It's back to school for over 150 million university students around the globe. Millions of them will be studying business and hundreds of thousands will be seeking their master’s in marketing. Of these, about a hundred will wind up in front of my lectern. And when they do, I want to find some way to have them turn out better than the business leaders who have driven revered brands like Sears, Borders, Encyclopedia Britannica, and Kodak into obscurity this year.
These brands didn’t go under from force majeure. Far from it. They sank in a sea of irrelevance due to poor marketing and brand navigation on the bridge. The problems that ripped through their hulls could be spotted decades away with the naked eye and avoided as a matter of routine. But these brands were too busy focusing backwards on yesterday’s sales figures to even see the future, much less embrace it — like navigating a ship by contemplating the wake. Once titans of commerce, these icons wound up as battered wrecks to be sold for scrap.
It’s easy to blame the captains of these industries. But, as I prepare a curriculum for my own master’s students, I’d take it one step further and suggest that business schools need to get better at teaching marketing and branding as it applies to the real world. It starts with rethinking marketing programs from the bottom up to mirror what has been happening in the market over the last decade. For instance, do away with niched “E-Marketing” courses. Digital needs to permeate all marketing thought straight through the program. Rethinking also means ensuring that the subject matter is not only theoretically sound but practically relevant.
Here are six reality-based concepts I’d like my students to master in addition to the more theoretical fare. They are based on conversations with university academics and marketing graduate students over the past five years as well as on my own observations.
1. Don’t guess. Ask. Most marketing communication fails because the marketer assumes to know their target and doesn’t bother to invest time in understanding them. If you want to know what you can do to increase your sales, just ask your prospects. They have all the answers and never lie. Of course, you do have to know how to ask and how to turn the information you gather into actionable strategy and tactics. This is a brand’s early warning system and your best prophylaxis for brand dementia. Years before trouble manifests itself in neat columns of negative numbers, it will be reflected in the perceptions and behavior of your target audience. Be vigilant and resist the temptation to cut research from the marketing budget even if all your peers do it.
2. Define the difference between marketing, branding, and sales. Every marketer should be able to provide a coherent definition of these business activities and how they interact. Last month my brand consultancy included an article on this topic in our branding newsletter. It was the most downloaded article we have ever published, indicating that this basic distinction is still widely unresolved. The confusion between these concepts hurts marketing efforts by diffusing focus, creating unrealistic expectations, and fueling enmity where cooperation should be the norm. The first assignment for every newly employed grad should be to ensure that this issue is crystal clear with their employer. It will make their job a lot easier if they do.
3. Appreciate the relationship between operations and marketing. In principle, marketing is pretty easy: Find a hole and ﬁll it. In practice it is considerably less eloquent. Most marketing efforts are not thwarted by the competitors. More often they are neutered by the companies they intend to serve. Very few companies are actually set up to succeed at marketing. The majority adhere to a siloed, production-centric organizational structure that predates the invention of marketing as a branch of economics in the early 1900s. These companies are at odds with their own marketing function. As a result, marketing has to struggle with the company as well as the competitors. Marketing grads need to be able to look at an org chart, map relationships, and tell if a company is market-oriented or production-oriented before they sign on. And if they are starting their own company they need to know how to set it up correctly from the start.
4. Embrace ethics. It starts by telling the truth. Old-school marketing was notorious for spinning, stretching, and avoiding the truth all together. This needs to end. The reason for embracing the truth is as commercial as it is high-minded. In their book Tell the Truth, Sue Underman and Jonathan Salem Baskin make a convincing case that “Honesty Is Your Most Powerful Marketing Tool.” I invited Jonathan to speak to my class. His talk was one of the most popular of the course. Academics should tap into this enthusiasm for truth telling and ensure it is engrained in every marketer’s thinking from day one.
5. Develop grace under pressure. Ethics may help us know right from wrong, but that’s not the same as putting it into practice under real-world pressures. For instance, at the outset of my course last semester, 100% of my students claimed to be a) against spam and b) for transparency. Then they were given the assignment to create a blog and drive traffic to it with the results of their efforts posted weekly on our brandba.se Facebook page. After the first week the overwhelming majority were employing blatant spamming tactics to drive up their numbers; then they voted not to be transparent with the results on our Facebook page. It’s easy to choose between right and wrong from the sidelines. It’s a lot harder in the heat of the game. Students should be prepared for this.
6. Know how to get found online. SEO is probably the most requested topic grad students have asked me to lecture on in relation to building brand equity. It seems they have appreciated its importance much more than the universities teaching them, because I don’t see it on many curriculums. One academic told me it is basically not highbrow or theoretical enough to be worthy. If demographics and distribution are highbrow enough to be taught in master’s programs, it’s hard to imagine how SEO is not. PULL-marketing with earned media is now an immovable part of the marketing landscape and SEO is the key. If your program is not teaching you SEO basics, get online and teach yourself. There are many excellent online resources to help.
Had the leadership of Sears, Borders, Encyclopedia Britannica, or Kodak been better trained, the world might look a lot different: Amazon would still be focused on paper books, having been unable to compete with Sears in the online retail space or with Borders’ burgeoning e-book business; Britipedia would have beat Wikipedia to become the world’s go-to reference guide; and the iPhone would be known as the KodaPhone. It may be too late to save these brands from the ravages of irrelevance, but this back-to-school season I’m hoping the new generation of marketers will help establish marketing and brand management as core drivers of business success in the 21st century.
Sean Duffy spent 18 years with ad agencies in Boston, San Francisco, Copenhagen, and Stockholm before founding The Duffy Agency, an international ad agency, in 2001. Sean is director of TAAN Europe and a regular guest lecturer at the Lund University School of Economics. He is also a blogger, Twitterer and is on LinkedIn.