Communication Is The Code: Revisiting The Need For Modern Marketing
I spend my day listening to indicators -- cultural moments, shifts in political climate, moods within an industry -- so whenever JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon speaks, I know finance is readying itself for something new.
Dimon signalled a shift this August.
“The American dream is alive, but fraying,” he said. He wasn’t suggesting a tectonic shift, but he was giving onlookers a glimpse of large-scale businesses operating differently in the very near future. Dimon said this post the vanilla-sounding Business Roundtable, a meeting of the world’s biggest brands -- Apple, Walmart, Amazon, JP Morgan and others. He spoke for all attendees, and his comments were echoed by other business leaders -- all saying no to the tyranny of the shareholder driven growth cycle. They had had enough. That’s not to say they don’t want to grow, they just want to move from the total dominance of maximising profit. “They’re responding to something in the zeitgeist,” said Nancy Koehn, a historian at Harvard Business School. “They perceive that business as usual is no longer acceptable. It’s an open question whether any of these companies will change the way they do business.”
For decades, boards drove the notion that their fiduciary duty was to shareholders, and only shareholders. This maxim was golden. 2019’s Business Roundtable meeting saw the golden rule crack. Dimon’s statement revealed a desire to rekindle the American dream. This means looking back to a time when big business was not just about shareholders, when it was about employee well-being, higher salaries and fairness. The Roundtable was calling for business transformation; ultimately a creative endeavour. They were saying business needs to renew its purpose.
And from this, I thought -- this represents a profound change in all functions that make businesses work. And if business wants a new relationship with society, marketing is the interface for that. However, marketing would need to radically adapt to execute this message.
Marketing has to re-imagine its role within the business
In the late 50s, media theory philosopher Marshall McLuhan examined the technologies that have brought us to today’s impasse. McLuhan understood that communication technology changes us, and each major technological innovation triggers unforeseen societal change as we seek to adapt to new systems.
The last 20 years has been a constant petri dish of McLuhan’s theories. The internet ensured all markets were open and social media further enabled businesses to grow at unprecedented scales. We order electric cars online, watch our kids via Google Nest cam, and come home to the week’s shopping left with a note on our doorsteps.
Technology has changed us and the attendees of the Business Roundtable have been responsible for driving this change. They’ve pushed operational efficiencies, scale and market penetration -- the language of venture capital. They’ve enabled the tremendous growth technology provides and they grew it exponentially. Along the way, they also aided the explosion of inequality, workplace insecurity and a general pressure consumers feel. They now acknowledge that they need to think differently and create new businesses that focus on other stakeholders: suppliers, customers, employees – ultimately us.
During the era of McLuhan, marketing executive Robert J Keith spoke about an entirely new business dynamic. He was planting the seeds of modern marketing, a discipline founded to be an intermediary between business and customer. In Keith’s vision, the customer was a broad conception of suppliers, manufacturers and paying customers. But we’ve lost this rich understanding of marketing scope and we need to revisit it. We reduced marketing’s remit to customers: either B2B or B2C. I think of Keith’s vision as B2E: “E” as in “Everything” or every touchpoint. Marketing should be the transformational force for the entire business.
Collapsing the silo: Business aligned
B2E is an interesting proposition in the siloed world of business. The specialisation of each department, the growth of efficiencies, the quantification of everything is at odds with the notion of marketing as a creative force harmonizing the entire business.
Although approaches like agile enterprise have been talked about, being flexible, responsive and working together is hard to achieve. Traditionally, finance does money, marketing does advertising, product does “things”, sales does selling. But what happens if the product needs UX that connects to an advertising campaign, that will support customers through a sales portal, that will ultimately have some form of human interface? Who connects this? How can we guarantee an amazing experience? How do we put consumers at the centre when all these siloed disciplines have a different consumer in mind and aren’t used to working together? What if an HR grad program is a marketing opportunity to reach new recruits, while showing loyal customers we are doing the right things? Who joins these dots?
You can’t have a brand that preaches diversity if you haven’t innovated the recruitment process to hire diverse talent. You’ll get found out. You’ll break the brand narrative you’ve painstakingly crafted. We need Keith’s expansive vision of marketing, which is bigger than today’s function. We need marketing to become “Communication” -- that is, an up level from advertising that traditional marketing represents to a larger discipline that collapses silos, tells the brand story externally, and rallies internal teams around a mission. We need to build Communication departments.
Communication is the code
Creating a Communication discipline is a big idea, that needs to be collaborative. Imagine creatives from the Communication arm working with R+D teams to create a product design language, partnering with sales to make a tool, or writing the CEO’s speech. A Communication department could build 24/7 content because, guess what, you may sell frozen pizza but your Twitter account competes with The New York Times, CNN and Disney for attention. That channel you created for free needs a constant stream of amazing content.
The demand is: be bigger than advertising, go beyond marketing. Communication is everything.
Remi Abbas is founding partner and executive director, innovation and social at John McNeil Studio