But with the current "tsunami of populist rage coursing through America" (to use the words of New York Times columnist Frank Rich), we may find ourselves longing for the luxury of concerning ourselves only with the questions of an anal controller. At least with CFOs we could have a rational, informed discussion about marketing strategies and tactics, grounded with the confidence that we all have the best interests of the business in mind.
Instead, we find our marketing plans now being tried in the court of public opinion -- and so far we haven't been given much of a chance to defend ourselves. It started last November when General Motors' CEO Rick Wagoner, after asking Congress for bailout money, was bullied by his potential saviors into pledging that his company would not advertise in the Super Bowl. Then, earlier this month, Citigroup, feeling the heat to prove it was a worthy recipient of TARP money, was prompted to reconsider its sponsorship deal with the New York Mets.
I wouldn't be surprised if we start seeing public outcry over the marketing efforts of other companies -- not only of those that have been bailed out, but also of any company people just love to hate. A high-profile marketing campaign is the perfect target for people who've taken it upon themselves to police corporate irresponsibility and waste.
So what's a maligned marketer to do? There are some obvious things we shouldn't do. We shouldn't dig in our heels or, more likely, bury our heads in the sand and hope the scrutiny subsides. Neither should we respond to questions in knee-jerk fashion, quickly pulling the plug on any marketing efforts that might seem excessive. Instead I suggest three things:
First, we should better communicate the value of marketing so that people understand its potential contribution to the economic recovery. After all, much of marketing is communication, and so we should be experts at convincing our audiences that spending money -- often lots of it -- on marketing is an important investment for companies to make now.
I'm not suggesting we engage a high-profile ad campaign -- that would be about as effective as the notorious "Shared Values" campaign the U.S. launched several years ago in an attempt to sway Iraqi public opinion in our nation's favor. We need to employ the tools that we've learned to use to develop positive relationships between our brands and consumers. Instead of letting ad-bashing fill the social media "airwaves," let's launch an effort to make the case for marketing.
This assumes we have a case to make -- which is my next suggestion. We need to ensure we can draw a direct and causal link between marketing efforts and results. That is not to say that we have to open our books to anyone who asks - rather, we simply need to be able to show how marketing spend generates image equity, which in turn translates into brand preference and ultimately greater purchase frequency or transaction size. One of the best papers I've read on how to do this is by Jonathan Knowles of Type 2 Consulting, a firm that specializes in aligning the marketing and finance perspectives on branding -- you can access the piece at http://tinyurl.com/cnc5rt.
Finally, I submit that we must expand marketing beyond the marketing department. Instead of emphasizing brand communications which seem -- and many times are -- superfluous, we should be focused on brand delivery. Whether you're talking to an angry taxpayer or a company leader, a multimillion-dollar investment in a new technology that enables the business to serve its customers better makes a lot more sense than the same money spent on a corporate sponsorship or an ad campaign.
Brand-building should be about identifying, prioritizing, and implementing programs and initiatives to deliver the brand through the core organizational operating system. Certainly a brand is strengthened by what we say (what and how we communicate with customers) -- but it is primarily what we do (what and how we provide to them) that drives value creation.
So perhaps the scrutiny being cast over marketing isn't all bad. If it prompts us to re-consider what the value of marketing is, get crystal clear on the business case for marketing, and learn how to effectively communicate it, then we'll be the better for it.
Surely public opinion will never be our Prince Charming -- but perhaps it can deliver our wake-up kiss, er, call.