The Value of Upstream

Hold your breath: Marketing is approaching its end of days – and fast. So at least predict a many contemporary thinkers. But is it – really? The discipline is in transformation – always has been and will forever be – but a dying discipline?

No doubt about it: we are living through the biggest revolution in marketing – ever. And yes I agree, you can either cry out loud, suffer and become the victim of this o-so-harsh commercial world and die a pretty rapid death [as a marketer] or, and I am convinced of this, take the profession and discipline to a whole new level!

What’s changing?

Remember the industrial revolution? No? The naissance of ‘Brand Management’? Unless you are a really senior guy or really into P&G … No. The move from ‘Tell-The-World’ of one-way communication (thank you Billboards, Radio and TV)? Perhaps. Experiential and the rapid move into Digital? Yes! Into ‘Web 2.0’ and Social! Yes! Now we are talking. Surely this is a different world, where technology is the great enabler underpinning a rapidly expanding and ever more connected world of customers, where opinions are the new currency.

Sorry to disappoint: it has always been that way. The exchange of opinions was a crucial element in any marketing mix ever since men started to trade, long before the monetary fiat system entered our civilized lives. If anything, it is re-discovering what has always driven and separated the good from the mediocre, the good from the truly outstanding. What has changed is that (1) the segments of one [i.e. customers] are aggregating opinions ever more quickly and more often, which in turn (2) creates noise beyond the social circle of a few lone wolfs and (3) it is now measurable and as such ‘visible’ – to anyone who wants to look. Your peers, your CEO, your Board. Enough so to scare the bones out of organisations and marketers alike. An additional network effect is that the boundaries are blurring; what used to be a ‘journalist’ is no longer so clear-cut.  Yes we all run ‘Blogger Events’ – but really this boundary is blurring too. And so are organisational boundaries. There is no more ‘us and them’ when it comes to people who buy into our brand, our products and services. Near total transparency is the new order.

So what?

The customer is now (finally!) well and truly in the driving seat. No surprise. For the first time since I can remember we really have a world where everything is ‘on-line’, at least what concerns the customer. I do not mean this literal as in ‘websites and digital’. Perhaps ‘integrated and transparent’ is a better way of making the point. This does unfortunately not yet hold true for our very own brands, our businesses, sadly often for our products and even more sadly so, for what happens once the customer bought into us.

So if we take the ‘what’s changing?’ part and add it to the ‘so what?’ section of this short write-up, what do you get? I suggest two really critical insights:

Firstly – and this is the simple part – there is no more room for not being clear of who you are and what you stand for (Purpose), even less margin for error when it comes to ‘doing business’ (Integrity, Honesty, Transparency on your total proposition) and zero tolerance when it comes to the ‘taking care of our customers’ part. It is fundamentally a good thing. It forces the right behaviour. Put in very simple language: stop spinning better stories, make better products and companies. Mass brands and premium brands should take note now and look to the luxury goods sector to ask themselves fundamental questions on these dimensions.

Secondly – and these are the somewhat more nuanced implications on the fascinating discipline of Marketing – we need to start thinking upstream! The traditional models have strategic thinking at their centre [don’t you have a ‘strategy department’ that looks at corporate, product or communications?] from which we radiate, inspire and develop new products, services or campaigns. Often (too) far removed from where the (real) action happens. Cooked and thought-up in ivory towers. Implemented by our colleagues in regional offices and at the front lines in dealerships, stores and boutiques. Where – no surprise – the rubber does not always hit the road. Honestly: how many days and weeks do your strategy department people spend ‘on the ground’? How many do you? How connected is your strategic-planner, your agency to the front line?

We need to tip this model on its head and do what the customer does. Connect, discuss, experience, learn, share, network at the front: and take these insights back into our organisations. This is bottom-up stuff, not top down. This is regional-up, not central-down. It is inside-us-doing, not outsource-agency-do-it all. It is nitty-gritty, not live-on-the-cloud stuff. In essence, it is moving into a mind-set where strategy and tactics are much more blurred, where one inspires and fuels the other. It is all-encompassing and multi-discipline. I advocate this fundamental shift represents the single biggest difference for marketing and marketers to recognize and to truly understand in order to become the drivers of success in the businesses we work for. As well as for the sake of our very own careers.

My advice for organisations understanding what is going on: congratulations, move to implementation within! If you’re not clear what this means for you, get in touch with someone who can help you understand. And for Marketers? If you are operating in the Promotional ‘P’ only and you enjoy it but have like most of us a broader remit, then you either look for a job as creative or broaden your skill base. It is not ‘Technology’ that you need to add, it is learning more in-depth how your business operates, where its life blood flows. Become the doctor of your business, then the chief-joiner of dots. If you have a notion of the other 3 Ps that’s a start, make sure you connect this with People (they make it happen!) and the Planet (think sustainability, integrity). Combine your marketing expertise with front-line insights and real business understanding, and take it Upstream back into your organisations. That is where real value will increasingly be derived from. Besides, a bit of street-cred within the ivory tower can never hurt

A powerful shift …

This shift of taking ‘downstream’ expertise  back ‘upstream’ to inform strategy yields ultimately better brand propositions, better products (a paradox that does not apply to luxury, the scope here is too narrow to expand, but get in touch if you need to understand this) and better services. This shift is in my humble view also the single most powerful driver that will help shape marketing in the coming years. It’s a fascinating journey and I congratulate every business in adopting this mind-set, and every marketer willing to take it on!