Helen Edwards: Too many marketers ignore their primary task
A view from Helen Edwards, PPA Business columnist of the year

Helen Edwards: Too many marketers ignore their primary task

The majority of marketers focus solely on communications when the traditional function of the profession is to satisfy consumer needs.

Well, it's a start. At last week's Marketing Society Awards (see opposite), a shiny trophy was presented to the winners of a brand new category: the finance directors' award. It is a timely sign that return on investment, in our too often flaky discipline, is worthy of recognition.

Investment in what, though? The criterion for this particular gong was 'effective use of marketing expenditure'. How would the panel of finance directors assess what fell into that description?

Narrowly, it seems. They awarded the prize for a communications campaign. In this, they fell in line with the pattern of the night, in which 14 out of 25 awards were won for some form of communications. Without detracting from the excellence of those campaigns, one can't help worrying that this is a dangerously constrained view of what marketing really is.

Central tenet

Look back at the classic definition of marketing, from the father of the discipline, Theodore Levitt. Its central tenet is that marketing must 'work back from consumer needs'.

Consumers don't really 'need' communications; it is a commercial, rather than a customer, imperative. What consumers need is better products, improved service, easier lives, a cleaner world, and more health and happiness.

The proper job of marketers is to identify, or better still, anticipate, these needs, and imagine ways to fulfil them that might lead to sustainable returns. That is a whole lot harder, and a great deal riskier, than choosing whether to drop TV in favour of online.

Financial implications

Far from being content with a pat on the head for due prudence in the expenditure of a budget, marketers need to engage the board as equals in conversations that could have company-wide financial implications.

'If we are going to meet our promise as a feel-good bank, we need to invest another £55m in our call centres, to shorten wait times.'

'We believe that families are the way forward for our pub portfolio, but we won't attract them unless we actively deter the current male drinkers at the bar. So we're looking at an immediate 20% decline in sales, before we see any longer-term gain.'

'Consumers are clear: they want a healthier sausage. Delivering that means changing everything about our supply chain, top to bottom, with significant front-end costs. Are we ready for that?'

Perhaps we have lost the appetite for real marketing-investment decisions - the ones where the business might contemplate betting the pot. Certainly, as the marketers and their agencies approached the stage last week, it seemed we are more comfortable in our narrower world of advertising, social engagement and apps.

McDonald's overhaul

Then up stepped McDonald's to take the Grand Prix, for its programme of overhauling its entire offer, from updated restaurants to healthier menus. It has resulted in 24 successive quarters of growth - but that payback would not have seemed remotely certain when the original approval of costs was signed off.

For that courage and foresight, the McDonald's finance director, not just its marketing team, should have been on stage to receive that ultimate accolade last week. It would have sent a pertinent message to boardrooms about what 'marketing expenditure' really means.

Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand. Follow her on Twitter: @helenedw


Most formal definitions of marketing put it firmly at the strategic and operational heart of the business:

- The UK's Chartered Institute of Marketing defines marketing as: 'The strategic business function that creates value by stimulating, facilitating and fulfilling customer demand.'

- The American Marketing Association defines it more broadly, as: 'The activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.'

- Harvard Business School (HBS) says that marketing is 'critical for organic growth of a business and its central role is in creating, communicating, capturing and sustaining value for an organisation. Marketing helps a firm in creating value by better understanding the needs of its customers and providing them with innovative products and services'.

- The management guru Peter Drucker had a much simpler way of defining it: 'The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well, the product or service fits him and sells itself.'