The Future of Marketing – It’s all about the Public

I’ll admit it – I suffer from prediction apathy. Every time I see an article with lines like “with the pace of change ever-accelerating” or “in today’s digital world,” I tune out. It’s the same hackneyed platitudes about the role of technology. How it’s all about the customer or it’s all about the experience.

It’s not that those forces aren’t critical or disruptive, it’s that so few offer a new perspective or take on the implications.

But when I had the opportunity to hear what Atlanta-based CMOs and marketing leaders thought about the future of marketing–with the literal backdrop of whalesharks and belugas–it was an easy sell.  My key takeaways:

The customer isn’t waiting for our message: Marketing’s center of gravity has long been the customer. If we’re doing it right, we wake up thinking about how to serve the customer and we go to sleep hoping we added value. The customer, on the other hand, is busy living their life. Brian Solis notes that our target’s smartphone allows them to completely personalize their experience, and everything they consume is about and for them, specifically. Professional service firms aren’t just competing with each other, they’re competing for attention with the likes of Netflix. It’s more important than ever that marketers conform to the customer vs. thinking they will come to you.

Is the pace of change really getting faster? Maybe not, according to J. Walker Smith, the Chief Knowledge Officer of Kantar, one of my go to resources for research when writing. The oft cited statistics that the adoption rate of the internet was so much faster than radio, or TV turns out to be wrong. All platforms took about a decade to reach 50% penetration. Our consumption of data? It’s increasing, yes, but at slower rates than even just a few years ago. The same goes for global and U.S. GDP: slower growth rates. Marketers are going to need to learn how to respond to a slower pace of change and slower growth.

From Product to Person to PUBLIC: My biggest lightbulb was around the new era of marketing we are entering. Smith walked through how he views the evolution from the post WWII “era of the product” where a period of abundance and product innovation made it about what you own. As people focused on self-fulfillment, and lost trust in institutions during the Great Recession, it paved the way for the “era of the person” and marketing shifted to tell stories around how you can live a better life or be a better person. Today, as the Business Roundtable and major investors call on companies to think about the stakeholder, not just the shareholder, we’re entering the “era of the public” which brings greater focus on how you contribute to making society better. Smith says “sacrifice is the new status symbol,” and points to the resurgence of farmer’s markets, festivals and greenways as signs that consumers are thinking more about the community than themselves.

So, what does it all mean for the future of marketing? Our stories will need to be more personal, more emotive and focused not just on the customer but on the community at large. Adding value won’t just mean to the customer’s life but to the lives of others. And, companies have a tall task ahead. We know from experience that CSR and ESG platforms that don’t align with corporate missions fall flat—or worse, create backlash. Companies will need marketers, more than ever to help them align actions and outcomes and share the stories with their expanding group of stakeholders.

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