Close Menu

Why Marketing is a Dirty WordFebruary - 2024

Marketing is a dirty word in the c-suite

For most of my career, I’ve had the ear of the c-suite.  And over these last two decades, conversations with c-suite executives have included a range of business language, but one word has always stood out.  That word is “marketing” and all too often, it is considered a dirty word.

Ironically, the word is so dirty that I continue to second guess if the company I founded nearly a decade ago should even have “Marketing” in its name.  This comes on the heels of a recent Harvard Business Review Study that revealed, “The corporate marketing function has lost budget, head-count, and influence.”  

It’s true. Of all of the departments and employees that ladder up to the c-suite, I hear more CEOs, COOs, CFOs, CIOs, speak poorly of marketing.

“They continue to spend enormous amounts of money.”

“Where is the ROI?”

Why do they need all these new tools?”

“Why do I see our competitor’s ads and not ours?”

I don’t plan on changing the name of AE Marketing Group anytime soon, because I recognize that “marketing” is more misunderstood than profane. And that misunderstanding creates an opportunity – not just for me and my company – but for every marketing professional, from the most junior to the most senior.  

The opportunity is to translate marketing into value and language that the c-suite understandsplain and simple. 

Yet, we as humans tend to overcomplicate things.  Hopefully reading this will make you fluent in the c-suite’s language, improve your productivity and credibility, and remove the grime from marketing.  


The Language and Psychology of Marketing

My son Edmund, the “E” in AE Marketing Group and I spend a fair amount of time talking through the definitions of words.  When I began writing this blog, I thought it might be wise to look up the actual definition of the word “marketing” for language context.  And that was my first aha moment.  

Here is the Oxford dictionary definition…

“Marketing is the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising.”

Now, here is the definition from the American Marketing Association (AMA)…

“Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”

I was surprised that the AMA definition was not clear and simple. After all, they have been the world’s largest professional society of marketers since the 1930s.  And using terms like “institutions” and “exchanging offerings” just sounds bad. Perhaps this is one reason the c-suite struggles with this word.  

So, here is our company’s definition…

Marketing is the art and strategy of educating prospective buyers on how your product or service can help them.  

Now, plenty of c-level executives still might call bullshit on our definition. 

After all, as a CEO myself, I know we are focused on growth (sales).

CFOs are focused on expenses (cost).

COOs are focused on systems (process).

CXOs are focused on service (experience).

And having led countless customer research projects, focus groups, and product and co-creation labs, I also know that the very same people that companies are marketing to are actually focused on the same things.  

People budget (cost), then shop (process), they buy (sales), and finally, use (experience).  The process is just on their own terms and timeframes, not ours. 


A Brand is Bigger than Marketing 

Compounding the language problem is another word that is almost always attached to marketing – brand.  It is a big mistake to assume that a brand is just a marketing, creative, or advertising function.  A brand is like company culture – it transcends your enterprise as it represents your people, products, services, experiences, customers, and more.  

Yet, for decades, the c-suite has put the responsibility (and accountability) of “brand” entirely on the marketing department. I would argue this has fueled much of the disconnect on the actual value of marketing investments and staff.   

Consider this, can large advertising or media budgets off-set a poor product, service, or experience over time? 

Absolutely not.

If people don’t like what you are marketing or selling, they simply won’t buy.  Or, if they buy and have a bad experience, if you’re lucky they will not be a repeat buyer, if you aren’t as lucky, these unhappy customers will share their bad brand experience online and off.  

Marketers must align, or at a minimum, set the expectations to align, the brand across the enterprise – ensuring that product development, operations, customer service, sales, and yes, marketing, are all on the same page when it becomes a brand promise.  

In the era of COVID19 if there is one thing consumers (both B2B and B2C) are looking for, it’s “brand trust,” and they’re willing to pay for it.

