From Marketing to Meta Marketing


Rajeev Kumar Ranjan
MBA (IIT Roorkee)
University of Petroleum

Marketing is by its very nature an amorphous entity, in perpetual transition. It is at once a concept, an attitude of mind and a function. Its evolution can therefore be studied along three broad streams - as a practice, as a set of institutions and as a theoretical discipline. All three have been evolving steadily albeit not at the same rate. As a practice, it is elaborated as marketing management i.e., the set of decisions and activities commonly accepted as the province of the marketing manager. For example, making the sales forecast, running the sales force, developing an advertising position, a brand personality for the products in his charge and so on.

As a discipline, marketing's origins can be traced to the emergence of free enterprise thinking, the Adam Smith era, and to the social science of Economics. In other words, it is linked to the study of how society arranges its "scarce production resources to produce various commodities over time and distribute them for consumption" (Paul Samuelson, the Nobel laureate economist). Marketing is but an applied sub-discipline with a sharper focus on the world of exchange, and the subject is as old as exchange itself. The great differences in the last 100 years have been of sheer speed and scope of production and the variety of consumption, spurred on by mass production, technology, specialization and the post war boom in mass markets.

The first attempts at making a science of marketing, around the 1920's, were descriptive. It concerned itself with the "delivery of a higher standard of living" to the large and growing middle and working classes, a unique 20th century phenomenon. They focused on retailing and merchandising. The emphasis was then mainly on display coupled with aggressive selling: fast-talking, smooth and American, in itself a stereotype recognized the world over.

It was the era of the clean-cut figure in a smart suit, the glad hander salesman who could sell refrigerators to an Eskimo, capable of selling everything from used cars to Bibles.

It was sometime in the late Forties that attention came to rest upon a number of inter related elements of the marketing task that seemed to act together to influence the off take of a product or service. Neil Borden of Harvard coined the phrase "the elements of the Marketing Mix," depicting the manager of the function as not a specialist in selling, distribution, or advertising but rather a blender of ingredients in the right proportions to suit the market, its time and place. Later Marketing got separated from the notion of selling, including three distinct elements: customer orientation, i.e. beginning with the customer; integrating the whole organization taking a long-term point of view; and linking with the primary goals of the business i.e. a combination of growth, market share and profitability. Indeed some writers (Peter Drucker, Regis McKenna) hold that Marketing and Business are synonymous.

A later and less comprehensive formulation came to be known as the 4Ps - product, price, promotion and place. This has now become the universal standard as a teaching tool for any introductory course in the subject. This was a vast improvement over the confusion between selling and marketing. It firmly put the former as a part, but only one among many that together explain the success or failure of a product in appealing to customers.

Marketing thus became the overarching strategic theme, higher in level of abstraction than the mere act of obtaining the order. The significance of advertising in the establishment of an assured customer base really took off only after the widespread availability of mass media, especially after the 1950s. This not only made competition more difficult but more expensive and affordable only by the large sector. Enter the era of brands and branding. The Brand Image and Personality school came next, mostly identified with the legendary David Ogilvy, who said the brand's personality gave it "a first class ticket through life." The purpose of advertising was to convey the essence of this personality, beyond merely conveying the consumer benefits to the user - and do it in a charming and cultured way ("People don't buy from clowns . . ." "The consumer is not a moron. She is your wife . . .").

Stephen King - Director, J. Walter Thompson, London - acknowledged as the practitioner's guru of Branding, stressed the need for all the elements of a brand's make up - from name, packaging, and design elements to the creative expression of the advertising - to hang together. They must be not only mutually consistent, but also reinforcing the strengths of one another, to create a totality greater than the sum of its parts. Though brands have been around a long time the attention to building them happened only after the Sixties. Some enlightened organizations were exceptions and the brand leadership of their famous names still stands, such as Marlboro, Lux, IBM, Gillette, Kodak, Johnson & Johnson and so on.

Soon, however, the only distinguishing feature of brands became their distinctive flavors of advertising, particularly so in consumer products. After all what can you say about a car (mileage, power, styling, and looks), detergent (washes whiter, brighter clothes, removes stains) soap (refreshes, fragrant) or toothpaste (sparkling teeth, healthy gums, fresh breath) that hasn't been said before?

The notion of differentiation of the product to suit the tastes and expectations of different market segments is perhaps one of the most powerful ideas to have emerged in Marketing. It goes back to the foundations - making competition irrelevant by creating what Edward De Bono has called "value monopolies." Such brand loyalty removes the need to compete, by making one's brand "incomparable." The drink Campari used this idea powerfully many years ago in a headline that simply read "No comparison!" While other soaps "merely wash you, our Blogg's soap lanolises your skin!" is a caricature of the idea. More differences were attempted through positioning, placement, packaging and presentation.

In products where physical characteristics are no longer differentiable (soft drinks?) or relevant (cigarettes), the wrapper is the product, the medium is the message. The message is the product. Good examples of this are the cola wars, in which competing brands, having ranged far and wide to unearth that elusive difference, have come back to square one: "Ours only quenches thirst . . . the rest are bakwas!."

