Three Things I Learned from Teaching Marketing

May 14, 2013

For several years I taught marketing at a nearby Jesuit university.

Though I’d previously earned my master’s degree in marketing, I discovered that I learned marketing best as I interacted with my brilliant and curious students.

Here are the three most important things I learned (and hopefully taught) about marketing:

1. Good questions trump great answers.

At the beginning of the semester I told my students, “I hope you do not leave my class knowing lots of answers. I want you to leave asking the right questions.”

Good questions to ask when creating a marketing plan are:

  • What are we trying to accomplish?
  • How are our products differentiated?
  • What is the right balance between product benefits, the pricing structure, the distribution and accessibility of what we’re selling and our promotional efforts?
  • How can we best promote our product? Who are we talking with? What do we want to say to them? What are the best media to connect with them?

Those questions will always be relevant. The answers, though, will vary in each situation.

2. Academic theory is worthless unless converted into action.

What is the value of the learning if we cannot do something with what we’ve learned?

We began each 16-week semester focusing on marketing principles and theory. As the course progressed, we began to apply theory to real-life situations.

We got our hands dirty. We learned that planning is always a messy process. Working together in teams, the students often complained about the process. (Welcome to the real world!) Fifty percent of their final grade rested upon developing an actual marketing plan for a local nonprofit organization.

They were pushed beyond the sanitized confines of a university classroom because I wanted them to experience things that would remain etched in their memories for years to come.

3. Strategy should always precede tactics.

Though action is important, we must think before we do. Being busy must never be confused with being strategic.

Before jumping into the what and the how, we should always ask why?

In the marketing arena, it’s always tempting to jump in and begin creating brochures, writing news releases or designing ads. That’s all busy work unless those tactics can be tied to a bigger strategy.

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So, there you have it! Those are the three most important lessons I learned while teaching marketing. For extra credit, though, let me throw out a fourth:

You will never do marketing as you’ve been taught to do it.

As we got deeper into our discussions of marketing theory, I would pause and say, “I’ve never actually done marketing the way I’m teaching you to do it.”

Students often looked confused. They felt betrayed to have an instructor who did not practice what he preached. That cognitive dissonance provided a valuable teaching opportunity.

The reality of marketing education is this:  Academy theory can serve as our guiding star.

We should always strive to reach the ideal. In the real world, though, we never encounter ideal circumstances. Yet we must carry in our minds the compelling picture of how marketing should be done. With that vision, we will be better marketing practitioners.

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To Be Relevant, Know Your Brand

January 18, 2012

Before you sell something, you must thoroughly understand the product you are selling. Likewise, in a job search, you must know your brand (yourself) before you can sell yourself to a prospective employer.

Begin by creating a clear picture of who you are, where you’re going and the impact you can have in the workplace. This requires quiet, thoughtful contemplation, so don’t rush the process.

Several years ago when I lost my job as a marketing professional, I began my job search by spending quality time in a re-branding process. Though I love everything digital, I deliberately went “analog” for this planning exercise. I took a journal and a fountain pen to a local coffee shop. Journaling is a magical practice for tapping into a deeper creative consciousness.

There in the coffee shop, over several sessions, my brand came into focus as I wrestled with answers to questions that were easy to ask but surprisingly difficult to answer.

Questions I Asked Myself

The foundation for my introspection was laid by a series of questions such as:

  1. Who am I?
  2. Where have I been?
  3. What have I done?
  4. Where am I going?
  5. What can I do?
  6. Why would someone hire me?
  7. How am I different than other candidates?

Wresting with these questions proved to be invigorating and I gained the momentum necessary to find an incredible career opportunity.

In your job search, you may be tempted to hurry through the planning stages. If you do, I predict you’ll flounder later.

Keywords Describing My Brand

As part of my planning process, I also brainstormed a list of  keywords that defined my brand. I made a lengthy list of what I perceived my brand to be. I pulled keywords from my resume and cover letter. I also listed the phrases others used when describing me, my performance and my reputation.

Make a list of at least 25 keywords that define your brand. Go for quantity and make the list as lengthy as possible. In a later post I’ll describe how to focus this list so you can differentiate yourself from your competitors. For now, though, be creative without unnecessary editing or critiquing.

In the early phases of a job search, my advice is to become very conversant on the basics of your brand—who you are, where you’re going and what you’re looking for.

