The making of the marketing genius

If marketers are to take a central role in business, they need to turn consumer insight into radical innovation. Peter Fisk examines what it takes to be a marketing success.

Marketing needs more genius. The best marketers combine the scientific mind of an Albert Einstein with the creative touch of a Pablo Picasso to produce results that drive a business forward. But what does this mean in today's business environment? What is required of marketers?

Business needs marketing like never before. The best opportunities and biggest challenges for a business are external, not internal. Yet the majority of organisations focus on improving what they do, rather than responding to the outside world. The dangers are clear - in a fast-changing environment, incrementalism can swiftly lead to irrelevance.

This is where marketing comes in. It has the ability to provide the intelligence to make sense of complex markets and find the best opportunities, then supply the creativity to exploit them. In short, marketing transforms customer insight into the innovation that companies require, making it the driving force behind sustainable, profitable growth.

This role is all the more vital given the way business is developing.

Markets are global and fast-changing; some are converging, others fragmenting. As technology accelerates the pace of change, competition grows more intense, ideas are quickly imitated and advantage is temporary. Meanwhile, corporate ethics and the environment are rising up the agenda.

Apple is an example of a firm that used its marketing genius to turn this situation to its advantage. It watched the music market fragment and blur into chaos. As new technologies disrupted the industry model, old formats quickly became obsolete. Apple brought together an innovative solution in the form of hardware and software - the iPod and iTunes - to offer a way through this turmoil. It redefined the industry with a compelling, profitable product offering.

The music sector is indicative of how power has shifted to the customer. The economy has moved from surplus demand to surplus supply.

People typically have everything they need, so it is up to businesses to stimulate new desires. Consumers are bombarded with at least 1500 commercial stimuli every day and have access to an unprecedented range of media. The result is that they are better-informed than ever before, their expectations are sky-high and their loyalty is rare. The predictable behaviour patterns on which advertisers used to rely no longer apply.

Neuroscientists have found that consumers typically choose which brand to buy within 2.6 seconds - not long to turn marketing promises into profits.

Speed and timing, precision and clarity are today's communication imperatives.

Strategy breakdown

This complexity plays havoc with traditional marketing approaches. The obvious questions - which market are you in, who are your customers, what do they want, who are your competitors, what is your difference, where should you focus, what will happen next - no longer have simple answers.

Kodak used to know where it stood: it was the brand leader in photographic film. The markets, competitors, customers and products were all fairly predictable. For decades, camera film came in many formats and sizes, and everyone knew that Kodak film was the best. But 10 years later, with digital photography replacing traditional film, the company is confused.

It is not sure what market it is in, who the competitors are, what customers want, or on which products to focus.

Now cameras come from Sony or Dell. Images are stored on hard drives and shared by email. If you still want physical images, you can have them processed by Snapfish or Jessops, or printed via Hewlett-Packard or Epson.

Kodak has tried to respond: there are Kodak cameras, Kodak online wallets, Kodak printers, Kodak print kiosks. It describes itself as an imaging company, but neither its focus nor future is clear.

Standing out from the competition requires a more creative approach.

If companies are to stay relevant and different - if they are to demonstrate marketing genius - they need to be obsessed with their customers and competitors, and more creative and commercial in their responses.

Take Coca-Cola, Tesco or Dell. At these companies, marketers are the driving force of the business, defining and shaping their markets, championing the customer and brand, and constantly searching for an edge over the competition.

When a company's chief executive comes from a marketing background, the impact can be great. Recent research has shown that such companies significantly outperform those led by people with an inward-looking, operational perspective.

Unlike the old techniques, an outward-looking approach to marketing does not start with the marketer; it starts with a buyer seeking a solution.

Blanket campaigns that target everybody when and how the marketer chooses are inefficient at best, a pointless ego trip at worst. Blinkered, conventional approaches will not deliver the results needed in today's markets. Isolated, functional marketers obsessed with advertising and packaging are part of the problem, not the solution. Their reluctance to step up to these challenges, to lead and collaborate, just frustrates their business leaders.

