Business today is changing more dramatically than it has at any time in the past hundred years. Every day seems to bring a record-breaking IPO in a business that didn't exist five years ago. Tens of millions of people are using the Internet to connect with one another — and to change how they connect with commerce. And yet, for all this change, the business of business remains the same: to attract new customers and to hold on to the ones you've already got. In other words, you can't claim to be a great company unless you're great at marketing.
Of course, marketing is changing too. The new question for marketers: How do you get people to pay attention to your messages when they are dealing with more email than they can possibly read, more Web sites than they can possibly surf, more TV commercials than they can possibly watch? Several new books — some by longtime marketing gurus, some by Net-era pioneers — offer intriguing answers. Together, they provide a cutting-edge curriculum for connecting with your customers. Get it while it's hot.
Marketing's New Positioning
For Sergio Zyman, former chief marketing officer of Coca-Cola, the future of marketing is about getting back to basics. In "The End of Marketing As We Know It" (HarperBusiness, 1999, $26), he argues that marketers have forgotten their job: "The sole purpose of marketing is to get more people to buy more of your product, more often, for more money." The focus today is on the trappings of marketing — "the glitz, the awards presentations, the jetting off to 'do a shoot' on some tropical isle." In effect, marketing has become more about impressing the profession than about motivating the customer.
Zyman didn't have that problem at Coke. During his tenure, from 1993 to 1998, the number of cases that Coke sold each year increased by 50%, from 10 billion to 15 billion, and the company's market value jumped from $58 billion to $165 billion. Zyman attributes those results in part to his approach to marketing: He treated his work as a "serious business discipline" rather than as a mysterious, "magical process." That's why he pulled such crowd-pleasing, award-winning ads as the classic "I'd like to teach the world to sing" spot: They generated more goodwill than they did sales.
Producing big results in the future, Zyman argues, will mean grappling with a fundamental reality of the new economy: the democratization of customer culture through access to the Net and to global media. It's the marketer's job to speak directly to individual customers and to help them make decisions. Which is why Zyman says it's just as important to "watch the world" as it is to watch markets. At Coke, he began the practice of hiring pollsters who had worked on a successful presidential campaign right after an election. At that moment, he figured, those people knew more about what was going on in the minds of Americans than anybody else did.
Marketing guru Philip Kotler, the S.C. Johnson & Son Distinguished Professor of International Marketing at Northwestern University's J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management, goes a step further. He argues that marketers today need to collaborate with their customers — to codesign the products and services that they want to sell. In "Kotler on Marketing: How to Create, Win, and Dominate Markets" (Free Press, 1999, $27.50), he offers lessons on how to do just that. The first step is to abandon practices that don't work: equating marketing with selling, focusing on customer acquisition instead of "customer care," and looking for profits before creating relationships. His book is a persuasive call for marketers to raise their game.
The Buy Side
There are plenty of new techniques for delivering your message to customers. But those techniques raise another question: How do you know what's on your customers' minds? What messages are going to resonate with them? In "Why People Don't Buy Things: Five Proven Steps to Connect with Your Customers and Dramatically Increase Your Sales" (Perseus Books, 1999, $24), Harry Washburn and Kim Wallace propose a kinder, gentler sales pitch — one that's based on consumer psychology.
The authors, both market-research experts based outside of Boston, divide buyers into three personality types. The "commander" operates from the gut and is action-oriented. The "thinker" is analytical — inclined to rely on logic and rules to make decisions. The "visualizer" responds to tangible features and cosmetic appearances. These archetypes are merely guideposts, say the authors. The real lesson: "People are different," and the only way to connect with them is to get at the motives behind their buying. If marketers begin to work at that level, the authors argue, they too will see "sales resistance [not] as a barrier but as a source of information on how the customer is processing a decision."
That argument makes Douglas Rushkoff nervous. Marketing's powers of persuasion compel him to view the new economy not in terms of consumer democracy but in terms of institutional conspiracy. "We are under constant scrutiny and constant assault by a professional class of hidden persuaders," he writes in "Coercion: Why We Listen to What 'They' Say" (Riverhead Books, 1999, $24.95). "In most cases, if the coercion works according to plan, we don't even realize it has been used."
In a fascinatingly detailed documentary of Net culture, Rushkoff takes on the dark side of the new economy. In his account, the future of marketing seems less like a paradise of collaboration between customer and company, and more like a battle in which "our attempts to stay one step ahead of coercers merely [provoke] them to develop even more advanced, less visible, and, arguably, more pernicious methods of persuasion."
