand the chall-enges they experience at 'the sharp end'.

In any case, there is that big conference to think about - the one where you stand up and present your new marketing initiative, showcasing the brilliant thinking that has emerged from all your research, insight-mining, and creative-agency endeavour.

There is always one salesperson who will stand up and, with weary scepticism only too apparent, ask you whether you had actually bothered to get out there on the road before coming up with all this stuff. I can tell you from experience, it is very useful to be able to say 'yes'.

Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand, where she works with some of the world's biggest advertisers.

30 SECONDS ON ... Theodore Levitt

- Theodore Levitt was a hugely influential figure in the world of marketing. He joined Harvard Business School (HBS) in 1959, where he gained international status as a writer, scholar and teacher, before becoming editor of Harvard Business Review (HBR) in 1985.

- Marketing Myopia, his seminal HBR paper published in 1960, was a runaway success. It received 35,000 reprint requests from 1000 different companies soon after its publication, and has since sold well over 850,000 reprints worldwide, making it one of the best-selling HBR articles.

- Levitt was the author of 25 articles and eight books, including Innovation in Marketing (1962) and The Marketing Imagination (1983).

- Born in Germany, Levitt and his family left the country during the Nazi regime, when he was 10 years old, for Dayton, Ohio, where he landed his first job as editor - for a school newspaper - during elementary school.

- His teaching style at HBS was unforgettable. Described as part pedagogy, part theatre, he would walk around the classroom aisles and throw chalk at the blackboard (or at students on occasion).

- In his last public appearance in 2003, Levitt held forth in a videotaped discussion about globalisation. He died, at the age of 81, in June 2006.

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