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2020 was the Year of Science. Could 2021 be the Year of Marketing?

The year of marketing.

This post is by Jeremy Taylor, Business Director at TrinityP3 UK and Managing Partner of CONNECT2 Community Engagement Ltd, the UK’s leading community engagement experts.

Science made huge strides forward in 2020, energised by the unprecedented and successful effort to develop multiple vaccines for the Covid19 virus. What could happen in the coming year if only marketing could similarly up its game and respond just as positively to its own challenges – some old, some brand new in the post-Covid-19 world? Let’s take a look.

The world of science in 2020 – a year of radical results

In 2020, the world of science was astonishingly energised by the challenges that were thrown at it. In particular, the overwhelming pressure to develop an effective vaccine for the Covid-19 virus led to successful results from medical science teams worldwide being achieved in months, a timescale reduced from the initial estimates of five years or more based on previous experience.

The details of how this was achieved will make a story for another day (and probably several books and films to look forward to). The fact is that the can-do attitude and approach that achieved it had colossal knock-on effects onto virtually every other area of scientific innovation.

Consider this list for starters:

  • The development of a vaccine against malaria – a far bigger killer than Covid-19. The vaccine is a mission that has evaded an effective solution for decades, but 2020 saw giant steps forward, and the new vaccine is now in the final development stage for a human trial in African countries that will run this year (2021)
  • Robot disinfection of hard surfaces using UV light – a massive innovation for hospitals and medical institutions
  • Protein Prediction – one of the most significant number-crunching exercises ever undertaken successfully cracked the challenge of predicting protein behaviours. Proteins are the basis of all life, and solving this mathematical conundrum has vast implications for drug development and disease treatment
  • Beyond medical science, 2020 saw rock samples collected from an asteroid and returned to earth for analysis, a feat so complex that it makes finding a needle in a haystack seem like a Christmas cracker puzzle
  • Water was discovered under the surface of the moon, in previously-unsuspected large quantities. This makes the building of permanent moon bases an achievable mission, no longer just science fiction
  • Space flight for paying passengers was achieved by a private company, again helping to make science fiction style space travel a reality

So, including the Covid-19 vaccine development, that’s seven world-changing developments in one year. What an achievement for science and scientists.

What if marketing and marketers could be similarly energised for next year? What would be the seven problems we would all like to see solved?

What could the marketing community look to resolve in 2021?

Here is a hit list to get the process started:

1 – Mass personalisation

This is a problem that has been a perennial for many years. The solution is always tantalisingly just out of reach – every time it seems to have been achieved along comes a new channel or a technology development that throws it all back into the melting pot.

Perhaps the true question here is actually how much mass personalization is really needed, before it stops being a desirable objective. All personalisation is of course based on data – it is dependant on the quality and quantity of what is known about the recipient.

How much interest has there been in asking consumers how much they like the idea of all that personal data being held commercially; or even how much personalisation they really want? This is a two-way process, something marketing people tend to forget. We should ask ourselves whether the goal of mass personalisation is actually being pursued because of vested interests.

2 – Marketing should inform the direction of the business

Here is an ambition for marketers – and for marketing – with a long history. And it’s another one that stays frustratingly just out of reach. Many marketing people believe that marketing should have a seat at the board, and should be one of the first ports of call when the business is planning the next phase of development.

The challenge is to work out why this does not happen already. Why is marketing so often treated as an implementation arm for decisions taken over its head? Is it because marketing is perceived as an art, not a science? Or is it a people issue – does marketing not attract sufficiently talented and ambitious managers? Is it to do with a lack of effective skills training?

It’s a fact that there are still no universal qualifications required to become a marketer – maybe that’s why other professions feel able to treat it as a junior business discipline. Plenty to think about here.

3 – Responsible corporate behaviour

There are plenty of challenges to rise to here for marketers in 2021. The big issue is for marketing to own the subject and the solution to brands and corporations behaving in every way in a responsible manner. It’s increasingly important to consumers, who tell us that their trust in brands is eroded by irresponsible behaviour. Marketing is the home of consumer communication, so there are logical reasons why it should be the business discipline that owns the solution.

Before this can be resolved, though, there are some big questions to answer. How should corporate communication programmes be coordinated with brand messages for a seamless story? There’s a cultural issue – how does a naturally cautious CCO, who might instinctively live by the dictum of ‘the least said the better’, overcome a natural distrust of the CMO who is constantly out there saying things that might conceivably stir up an adverse reaction?

Then there are conflicting definitions of the actual meaning of ‘Purpose’ to overcome – can a brand have purpose outside the corporation’s purpose? Is purpose something dreamt up by the advertising agency to provide consistent messaging, or is it something more fundamental to the behaviour of the whole company and all its employees? If there is to be a resolution here, it has to start at the top of the organisation and work its way down.

