Small Business

All Together Now: "Marketing Is Everything"


Every aspect of your business -- from delivery trucks to signage and employees' attitudes -- helps to shape your outfit's image

Marketing is everything. Now that's a bold statement.

Wait a minute, you say. The engineers in product development would certainly take issue with that. So would the analysts in finance who have been studying price elasticity. And what about the warehouse -- it doesn't matter what you sell if they can't ship it right.

How can marketing be everything? Simple. Everything those people do -- the product engineers, the financial analysts, even the warehouse managers -- contributes to how customers perceive a brand. In one sense, everything they do is marketing. So marketing is everything.

Here's a real-life example. I live in Albuquerque, a beautiful city that stretches from the foot of the Sandia Mountains to the Rio Grande and beyond. Sometimes in the cool of winter something meteorologists call an "atmospheric inversion" traps smog in the valley and it can be seen from the higher elevations. One day I was driving along the edge of the city, dreading the thought that soon I would be breathing the haze into which I was descending.

In the distance I spotted a delivery truck spewing plumes of thick, black smoke from its tailpipe. It made me angry. That, I thought, is the problem -- most vehicles run clean these days but it's the few offenders that cause the bulk of pollution.

FOGGY WATER.

After a few minutes, I caught up to the truck and pulled alongside. Imagine my surprise when I spotted the logo: Crystal Springs Bottled Water. Here was a brand that built its image on purity and it was plastered on a truck that was spewing garbage into my atmosphere. At that moment, not only was all of their advertising undone in my mind, it actually backfired. And every time I've seen an ad since I've been reminded of Crystal Springs' inconsistency.

I don't mean to point a finger at this company in particular, because no one is perfect. I really don't think Crystal Springs is made up of two-faced executives who talk a good game but couldn't care less about the environment. The point is simply this: Crystal Springs' marketing department spends a lot of time, money, and effort crafting a brand image around the purity of their products. But all their hard work was undone in an instant for everyone on that freeway, simply because some maintenance tech failed to tune up a truck. Marketing is everything.

Contrast that with an experience a colleague recently had after she purchased a new pair of running shoes. Not only did she enjoy a positive experience in the store, a few days later she received a call from a pleasant customer-service representative who simply wanted to ensure everything was still O.K. That impressed her. Shortly thereafter, the store, unprompted, delivered a handy gym bag to thank her for her business. Needless to say, she now considers herself "in the club" and is telling everyone she knows about it. Marketing is everything.

PEANUT PINCHERS.

Southwest Airlines (LUV) understands this principle, perhaps better than any other major brand. Year after year, Southwest's competitors try to take advantage of the fact that the airline doesn't assign seats and serves its customers tiny bags of peanuts. The other airlines actually see these as negative elements of the Southwest customer experience.

What they don't understand is that, to a Southwest customer, fighting for a seat and nibbling peanuts actually enhances the brand. Even though they aren't positive experiences in themselves, they reinforce the primary reason why people choose to fly Southwest: to save a buck. Southwest doesn't choose its snacks only because they're cheap but because they bolster the image of what its customers think they pay: peanuts. And delivering it all with a smile (as Southwest does so consistently) makes it quite tolerable.

Too many CEOs believe marketing is only a department on their organization chart or a chapter in their business plan. But marketing is so much more. Marketing is everything a company does, from the logo on its letterhead to the way it handles customer complaints to whether its uniformed personnel keep their shirts tucked in. (The latter is a challenge a current client of my firm is actually facing.) Company leaders who ignore this do so at their peril.

BAD TASTE.

The other night, my wife and I decided to try a new restaurant. But when we turned down its street, we just kept on driving, never even getting out of the car. It was the sign that gave us pause. It was simply a flat, translucent panel with an amateurish, one-color logo slapped on -- the kind of sign you would see on a check-cashing operation in a seedy strip mall. The sign was of low quality and in bad taste -- imagery not well associated with a fine-dining establishment. With plenty of other good choices we simply didn't want to take the risk of spoiling our dinner date.

For all I know, the food would have been amazing and the chef an undiscovered gem, but the restaurant never got the chance to prove it because we naturally assumed the experience would be as unprofessional as the sign. As a result, we passed.

Perhaps after a few more quiet weekends the proprietor will realize that marketing is everything and will do something about the sign. Perhaps not. But I'm determined to apply the lesson to my own business and think about marketing in a much broader context. Are you?

Steve McKee is president of McKee Wallwork Cleveland Advertising, an ad agency specializing in working with fast-growth companies and businesses whose ad budgets are under $10 million.

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