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Back in my youthful and un-jaded 20s, my colleagues and I were working on a project and realized another department held the key to elevating our design from good to great.

Unfortunately, they weren’t part of our project and improving their processes wasn’t “in scope.” As such, many of the team members were reluctant to talk with them for fear of stepping on toes or being responsible for scope creep.

Then an older, dad-like guy on the team said “people need to have short toes if we’re going to do something big”. After some clarification, I understood he meant that people with “long toes” often feel they are being stepped on. 

This leads me to my belief the marketing can, and must, do more to impact our organizations. We just have to stop worrying about people with long toes.

The Limits of Marketing

Marketing’s typical role is to build preference for our product or service. We work to develop empathy with our customers, build an attractive brand identity and messaging, and orchestrate all marketing channels to effectively build awareness, drive purchase, and encourage advocacy.

However, delivering a customer experience that establishes preference is a complex challenge and an organization-wide responsibility.

And in today’s hyper-social landscape that demands speed, transparency and authenticity, you don’t get many second chances. A few cases in point…

When the product disappoints

We worked with a brand that positioned themselves as a premium product targeting gadget-head early adopters. The creative was on point and the campaign delivered results. However, when customers received their product, they were disappointed to find a crappy plastic bin with a flimsy paper label and a cheap looking product.

There was nothing premium about the experience, and there was nothing we could do to change those customers’ first impressions. Instead of collaborating with other teams to improve the product, our client remained focused on optimizing the ad targeting and refining the message. “It is what it is” was the attitude.

When process hinders, not helps

Another large and established brand recognized an opportunity to fill an unmet customer need and wanted to launch a new service. They created a dedicated team who saw themselves as a start-up within the larger organization. 

However, the processes they had to follow to secure resources and the speed at which they were able to move was anything but start-up. By the time they began defining their differentiator, several competitors had filled the space and the opportunity was gone. No amount of marketing could turn back time.

When culture is at odds with your message

If your brand messaging isn’t true to your company culture, it’s only a matter of time before customers call bullshit.

Some examples are more obvious marketing makeovers than others. Comcast, BP, Wells Fargo, any health insurance company – these brands reminded us why there’s a crisis of trust in our society.

But other examples aren’t so obvious. One client we worked with was a great purpose-driven brand and a leader in their category. They’d developed a product that helped people manage their everyday anxiety. What we came to learn over time was that their company culture was actually anxiety-inducing. Side effects included: operational inefficiencies, an inconsistent customer experience, and a general sense of unease. 

Expecting More From Marketing

Marketing is not blameless. Too often we are content playing in our own sandbox and focusing on the things we (think we) can control. Why take on someone else’s problem and create more work for ourselves?

But for marketing professionals who want to have a bigger and lasting impact, it’s time to recognize our role not simply as the wrapping around the thing we sell, but as the voice of the customer with the ability to inspire change, regardless of where that change is needed.

Granted, this is easier said than done. However, below are a few actions you can take to start moving in that direction.

Leading with Humility

If you’re in a leadership position (marketing or otherwise), you have the ability to create the conditions for people to feel safe playing outside of their sandbox. 

Communicate your expectation that team members actively solicit input from other departments on all significant decisions. Assure them that as long as they do this, you’ll have their back regardless of the outcome. 

Help people think differently. When your team is ideating or problem solving, prompt them with questions that force them to consider another perspective. If we did this, how would that help or hurt the fulfillment team? Imagine you are in product development, what could we do differently that would make their lives easier? If you were a customer service representative, why might you be excited or anxious about our idea?

Finally, use those questions as a starting point for conversations with people in other areas of the business. It doesn’t need to be a formal meeting. It can be over coffee or on a walk or, once a relationship is established, over email or Slack. 

By doing this, your team can lead by example and begin building trust, so when the day comes and you have feedback for another department, they may be more receptive.  

A Hub for Customer Insights

One powerful way marketing can drive change is to be the undeniable (and unavoidable) voice of the customer. The objective arbitrator when seasoned and smart people begin digging heels in.

This goes beyond the basic marketing best practices (i.e. consumer and market research, case studies/customer stories, customer reviews, etc.).

Marketing can take the lead and facilitate conversations between all business areas that touch the customer to share knowledge and data. What have they been hearing from the customer (good and bad)? Are they seeing any changes in behavior or expectations? Is their data revealing any interesting trends? 

Marketing can then serve as the hub to capture and distribute that knowledge to the entire organization. For a small marketing team, it may be a monthly internal newsletter with an intriguing customer story, along with a “what it means for _____ department”. For a larger team, it could be a real-time customer dashboard and a monthly internal webinar with a customer insights rundown and Q&A session. 

Mapping the Customer Experience

Even though Customer Experience has been the buzzword in marketing for several years now, few organizations have invested in mapping all touchpoints with their brand. If they have, it’s often product-centric (user experience design), marketing-centric (the buyers’ journey) or sales-centric (the sales funnel). 

What’s often missing is a customer-centric, unified and shared vision of how a person experiences your brand.

Again, this is where marketing can take the lead, think bigger and connect the dots. By stepping into the customer’s shoes and engaging with your brand as they would, you can begin mapping all the different touchpoints and how each interaction made you feel. 

Then, as marketers, you do what you do best and become storytellers. You don’t need to come up with the all the answers. Instead, by helping each department develop empathy with your customer, marketing can frame the problem and inspire others to solve it.

The Big Data Excuse 

Finally, what many agencies and consulting firms would have you believe is that for marketers to truly drive change, we need to invest heavily in marketing technology, especially data analytics. Only through a fully integrated, centralized, real-time analytics solution can we truly understand our customer and make confident decisions.

Yes, an infrastructure like this is great if you have it. However, not having that system in place isn’t an excuse for not acting now.

Good old-fashioned boots on the ground, one-on-one conversations, and having “short toes” will go a long way in helping marketing do more for organizations.

Jen Casson

Jen Casson

Jen's experience marries art with strategy to embrace IT, data and creative craft. She loves collaboration, storytelling and supporting clients with research-based data and creativity. She is an award-winning editor for the Discovery Channel, Sundance Channel, Science Channel, Ford, Dish and others. When she’s not working, she’s enjoying life skiing, hiking and mountain biking with friends and family.
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