Peter Fisk interview exploring the future of marketing, with a great network of future marketers at the University of Plymouth

September 11, 2021

Today the world is going through a very complex situation: the new normal as a result of the pandemic, how do these factors affect the Marketing industry? What are the points of no return? And, conversely, what remains?

The “new normal” is a world of increasing complexity, change and multiple challenges. We need to let go of the old world which was relatively simple and predictable.

We live in a time of incredible change. Of course, some of this is challenging – economic inflation, political uncertainty, global fragmentation. But with challenge also comes opportunity. We will probably see more change in this decade, than over the last 250 years.

This is fueled by the relentless pace of new technology, and in particular the connections of digital platforms, bio tech and nanotech, IoT and robotics, and the data and AI which emerges from it.

But in reality, tech is just the enabler of more dramatic change – of convergent, disrupted marketplaces; of changing customer attitudes and priorities; of new attitudes towards work and the role of organisations in society; and of new opportunities to innovate and grow.

In the old world, size mattered. Big companies, the largest customer bases, the highest revenue, and market share. None of that matters today.

In the new world, markets are fragmented and discerning. It’s about focus, relevance and speed.

Mass-marketing doesn’t work. Customers are not average. Transactions are not enough. People trust people rather than brands. Purpose matters. Propositions are more personal.

What matters to marketers? Customers, brands and innovation. Business needs marketers more than ever to unlock these crucial assets and capabilities, in order to make sense of rapid change, to actively shape the future markets, to respond to new entrants and disruptors, and bring the organisation together strategically and operationally to drive profitable growth.

What are the main challenges that Marketing specialists face today, taking into account the new consumer (omnichannel, digital, with social sensitivity, etc.) and the new market (more digital and technological, with more exhibition platforms)?

 Marketers need to be both strategic and operational.

In the past the strategic focus has largely been on brand building. In steady-state markets, this was relatively easy. Market structures, competitors and customers, channels and prices, value propositions and business models, changed little. Brands competed on being slightly better, or slightly cheaper. This is now all shaken up.

Business needs marketers to be the “strategic guides” through a world of relentless market-driven change. Every market is being shaken up – by changing economics, customer agendas, disruptive competitors, new business models. And much more.

Strategically, marketers need to be the “sense-makers” of fast-changing markets – to identify the new opportunities for business growth, both in existing and new markets – to explore and shape emerging markets to their advantage – to drive innovation across every aspect of business.

This is particularly driven by the convergence of traditional industry sectors – for example, telecom companies become media companies, retail companies also become finance companies, accounting firms become consulting firms.

At the same time entirely new “market spaces” emerge like home delivery companies (and in particular quick-commerce), or online gaming companies, or plant-based food companies. This is all in the power of marketers!

Or think about geography, demographics, segmentation. Why do we still largely organize our business and marketing by country. Is there not more in common between GenZ, or old people, or SMEs, across Latin America, rather having to address them separately within each country?

Operationally, marketers need to be the “data scientists” of technologically-enabled markets.

Each customer seeks, expects, a more personal experience. Particularly when they know you have some much data about them. They expect the same level of intelligence as they get from shopping at Amazon, or the same level or personal service they get from a local café.

Unlocking the intelligent power of data is the key – to anticipate the needs of customers, to engage them individually, to resolve problems before they are even known. SEO is just a starting point.

The best companies now have huge data science labs, monitoring every post about a brand, every click by a customer. In retail, for example, GPS and iBeacons in a shop, mean that every customer experience is unique, every customer have personal incentives, pay different prices.

Given your experience working with big brands, what is the secret for “traditional” brands to become “current” brands without losing their essence and value?

 Traditional brands have almost all the advantages – heritage, experience, scale, data, talent, capital – yet they lack the mindset of fast, entrepreneurial youthful brands.  Start-ups have advantages too, most significantly less complexity, less process, less fear.

Companies like Nike, have shown that a 50 year company can be incredibly innovative – look at how they have shifted to being a primarily DTC business in a short period of time – have they have embrace social networks to build communities, to engage with new audiences and agendas, to constantly reinterpret value propositions and stay relevant.

