Long the Cinderella of the corporate world, marketing is playing an increasingly major role as analytics take over from intuition, and human needs shape products.
Dr Shasha Lu, Lecturer in Marketing at Cambridge Judge Business School, who delivers the Digital Marketing Elective on the Cambridge MBA programme, and Cambridge MBA alumna, Barbara Bottini (MBA 2008) of Saatchi and Saatchi, discuss the trends.
What do you observe are the main trends in marketing today? What’s coming down the line?
Dr Lu: Two main trends emerging are the growing importance of content engineering in marketing communications and the use of analytics-based rather than intuition-based decision-making. Content engineering is about designing the right content for the right group of customers and planning the delivery of content at the right touch point along the customer journey. As more and more marketing communication happens online, content is becoming a crucial factor of digital marketing success. What’s coming down the line is personalised content marketing. Consumers are less responsive to traditional advertisements and increasingly drawn to contents that are personalised toward their needs and preferences.
Barbara: For me the main trends are:
- Digital marketing is now marketing
We used to talk about digital marketing as a separate discipline. Given the ubiquity of the internet and digital technologies in powering businesses and products, digital marketing is now marketing.
- Business strategy and marketing are converging
These also used to be separate disciplines. As more and more businesses are finally springing from unmet people’s needs, marketing and customer strategy are increasingly intertwined with business strategy. This is how billion-dollar business models like AirBnB, Uber, Amazon, Tesla and Netflix have developed.
- Marketing ‘baked-in’
In the past, R&D and engineering used to create products in isolation and then hand them over to the marketers to come up with a story to sell them. Intelligent companies are now building business models, products and services with marketing baked in. They start from people’s needs and product benefits instead of features, and then create distribution channels, brands and services that people love. This is how beauty brand Glossier managed to go from a blog to 1.2 BN valuation in just four years.
- Design thinking
This is not new but it’s still exciting. User experience, service design and design thinking are heavily influencing the way marketing is evolving by thinking ‘people first’ and bringing design disciplines to the attention of the boardroom as a source of value creation.
- Hacking marketing
Many organisations are working on strategy and marketing plans using agile and lean methodologies made popular by software and technology companies. Innovation in marketing means speed, adaptability and disruption at scale. The winners are those who are ready to take inspiration from marketing classical theory but also experiment with new disciplines.
New generations and emergencies on our planet are driving people and companies towards more sustainable behaviour – embedding sustainable practices across the whole business model and supply chain. Patagonia, Warby Parker and Adidas are good examples. It’s not a ‘nice to have’ anymore – customers expect companies to do the right thing while doing business with them.
How is big data impacting marketing?
Dr Lu: Big data means marketers can gain new customer insights even without traditional carefully designed marketing research. With machine learning techniques, big data can help marketers uncover new behavioural patterns and gain better, deeper knowledge about their customers. Big data also provides new value proposition for customers. Firms can now collect, store and process customer data in real-time, offering timely personalised products and services to customers and creating new values through data analytics. Optimising marketing performance through data analytics is also a huge advantage, which can help in many key marketing decisions – pricing, segmentation and targeting, product recommendation and customer relationship management.
However – two caveats! First, marketers should carefully evaluate the source and quality of data before undertaking any analysis process. No good analytics will come out of fake or incorrect data. Second, be aware of the potential biases in the process, which come from the intervention of humans in data collection or data analysis. Since many machine learning algorithms operate entirely on the data fed to them, the results can only confirm the biases from a non-representative dataset.
Barbara: It’s impacting hugely, but you can easily drown in it if you don’t have strategic questions leading your data strategy. The focus should be on small and smart data to start with. The value of data is not in the data itself, it’s in what you do with it. There’s a lot of unstructured data that are still not used and are beyond the usual structured data sources (customer databases, etc.). For example, videos from retail store experiences, ethnographic data from social, search and web analytics that are only used for marketing communications while they are also great for understanding demand, product development, and so on.
Barbara – how has your MBA supported you in your journey in the sector?
My MBA year provided me with an opportunity to learn about entrepreneurship and business strategy disciplines, that I can now challenge to a degree in my work for startups and large corporates. You can’t break the rules without knowing them.
It also offered me a solid understanding of all business components – from operations to finance to logistics; and, with that, the ability to sit with C-level and to fully understand their challenges.
The MBA skill base gave me the confidence and the ability to ask the right questions, more than give the right answers – the vast majority of projects I work on imply solving a business problem that’s new. If you are asking the wrong questions, you quickly find yourself down the wrong route. Without the MBA knowledge and experience with my classmates, I would not be so well equipped to tackle the unknowns and make sense of complexity.
Overall my Cambridge MBA year gave me an amazing group of experienced, talented and smart friends. Ten years on we are starting businesses, leading teams in interesting companies, pursuing creative projects, having families, changing countries and influencing communities. Some of my best friends come from my class and I trust their advice completely.