Twelve marketing lessons from twelve years

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I’m one of those fortunate individuals who has been able to work my entire career in the field which I chose and studied – Marketing. Like all long term relationships, I find my relationship with marketing is one of fluctuation. At times it frustrates me. At other times I find renewed excitement about it. Sometimes I feel like I know it inside out, while on other occasions I wonder if some of that knowledge is perhaps unfounded. But like the best relationships and friendships, I seem know I’ll be involved with it for good. Or at least for a very long time.

Around twelve years ago, as a young university graduate, I got taken on by a growing Port Elizabeth agency. For the most part, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and realised pretty quickly that there’s a huge chasm between education and reality – a chasm I still hope to be part of rectifying in the future, because it’s still a challenge today, for graduates and companies alike.

I quickly learned the hard way, and feel like I’ve been doing that ever since. In the twelve years I’ve been in this field, working for brand agencies and as a head of marketing on the corporate side, I’ve learned some timeless marketing lessons, from which I’ll dispense which I think are the most important. Here they are:


  1. Don’t spend a single cent on advertising your product or service until your internal sales processes are running faultlessly and optimally. In particular, ensure that sales people and all customer-facing staff are entrenched with the correct messaging, philosophy and product knowledge. Also, can you deliver on what you’re advertising, every time? If not, don’t say it. You’ll never win the long game by false advertising.


  1. If you can’t measure it, don’t do it.


  1. If you’re going to partner with agencies, whether it be PR, Social Media, Design or Ad Agencies, make sure the agency is small enough that you’re one of the agency’s biggest accounts, and that you have constant contact with the top leadership of the agency. Beware of falling for a big agency with an impressive pitch, only to be handed over to a junior account executive, with you seeing the agency leadership once every 12 months.


  1. Sometimes the solutions to increasing sales don’t lie in advertising, sales, promotions or in any marketing area. Adjustments to staffing, product range or product attributes can often have a far bigger impact than an ad campaign.


  1. Every person in an organisation needs to be seen as a marketing person, right from CEO to floor operators. The biggest brand ambassador needs to be the CEO, and he/she must drive the brand direction and help instil it in all staff. Too often the brand strategy knowledge sits with three or four individuals, with the broader company never knowing what it is or how to live it out. Marketing departments are unique in that they need to function as a department, but need the freedom to be facilitators of the brand’s philosophy throughout the organisation.


  1. Trying to be everything to everyone leads only to being nothing to anyone. It’s tempting to package as many points of difference as possible into your brand positioning. This only leads to a lack of focus, and staff generally unaware of that single reason the company exists, or how to explain it. A company’s brand positioning should be compelling, simple and entrenched to an extent that the CEO can ask any staff member what it is and get the same answer each time. Company positioning strategies and unique differentiation points are never nearly as unique as the company thinks they are. Often they aren’t unique at all. Avoid merely rephrasing what everyone else is saying.


  1. If you’re not solving a problem, or communicating that you’re solving a problem, you shouldn’t be in business. Positioning statements that are wishy washy claptrap about who the company is or what the company does are pointless. No one cares what you do. Tell the market how you’re going to solve their problem – then you’ll get them listening to you.


  1. Never put full trust in a digital or social media supplier. With all due respect to most of them who make an honest living, there are nevertheless many operators out there who are not entirely ethical, and attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of their clients. Don’t be the damsel in distress with the broken engine on the side of the road. Equip yourself with a rudimentary understanding of concepts, principles and best practises, so that you know what you’re looking for, and to ensure that you’re driving the process and strategy. Most importantly, so that you’re not being taken advantage of. You must lead the agency. The internet is at your disposal, and has all the answers to anything you want to know more about. There are elements within marketing which are constantly changing, and this requires you to evolve with it. My university textbooks never mentioned the term ‘Social Media’ once. Yet now it’s a cornerstone of marketing. Re-educate yourself all the time, or you’ll fall behind. This may even require some unlearning.


  1. It’s too easy to over-complicate strategy. Don’t fall in that trap just to seem more impressive. Avoid creating strategy so filled with fancy diagrams, buzz words and jargon that it loses every reader in a few seconds. At its core, strategy is incredibly simple – What are we doing, Where are we going, When are we doing it – and Why? You should be able to put your entire brand positioning strategy on one page.


  1. Word of mouth will always be more powerful than branding and advertising. Always. If word of mouth is failing, your company will fail. Advertising and marketing have a huge role to play in business growth and consumer awareness, but will never make up for an inferior product or service. A happy customer is your strongest marketing tool. One enthusiastic, loyal advocate of your brand is worth more to you than 100 indifferent customers.


  1. If you’re not first to market in a particular category or idea, it will be almost impossible to supplant the brand that was first to market. Better to find a point of difference where you are first, and genuinely distinct.


  1. Research your customers, staff, market and competitors continually. Make a point of it once a year to do a comprehensive exercise. Even if 90% of the findings are what you expected, you’ll always find one or two golden nuggets – insights that come and slap you in the face. Ensure that the questions you ask are identical year on year, to ensure the ability to find trends or movements. Also, even though you understand your competitors fully, don’t fall into the trap of basing your strategy and offering around competitors. You end up being a follower. Base it on your capability and what will make the biggest difference to your customers.


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