How well do you remember your university studies? After introducing the two new Ps in my last blog, something inspired me recently to make a return to the very basics.

I got an email from an accountant friend (ignore the paradox) asking me a series of questions about marketing as part of his research for an upcoming book. They were all ‘big picture’ type questions, rather than the more focused type that I’m used to answering on a day-to-day basis. Think lecture one, semester one, opening that gleaming new copy of Kotler’s text: ‘What is marketing? Where did it come from? Why does it exist?’

The whole process of crafting my responses forced me to consider how marketing is perceived. I begrudgingly accept that outsiders such as my accountant friend may not make a differentiation between marketing, advertising, and selling (and apparently they’re all evil), but it got me wondering if we in the industry sometimes lose track of what it’s all about. Because we often perform only one part of the marketing function, we start to view marketing within a limited set of parameters – we may think of it primarily in terms of branding, or communications, or perhaps channel strategy. Worst-case scenario, we may find ourselves working with a concept that looks far more like sales than marketing. At least, our actions would make it seem so.

A quick refresher for those of you for whom Kotler is a distant memory: marketing in its true form begins with an insight into consumers’ needs, continues with a development of a product or service that satisfies those needs, communicates this solution to the target market, then delivers the product/service to the market via efficient channels. It’s all basic stuff that we’re familiar with, right?

So how is it that we often get caught up with simply selling, rather than marketing? Why are we just trying to flog our market what we’ve got rather than finding out first what they want?

Let’s take the recent example of Mazda, a company that decided to try marketing over selling. Ten years ago, they were producing cars which could best be described as ‘road-fill’, and their customer database looked somewhat like the members list from your local RSL (due mainly to the fact that they were all actually from your local RSL). At some point, Mazda realised that their current, loyal batch of owners had developed ‘bracket creep’ and that as a company they were now competing with red electric scooters, walking frames, and kindly daughters-in-law for the transport needs of their target market. As a brand, they had positioned themselves as the prime choice for people who were daily edging closer to their graves, and were inadvertently taking their brand with them.

Question One:

Mazda had an image problem. As a result, no one with all their own teeth or faculties was buying their cars. What should they do?

This is a multiple choice question.

Mazda should:

a) conduct a rebrand to tell people why they aren’t boring, or

b) stop making boring products, and then rebrand to tell people they’re not boring (subtext: anymore).

Be honest: a) was looking pretty good until you read b), right? How closely does that resemble marketing, as opposed to selling? Oh, we love a rebrand alright. If you voted a), chances are you worked at Toyota a few years back. You decided to introduce the Avalon to this country (a car that was the same size as a Camry, was actually a three-year-old model, and came from the US), and settled on the campaign line ‘The Big New Australian’. To borrow from our American comrades (and why not, they did) that’s three strikes and you’re out. It wasn’t big, it wasn’t new, and it wasn’t Australian, and people didn’t buy it. The car which was supposed to challenge the Commodore was an epic fail by all accounts. People these days are too smart for option a).

Thankfully for Mazda, they sucked it up, invested the necessary resources, and chose option b). New cars were styled with a sporty look and enhanced driving dynamics, and one of the most memorable campaigns of recent years was used to reposition the brand (my money’s got you singing ‘Zoom zoom zoom’ in your head right now). The result? A massive spike in sales across the globe, and a re-emergence of Mazda as one of the world’s great automotive brands.

By contrast, I recall being in the US a few years ago and seeing a billboard for a GM pick-up truck headlined: ‘Long Live the Truck’. This was in California of all places, the state now home to the majority of Toyota Prius hybrids. What the ad could have said was ‘we’ve built it, so damn it if we’re not gonna keep trying to sell it to you’.

One of the two brands above took the marketing approach, while the other lost sight and went back to just selling. One of the two is in bankruptcy, the other isn’t. Sure, it’s not that simple, but many industry commentators are ascribing much of GM’s downfall to its refusal to let go of its obsession with big cars when consumers were changing their preferences.

Question Two:

This is an essay question.

What is marketing? How is it different from selling? Why will companies who focus on a marketing paradigm rather than a sales paradigm succeed while others fail?

(Hint: your answer to all three components should focus on the customer)

Class dismissed!