by Freddy J. Nager, Founder & Fusion Director of Atomic Tango LLC

Lois & Clark

What’s even harder to believe is that this show is already 17 years old.

The hardest part to believe about “Superman” isn’t that a man can fly with no physical means of propulsion. It’s that Lois Lane, a reporter, can’t tell that Superman and Clark Kent are the same guy because of a pair of glasses. (Perhaps she needed a pair of her own.)

Lois’ lack of, um, vision is captured in an episode of the TV series “Lois & Clark,” wherein the time traveler Tempus gives her the low-down…

Tempus: Um, Lois, did you know that, in the future, you’re revered at the same level as Superman? Why there are books about you, statues, an interactive game. You’re even a breakfast cereal.
Lois: Really?
Tempus: Yes. But, as much as everybody loves you, there is one question that keeps coming up: “How dumb was she?” Here, I’ll show you what I mean. Look…
[puts glasses on]
Tempus: I’m Clark Kent.
[takes glasses off]
Tempus: No, I’m Superman.
[puts glasses on]
Tempus: Mild-mannered reporter.
[takes glasses off]
Tempus: Superhero. Hello! Duh! Clark Kent is Superman. Ha, ha, ha. Well, that was worth the whole trip. To actually meet the most galactically stupid woman who ever lived.

Apparently, some self-proclaimed marketing experts think most people are Lois Lane. They try to make us think they’ve come up with some spectacularly new idea by slapping a disguise onto an old one. But in place of glasses, they use words.

For example, last year Forrester Research recommended renaming brand managers “brand advocates” to reflect their new responsibilities in a digital age, proving without a doubt that Forrester should stick to research. As a friend of mine commented, “Really, Forrester? Rhetoric fixes things?” For the privilege of reading this piece of jargon slinging, Forrester will charge you only $499.

And that’s really the whole point of these rhetorical acrobatics: selling books and articles, not advancing the field of marketing.

From P’s to C’s…

One of the most popular targets of the disguise game is the 4P’s of the marketing mix: product, price, place and promotion. Established 50 years ago, the 4P’s are the fundamental elements of a marketing plan. They are to marketing what running, passing, blocking and kicking are to football offenses.

The fact that the 4P’s are well established makes them a tempting target for fame seekers, who proclaim that the 4P’s are passé or misguided, and then — ta-daa! — unveil their own perfect substitute. Forrester includes its own 4P’s substitute in that $499 article. After all, what better way to attract attention and sell overpriced studies than to announce that you’ve upended the foundation of an entire field?

One of my students recently directed my attention to another substitute, “the 4C’s of marketing”, in that virtual tome of infinite flawed knowledge, Wikipedia. Supposedly focused on customers, the 4C’s consists of customer, cost, convenience and communication. Let’s dissect this presumptuous impostor, one C at a time, shall we?

Customer

To include customers in the marketing mix is to grossly misunderstand what a marketing mix is. The marketing mix consists of everything you can DO or CREATE in a marketing plan. In other words, the tactics. The customer is the TARGET of all that.  Putting customers in the marketing mix is like putting fans in the football playbook. Completely nonsensical.

Customers are also just ONE target of a marketing plan. A marketer needs to additionally consider the competition, its own company stakeholders (executives, investors, employees), and members of the community (the media, regulators, interest groups, potential collaborators). These are the 4C’s I teach — customers, competitors, company, and community — as a “Stakeholders Analysis” to help craft a smart marketing mix. It’s not a substitute.

Third, including customers in the marketing mix condescendingly implies that other marketers have never considered customers when crafting their plans. That’s not a C; that’s a bunch of B with a mighty big S.

Finally, by leaving product out of the equation, the 4C’s also leaves out packaging, ambiance, quality and all the other attributes that make a certain product or service attractive. Shall we tell Apple to ignore product innovation and design and just focus on meeting customer needs? That’s not only bad marketing, that’s bad business.

Next!

Cost

Instead of just the sticker price of the product, “cost” includes all the expenses incurred by the customer to acquire and own the product. That sounds considerate, but there are three problems with that.

First, different customers have different costs. For example, I live within walking distance of three supermarkets, so it costs me nothing in gasoline to buy my groceries. Somebody up in the Hollywood Hills has to drive each and every time. And what if one guy drives his hybrid to the market and the other takes his Hummer? How can you actually determine all those costs for all your customers? That could result in paralysis by analysis, and not lead to any solutions.

