Marketing and business growth: art and science

I have been thinking lately a lot about what makes marketing successful and what kind of marketers I should train. Academic research points us towards customer or market orientation, organisation culture, marketing effectiveness, relationship marketing and marketing capabilities, just to name a few. As an academic, I find the current explanations for marketing success too quantitative, too narrow. There is too little research that would explain how the quality, not the quantity, of marketing, affects firm performance. We often consider marketing through marketing budget. But it is not about the quantity of the budget, it is how the money is invested.

At the #digitalist SMT growth forum, I started thinking about marketing and growth. Business growth is one of the central measurements of success, but how is marketing driving growth? This led to a notion of marketing both as science and art. I realized that marketing as a science is about optimization, marketing as an art is about innovation. Only by thinking marketing as an art, organizations can achieve long-term growth through marketing.

Marketing innovations drive growth
SMT #Digitalist seminar discussed the topic of marketing and growth

Marketing as a science: numbers and logic

We could say that marketing can be regarded as an engineering science. Especially now with big data, AI, marketing automation, analytics and e-commerce, marketing has become a science of numbers. Marketing companies and departments are looking for data scientists to understand and optimize everything. Competitive advantage is thought to come from better understanding and use of numbers and analytics.

A/B testing and other website optimization methods, social media channels selection based on attribution modelling and ROI calculations, conversion metrics and search engine rankings are valued high when looking for people to work in the marketing field. However, these are only skills that keep the business in the game. There is hardly any competitive advantage to be gained here as all companies can hire people that are good with numbers. Optimizing 0.1 % here and 1.5 % there does not create sustainable competitiveness. Sure, you are improving and these improvements might even build upon each other, but the numbers and most of the science and research on marketing only keep the business on track. The only exception I can think of is the adoption of new marketing technology or platform that changes the way marketing is conducted, for example moving from human work to marketing automation. Or improving bad website design.

I just find it ridiculous that social media marketing would be managed by numbers. Social interaction is about emotions and feelings, not numbers. Numbers are distracting us from what really is relevant for growth beyond expectations. Marketers need to understand people, not just numbers.

Marketing as an art: vision, values and emotions

Tourism in Iceland grew 40 % in 2016 and has been on a growth trajectory for years. Finlayson managed to grow annually 53 % in a shrinking market in 2016. Similar numbers can be found from Apple when it recorded 42 % market share growth with their Mac vs. PC campaign and Obermutten when it became world famous almost overnight. However, marketing of Iceland and Finlayson differ from Apple and Obermutten in one critical way. Apple and Obermutten cases are just marketing gimmicks and well well-designed and executed campaigns. These campaigns can be created with many marketing companies, but to get sustainable growth, there needs to be more.

Values are connected to growth
Jukka Kurttila quoting Ford about business values.

Iceland and Finlayson are successful in keeping the growth steady and ongoing year after year. The reason is that their marketing is based on vision, values and emotions. Their success is not solely based on individual campaigns but who and what these organizations represent and their core values.

Great marketing campaigns are all about emotions and values. These make possible to create stories. Stories cannot be led by numbers, they are lead by emotions. We need to focus on people, not the numbers that represent them. Customer understanding needs deeper data, not just big data.

If marketing is focused solely on competitive advantage and optimization, it prevents us from seeing the big picture. Marketing needs a pause, it needs time to move from red oceans to blue ocean strategy. This is when marketing becomes art. It requires a company to have a vision and strong values as well as concrete actions that manifest these values into reality. This is not an easy thing to do, it requires courage to try out new things, change practices as well as strong business leadership with marketing insights.

Marketing innovation as a key to growth

Thinking of marketing as both art and science is nothing new. However, many authors are missing the point, which is combining marketing innovation with product or service innovation. New innovations are one of the most important sources for growth. I theorize that product or service innovation should always be backed up by innovative marketing. This can be achieved is marketing in the organization is also regarded as art. Innovations or marketing can create growth by themselves, but when they are combined, the results are the greatest, bigger than innovating new products or services without marketing innovations.

Marketing should be integrated to all innovation processes from the start to enable marketing innovations. Every member of the company can think of and produce marketing innovations, especially those involved in creating product or service innovations. Marketing is not just a department anymore, anyone in the organization can be involved in the development process. Personnel who are enthusiastic about a new product or service and the values of the company are the ones that could champion marketing innovations.

Combining marketing innovation with product or service innovation and impact on success Marketing innovation
Low High
Product / service innovation Low 0 +
High + +++

I am not saying that you do not need to understand the numbers. Businesses should definitely invest in analytics, optimization and marketing effectiveness measurements. But we should also realize that these do not take the company to the next level. Marketing budgets are typically too small and too tight to allow anyone to think about marketing innovations and how company values can be translated to marketing stories through actions. Marketing needs to tell the story of company values every day in all contact points with the customer, not just one campaign every now and then.

I study how changes in technology and consumer behaviour affect tourism marketing. Programme director of International Master’s Degree Programme at University of Eastern Finland Business School.

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