Rushkoff's purpose is not to demonize the marketing profession but to alert consumers to the way they collude in their own coercion. Resistance is not futile, he argues. Every consumer has a responsibility to fight back — or risk being hit with a colossal case of buyer's remorse. "Our new religion is to become more plugged-in, in whatever way possible, to the way the world works. The purpose of life is to buy and sell things, or even ideas. But like any compulsive behavior, our buying and selling merely spurs the need to buy and sell more."
"Syrup" — Maxx Barry's very spicy, slightly repugnant, yet strangely compelling satire of marketing as a vast, invisible conspiracy (Viking, 1999, $22.95) — is a great companion volume to Coercion. This knowing parable lets loose a cast of hip marketing talents to play corporate politics. For Barry's characters, marketing is at the heart of all success in our celebrity-obsessed world. The next best thing to making it as a movie star is making it as a marketer — especially as a marketer who understands that the most important brand that he or she will ever develop is the Brand Called Me. That's why Barry's hero changes his name from Michael to Scat. And that's why Scat's staccato pitch for the next big thing — "New cola product. Black can. Called Fukk" — so impresses the twentysomething manager of new-product marketing at a fictionalized Coca-Cola Co. that she steals it. (Her own brand starts with her unusual and intensely ridiculous name: "6.")
This spectacle of gen-Xers at play in the boardroom betrays a certain ignorance of how global organizations compete, how big companies work, and how major decisions get made. But Barry has a handle on a more powerful truth. His character 6 says it best: "It's a democratic society. . . . Your opinion of what's quality is no more valid than mine. Popularity is quality. And so marketers are today's real artists."
Sidebar: Permission to Read?
In "Permission Marketing" (Simon & Schuster, 1999, $24), Seth Godin offers a brand of marketing that's designed expressly for the networked world. He founded Yoyodyne Entertainment (a pioneer of Web marketing), then sold it to Yahoo!, and now works as Yahoo!'s vice president of direct marketing. You may have read his interview in Fast Company ("Permission Marketing," April:May 1998). Now read his book.
Godin's argument is simple and bold: Traditional advertising doesn't work as well as it used to — in part because there's so much of it, in part because we've all gotten so good at ignoring it. In a world with hundreds of TV channels and nearly 2 million commercial Web sites, just shouting louder than your rival doesn't work the way it once did.
Godin can't clear away the clutter, but he does propose a way of turning clutter into an asset. His model, called "Permission Marketing," is based on convincing people to volunteer their attention — to agree to learn more about a company's products in return for tangible benefits. The point is to transform potential consumers into willing participants in the marketing equation. The Web is a marketer's greatest ally in this process, though not in the way that it's generally been used. The Net is not TV, Godin argues. Too many Web marketers perpetuate the "interruption marketing" of old. The Net's real killer app is email — because it offers "frequency for free." Frequency of contact leads to more permission and, ultimately, to the key ingredient in any robust, long-term customer relationship: trust.
Sidebar: Cheat Sheet
Marketing is . . . "the planet's largest religion, but the billions who worship it don't know it" (Barry).
Marketing is not . . . "about creating an image. Having an image just means that I know who you are, but it doesn't motivate me to do anything. Marketing is not about creating award-winning commercials either. . . . For fast-food restaurants, it's about bites and slurps. For the airlines, it's about butts in seats" (Zyman).
The problem with marketing is . . . "lots of people tend not to believe it. . . . Instead, most people tend to place more credibility in the opinions of their friends. Horrible truths like this keep marketers awake at night" (Barry).
Marketing truism for the information age: "The truth is that everything that happens impacts everything else. Everything is interconnected, and as such, everything that is happening in your consumer's world matters to you" (Zyman).
Best analogy: "Permission Marketing is just like dating. It turns strangers into friends and friends into lifetime customers. Many of the rules of dating apply, and so do many of the benefits" (Godin).
Most profound marketing oxymoron: "It's hard to get credibility without some sort of angle" (Barry).
Dubious 20th-century marketing innovations: "Halitosis, B.O., 5 o'clock shadow, and ring around the collar. . . . Way back in the 1920s in the United States . . . bad breath, body odor, unshaven body parts, and aging shirt collars were not considered problems" (Washburn and Wallace).
A version of this article appeared in the September 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.