“You’re thinking like a marketer.” Do you see that as a compliment? Or a caution?

I believe marketers, like all humans, can get in the rut of thinking about their own problems and goals, and it causes them to lose sight of what matters–the customer. And in so doing, they also neglect what matters to their brand in the intermediate- to long-term. This is why thinking like a marketer can be a dangerous disease for individuals’ careers and brand health.

Two  times yesterday I responded to peers I respect a great deal with the phrase, “you’re thinking like a marketer:”

  • In a discussion of big data, artificial intelligence, and virtual customer assistants, a busy working mother said, “I would gladly hand over all my data to a brand if it would hack my life for me.” We all want brands to make our lives better and easier, but which brands would you trust to take all your data and dedicate themselves to improving your situation rather than their bottom lines? While the two are not mutually exclusive, the consumer side of your brain will agree with the results of the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, which found that one of the greatest gaps consumers perceive between their expectations and brand performance is in “Places customers ahead of profits.”
  • In a discussion about a startup that is attempting to aggregate consumers’ location data, a leader of an agency told me, “Think of how powerful it would be if advertisers could know someone walks past three Dunkin Donuts on their way to work so that the brand could push to customers a desired offer.” We all want ads to be more relevant, but we know what happens when marketers get access to data and our attention. Consumers demanded the Telephone Consumer Protection Act to stop the annoying telemarketing calls, asked for CAN-SPAM to block the marketing pollution in our inboxes and today are installing ad-blocking software in record numbers. The marketing side of our brains recognizes the value to consumers of serving the right ads to the right people; the customer side of our brain knows marketers push whatever ads get us to click and convert.

In both situations, I responded, “you’re thinking like a marketer.” But what does this mean, and how can we change it so that “you’re thinking like a marketer” means “you are committing yourself to building a strong customer relationship” and not “you’re only thinking about what the brand wants and not seeing it from your customer’s perspective”?

I would appreciate your thoughts on this, but here are the biases that I believe cause today’s marketing myopia:

  • A focus on what the brand says, not what it does:  Suppose you’re a soda brand, you realize your customers have significant social concerns, and you wish to demonstrate your brand shares them. What do you do? Do you send semi-trailers full of your product to women’s rallies to offer free refreshment to those marching? Or do you make an ad with a supermodel in which concerned activists cheer in victory not when the world is changed but when someone drinks a pop? A lot of attention has been given this week to Pepsi’s advertising misstep, but while marketers debate whether the issue was one of an internal agency, the wrong celebrity spokesperson or a failure of testing, few are questioning the wisdom of using an ad in the first place. I believe virtually any brand that uses ads to coopt important social issues rather than actions to support them will face backlash, regardless of who created or was featured in the video. Actions speak louder than words, and content is not king.
  • A focus on breadth and reach rather than depth and impact: Marketers continue to want buzz, but buzz is not what will sustain your brand. Kodak had buzz; Vine had buzz; Myspace, American Apparel, Pets.com, Blockbuster, Google+, and Blackberry had buzz. Your brand doesn’t need buzz–it needs strong customer relationships that inspire loyalty, a greater share of wallet, and vocal brand advocacy. Each April Fool’s Day, brands line up to demonstrate they are wittier than the competition. Most of it falls flat; a few instances may inspire a smile; but does any of this deepen relationships? Brands that fight for and invest in momentary but tractionless “buzz” should not be surprised when they get surpassed by competitors that are less entertaining but find ways to be more meaningful to people.
  • A focus on the means and not the end:  It is trickier to measure impact in the customers’ mind than to count customer actions, but impressions, views, and even “likes” are not the goal–changing minds and behavior is.  An ad that gets seen by a lot of people will not change more minds than a customer experience that either amazes or disappoints. Last year, Samsung had one of the five most-watched ads on YouTube, but the thing people will remember about Samsung in 2016 is not that commercial, but the company’s well-publicized product recalls. Samsung will recover because it is had earned customers’ trust with beloved products before its 2016 difficulties, but it still must work to re-earn that trust this year. In other words, Samsung will survive and thrive not primarily because of ads but because its products provided loyalty-building customer experience in the past and must again in the future.

Knowing the disease and its symptoms, how do we cure marketers of this issue? The solution is to focus on the customer and their experience:

  • Know your customer better than your competition.  Understand what they care about. Recognize what they value. Build your personas and invest in the quantitative and qualitative research you need to uncover their wants and needs.
  • Understand your customers’ journeys from their perspective. Don’t focus first on what you want; realize your brand can accomplish what it desires when you help your customers achieve what they want.
  • Build your journeys from end to end. Recognize that your brand’s future will be determined not on whether you acquire customers better than the competition but whether you keep them, grow them and unleash their word of mouth. The end of the journey is not purchase–it is love, loyalty, and advocacy.
  • Start with what you do, not what you say. Authenticity matters more than ever. People don’t buy, stay loyal to and recommend brands with the funniest ads or most beautiful content; they do so for brands that act in ways customers value.

If we can shift our focus to customers, customer experience, and customer satisfaction, we can turn “you think like a marketer” into a compliment, not a warning.

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