Blog post

Getting over Marketing’s Inferiority Complex

By Hank Barnes | March 25, 2014 | 2 Comments


Last week, I saw a blog post that brought back memories of a conversation, actually an argument, from years ago with my sister.   Beth, my sister, has spent basically here entire adult life in college.  Either as a student or professor.   She currently teaches at the University of Kentucky, covering topics like advertising, integrated marketing communications, etc.


The argument arose when I was fresh out of college (or maybe still in college—the exact timing is not something I remember).   I was brash and enjoyed harassing her about the fact that she needed to get out of college and get a real job.  Furthermore, I told her how shocked I was that she taught marketing, since I viewed marketing to be all about common sense—which she had little of (at least in my eyes).   She really did not appreciate my attack, but I am pretty sure I won the argument.    What’s funny about it now is that I’ve been a marketing professional for the last 25 years or so.  And I still believe common sense plays a huge role in marketing.

But my earlier perceptions play out the challenge that marketers face–everyone  thinks they can market.  As a result, we are constantly on the defensive, trying to convince people of the value we provide. Sometimes, this goes too far—where we define marketing as being the hub of the business, trying to get over our own inferiority complex by making everything else inferior to us.   As I hear more and more talk of marketing having “revenue responsibility,” I worry that this is going to far.   Sales has revenue responsibility.  Marketing’s job is to make it easier for sales to sell and customers to buy.  But if we broaden the scope of marketing too far, we are doing what was done to us—devaluing key roles and functions in the business.

The blog post that  triggered the memory (and this post) was “The marketing paradox: To spend or not to spend” on  It is a great post, but the article really focuses on one aspect of marketing—spending money on advertising.   The argument is that many great companies don’t advertise a lot.  So the thing to do is create great products.    It’s hard to disagree with creating great products, but I would argue that it is marketing that helps you figure out what those great products need to be and that help people understand the story behind the products.

This theme occurs over and over in business.  People equate marketing to advertising or lead generation or marketing communications.   All tactical activities that may be important, but effectively diminish the real value and purpose of marketing.

So what is marketing, really?

I’m going to forego the variety of definitions that are out there (just do a search–you’ll find plenty) and create my own here.  Marketing is in the business of stories.     Authentic stories that are the embodiment of the value that your business provides to customers..

The story business is not just about storytelling—it is about figuring out the right stories to tell, who to tell them to, and creating ways for there to be interest so people will want to listen, hear, and ultimately experience the stories for themselves by becoming customers.  It has to be authentic, because the stories have to ultimately communicate about the value of what you can actually deliver.   Great stories that are fictional don’t work for business.

When you think of marketing this way, the role is pretty broad.  Its about contributing to what is being created.  Its defining who the target customers are and the value they can expect to receive.  It’s sharing the story broadly so that the job of your sales channels (whether ecommerce, direct, or indirect) get easier.  You want to be that favorite author–the one who fans wait impatiently for their next book or story and tell all their friends about.

Whether you like my definition or hate it, the big thing is to get over marketing’s inferiority complex.  Refute definitions that define marketing based on a single tactical activity.  Participate in strategic discussions and fight hard for the good of the brand and brand promise.  I recently advised one client that has an incredible track record of successful implementations that that was a claim to stand behind.  And, if any of their product lines did not match that standard, they should either be  divested or work must be done to the product or services to get to the level of the other products.   That is marketing driving strategy and it makes sense.

Contributing in this way will help marketing get over being marketing.    No great business succeeds for the long term without it, but it is also not the only thing a business needs for success.

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  • J Seckler says:

    Hank – I like the article above. Completely agree that much of the dialogue about marketing seems frankly apologetic – as in, ‘marketing is important! (really!) let me show you! (really, please believe me!)’. I think that you hit on the key issue – there’s no need to be apologetic about what we do. I like your original definition: “Marketing’s job is to make it easier for sales to sell and customers to buy.” Let’s focus on that – the story-telling thing is nice but the idea that marketing’s role is about bridging sales and customer appeals to me somehow…

    • Hank Barnes says:

      Thanks Jonathan, appreciate the feedback.

      I agree on the simple definition, but believe that the best way to do that is through thinking of ourselves as being in the story business.