Principles of Marketing I: What is Marketing?

You’re in a room with your marketing team.

You’re trying to brainstorm ideas on how to reverse your company’s consistently declining revenue for the past three quarters.

“Let’s create another promo! This time a 50% off with a free coaster thrown in. Boost it for 1K per day for the next thirty days.”, says the ads expert.

The video guy comes back with, “Another discount? We’re just recycling old ideas. How about an ASMR video? Give me a week to shoot and edit and I’ll give you five 15-second clips. We’ll get a lot of views!”

“Are those still trendy? What we need is a witty one-liner. A really good slogan that encapsulates everything we stand for. Something that inspires trust but with a touch of humor.”, retorts your wide-eyed copywriter.

Does this scene look familiar? Multiple disparate and directionless tactics coming from different disciplines that lead nowhere?

It’s more common than you think.

The importance of fundamentals

Many marketing professionals to start their careers by first dabbling in a narrow, technical discipline — copywriting, design, photography, ‘brand activism’ — before broadening and learning the fundamentals.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s normal to start with the subject we enjoy the most. It’s a familiar path taken by many self-taught practitioners — learning to play “Leaving on a Jet Plane” on guitar before studying music theory or doing the cross-over move before mastering proper jump-shot technique.

Eventually, though, the best of the bests — the John Mayers and the Kobe Bryants — had to master the ‘boring’ aspects of their chosen profession to reach their level of success.

As marketers, we often get too close to the problem and too enamored with the craft that we fail to see the big picture. We ask the wrong questions. We forget — or haven’t learned — the real purpose of marketing.

Yet, that is the key to generating tangible results in our work: go back to first principles and learn what marketing truly is.

That’s what I plan to do and attempt to write about in this series of articles.

I will try to understand the theories, principles, and fundamentals of marketing, break them down into digestible pieces and reassemble them from the ground up.

Through this whole process, my hope is to learn with you and gain a deeper appreciation of marketing.

What is the simplest way to define Marketing?

Let’s start with this most obvious question. Most people confuse marketing with advertising or selling — commercials, jingles, billboards, annoying ads, the barrage of salespeople shouting “Tempered glass, sir!” the moment you set foot in the shopping mall’s tech area.

Most sources I’ve read on this topic go too narrow, too early. Which frustrates me. They talk about video marketing, chatbots, and influencers in their effort to define marketing. I want to see the forest, not more trees. And the best way to understand a complicated topic is to start with first principles.

In my opinion, the best source material on this topic is still Principles of Marketing, by Dr. Philip Kotler, regarded by many as the ‘Father of Modern Marketing.’ Here’s how he defined marketing:

Marketing is engaging customers and managing profitable customer relationships. The two-fold goal of marketing is to attract new customers by promising superior value and to keep and grow current customers by delivering value and satisfaction.

Now, that’s more like it. No mention of search engines, AI, or influencer marketing.

But, still too academic for my taste, so let’s try to simplify it. Here’s my take on it:

Marketing is the act of creating value for customers in order to “capture value from customers in return.”

With this definition, it’s clear that marketing is so much more than just the “arts and crafts” department. It’s a core business function. Marketing is present in all stages of business, beginning to end. Without marketing, a business cannot create and communicate value to its customers, which means it cannot capture value in the form of sales, which means there is no business.

As Seth Godin puts it:

The entire organization works for and with the marketer, because marketing is all of it. What we make, how we make it, who we make it for. It is the effects and side effects, the pricing and the profit, all at once.

When asked about the difference between consumers buying a car from General Motors and an All-Day Breakfast from McDonald’s, Deborah Wahl, Global CMO of General Motors, explained:

The whole constant is creating value and understanding what your consumers really need and how the heck you get it to them faster and in a different way than everyone else. Marketing is exciting because we’re innovating all the time. We got to think about how to do it in a different way from everyone else and where to go. I find enormous flexibility. That’s why I love this industry, this career, it never stops being challenging and exciting.

Creating a product or service that delivers superior value to customers is a part of marketing. Pricing those products and services appropriately for the target market is also a part of marketing. Taking those well-priced products and services to the marketplace for distribution is a function of marketing. Effectively communicating superior value to customers through promotion, which then compels them to purchase, completes the whole process.

And just like that, we’ve covered the 4 Ps of marketing: product, price, place, and promotion.

Sadly, most people relate marketing solely with the last P: promotion. But as we’ve learned, marketing is more than selling or advertising. It’s ultimately about satisfying customer needs.

Further to this point, The Principles of Marketing continues:

If the marketer engages consumers effectively, understands their needs, develops products that provide superior customer value, and prices, distributes, and promotes them well, these products will sell easily.

The acclaimed management guru Peter Drucker even goes as far as saying:

The aim of marketing is to make selling unnecessary.

And lastly, Seth Godin gives us a much nobler definition in his book This Is Marketing:

Marketing is the generous act of helping someone solve a problem. Their problem. It’s a chance to change the culture for the better. Marketing involves very little in the way of shouting, hustling, or coercion. It’s a chance to serve, instead.

Having learned all this gave me a north star in my own profession. Sometimes we tend to spend too much time coming up with gimmicks, overhyped campaigns, or ridiculous ads for short-term gains. We fail to stop and ask these long-view questions:

  • Are we creating enough value for customers?
  • Are we improving their experience?
  • Do we even know who they are and what they want?

With a clearer understanding of marketing, we can now ask better questions. When everyone in the team is on the same page and knows what marketing truly is, we can collaborate more effectively, exchange ideas and valuable input from different disciplines, and finally come up with cohesive marketing plans.

But where do we start?

Before diving into another brainstorming session, it might be best to go back a few steps and re-evaluate the target market. Do we know our customers enough to understand what they truly need?

We’ll talk about that in the next article.

If you find this article helpful, consider following Prodigy, my digital agency, on Facebook and Instagram, or subscribe to our newsletter (see footer) for more marketing-related goodness. You can also find me on LinkedIn.

Passionate about marketing, entrepreneurship, creativity, and infinite learning. President of Prodigy, a digital agency obsessed with clients' business results.