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Why marketing still matters right now


According to my schedule, I should have written this post two weeks ago.

But, as we know, a lot has happened in the past month (or not, depending on how you view things).

Since then, I’ve been debating whether or not to carry on blogging.   Does anyone really want to read about ‘branding’ when everything fundamental in our world is turned upside down – from how we work and learn and socialize to the ways we shop, meet, play, live?  It’s a lot to take in.

Then up popped this quote from Hemingway:  “Writing de-clutters the mind.”   That settled me, and I couldn’t agree more.  Writing is a huge ingredient in me staying sane – and building resilience in the face of the challenges we’re up against at the moment.

So, I’m going to write, and I’ll understand if you’re not of the right mind to read it.  For those who are, I’m tackling a topic I believe is relevant to what we’re facing.

Does marketing even matter right now?

It’s a question with two answers.

  • No, not at all.  We’ve got our hands (and minds) full, so save your marketing for later.  There will be plenty of time for that in a few weeks, or months, or next year, whenever we’re closer to “normal.”  Whatever that means.
  • Yes, more than ever.  But taking this position depends on how we define marketing.  If we see it as selling, hyping ourselves and what we offer, promoting our company and our products and services for the sole purpose of awareness, I’m not saying it’s wrong. But I don’t see it as marketing, nor is it particularly helpful.  (AVIS e-mailed me two days ago to say, “We’re here for you.”  I rent a car once a year, if that.  AVIS comes across as opportunistic when the only time it communicates with me is in the midst of a pandemic, inviting me to rent a car at reduced rates.  It’s not helpful.)

To me, marketing has always been about articulating how we help, how we make a legit difference in the customer’s life, our “why.”   So our marketing is really about them, not us.   (Read that one more time.}

Back before COVID came to North America – in January, which seems like a year ago – I came across this grainy video of Steve Jobs, circa 1997.  It was a few months after returning to Apple from exile – he’d been fired in 1985 from the company he founded.  The Apple that Jobs returned to had lost its way (it’s why he was lured back), and the video captures footage of an impassioned Jobs (in shorts!) speaking to an internal Apple audience, imploring them to embrace his slant on marketing.

The video lasts only seven minutes, and my immediate reaction after viewing it was, “This is a marketing clinic.”  You could save a lot of time and money from books and conferences and webinars and marketing consultants by investing a few minutes of your time  before firing up Netflix tonight and listening to Jobs deliver Marketing 101 from 23 years ago.  (Note that the footage is rough, so sub-titles clarify what he’s saying.)

There were two thoughts that jumped out at me:

  1. Stick to your core.  

Values are your core, so focus on your values.  Our complicated, noisy world demands that we be super clear on what we stand for.  And, right now, our world is more complicated than ever.  When Jobs talks about “values” and “what Apple stands for,” he was years ahead of what we now call Purpose and our Why.

Jobs was challenging Apple to reframe its values with its customer at the core – and then to commit to those values, sustain them, enable them to endure.  “Core values should never change,” he said.  Strategies, products and tactics might change, but values are the core – and the core needs to stay the same.  Apple, at its core, was about empowering people to change the world. The one thing that happens during every crisis is that both companies and people get back to focusing on what’s most important.

  1. Celebrate your customer, not what you sell.   

If you notice, Jobs clearly talks about Apple – but using the customer’s lens.  This was provocative at the time.  He was right then… and his thinking is still right today.  But be forewarned.  It’s tricky to do – framing your message in a way that makes the customer feel like it’s theirs.   But it’s marketing that matters.

In his talk, Jobs points to Nike – and how its commodities are shoes and athletic apparel, and that none of its marketing is about the product.  It’s all about celebrating the users of the product – the athletes and their athletics.  (And not just Lebron and Tiger or Serena.  As Nike says, “If you have a body, you’re an athlete.”)  Same with Apple.  Its message in the ‘Think Different’ campaign that restored Apple’s focus on its core was all about the Apple user – honouring the people who HAVE changed the world.

So, back to today and living in a world of COVID-19.

Who we are, what we stand for – and how we make a real difference – are on display now more than ever.  Especially if they’re framed (and celebrated) from the perspective of our customers, users, donors, students… whomever we serve.

That’s marketing that matters.  And I believe it’s still relevant today.

Because we all need a little love and celebration right now.

So ask yourself:

  1. Are you dialed in on your core?
  2. Does your marketing celebrate your customer?


Speaking of love and celebration, I’ll join the growing chorus in saying a huge thanks to our heroes in healthcare – the nurses, doctors, specialists, paramedics, everyone putting their own lives on the line to protect ours.  “Thanks” seems a bit trite, but it’s heartfelt.  And let’s not forget those working in grocery stores, pharmacies, delivery services and the many other essential businesses that are keeping some degree of normalcy amidst all that’s abnormal right now.  If you’re one of these people, or they’re in your family… thank you from me and my own family.  Stay strong everybody.