Is marketing too big for its boots?

Branding touches every part of a business – but marketers might be over-reaching

I recently asked some friends and clients a question. If they had a completely free hand and could create the ultimate organizational structure for a business, what would they do?
Amid their varied replies, one thing was consistent. Marketing sat slap bang in the middle of all of their charts. I asked them to explain. Most talked about how marketing managed the interaction with the customer, was forward-looking, and often the department that set the brand vision, so they were a natural focus.

This got me thinking about the role of marketing and branding in an organization. In Philip Kotler’s classic 1967 definition, brand is “a name, term, symbol or design (or a combination of them) which is intended to signify the goods or services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of the competitors”. Nowadays, most marketers feel that this definition covers only part of what a brand is, and what they should do. Today we focus on the values of brands, the experiences that brands create, and the ability to build relationships with stakeholder groups both external and internal – customers and consumers, but also employees, present and future.

By this broader definition marketers are often leading ‘brand’ initiatives that stretch into other departments’ remits: HR, corporate affairs, business strategy, retail or customer experience. Marketers are potentially treading on a lot of toes.

With the recent growth of brand purpose, which has increasingly replaced the company vision or mission statement, marketing has tried to go even further and positioned itself right at the very heart of the organization. A brand purpose has the power to shape the direction of the organization and all that it does.

As a lifelong marketer this may be heretical: but this has all the classic hallmarks of a power grab. Is marketing getting too big for its boots? In many organizations, marketing departments seem to have successfully defined ‘organizational’ purpose as ‘brand’ purpose – but there is a danger in doing so. The real strength of a purpose could be undermined. A purpose needs to incorporate the business mission and strategy, its objectives, the company culture, its values and principles, the customer experience, and the company’s role in society. It therefore needs to be ‘owned’ right across the organization – and, if marketing takes a long hard look at itself, it knows that it can have a reputation for not being ‘commercial’ enough, and of being both arrogant and ‘fluffy’.

In many organizations – especially retail-led businesses, more modern tech enterprises, and business-to-business companies – the chief marketing officer doesn’t even have a seat on the board, but answers to a chief customer officer, a chief growth officer or a chief CX (customer experience) officer. Marketing needs to be wary of getting ahead of itself and recognize that the way forward is team-based: a purpose team or a B&B team (brand and business). This would be a combination of senior leadership, business strategy, HR and CSR functions, along with customer and brand marketing.

Marketing has long been customer-focused, so the notion of ‘walking in someone else’s shoes’ is nothing new to us. But perhaps marketing needs to spend a little time walking in the shoes of people in other parts of their own businesses. Marketing and branding rightly have a central role in today’s organizations, but we have to recognize the need to bring everyone on board.

Giles Lury is a senior director at brand consultancy The Value Engineers