4 – Digital vs IRL (In Real Life)

Here is a more recent issue to resolve. Many marketing experts believe that ‘digital marketing’ is a redundant phrase, and digital should be seen as no more or less than a key part of the marketing discipline. But there is a potentially bigger problem, that goes beyond marketing terminology.

The weasel phrase “In Real Life” is becoming more widespread, especially in companies that see themselves as digital specialists and pioneers. The implication of this is huge – it can sound like the real world is an inconvenient barrier that they ultimately come up against, a place where they are uncomfortable operating.

The reality is of course that digital companies exist in the same ‘real world’ as everyone else – just as every customer, every company and every medium exists to some extent in the digital world. For instance – there’s not much point in supplying a digital solution to the transport market unless ultimately people or goods are transported somewhere, in the real world. There are some deep-rooted dilemmas to overcome here, endemic to the marketing community.

5 – The short term and the long term

The marketing world is becoming ever more divided over the question of whether the focus of the marketing function should be on the long term or the short term. The argument goes that the long term is all about brand-building and the short term is all about reacting to market developments, and/or focusing on sales.

This is fast becoming a generational issue. Generally speaking, the younger you are the more it seems the short term is the focus; and the older you are, it becomes the long term that matters. Perhaps it’s linked to the fact that according to many new marketers, the rulebook has been torn up and all previous marketing basics are redundant.

This is an issue in need of rapid resolution, and the answer has to be to compromise. Of course, there has to be a strategy for the long-term, and of course, marketing has to react to changing market conditions – both have to be planned for and navigated around. So the challenge is to arrive at a solution that caters for both without being a meaningless compromise. There can be no one-size-fits-all solution, every market sector and every brand will have its own specific requirements. 2021 would be a great year to put this one to bed – there is no need for it to be a stand-off, it needs to ‘follow the science’. In this case, the planning science.

6 – ‘Shiny new thing’ syndrome

Marketing is particularly affected by the disease of being distracted by the latest industry trend that comes along, and even more so by new toys that make it work.

It can be a dangerous place to be. When the internet was new, countless on-line companies were set up with the business model of trading at a loss to attract new customers. Sometimes a major loss. And marketing people were at the forefront of it, all believing that the rulebook had been torn up (see above) and the commercial world had changed forever.

Well, the rulebook held firm, the commercial world kept its grip on reality and the dot-com bubble burst in spectacular fashion. Severe damage was inflicted on the reputation of marketing and marketing people, some of it still apparent twenty years later.

Marketers still need to learn the lesson, which has been repeated many times before and since. Perhaps the resolution is for all shiny new things to come with a health warning – by all means, use them and see if they actually work, but treat with caution and don’t let them distract you from what is already working well.

7 – Listening to customers

Finally, here is one that is as old as marketing itself. Marketing people like to say that they are there to give the customer a seat at the boardroom table and they do it by listening to customers and representing their views to the business.

This is a noble ambition. But it comes with problems, including two big ones. Firstly, how are you going to listen to your customers? Secondly, what are you going to do to let them know you are listening?

Non-marketing business leaders are fond of Henry Ford’s maxim “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses”, which is often used as a reaction to their marketing department trying to tell them what the customer thinks. And unfortunately, marketing people themselves often fall into the trap of thinking their own views are those of their customers – they forget that their mindset and circumstances are seldom representative ones. This has developed to the extent that it’s now known as the ‘Disconnect’ – the one between marketing and customers.

Marketing people would do well to remember another of Henry Ford’s great pieces of wisdom – “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own”.

Listening to customers can take many forms, from market research to social media watching. The secret of success surely lies in hearing what is really being said, not just what you already wanted to hear. And then demonstrating that you heard it through actions, not just words.

What other lessons does science have for marketing?

Comparing the worlds of science and marketing might seem a little unfair, given the ability of science to affect the whole global population. But consider that marketing is the means by which corporations touch the lives of all their customers, and think how many touchpoints each individual experiences every day from marketing messages. Within any business, marketing is a vital resource that needs to flourish in order to achieve commercial health and growth, so it is important to get it operating effectively.

Resolving these issues would be quite an achievement, especially in the course of just one calendar year. The breakthroughs that the scientific community made in 2020 show what can be done given enough focus, energy and commitment.

Here’s a final thought. Very few of those 2020 science breakthroughs would have happened without great leadership of the teams involved. Are the leaders of marketing up to it for 2021 and beyond? Let’s see.

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Jeremy Taylor is Managing Partner of CONNECT2 Community Engagement Ltd based in London, the UK’s leading community engagement experts and Business Director at TrinityP3 UK. He brings his wealth of industry experience to TrinityP3 to help our clients and agencies navigate the constantly evolving world of marketing, media and advertising.

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