Why Growth Marketing Means Everything -- And Nothing

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, September 9, 2019

If you’ve been anywhere near marketing or Silicon Valley or any of the metropolitan start-up hubs around the country in the past few years, you certainly cannot have escaped hearing the term “growth marketing” at least a few, or maybe even a thousand times.

Even the trade organization Association of National Advertisers has embraced growth marketing, adopting the tagline "We're All In On Driving Growth" and starting a CMO Masters Circle initiative called the CMO Growth Council.

I’ll offer an example. I was recently contacted by a start-up that is a centralized production platform environment for development, monitoring and deployment by data science teams. Do they need to grow? Of course. However, they brought up the potential need for growth marketing. 

Now, hold on a second. Their customers are large enterprise businesses/Fortune 500s and their decision-makers: CIOs, CDOs and CTOs. So, obviously a very small universe of potential targets. 

Steering them toward “growth marketing” in the way that most people think about it -- Google AdWords, search, social, display campaigns -- would be a total waste of their finite resources.

So why this persistent buzz around growth marketing from every corner of the marketing world? To find out, I recently ran a quick seven-question survey on the topic and received enough responses to make the results more or less statistically significant.

A few survey highlights to start:

  • Growth marketing is not going away any time soon – roughly 50% of respondents said it was a useful marketing discipline, with only 30% citing it as “simply a trendy term-of-the-moment” and 10% calling it “the future of digital marketing.”
  • Further, it’s gaining traction – brands, agencies and start-ups are employing growth marketing strategies 55% of the time, with only 5% stating they never use it.
  • It’s gaining traction, part 2 – 42.9% said they have added growth marketing to their mix, 7.1% said it has replaced less important tactics and 21.4% said it’s all they’re focused on. Only 28.6% said it’s had zero impact on marketing choices.
  • The spending is there – a full 90% of respondents claimed that growth marketing was between 1%-75% of their overall marketing budget.

Of course, when you allow people to draw outside the lines and offer their true opinions (versus simply answering multiple choice questions) is when you get to the real heart of the matter.

Despite many marketers using growth marketing many still recognized that in some ways it’s merely a rehash. In fact, several in this survey blatantly called it simply another name for demand generation, lead generation or performance marketing. In a lot of ways, they’re not wrong.

Soliciting comments also yielded a lot of honest opinions about what’s unfortunately really happening. One respondent wrote, "This seems to be the buzzword and what's replacing the skills of a CMO… (I) see ‘growth marketing’ touted all the time with Silicon Valley start-ups – anything to get those numbers fast and up to the right for investors and slideshows.” Ouch. Another said, “it's all anyone wants these days, measurable, quick results,” while another offered bluntly, “too many startups are OVER relying on it.”

So, what can be gleaned from these insights? I’m going with my initial premise – growth marketing is simultaneously everything and nothing. While it may seem like growth marketing is taking over the marketing universe, at the same time, it can be a bit of a false promise.

I like the way one respondent summed it up:  “Growth marketing is not new at all. The trend is actually to balance brand and growth. Many startups only use growth tactics, which leaves them without a brand.” Wise words.

6 comments about "Why Growth Marketing Means Everything -- And Nothing".
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  1. Robert Kahns from MarineMax, September 9, 2019 at 2:26 p.m.

    I am fine with calling it growth marketing, as long as everyone stops calling it growth hacking.

  2. Scott Lahde from ConduitWorks replied, September 10, 2019 at 10:31 a.m.


  3. Marcelo Salup from Iffective LLC, September 11, 2019 at 1:48 p.m.

    It's an easy thing to dismiss flippantly... "growth" marketing. Right. Who ever does marketing to not grow, right?

    If you are a small company, a startup, then "growth" marketing is the way to see the world: you need to grow and the way to grow is to get people to try your product.

    But after a certain stage, you need to add "retention" marketing because if you do not close the back door not only will your costs go up, you might actually run out of potential clients!

  4. Ron Kurtz from American Affluence Research Center, September 11, 2019 at 5:29 p.m.

    I wish the origins of new business buzz words (like "growth marketing") could be identified so the rationale for the word could be researched and revealed. 

  5. Ford Kanzler from Marketing/PR Savvy, September 13, 2019 at 2:44 p.m.

    Inventing new terms for long-established concepts or practices is, in itself, a marketing trick. Marketing is about creating awareness, credibility, demand and helping drive sales or adoption, enlistment and involvement. Hanging a modifier in front of the word doesn't make it a whole new game. But it does give some people an opportunity to tout their expertise with a different label.
    I have the same problem with the recently invented term "Content Marketing" which is also being promoted as a new, big thing. Applying informative content to marketing/public relations campaigns is anything but new, except to those just-arrived people with no knowledge of marketing history. General Mills applied content development to its marketing program with the Betty Crocker Cookbook long before nearly any of us were born. Innumerable other brands and entities have as well. Calling this long-proven business communications strategy something new is just that. Name invention. End of rant. :)

  6. Ron Kurtz from American Affluence Research Center replied, September 13, 2019 at 5:11 p.m.

    Congrats and much appreciation to Ford for his "on target" comments. It is shocking how the new wave of  managers seem to have little knowledge of business history (even for their own employers). Keep ranting Ford. I agree totally. 

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