The development of institutions and channels have been just as evolutionary as that of the market itself - from a supply oriented, colonial hinterland to a more vibrant, competitive market, similar to those of the free market economies. Fig. 1 shows a chronology which represents roughly the 1920s to 1990s, although some of the more traditional product categories, such as consumer soft goods and durables such as bicycles, sewing machines and radios, moved through each phase long before the others. Thus the skills, the people and the institutions that developed since the Thirties and Forties of these centuries, were essentially distribution oriented, while the products themselves were conceived elsewhere. To this day, therefore, the greatest contribution of the pioneering foreign companies (Lever Brothers, Imperial Tobacco, Wimco, Brooke Bond, Union Carbide and Burma Shell) remains most distinctive and durable, in the area of extensive and intensive redistribution.

Faced with very inadequate infrastructure but a centuries old tradition of wholesaling, these pioneering marketers of everyday necessities - soap, cigarettes, matches, tea, torch light batteries and kerosene - built an immense and intricate network of depots, stockiest and dealers to reach the vast rural hinterland of half a million villages. Even today, Indian companies emulate their techniques of carrying the product through this complicated and long pipeline at an incredibly low cost, of something under 10-15 per cent of the consumer price.

Until about the Seventies, the Marketing concept was still a new, rather American, notion to the majority of Indian managers, brought up on the idea that all you had to do was produce a better mousetrap and the world would tread a beaten path to your doorstep. Long after products had begun to be locally manufactured, our ideas about Marketing were not. They were still borrowed. It is significant that the Marketing science taught at management schools has been at least a decade or two ahead of the development of the market itself. Yet, there were many flaws in the way the Mix idea was put into practice. A hangover remained of a product centered, rather than consumer-centered frame of mind. Even today, marketing is seen by many a CEO as a post-manufacturing activity, simply because all the elements (packaging, branding, distribution, selling, advertising, sales promotion), take place usually after the basic product is made. This represents what I call a chain view of Marketing, a view that arises from a habit of thinking in terms of linear progression, of causes and effects on which most mechanistic and computer systems are based.

Industrialists spent considerably more effort and money in deciding the investment in plant and machinery rather than the intricacies of marketing. Often, investment decisions were made long before thoroughly understanding exactly how the product should be presented to the customer to convey the maximum value. Many a businessman discovered too late that the design or the delivery of the product did not take into account the nature of the demand. This was further complicated by the fact that many industries were in a rapid growth phase, all over the world, right through the Fifties and even up to the first oil shock in 1974. Almost anything of reasonable quality, put into the market, survived. Today, the situation has changed vastly. For the U.S., the wake up call came in the form of Japanese competition that nearly annihilated the auto industry on which the entire economy depends so heavily. For India, it came sometime soon after the first liberal import regime was ushered in, by Rajeev Gandhi's mini liberalization of the mid-Eighties. The reverberations of this "competition shock" are still being heard as even established companies are struggling to match their products and the organizations against world class rivals. This has been seen in the automotive, computer, consumer durables and even commodity sectors.

In the Seventies, Al Ries and Jack Trout ushered in the positioning era. They called it "the battle for the mind," positioning being the place occupied by your brand (as opposed to all others) in the minds of the prospect. Not what you put into the product but what, so to speak, the customer took out of it. "In our factories we produce soap. In the shops the housewife buys hope!" a statement attributed to a former chairman of Unilever about sums it up.

In recent years, competitive strategy and business policies have brought in the emphasis of considering the environment or the setting in which marketing operates. Business policy scholars have, of late, drawn particular attention to the need for a strategic intent and a single-minded focus being disseminated throughout the organization.

And yet, there remains a nagging sense of something still being incomplete. Academicians and businessmen all over the world are still puzzling over why some brands and some companies fail, while others succeed. In the last decade of this century corporate strategy and marketing strategy thinkers as well as consultants are rediscovering the need to "reshape the industry." It is what Joseph Schumpeter of the Austrian School of Economics discovered a long time ago namely, that the central component and the driving force behind industry evolution was Innovation.

Behind every conspicuous success, lies a new way of looking at - and thinking about - the market. I call this the true source of strategic differentiation. The key is competitive innovation, not just for novelty's sake but because it is valued by the customer; and he/she is willing to pay for it. Such innovation has to be born out of fresh insight - which goes beyond a mere analytical understanding of the known. No amount of dissection of markets and market opportunities can replace Strategic Marketing Insight, which sees the market differently from every other competitor so far. Being something behind and beyond ordinary Marketing, I choose to call it Meta Marketing (see figure).

One of the key insights of any meta-marketing thinker is that one can never replicate a successful predecessor's (competitor's/ overseas associates) performance by merely cloning one's Marketing mix. Indeed, the opposite, i.e., going as far away as possible from his "success secret" may be a less dangerous route to take. In other words, hope lies in the direction of taking a totally fresh look and cooking up one's own recipe, rather than "doing a Coke or Pepsi on competition," however laudable the performance of those brands might have been. In short, Meta Marketing is the means to opening our eyes to the danger inherent in not just "me-too" products, but the "me-too" thinking that invariably precedes them.

Some good examples in India of such insight are: the evolution of a hybrid two wheeler scooterette, the formulation of locally relevant food and condiments by companies such as Nestle, the development of a new form of the detergent product in a bar rather than the powder, the adoption of the sachet as a packaging device especially for rural distribution, and the repositioning of the wrist watch as a fashion accessory by Titan.

Such insight inevitably precedes creating a new competitive paradigm, including rewriting the rulebook itself and changing the rules of the game. In an increasingly competitive and transnational arena, marketing companies will have to ponder more and more about not just an offering that is different or better, but one that is an expression of a marketing insight.

Rajeev Kumar Ranjan
MBA (IIT Roorkee)
University of Petroleum

Source: E-mail May 31, 2006


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