75% of people with high brand trust say they will buy the brand’s product even if it isn’t the cheapest. (Source: Edelman)    

It’s the entire organization’s job to build that emotional trust, marketing is just one of many distribution channels (like customer service).  Ironically, the companies that create trust do not need to spend as much on marketing over time.

“There’s nothing more memorable than an emotional reaction to a brand. Companies that leverage and learn from their customer’s behaviors and emotions will be the ones we look to as examples going forward,” said Alicia Tillman, Global CMO at SAP.


Expense or Revenue

How people shop, buy, and consume media has changed more in the last few months than it had in the prior decade.  This presents yet another challenge as companies need to inform and educate potential buyers on how its products (or services) can help them. And that requires not just creating compelling content (to build emotional connections and trust), but reaching a buyer on his/her terms where they are – this is part of the “art of marketing.”  

Both B2B and B2C customers don’t want to be sold, they want to buy, and it is the job of marketing (and sales) to help them make progress. And yes, it requires investments in content and media (earned and owned) to build a customer relationship.    

Often it’s that investment that fuels the disconnect between management and the c-suite.  Many executives consider marketing an expense, and there is no denying that it is one.  However, I would also argue as a CEO (and business owner), that it is one of the few tools that we have to help businesses grow.

Unfortunately, it falls on the marketing department staff to build a business case for spending money to make money.  Trust me, it can be done but it requires looking at both data and financials that the c-suite can get behind. I’d recommend collaborating with sales, finance, and data peers to answer these questions…

“What is the average value of a new customer?  What is his/her value over three years?”

“What is our customer retention rate at 2 years, 4 years, 6 years?”

“Are we seeing more growth from new customers than existing customers?  Who is more profitable?”

“What acquisition and retention costs that we can measure against these segments?”

“What do our buyer channels look like and what do we need to spend to be in these channels so when he/she is ready to buy we have consistently shared how we can help them?”

“If we spend $10K, $100K, $1M, $10M, what can we expect in terms of conversions and revenue?

If you can confidently speak to the c-suite armed with the answers to these questions, you’ll be more successful in shifting the conversation from marketing as an expense to a revenue opportunity.


Misaligned Expectations

“I am always willing to consider marketing investments to help grow our revenues.  However, it’s not enough to bring a creative strategy into my office, I want to see that you’ve put together a business strategy that we can measure against,” said ZORCH CEO, Mike Wolfe.

Now that you’ve secured the investment needed to produce creative, content, and media, etc. – You aren’t home free just yet. Now you must manage expectations and track the metrics that the c-suite sees as timely and meaningful in making decisions.

Vanity metrics as we jokingly call “likes,” “shares,” “views,”  and “clicks” are of no value to the c-suite. Remember, CEOs are focused on growth, not impressions. If your business case was built around acquisition or retention, there can and should be clear, related metrics to monitor such as…

“How many leads are we capturing?  What percentage of leads convert to customers?”

“How many new customers have we acquired?  What is our cost-per-conversion?”

“How do these costs benchmark against the value of a new customer?”

          “If we continue to spend at these levels, what can we expect in terms of a return?”

I could go on and on here, but if you built a business case, managed expectations, and clearly defined the right metrics, you should be in good shape.

Another byproduct of this approach is that it allows you to say “no.”

If marketing expectations and goals are defined early on, and effectively communicated throughout the organization, it affords the marketing team the ability to say “no” to any pet/side projects that don’t align with the business plan, metrics, or outcomes you’ve mutually agreed upon.

And, if you have to say “yes,” make sure it’s a “yes, but…” so you manage c-suite expectations. Maybe that trade-off is time, or something that might not yield a direct return, may not easily be measured, or may not generate leads.

As I wrote from the beginning,  marketing is often considered a dirty word, it doesn’t have to be.  Having worked closely with the c-suite for nearly two decades, I know the word is just misunderstood.

Unfortunately, it is your job as a marketer to speak the language, build a business case, understand financials, and manage the expectations of the c-suite.  

If you can do all of that, your almost home.  All you have to do now is produce.

More Posts