Marketers – especially those working in agencies for a variety of clients – tend to have a firm grasp of the terminology of marketing, the lingo, the concepts, and therefore claim to understand what exactly marketing is. But from a corporate perspective, the answer is far from clear.

What is marketing?

Marketing can be done large-scale or minimalist, it can be a very personal activity with a lot of human interaction, or a pure exercise in the deployment of technology. For some people, marketing is the same as sales, and for others, it is little more but a fancy word for advertising. It is all of these things and none of those.

As an inter-cultural marketer, I am keenly aware not just how difficult it is to pin down the true meaning of marketing, but also how different cultures understand the term.

Take Chinese for example. Marketing is either translated as “xing-xiao”, meaning “to go forth and sell”, or as “ying-xiao”, meaning “to execute the selling”. Neither term comes even close to the English meaning of “creating a market”. Maybe it is this bad translation that causes Chinese speakers to see marketing as a very limited and uncreative exercise, and why most companies working in Chinese are unwilling to embrace modern forms of marketing, such as inbound or content marketing.

More important than the linguistic difference is the cultural one. In the West, people are encouraged to be individualistic, outgoing, and develop a personal brand. In the age of social media, marketing has become just that: an exercise in personalization and self-promotion. Companies and products alike need a personal experience, and “authenticity”. Influencer marketing is the pinnacle of this philosophy, even though it is nothing more but an old-fashioned endorsement.

In Asian cultures, on the other hand, the group is more important than the individual, the firm greater than the employee. In Asia, you hardly ever find a star marketer or a personality cult around one outstanding individual. In the age of social media, that creates an obstacle for Asian companies that, as technology and social trends advance hand-in-hand, will become greater and greater.

The third difference isn’t one between Asia and the West, but between marketers and companies, especially companies who make physical products.

I don’t need to understand your product in order to market it

Every first client meeting I have ever had starts with a lengthy explanation of the client’s product. Sometimes these can go into excruciating detail. One time it was so technical – and irrelevant to marketing – that I nodded off.

The company CEO who had given us a screw-by-screw rundown of the product caught me and said: “if you are not interested in our product, how can you market it?” I replied, “if you can’t tell me in one sentence what the product does for the consumer, why are you bothering to make it?” Proud engineers make very bad marketers.

How we do marketing depends on what we are trying to achieve. Do we want to boost sales of a specific product, or do we want to make the brand better known overall? Are we trying to compete against a market leader or are we setting the standards? We have such a superior product, how come nobody is paying attention? Why is it that our Facebook group has 90’000 likes yet no one is buying our face mask? Should we use Snapchat? How much will it cost to launch our new app? Which logo is better? Do we need a new CIS? What channels are right for us?

All these are marketing questions, but all of them require different expertise. Some are a question of technology, others of artistic expression. Marketing is an amalgam of science and art, but most of all, marketing is not the individual activity someone has in mind, but the strategy and the overall concept behind it.

Marketing is not an afterthought to product development

Yes, we can market your product, but if it is badly designed with horrible packaging and a ridiculous logo, what’s the point? My agency will not take cases like this lest our reputation suffer. Yes, we can increase engagement on Facebook, but don’t you want to know the real reason people are not buying your facemask? Why do you let the company owner choose the logo if all he knows is his own limited view of the world and questionable aesthetic sense? Why are you selling in cheap supermarkets yet call yourself a high-end product? In too many enterprises, marketing is called in after all the important decisions have been made by the wrong people.

Marketing is not the execution of an individual campaign. It is not the design of a logo or the naming of a project. Marketing must be at the very core of a company’s strategy. Marketing must be involved in all the crucial business decisions, in product development as much as in financial planning.

If management is the brain, marketing is the heart

In the last century, fueled by innovation in management thinking (Drucker etc) the CFO became elevated and almost surpassed the CEO in importance. Those days are long gone.

In the age of social media, of instant gratification, or data-driven enterprises, of online product reviews and personalized marketing, of boundless innovation in marketing technology, it is time to make the Chief Marketing Officer head of the company. For no matter what product or service you offer, the core of your enterprise is not management, finance, or HR. The heart of every firm must always be the marketing team. 

So there is my answer. Marketing is the heart. Let management be the brains, and finance be the lungs, but marketing must the heart: both an efficient pump that keeps the company going, and the (allegorical, admittedly) locus of your feelings and emotions.

Nothing in a company should happen without the marketing team. Whether you acquire a new startup, expand into a new market, develop new products, or hire a new IT specialist: the marketing team must be involved in all the crucial decisions. If it is not, if marketing is kept in a silo, and abused to make shoddy ads and manage a Facebook page, it will never create value: not for the firm, nor for the customer.