It’s not about you: marketing orientation, research, and dog poop sandwiches

It’s not about you: marketing orientation, research, and dog poop sandwiches

When it comes to advertising, what your business wants doesn’t matter. It’s your customers, clients, or members that matter. Without them, your brilliant product or the fantastic services you offer might as well not exist.

The failure rates for new product launches are chilling. Whether you believe the great business thinker Clayton Christensen’s 95% failure rate or Harvard Business Review’s 75%, the number is high enough to give a moment’s pause to most organizational leaders. When you fold new services into the mix, the news isn’t much better, as McKinsey found that 50% of all launches don’t hit their targets.

One of the most common reasons for the early death of new products, services—even companies—is failure to understand the market and what customers want.

The limits of advertising and—yes we’re really going there—dog poop sandwiches

Advertising can imprint your name in people’s minds, but it can’t force people to see things your way. There’s an old idea that marketing can “make” people want things, as though advertisers are evil magicians who sprinkle mind control magic into ad campaigns and websites.

Sure, you might see an ad for something appealing and then make a purchase that you otherwise might not have made. But there’s something deeper going on here. Marketing works by tapping into something customers already want or need (whether they know it or not). If someone started a company selling dog poop sandwiches, even the most brilliant ad campaign wouldn’t work, because no one wants a dog poop sandwich. They want to have fun, save money, save time, look good in the eyes of their peers, learn things, solve problems, etc. Of course, it’s more complicated than that, but you get the idea. There are equivalents for B2B as well.

Influencer marketing, for example, taps into two customer desires simultaneously: having fun and looking good to their peers. Making purchases is fun because people are entertained by having new and different things. The peer status element comes into play because buying that new water bottle your favourite celebrity is holding in their latest Instagram makes you look current to other fans.

This brings us to what we should be doing instead. It all starts with a shift in perspective.

What is marketing orientation?

Marketing orientation refers to a business culture in which almost all of the organization’s functions focus on how they satisfy customer needs. In a marketing-oriented company, the marketing department’s extensive research makes them the voice of customers, and they ensure that this influences everything from product designs to internal processes. (Here, I use “marketing” in its fullest sense, as the work involved in creating and bringing products to market, not just advertising.)

In a business context, market orientation, marketing orientation, and customer orientation all mean the same thing.

There are other orientations that can determine how a business culture operates, including product orientation or sales orientation. While these approaches have their advantages, market-oriented companies are almost always more profitable. For example, a sales orientation may lead to more sales and more revenue, but these numbers may be at the expense of maximum profit, which is ultimately the most important goal for a business.

Marketing orientation has its disadvantages too. For example, customer desires can change rapidly, and companies may have to scramble to keep up with the trends. It can also stifle innovation if taken too literally (more on that below).

Understanding your target audiences  

For marketing orientation to exist in your organization, you have to understand who your audiences are, what they want and need, what problems they’re trying to solve, and how your products or services address these issues.

This does not mean overly simplistic approaches like demographics. Think about it: you won’t have the same attitudes and opinions as everyone else of your approximate age. You’ll have different life circumstances, political views, etc.

Whether your company has money or not, you must find a way to talk directly to your customer. This may mean paying people to fill in a survey or participate in a focus group. If you’re a cash-strapped startup it may mean taking individual customers out for a coffee and asking them questions. And there’s no substitute for visiting them in their home (B2C) or office/facility (B2B) and observing how people use your products or services.

If you’re a mature business, it may mean diving into your customer service data to figure out what problems may exist and what potential solutions may lead to more happy customers.

The other important point is that market research should be ongoing because priorities change over time. For example, in the past few years, more people have become interested in buying more environmentally friendly products. For many businesses, this may mean improving the sustainability of their products, having a more eco-friendly option, or using renewable energy to power the servers that host an online business platform.

Okay, do you really understand your target audience?

Most companies, even many who claim to be market-oriented, rely on anecdotal evidence obtained from only a couple of customers—otherwise known as the “shot in the dark” approach. The problem with this, as you may have guessed, is that you don’t know what else is out there and you’re potentially leaving money on the table.

In marketing, surprises are rarely positive. Just google “advertising fails” and you’ll be served up a tsunami of gleeful articles highlighting the negative consequences of misreading the market, ranging from having to issue public apologies through boycotts to significant loss of market share—not to mention the failed launches I mentioned above.

However you do it, you need to make sure you’re in touch with what your customers are looking for.

The Steve Jobs Contradiction

Steve Jobs once famously said that market research didn’t tell Apple how to build the Macintosh: “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

This is not an excuse for everyone else to make things up, because Apple did engage in many forms of market research, especially when testing out how people liked the Mac. Jobs also constantly listened to his customers, saying, “We have a lot of customers, and we have a lot of research into our installed base. We also watch industry trends pretty carefully.”

It also turns out that, in later years, Apple regularly used market research, including focus groups, and often worked with external market research firms—facts that surfaced during their patent infringement case against Samsung.

The last bit about dog poop sandwiches

You don’t have to listen to your customers, and you don’t have to let their perspective influence how to position your organization, product, or service. But the more you listen, the more likely it is that your advertising will work.

Because if you’re not promoting something that they want, you might as well be trying to sell a dog poop sandwich.

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