Amazon is a worthy example of modern marketing genius, using intelligence and customisation to anticipate and meet the needs of each customer. Its founder, Jeff Bezos, and his marketers seized the emerging online market to create a retailer that does business on its customers' terms, while at the same time making money.

The demand for commercial success, short- and long-term, does not require marketers to become accountants, but it does demand a more rigorous analysis of opportunities and results in the language of the stock market.

Shareholders invest in companies to get a return on their money. They look at the future earning potential of a company, the amount of cash it is likely to generate, the markets and products that will drive it, and the brands and relationships that will aid its success. They are looking for exactly the things marketers should be able to provide: profitable growth through market strategy, innovation and relationships.

In business it often seems that a great deal rides on quarterly results. These clearly matter, because they provide the cashflow to pay the bills and provide some indication of future success. Yet long-term performance matters too.

Marketers in particular end up torn between the short- and long-term, between sales promotion and brand-building, delivery and innovation.

Blackberry is a technology that could easily have died young. Technology companies seem to feel a need to offer their latest capabilities as soon as they can - witness the rush of 3G mobile services. Yet the more effective marketer recognises that when and how they introduce innovations is crucial.

Indeed, Blackberry's marketers waited almost five years before unleashing the handheld email device on the business world. When they did, the conditions were right for it to prosper.

Expectations of marketing

There will be plenty of pressure on marketers willing to step up to the challenge. Customers will look to them to enable them to do business on their terms, employees will look to them to respond to fast-changing markets to keep the business afloat, and shareholders will look to them to deliver short- and long-term results. A marketing genius can reconcile these challenges, delivering today while creating tomorrow.

Marketing has always provided the creative fuel of business, and this is still a key part of the role. But it also requires more business intelligence than ever to identify and respond to the needs of the market. Some argue that a focus on analysis paralyses creativity. Yet intelligence and creativity are richly complementary: analysis helps focus creativity onto areas of greatest impact, creativity helps to break through data to find insight and direction. Both are essential if marketers are to prove their genius in today's marketplace.

INTELLECTUAL MARKETER

Steve Jobs, Apple

Jobs has redefined the marketing of technology, applying technologies to customer needs. Now a billionaire, he expanded Apple's business by focusing on niche markets, charging a premium for novel products. His passion for well-designed computers led to open systems and multi-coloured iMacs. More significantly, he recognised that the music industry was in desperate need of innovation, and produced the iPod and iTunes. Sales of the iPod reached 10m before Christmas, and there are plans for a low-priced iPod Shuffle to consolidate market leadership. Jobs takes a deeply personal approach to business. He is a visionary and a strategist, with a hands-on approach to the detail of customer needs and product design. His staff describe him as a 'reality distortion field'.

PROFITABLE MARKETER

Phil Knight, Nike

Knight created Nike as a company passionate about sports and profits, and for more than 30 years he has pushed the boundaries in sporting performance and business results. Although he remains chairman, at the end of 2004 he stood down as chief executive, handing over a £6.4bn company he built from scratch. Knight started by importing Tiger shoes from Japan and selling them at athletics events. In 1972 he decided to make his own shoes and paid a friend £19 to design the swoosh logo. By 1979 Nike had half of the US running-shoe market. Through the next two decades, largely through highly creative marketing, he turned Nike into a global brand leader.

Knight is an intuitive marketer, but also a disciplined accountant who shuns publicity.

CREATIVE MARKETER

Philippe Starck, Designer

From architecture to furniture, utensils to fashion, Starck designs about 100 products every year. His skill lies in taking anything to pieces and rebuilding it, usually in a different way. He has worked on clocks, vases, door handles, watches, toothbrushes, food, cutlery lamps, lemon squeezers, desks, motorcycles, taps, baths and toilets. You can dine at his Asia de Cuba restaurant and sleep in his hotel, The Paramount. Starck champions creativity with purpose, art that is practical. His collaborations turn average products into practical and essential objects of desire and can triple the profit margins of the brands with which he works. His work is striking because he thinks without boundary, rejecting conventions and challenging tolerances.

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