The “secret” is simple, to stay focused on the customer, and the changing customer. Not just to meet their existing needs, but constantly explore new ideas, to innovate, to inspire them.

The best companies, traditional or new, interpret themselves not as product-centric but as customer-centric businesses. Of course, experts have being saying that for 40 years. Yet most companies still interpret customer-centric as “smiling faces” or “fast response”.

Instead, think about this. Do you define your brand around your business and product, or around the customer and application?  …. Think about it … Don’t define yourself by what you do – you’re a food company, a sportswear company – but by what you enable people to do.

Nike is a sports company, not a sportswear company. Harley Davidson is not about the technically-mediocre motorbike, but about the freedom of the rider. Danone is not a food company, but a healthy living company.

And then everything else follows too – don’t focus on the sales transaction, the point of sale, advertising the product functionality, the price relative to production cost – think about what the customer seeks to achieve, how you can support them over time, engaging them in learning to use it better, and the price relative to the value they gain.

This is not rocket science. But it is still a wake-up to many marketers.

More strategically, it’s also about exploring what more you can do – don’t limit your growth to just finding more customers for existing products, or more products for existing customers – think about how you can go further – using your assets, capabilities and imagination in new ways.

Take PingAn for example. The Shenzhen-based insurance company is one of the largest in the world. It has a digital platform serving almost one billion customers. For boring insurance. What more could it do? It looked at where the growth opportunities are, the unexploited markets, and how its assets could help. Today, after just 4 years, Ping An is also the world’s largest healthcare platform.

What is the balance point between new technologies (for example, artificial intelligence) and the human component (contact with a “real person”)?

 We are human. Real people. People trust people.

Technology is simply there to enable us to do better. AI, for example, helps us to anticipate and meet people’s needs better. Robotics helps us to improve the efficiency and accuracy of processes. Think of Kava robots in Amazon warehouses, or the Da Vinci robots which perform the majority of heart surgeries. Blockchain delivers solutions faster and cheaper.

We also need people to act in human ways – to interpret emotions, to engage with empathy, to build relationships, to share hopes and fears, purpose and passions.

If you are developing a new website, a new app, a new process for your business – think about this – how does it create a better experience – not just fast and efficiency, but more personal and human too. Similarly companies how seek “digital transformation” need to recognise that what they really need is “business transformation”, probably customer-centric, enabled by digital technology.

DBS is a great example of this. For the past 4 years, the Singapore business has been ranked the world’s most innovative bank. Their strategy is to “make banking invisible”.

They want people to “bank less, live more”. Their entire focus is on implementing better payment-related technologies into everyday life – shopping, entertaining, transporting, educating. They don’t want people to spend time coming to banks, or using separate apps for money, they want people to get on with life.

In line with the previous question and with a view to friction-free marketing, what do you consider to be the most appropriate customer journey for the short and medium term?

 The biggest opportunity today is to become a C2C company. Customers connected to customers. Sharing their passions, supporting each other. Co-creating, co-selling, co-enabling what they do.

This is the best form of friction-free marketing. Where there is no company getting in the way. Of course, there is a brand – but the brand is about the customers, and their shared passion – not the company. The brand is more like a facilitator, helping customers to do what they want better.

Glossier is a great C2C example, created by Emily Weiss, and now one of the world’s fastest growing beauty brands. It is about customers sharing their love of beauty – including new ideas for products, recommending their best friends, and then sharing in the everyday use of the products.

Rapha is another great example. The cycling brand, which started in London with its first “cycle club”, which is a store but with a café in the centre, a bike store and workshop, and showers. Of course the store is where you can buy Rapha cyclewear, but more importantly it is where you meet people like you, to share your passion for cycling, to watch a race over a coffee, to go for a ride after work. Go on the Rapha app, its full of people sharing their love of cycling, as well as the products.

Given your extensive experience around the world, what are the most common mistakes that companies make when managing their brands in the face of new challenges?

 It’s time to let go – let go of what made you successful in the past – and to explore and embrace, a different, but exciting, new future.


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