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These ideas on personal branding were originally presented during two workshops I conducted for the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance. The sessions were attended by current and aspiring nonprofit leaders who came from across the nation for the annual Alliance Management/Leadership Institute, the nation’s largest leadership development and networking symposium for students, faculty and nonprofit professionals. —DH



Marketing OR Communications? If You Had to Choose, Which Would You Pick?

August 8, 2011

For years I have been amused when a nonprofit organization would label one of its key departments “Marketing AND Communications.” To me, that always seemed redundant. After all, you never hear a CFO claim responsibility for the Department of Finance, Accounting and Accounts Payable.

A university president once talked with me about leading his marketing and communications team. When I asked if he would consider shortening the title for simplicity, he emphatically declined. For that and other reasons, neither of us seriously considered forming a working partnership.

Later, when I taught marketing at another university, I spent considerable time talking about the relationship between marketing and communications. I never believed the two terms were synonymous or interchangeable, and I drilled into my students the concept that communications comes at the end of the marketing process.

Five years ago I left my position as Vice President of Marketing at United Way. Although communications was part of my portfolio, it always grated on me when my CEO referred to my department as “marketing and communications.” Although I appreciated his thorough description of my team’s role, I also thought he was being unnecessarily redundant.

Read the rest of this entry »


Career Transition, Blog Posts and a Presidential Hug

July 7, 2011

Three months ago I learned that my job at the American Red Cross would likely be eliminated.

Nationally, the Red Cross has been undergoing a massive, top-to-bottom reorganization that will affect every person affiliated with the organization. The restructuring will reduce expenses and increase revenues, all with a focus on keeping the mission relevant in a rapidly-changing environment. To their credit, our national leaders have openly shared the unfolding changes via e-mails, online videos and frequent conference calls.

Anticipating that my position would be among those eliminated by the end of the summer, I shared the discomforting news with my wife and family. Then, with the clock ticking towards the start of a new fiscal year, I launched an under-the-radar job search. I first revised my resume and LinkedIn profile. With the full understanding and support of my boss, I shifted my networking into a higher gear and sent e-mails to a couple dozen strategically-placed contacts. I was encouraged by their immediate offers to help.

Prior to launching the public phase of my job search, I developed personal business cards, a career-highlights brochure and an assortment of collateral materials to use when the appropriate time came. Read the rest of this entry »


Six Traits of People I Like Working With

May 13, 2011

Any success I might claim as a marketing and communications professional would necessarily include a lengthy and sincere list of acknowledgements. The English poet John Donne observed, “No man is an island.” In other words, we are all interdependent. Other people always contribute to our success.

In my work, I am most productive when I am surrounded by people who are:

  1. Grateful. They are glad to be alive and they find things to be thankful for. With an abundance mindset, they focus on what they have rather than obsessing on their deficits.
  2. Strategic. They think before they act. Before succumbing to the gravitational pull of tactics, they think things through in a purposeful way. They wrestle with questions that begin with the word why?
  3. Competent. Once they see the big picture and understand why something is important, they know what to do and how to do it.
  4. Curious. Curiosity never killed anyone. I love interacting with those who think with a beginner’s mind. They are the antithesis of so-called experts who already know the right (and only) way to do something.
  5. Creative. With a curious mind, creative people look at things differently. They see patterns that others miss. They are able to juxtapose existing ideas in a way that creates something new.
  6. Innovative. The Harvard professor Theodore Levitt put it this way:  “Creativity thinks up new things.  Innovation does new things. There is really no shortage of creativity or of creative people in business.  The shortage is of innovators.  The major problem is that so called “creative” people often pass on to others the responsibility for getting down to brass tacks.  They have plenty of ideas but little business-like follow-through.  They themselves are the bottleneck.  They make none of the right kind of effort to help their ideas get a hearing and a try.”

On the other hand…

Occasionally I encounter individuals who drain my energy and erode my effectiveness. They are:

  1. Victims. When something goes wrong, it’s never their fault. Someone else is to blame. They’ve had bad luck and were the unfortunate victims of circumstances. They feel powerless, living their lives in a reactive rather than a proactive mode.
  2. Dinosaurs. They remember the good old days when things were much better. (I really think they just have very selective memories.) The world changes too fast to accommodate those who cling to the status quo, refusing to adapt to the climate changes.
  3. Devil’s Advocates. They don’t move conversations forward, though they try to appear intelligent with their searing questions. They hinder progress. They are usually part of the problem, not the solution.
So, that’s my list. What’s on yours?