Second, certain acquisition costs are already factored into price, such as shipping-and-handling. “Cost” is not a substitute for “price” — it’s just a matter of depth and degree. How far do you want to take it? And if your product is virtually identical to your competitor’s product, and they’re both for sale in the same store (think bottled water), then acquisition and maintenance costs are not an issue — but price may be.

Third, there are many brilliant and complicated pricing strategies, from two-part tariffs to reference pricing to freemiums. To ignore those by focusing on costs is to leave half of your marketing tools at home.

Convenience

In the 4P’s, “place” refers to all the distribution tactics that you can implement. In other words, how do you get the product to the customer? “Convenience” asks you to consider how easy it is for the customer to get the product. That’s nothing new or innovative; that’s just isolating one attribute and declaring it a substitute. I’ve yet to encounter a company that doesn’t consider access issues for their customers. That’s just basic distribution planning — as it has been since the first farmers brought their goods to the central bazaar.

In addition, “convenience” is not the only aspect of distribution that customers care about. The image of the distribution outlet also matters. A luxury product will take a huge hit to its brand if it’s for sale at Walmart. Indeed, some customers won’t even set foot in a Walmart for any reason.

Other places offer unique advantages. Red Bull, for example, initially sold its energy drink in bars because that’s where customers are used to paying high prices for funny tasting beverages; because bars can make a glorified soft drink seem edgy, adult and sophisticated; because bars inspire experimentation and conversation; and because bars let you observe your customers consuming the product on the spot.

Place isn’t just about convenience. Indeed, in the case of Red Bull, the company initially made their product hard to get to increase its mystique and desirability.

Communication

Supposedly, “communication” is superior to promotion because it includes two-way conversations. This ignores the fact that promotion has always included two-way conversations as options, such as in-store demos or door-to-door proselytizing or telemarketing. Last I checked, telemarketing is not exactly a well-loved tactic.

Promotion also already incorporates social media and other wonders of communication, so why rename the category?

Third, using the term “communication” ignores that fact that not all customers want conversations or any kind of relationship with a company — many just want to buy their stuff and to be left alone.

Finally, there are effective promotional tactics that do not involve any two-way communications, such as public relations or SEO/SEM. To focus just on interactive promotions is to, again, leave half your tools at home.

Overall, this 4C’s is simply a variation of the 4P’s with an emphasis on some tactics over others — in other words, marketing planning as usual. Its most serious flaw is to list “customers” as a tactic, when they’re part of the overall consideration set. 4C’s? Meet deep six.

Mmmm, Conflict…

Over the years, I’ve seen other variations of the marketing mix, all guilty of misunderstanding, contrivance or incompleteness. There’s a reason the 4P’s have survived for 50 years: they cover all the bases, they’re logical, and their very simplicity is what makes them work.

Now we marketers love to disagree. After all, differentiation is what we do for a living. Just ask all the marketers you meet to define “marketing” or “brand,” and you won’t find two who agree.

I for one relish a good marketing debate. Some killer insights and creative strategies can evolve from a smart discussion. But when the disagreements center on simply twisting words around, then call me anti-semantic, but I won’t play along. Believing that mere wordplay is revolutionary would just be galactically stupid.

Related Article: “A Side Order of Spaghetti: Why Listening to Customers is Nothing New — or even Necessary.”

  • Jeff Ullrich says:
    17 February 2010 at 12:07 am Reply

    I’m a new reader and I really enjoy your topic choices, style and stance. Thanks for sharing.

  • Peter Rodgers says:
    18 March 2010 at 1:35 am Reply

    The problem with this little rant against the 4 Cs and, in particular, the inclusion of “customer” instead of “product” is that it seems to be based on a load of rubbish on Wikipedia.

    What Bob Lauterborn actually proposed back in 1990 in a brief article in “Advertising Age” was that the 4 Cs be: consumer wants and needs, cost to satisfy, convenience to buy, and communication. As explained by Lauterborn, these are quite different from the erroneous Cs explained on Wikipedia.

    See: http://rlauterborn.com/pubs/pdfs/4_Cs.pdf

    Marketing is supposed to be customer-focused rather than product-focused and the problem with the 4 Ps is that they start with “product”.

