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Why marketing goes wrong so often (and what to do about it)

Marketing is a mystery — at least that’s the way it seems when compared with just about every other company function. There’s plenty of talk about “marketing,” but efforts to nail it down, specifically,usually end in an uncomfortable silence. It makes the point that it’s difficult to get your arms around marketing.

There are more “marketing geniuses” floating around than anyone can count. Everyone has an opinion as to what’s needed, what works and what doesn’t.

And whatever marketing activities a company implements, there will always be those who rush forward with criticisms and complaints.

Such turmoil may help explain why so many companies harbor serious doubts about marketing, others keep it on a short leash, and some solve the problem by turning it into a glorified “gofer” function.

As it turns out, demystifying marketing is rather easy. After peeling away the nutty (and usually meaningless) jargon, marketing is simply aligning an organization’s products and services so customers come to identify with a brand. Unfortunately,  much of what passes as “marketing” fails to pass the test.

To better understand why marketing goes wrong and what can be done about it, here are seven common pitfalls, obstacles and stumbling blocks:

1. Management believes it knows marketing. It’s not uncommon for the person in charge of marketing to report to someone who “loves marketing” and has strong opinions, but little or no marketing knowledge. This is often the same person who  says, “I seem to have a flair for marketing.” In such a situation, the person charged with the marketing responsibilities has two options: either bang heads or cave-in to the pressure.

An annual marketing plan that’s approved by management can help avoid such difficult and, frankly, depressing situations. Without that, there’s only chaos and unacceptable results.

2. Marketers make a splash rather than a difference. While management may a marketing culprit, marketers can be to blame, as well. Making a quick “impression” is often the goal. As one marketing manager said the first week on the job, “We’ll be rolling out a new logo in a couple of months.” The logo remained, while the marketing manager didn’t.

Soon after arriving at Radio Shack as EVP and CMO, Lee Applbaum kicked off a campaign to rebrand the lack luster performance of this venerable company. It would now be known simply as “The Shack.” That didn’t last long and neither did Applbaum. Unfazed by reality, his final Tweet, as reported by the Dallas Business Journal, said it all, “Been a great 3.5 years @RadioShack. Hopeful I had a positive impact on the brand. On to the next one.”

Rather than listening to what a marketer says, it’s better to ask questions. For example, “What would be your plan for the first 90 days on the job?”

3. Lack of discipline. It’s easy for marketing to get out of hand, particularly when there are so many “great ideas” flying around everyday. It takes a very strong person to listen and then say “no” to anything that’s off plan. Making exceptions and giving in can spell trouble.


The best way to stand firm is to have carefully developed, absolutely clear and well-documented objectives.

4. Failure to engage customers and prospects. Although it’s difficult to believe, the tendency to equate “selling” with “telling” persists. It’s hard to root it out of our thinking, particularly when anything less direct seems wimpish.

Yet, Lincoln Motor Company’s recent 60-second TV spot got it right by abandoning “telling,” starting with its “Steer the Script” title. They invited people to Tweet about their favorite road trip, and the spot featured excerpts from fun episodes, not the car. It ended this way: “The story starts with you because luxury always should.”

And it isn’t just “luxury” that should start there.  That’s where all marketing should begin.

5. Unrealistic budget. While there are always ways to improve marketing efficiency without damaging effectiveness, all-too-often companies expect those in marketing to produce extraordinary results with an underfunded budget.

There’s nothing wrong with a lean budget, but one that’s anorexic simply won’t work. Today, marketing tools cost money and not to take advantage of the latest technology is a prescription for failure if a company wants results to match its expectations. And, while junior marketers can add value, it takes a senior, experienced professional to steer the ship in the right direction.

6. Failure to think through the implications. Ron Johnson created Apple’s hugely successful Apple’s retail stores and then moved on to tackle JCPenney’s faltering brand. Soon after arriving, he rolled out a massive TV marketing campaign that succeeded in thoroughly confusing consumers who had been accustomed to 400 “sales” a year. When Women’s Wear Daily asked him how he was going to correct the problem, he told the interviewer that the marketing “overreached,” adding, “It didn’t do the hard work. People found it entertaining but it wasn’t doing what we needed to do to build our business.” Then he noted, “There was too much TV and not enough print.”

If you wonder what those words mean, here’s the translation of the jargon: he roared in as CEO, shot from the hip with “a great idea” and when it failed, he came up with an excuse and flipped back to JCP’s traditional print promotion strategy, which isn’t doing the job, either.

Failure to think through marketing initiatives follows one path: justification for failure and repeating the cycle.

7. Keeping marketing too narrowly focused. Although bouncing too many marketing activities at one time is possible, there’s a seductive tendency to do just the opposite, to lighten the load by peeling away activities or stripping them down so they’re only marginally effective.

Marketing success today moves in many directions. It depends on connecting with customers and prospects in all the ways that work for them. Inevitably, this means marketing programs must be multi-faceted.

While marketers often speak rather glibly about “integrated marketing communications,” walking the talk isn’t so easy. It’s a daunting task to integrate social media, media advertising, public and media relations, eMarketing and sales promotion so they connect with customers and prospects, and even more demanding to do it consistently so the effort enhances the brand.

If there’s a clear thread running through these seven ways marketing goes wrong, it’s that marketing is more than great ideas, innovative events or cutting edge techniques. At its core, marketing success depends on an understanding of prospects and customers, and making something happen to turn one into the other.

To accomplish this objective takes vision, innovative thought and persistence.

John R. Graham of GrahamComm is a marketing and sales consultant and business writer. He publishes a free monthly eNewsletter, “No Nonsense Marketing & Sales.” Contact him at, 617-774-9759 or

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