10 Reasons NOT to Launch a Marketing Campaign

March 29, 2011

Sometimes marketing is viewed as a magical elixir that will somehow cure whatever ails you.

In my 20-plus years of marketing experience, I’ve come to realize that good marketing is based more upon common sense than upon creativity. Though marketing can work wonders, it is not a panacea that will transform failure into success.

As much as I value good marketing, I believe there are times not to launch a marketing campaign. My advice is to delay any marketing activities when:

  1. We are unclear what success will actually look like. Without clearly defined goals, we are merely groping in the dark, hoping to grasp something—anything—of value.
  2. We feel compelled to act before we think. In our fast-paced world, we will always experience the strong gravitational pull of urgency. Focusing on what is urgent, though, will often entice us to overlook strategy and jump prematurely into tactics.
  3. We want to begin with communications. A good marketing process ends with communications but that’s never a good place to begin.
  4. We focus on obstacles rather than opportunities. Though we must always understand reality, we will never leave the starting blocks if we focus on the hurdles between us and the finish line.
  5. We have no champion for the product or service. We may all agree that a particular program is important, but unless someone with passion assumes ownership of the program’s success, it will flounder. Of course, marketers will be the easy targets of those who need to blame someone for a product’s failure.
  6. We believe everything will be okay if only we can “get the word out.” I cannot be more emphatic in stating this: raising awareness is not a marketing goal.
  7. We talk more than we listen. Marketing success on a 2.0 world is all about having conversations, not trying to speak louder.
  8. We are unable to profile a target audience. Only the naive believe there really is such a thing as the “general public.” We are headed towards marketing failure if we neglect to define a primary audience. After all, to target everyone is to hit no one.
  9. We ignore the concept of marketing exchanges. Marketing is based upon the premise that we must build win-win relationships where we exchange value for value. Marketing is never a one-way transaction.
  10. We cannot differentiate our product or service. If we don’t know who our competitors are, and if we cannot articulate how we are different and better, then my advice is simple:  Turn off the lights, lock the door and go home. The party is over.

Things I’ll Look for When Selecting the Next Member of My Marketing Team

March 1, 2011

Hypothetically, let’s assume I’m looking to hire a new member of my marketing team. In reality, my public relations manager will be leaving in a couple of weeks, so I actually am making plans on how I’ll fill the void created by her departure.

Wait, though, before faxing me your resume. (Do people still do that? I hope not.) I have been asked to delay recruiting until the expense budget comes into better focus. The hiring process is frozen, but while we await the spring thaw, let’s return to my hypothetical situation.

As I think about the importance of building a strong marketing team, I have already updated the job description. The social media revolution mandates new expectations that are reflected in several bullet points on the revised list of job duties. Of course, I’ll also be looking for someone who meets a minimum threshold of necessary skills, talents and experience.

Above and beyond that, though, I will almost certainly select someone who:

  1. Has an impressive digital footprint. Before calling someone in for an interview, you can bet I will Google his or her name. There are so many people looking for jobs that I cannot imagine interviewing someone who does not have an impressive amount of information readily available on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, a personal blog, an online portfolio, or some other searchable platform.
  2. Is well branded. I want to know what a person stands for, both personally and professionally. A good brand makes promises and I need to have some idea of what I can expect from anyone who expresses an interest in being part of my team.
  3. Is differentiated. Does this person stand out from the rest of the pack? Quite frankly, I won’t even notice someone who blends into the vast, beige-colored landscape populated by thousands of job seekers whose clichè-ridden resumes were shaped by the same cookie cutter. (See my previous blog post about using Facebook as a tool to differentiate yourself in a job search.)
  4. Is savvy with traditional media. The ideal person will have a good understanding of traditional media—TV, radio and newspapers. He or she will also have experience in proactively pitching good story ideas and in building strong relationships with people inside the news media.
  5. Is savvy with social media. The right person will have moved far beyond the initial process of setting up profiles on various social media platforms. He or she will have demonstrated an ability to a) listen using social media tools, b) have sustained conversations in social media and c) create content valued by others who are swimming in the deeper end of the social media pool.

Three years ago when I most recently hired someone, the criteria were somewhat different. At that time I relied heavily upon two lists. One described my expectations for individual responsibility and the other focused on team performance. Though I’ve added criteria, both lists are still relevant today. So, here’s my question:

If, hypothetically, you are looking for a marketing job, how would you measure up?


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