Has Marketing Just Discovered The Customer?

Has Marketing Just Discovered The Customer?
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In his latest column, B&T regular Robert Strohfeldt argues modern day marketers could be overlooking the three major things any brand needs to succeed – the customer, customer and the customer…

The other day I read an “enlightened” statement: “Everyone needs to put the customer at the heart of their marketing strategies”.

Well, bugger me dead!

Next, we will be told that the end game is to sell. I used to look at older people and think “cynical old bastard”, but now I am, in comparison to the average marketing and advertising executive, old, I can see where the cynicism comes from. Not quite sure when it started, though I suspect it was when I first began to see observations and conclusions that were common knowledge 30 years ago, described as new. In 1983, I can remember being told: “there is nothing new in advertising”.

Technology changes, but people don’t. Though a pariah and a nasty little man, Google some of the statements made about propaganda in the 1930s by Joseph Goebbels.  His observations are timeless and reinforce the fact manipulation of public opinion can be used for both good and evil ends. The technology has changed, but the thinking and strategy has not. (The use of social media as the main medium of propaganda in the ideological wars has parallels.)

My old man retired at 45. No one famous. Just someone who worked hard in his own business and was successful enough not to have to work again. He preferred fishing, golf and family. (He also enjoyed partying and drinking, which is where I get it from.)

I went through some of his business plans from the early to mid -1960s. Yep, they had them back then, though they were devoid of the nomenclature (like that one?), to make it all appear more complex than it really was.

His market was the farmer – big farming set-ups on the Darling Downs. All he thought about was his customers and what they needed. (In 1963 he built a customer lounge, with pretty much the same facilities we see in airports today, but without the tech add-ons).

When it came time to harvest, there was no stuffing around. Many of these properties would take 48 hours or more, without a break straight, to complete harvesting their massive wheat crops. So, if there was a problem with the harvester at 2am, they could get on the phone (no mobiles), as the old man always had someone on call and a plane standing by. A “fixer” (or more if required) would be working on the equipment before 4am and have it up and running before 5am.

He even had a slogan, as it was called back then: “It’s the Service That Counts at Strohfeldt’s”.

Oh, he charged for all of this. Charged plenty, which is why he could retire at 45. But his customers were happy to pay for the peace of mind given by superior quality service and products. (That is another part of the story I won ‘t bore you with. Suffice to say he only used quality suppliers such as Bosch. Not cheap, but what is a few hundred bucks extra when you have a couple of million dollars’ worth of wheat to get in?)

Ten years ago, I interviewed Bob Jane and asked him what he thought were the three main factors in his success.

“I will give you 4” he said. “The customer is number 1, number 2, number 3 and number 4.”

I have been fortunate to work with some very successful business people over my career. People who started literally with nothing and built large, successful businesses. All had one thing in common – an almost fanatical obsession with their customers’ wants and needs and how they could best meet them. As well as quantitative data, observation played a major role. Sitting in an ivory tower crunching numbers and looking for something to jump out was not their approach.

Roger Corbett (the legendary CEO of Woolworths) told me he spent at least half of his time out in the field – observing and talking to store managers, staff and customers. It is not a matter of either or, rather knowing how to grasp and combine all the information available, both quantitative and qualitative.

Our industry is obsessed with data. We have numbers coming out our, ahem, well, rectum. I mentioned in an earlier article that JC Penny made one of the lead stories on BBC World Business News because someone “analysed” their Big Data and discovered they were selling a ton of sheets and bedding to hotels. As I said at the time, praise was given to a back- room analyst discovering something that people in marketing would have lost their job for not seeing in the 1980s and 90s.

Customer data, in principal, is a mandatory today. The more you know about your customers the better. But quantitative data is a bit liking digging for gold – you must know where to start digging. Technological superiority is of no help if digging in an area where there is no gold. Taking volumes of data and blindly running all sorts of analyses hoping something will pop out, without first having an idea of what you are looking for, is similar. If something that might be considered left field does come out of the data analyses, this insight probably would have been missed if starting out blind. The result is only extraordinary, if you start with knowing what ordinary is.

I recently read a feature on the Chief Customer Officer (CCO) versus the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) – “Is the Chief Customer Officer a Threat to the CMO?” (An example of “too many chiefs and not enough Indians”?)

By implication, the CMO (starting to like these acronyms, cuts down on the typing) has bugger all to do with the customer. Think about that for a moment – if marketing is not about the customer, then what the hell is it about?  Or what has it become?

Yes, technology has seen much change – often referred to as Disruption. But look at every single instance of a successful disruption strategy and the customer was at the centre – making things, better, cheaper, easier to access or a combination of them all.

Here we are well into the 21st century, with change happening so fast it makes your head spin. Marketing is now a science, made almost as complex as quantum physics. And what have we concluded? The customer is number one and the customer may or may not be the realm of marketing. Well bugger me dead!

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