    Although the principles behind the 4 Ps are fundamental, there is nothing wrong with renaming them in a way that reminds us that we should be focusing on satisfying customers wants and needs rather than on what product we can make.

    Freddy’s Comment: I agree — the 4C’s on Wikipedia are a load of rubbish, but they were developed in the late ’80s by Northwestern University Professor Don Schultz for his IMC framework, which is otherwise quite brilliant.

    And it is wrong to change a framework to focus completely on customers, since customers are just one small part of the equation. Esteemed marketing strategists Jack Trout and Al Ries point out in “Marketing Warfare” that, in many markets, it’s more important to focus on your competition, since consumers usually don’t know what they want or need. (Most focus groups reveal that consumers want more features for less money, and tend to reject innovation.) Apple disdains consumer research — it is a very product-oriented company, and it appears to be doing quite well with that approach. Dell, on the other hand, is very customer centric, letting consumers customize their computers and giving them a lot of computing power for less money; however, Dell’s profitability, market cap and — yes — customer loyalty are far lower than Apple’s.

    In addition, with growing trends in social responsibility and green marketing, it’s important to consider the community’s reaction to whatever you do, even though many in that community might not even be your customers. Consider animal activists — who are vegetarians — exposing illegal practices at farms and ranches, or labor unions campaigning against Walmart. Ignore them at your peril.

    There’s nothing wrong with thinking about customers — every company should do so. But to say that marketing is supposed to be customer focused is just one perspective. And to change an entire framework to focus on only one part of the market is naive and potentially disastrous.

  • Peter Rodgers says:
    19 March 2010 at 2:33 am Reply

    Freddy, what you are doing now is arguing that the 4 Ps are deficient, because they do not cover such things as the competition and activists, either (nor the biggest threat the company I work for faces, ill-concieved government regulation).

    Focusing on customer wants and needs does not solely mean doing consumer research (which can often lead you down the garden path) or letting customers customise the product; it means thinking about what problem your customer faces that your product is going to solve. It’s a basic question whether there is a market for your product.

    There is a British TV programme called “Dragon’s Den” in which budding entrepreneurs try to convince some millionaires (the dragons) to invest in their idea. In a recent episode I saw, two guys had come up with a very clever technical idea but, when pushed by the dragons to explain why anyone would buy it (to solve what problem), they struggled because they had not thought this through. They had focused on their product without considering customer needs. They did not get their investment!

    Freddy’s comment: Peter, please reread my post — I’ve already addressed several of your points within it.

    To reiterate, the 4P’s are a framework for organizing your tactics. Period. Adding targets to a tactical mix is nonsensical. Think of the marketing mix as a recipe: would you put the prospective diner in a food recipe? No, not unless you planned on eating them.

    As my article notes, the 4P’s does not address targets. That’s why I teach my students to base their 4P’s on a “Stakeholders Analysis” consisting of Customers, Competitors, Company (which includes executives, investors, and employees), and Community (which includes complements, collaborators, special interest groups, the government, the news media, etc.).

    As you can see, Customers are just one part of the equation. That said, I have ALWAYS endorsed doing customer research — I teach it extensively in my courses. But what I oppose is customer centricity, which is a single-minded focus on customers. Sometimes I argue that customer opinions should be completely disregarded. Focus groups are notorious for having rejected “Seinfeld,” the minivan, telephone answering machines, Red Bull, and Absolut vodka’s brilliantly successful marketing campaign.

    As for your anecdotal evidence from a reality show, that just proves you have to consider your investors when developing your product. By the way, investors and entrepreneurs are often wrong, which is why 9 out of 10 startups fail. Even extremely customer centric startups fail.

    If you aren’t sick of me already, you should read my other post on customer-centricity: “A Side Order of Spaghetti: Why Listening to Customers is Nothing New — or even Necessary.”

  • Shiju George says:
    21 July 2010 at 4:23 am Reply

    Its really great and practical in nature.

    It really help me to understand further about marketing mix required for my assignment.

  • Petros Avgousti says:
    16 June 2013 at 11:53 pm Reply

    I have to say I have taken marketing courses before, but Freddy seems to explain everything really well with real life scenarios and real life examples.

    I thought marketing did not work or worked in some cases. Freddy explains the stakeholder analysis in many examples very well and how it affects different decision making techniques.

    I will definetely get more into marketing after taking his class, even if i get a B.

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