It wasn’t so long ago that the marketer’s quiver held a handful of arrows. The skillful often chose some combination of print advertising, radio, broadcast television and cable spots, Yellow Pages ads, direct mail, billboards, special events, telemarketing, press stories - and of course, word of mouth. These were the trusted marketing tools. You could count on them.

That was then; this is now and everything has changed. More accurately, it is changing. Since most of us prefer stability and predictability, we may see what is occurring as something akin to a transition from the old to the new as we look for a new list of trusted tools to emerge. Unfortunately, it may be little more than wishful thinking.

This picture came into abrupt focus one morning when the telephone rang. It was a vendor from a company placing video monitors displaying consumer ads in supermarkets. “As you know, advertisers are trying new ways to get to customers, particularly since many of the traditional techniques are no longer effective,” said the salesperson, who was expressing the deepening dilemma facing companies today.

Not only are there no silver bullets, but the bullet supply is running mighty low.


Although some may disagree, no one has a corner on right answers today when it comes to marketing tactics. When someone asks if a particular tactic will produce the desired results, there is only one acceptable answer: It all depends on the product or service, the target demographic, the message and, particularly, how the target customers want to be approached.

The CNN debates with Democratic and Republican candidates are a good example of the profound changes taking place not only in political marketing, but the entire marketing universe as well.

Perhaps the most dramatic event took place in July 2007 when 3,300 people posted video questions on YouTube for a Democratic presidential candidates’ debate. It was the first ever political reality TV event and what may come to be thought of as a marketing watershed in political campaigning. It may have helped shape the answer to this question: Is voter apathy the fault of the voters or is it a reflection of feeling ignored?

The event sent the message that the public wants real people to question the candidates. No longer will we accept professional talking heads interposing themselves between candidate and questioner. Even more to the point, the politicos looked painfully uncomfortable that evening as they struggled to come up with “make sense” answers.

While this is but one example of the many communication changes taking place today, it illustrates the sea change that’s occurring.

To put it as clearly as possible, no marketer can say with certainty how to reach a particular audience as things stand today. If that isn’t enough, there is reason to doubt that the clouds of confusion will soon part and the sunlight of certainty will shine again.

This was driven home recently while going over a proposal we were preparing for a prospective client. Although this was a modest-size regional business, we found we were recommending a dazzling array of 11 different marketing tactics.


Here are some thought-lines when considering an organization’s marketing strategies:

1. All marketing tactics are temporary.The time has come to recognize that there are no permanent solutions. One major soft drink company is changing the design of its cans every 12 weeks in an effort to grab attention, while wine bottles are quickly becoming works of art.

The e-mail blast frenzy lasted about a year, about as long as it took to ramp up the spam filters. The question today is always, what’s next? Will Google’s cell phone deliver advertising messages that work with consumers? Should electronic ads be games? And what about mini-social (and micro) networks? How will they fare in letting customers speak with each other about your company’s products and services?

If there is a message in all this, don’t expect any tactic to last. Everything is temporary. Technology will constantly open the way to new opportunities.

2. All marketing is essentially experimental.On top of the temporary nature of marketing tactics, they are also experimental.

“We’re waiting to see how all this shakes out before we do anything,” said a company president. The words are hauntingly reminiscent of those who announced rather proudly that they would wait to buy a computer until they were perfected. Today, these same people view their computers as indisposable. It all happened in just a few years.

Even though there are those, particularly some vendors and ad agencies, that like to suggest that they have “the answer,” it’s clear that all marketing is, to one extent or another, experimental. There are no certainties, no guarantees. What works with one group of customers may not work with another. And some things don’t work at all.

3. Marketing requires an array of tactics.A major shift in thinking about marketing is needed. Rather than bouncing three or four balls at one time, marketers are juggling up to a dozen or more at the same time.

The roster may include a blog, a series of eBulletins delivered to particular customer segments, several Websites, advertising sequences on Google and Yahoo, personalized direct mail, TV and radio spots, print newsletters, print advertising in selected venues, billboards and a mini-social network, to name but a few. The frustration is felt when someone says, “What about trying billboards?”

The marketing concept is finding ways to connect as intimately and meaningfully as possible with individual customers, recognizing that not even three or four venues can deliver your message to your entire universe of customers and prospects.

4. Customers are the only experts.Perhaps the most poignant moment of the CNN TV debate featuring the videoed questions was the one featuring the woman who had lost her hair as a result of breast cancer treatment. Nothing was more real than her question about health care.

Al Wittemen, the managing director for retail strategy for Advantage Retail and a marketer for 35 years, points out that today’s customers think less about brands and more about themselves. Even though it should be obvious, it’s ignored more often than not.

Wittemen uses prepared foods as an example of consumer behavior. When the customers comes to the supermarket, there is far less interest in picking out a particular brand than there is in picking out dinner for tonight. In other words, “shoppers are not necessarily looking for high drama. More often, they are looking for relevant solutions to their immediate needs,” he notes.

Why did an advertising agency replace a higher-end well-known brand (Xerox) copy machine with a lesser known one (Lexmark)? It’s simpler, faster, and more flexible. That’s exactly what Honda, Hyundai, and Kia are all about, too.

When customers are getting ready to make a purchase today, the first place they go to is the Internet, to look for what others have to say.

Among his observations regarding customer behavior, George Colony, the Forrester Research CEO, said that while 100-question surveys might help measure customer satisfaction, there is one question that will do the job: “Would you recommend this product or service to a friend or colleague?”

It’s time to forget about the hype and listen to the customers; they’re the experts.

The marketing mix today isn’t just in flux; it’s fluid. If anyone thinks it’s time to wait on the sidelines until the parade of possibilities goes by, the competition will have run off with the customers.

Publication date:01/07/2008