Marketing is so easy to misunderstand. The problem is that it is so easy to cut when times are bad, and it is often lumped in with advertising or sales.
Really, marketing belongs in the product group. Your marketing department should be telling you things, not telling your customers things. The function of marketing is to understand a market and then relay that understanding to the rest of the company. Advertising is trying to make an existing product better known or more appealing to customers. Sales is trying to convince individuals that your solution is the best. Marketing is figuring out what people actually want and are willing to pay for.
My favorite story of failed marketing is the story of Pert Plus. Companies had tried for years to combine shampoo and conditioner in one. Without that, you take much longer to wash and condition your hair. It would be a great benefit to be able to do both at once and not have to leave the conditioner in for a long time. Pert Plus was the first product to get the recipe right. Then they said to themselves “who would benefit the most from this?” Everyone checked their guts and said “Working women! They are already pressed for time but they want nice looking hair.” So their advertisers targeted working women and sales were slow. Then someone got the bright idea to actually spend the time to figure out if their assumption was correct. When the report came in they found that the people who value faster morning routine times the most are men in their 20’s. It turned out that working women weren’t that concerned with the time they spent getting ready, but men were. They had it completely backwards because they made a decision based on no data.
The report that they commissioned was marketing, the advertising was not. Good marketers are numbers people. They look at demographics and statistics and studies and they pick out the trends and groups. Active marketers are the ones doing the surveys and panels and interviews to get the data. Marketers should be telling you what your product is missing, what is most painful, and who values your product the most.
Without marketing you are left with your gut. Many companies operate this way. Fog Creek has operated this way through most of its existence. It just so happens that Fog Creek’s target market is companies just like Fog Creek, so they generally get away with it. I previously worked for an oil technology company that didn’t have a marketing department. We worked on things we thought were cool or helpful until one of our customers raised a stink about something really important. But we never sought out those really important things before they became a problem, and we often worked on things that added little to no value.
So pull marketing away from advertising and sales, and lash it firmly to your product group. Marketing should be the first source that people go to when they have questions about what customers want, and marketing should be talking to everyone who interacts with customers in addition to talking to the customers. Think about your marketing department as your navigator charting a course in the waters of the world, and you’ll do much better than thinking about them as road builders forging a path through the jungle. The navigator tells you where things are naturally, the builder tells nature where things should be.