Nobody knows what the hell marketing really is… (part 1)

Beware The Intern

I’d like to talk about something that has always bothered me: that nobody knows what the hell marketing really is.

Now, I’ll warn you right now that this post is a little… theory heavy. But stick with me – you’re gonna learn something in two blog posts that cost me $70,000 and 9 years.

To do that, we have to do a little bit of time travel back to the year 2001 when I was a sophomore in high school and sitting in my Marketing 101 class with Mr. Murphy.

Watch your step if you please, we don’t want to screw up the timeline by stepping on something.

Here’s a picture of me from about that time… (take careful note of the now absent glorious, glorious hair and aforementioned favorite Hawaiian shirt)

Nick Armstrong circa 2000

I’d (unsuccessfully) been running a homemade salsa business called – get this – Salsa On The Web and wanted to figure out what to do next, since it hadn’t occurred to me yet that people might have reservations about ordering salsa through the internet from a 15-year-old without a license from the health department.

So anyway, there I was in Marketing 101.

My favorite assignment from that class was to create a business and marketing plan for a fictional business – so I built one out for a pay-by-the-hour internet café. It was the first time I recall actually implementing the 4P’s of marketing (AKA “the marketing mix”):

  • Product – the tangible thing that satisfies a consumer’s need.
  • Price – what the customer pays (based on the customer’s perceived value and the business’s strategy).
  • Promotion – how the product is communicated to the customer (ads, PR, sales, promotion, and marketing).
  • Place – distribution of the product (placing the product where the customer can get to it).

Every  business student on the face of the earth has learned either this or the 7C’s, which is similar but also includes:

  • Physical evidence – signage, displays, collateral.
  • People – the salespeople and employees who a customer comes into contact with.
  • Process – the systems the business uses which affect the customer.

This is the foundation of marketing. Yawn.

This wankery is part of the reason why most small business owners have no idea what the hell marketing is.

Most marketing sucks – yours, maybe even mine – sometimes, so don’t feel bad. It’s really just a numbers thing. A truly great marketing plan is a work of art, a rarity, a lightning strike.

If you take the huge number of businesses around the world (in 2010, Kushnir, Mirmulstein, and Ramalho estimated this number was somewhere in the ballpark of 125 million micro, small, and medium enterprises), lined up their marketing plans side-by-side (if they even have one, that is), and compared them, I bet you’d see that about 75% of them have one or more of the following traits in common:

  • General lethargy
  • Indecipherable jargon
  • Meaningless business slang
  • Bereft of any passion, meaning, or vision
  • Headache, back pain, or erection lasting for more than 4 hours which requires a very embarrassing trip to Urgent Care

When’s the last time you looked at a business plan and said, “Oooh baby!”? Business plans (and marketing plans – which are usually written as a sub-section of a business plan) are almost always universally dry. Too dull for bedtime reading, compiled once to please a bank or woo a potential investor who secretly gets off on meaningless business slang in perfectly organized .docx files, then crumpled, forgotten and forlorn in a dusty file cabinet that you don’t take with you when you close your doors.

Yikes, right? Pretty grim.

And yet we still push entrepreneurs and personal branders and freelancers and small business owners (all really different words for similar premises) to elaborate their value, their creativity, their genius, into a boilerplate document that goes something like this (from

  • Executive Summary
  • Company Description
  • Market Analysis
  • Organization and Management
  • Service or Product Line
  • Marketing and Sales
  • Funding Request
  • Financial Projections
  • Appendix

I’m not really sure what an appendix is – I had mine taken out after it staged a coup and nearly killed me – even so, you will rarely see an outline of a business plan without that section. As for the rest, well… yes, Virginia, giving some thought to these items is good practice. But that doesn’t mean it has to be soul-sucking.

Don’t get me wrong: if you haven’t thought about your Organization and Management structure before you started, you’re probably in for a world of hurt – especially if you have partners.

Though, say you’re a solopreneur or a freelancer (both management types which have a harder time raising investment dollars unless you’re a superhero), creating a whole section of your business plan about how you, and you alone, are the shit might be a lot of fun, but it won’t impress whoever is looking at your business plan.

For that matter, who is it that you want to be looking at your business plan? Is it just so much homework that you are completing for some self-appointed teacher who is schooling you in the wisdom of damn-near useless business documents? Chances are, even if you gave your business plan 10% more attention than everyone else in the world does, it will still end up locked in a dusty file cabinet, unread and forgotten for years. A time capsule monument to irrelevancy.

So what about the other sections? Notice we’re 5 sections down before we start talking about the one and only thing that’s relevant to the customer: products and services.

Phrased a little differently, people don’t buy things from you because those things exist. People buy things from you because they solve a problem.

For what it’s worth, our definition of “problem” is a little loose here, for instance: a desire to be cool or savvy is a “problem” which can be solved with wiz-bang fancy-brand technology for most teenage boys.

Market Analysis is clearly a marketing and sales task, but it has earned its own section. This is mostly to see who you view as competition, how you view your own product or service in comparison, who you see as your “target market” and who is in it, and how you plan to destroy the competition dead. Go team. How about the Marketing AND sales section? That’s kind of convenient, isn’t it? Marketing AND sales. Almost like they’re one function; they’re not. In fact, there’s a whole slew of things that go into marketing that have little-to-no bearing on sales, and vice versa.

Time to jump back in our time machine and head to 2006.

There I was, 21-year-old Nick, a junior at Colorado State University, working at 90.5 FM KCSU as primetime DJ “St. Nick” and Production Director of the radio station (the guy who makes all the cool intros for the DJs and promos for new shows).

St. Nick - 90.5 FM KCSU

Note the retreating hairline offset by stellar Geek Chic fashion and advent of the goatee which has never since left my face save for the Great Goatee Gaff of 2011.

I was outlining a marketing campaign for the station called the Squirrel Liberation Army.

If you’ve never been to Colorado State University, I should preface this story: the squirrels are obnoxious, organized, and incredibly clever. I have seen them literally knock bicycling students off their bikes if they think there’s a remote possibility the student has food. If you even think about food, they’ll chase you across campus. They’ll hunt you, working in teams like velociraptors, from your dorm room to your class and back. They’ll wait outside your class and peer in the window at you with those cold, dead eyes. So. Cold. Then they’ll follow you right back to the dorm and do it all over again.

Anyway, the goal of the campaign was to boost awareness, volunteerism, and listener base for the station.

We hung paper bags filled with peanuts in trees with sloppily handwritten notes from various squirrel soldiers, posted graffiti-tagged flyers in the restrooms, and recorded some hilariously high-pitched promos indicating the squirrels were being oppressed and there was only one way to help them: for students to join the radio station and get the word out. And in the meantime, to “HOLD ON TO YOUR NUTS”.

Did it make any sense? No.

Did it follow traditional marketing “rules”? Hell no. We barely talked about the station. The protagonist was a squirrel fighting a fictional shadowy oppressor. The only thing we paid attention to was our target market – students, who are almost always for joining a good cause that is fun and easy.

Did it work? You betcha. Not only did we recruit a whole slew of new DJs, we gave away some really cool things to people who found the squirrels’ peanut rations in trees – driving awareness and boosting call-in volume for the next month.

So what can we learn from this?

Sometimes, the best way to market is to throw away all the rules.

In part two, I talk about what you really should care about. In the meantime, is there a particular marketing question I can answer for you? Let me know in the comments!