So what exactly is marketing?

Is it promotion, advertising or sales, or the business-wide engine for change?

When you ask someone to define marketing, you're likely to get a variety of different responses. This is because marketing means different things to different people. But what exactly is it?

Godin (2018) mentions the following quote from Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill bit. They want a quarter-inch hole." But then goes on to argue that this does not go far enough, as nobody wants a hole. They want the shelf that is the result of buying the drill in the first place. But no, they actually want the feeling of seeing how neat everything is once the shelf is up. Or is it satisfaction, status or peace of mind?

For some, marketing is just about creating and executing advertising campaigns. For others, it's about building relationships with customers and creating a brand identity, or about developing and executing a sales strategy. The truth is, marketing is all of these things and more. It's an ever-evolving field that encompasses a multitude of activities and concepts. Marketing could be defined as the process of creating products and services for sale with a focus on increasing revenue so that businesses will continue doing what they do best - generating revenue! The key lies in developing new ideas, testing them out on customers and consumers (whether it's one person or many), and filtering those which don't work well enough before refining even further into something perfect enough to meet market demand; but this a multi-layered iterative process, that takes time.

Definitions of Marketing

Traditional Perspectives on Marketing Definitions

So back to it, what is marketing? Here are a few different definitions of marketing to help you better understand this complex and multi-faceted discipline. According to the American Marketing Association, marketing is:

The activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.

The Chartered Institute of Marketing states:

Marketing is the management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably.”

And according to Entrepreneur Magazine:

Marketing is the process of getting your business noticed by the people who need or want your products or services."

These definitions are of a theme, but at its core, marketing is about creating value for someone else. It's about understanding what people want and need, and then creating a solution that meets those needs. Whether you're selling products or services, your goal should always be to create value for your customers. By doing so, you'll not only earn their business, but you'll also build a loyal following that will advocate for your brand. Kotler et al (2019) wrote:

Marketing is about identifying and meeting human and social needs at a profit. One of the shortest definitions of marketing is that it is the process of ‘meeting customer needs profitably. It is about values. It's a complicated and often messy activity, because it's based on human beings and their values. It's an activity designed to create change in another person.

A Business View of Marketing Definitions

So let's pick this apart. Sales and promotion are much narrower fields than marketing, which covers all parts of creating the product you are attempting to sell, suggests Chernev (2018). Creating what people will buy should always be the main focus of marketing, not only enabling purchases from one side or another but by, in certain situations, delivering vital services alongside your product offers (like customer support). It covers every aspect of the business, making it not just considerably more comprehensive than sales, advertising and promotion but is also not at all a specialist activity. Moreover, it could be argued that the aim of marketing is to make sales and advertising redundant.

This frequent notion, of solely equating marketing with sales, advertising, and sales promotion leads to the misconception that marketing is only a tactical activity. Because of this, businesses are prevented from utilising marketing to its full potential, allowing it to create a holistic strategic plan, by their narrow perspective of marketing as a tactical instrument just for raising awareness. 

An important function of marketing leadership is to inform and guide the actions of senior leaders who are responsible for the development and implementation of its policies and strategies. In particular, marketing is concerned with the management of customer demand - by accommodating the actions of the company to the genuine needs of the market. In this sense, marketing is not creative – it cannot give birth to wants which do not already exist – but it is responsive to those which do. 

There are, unfortunately, a number of organisations in existence who believe that just because they have created a product or service, it is the job of marketing to generate sales. Foxhall (2015) asserts:

A genuinely marketing-orientated company plans, produces and distributes only those products and services which it has good reason to believe will be bought in sufficient quantities and at adequate prices to ensure that it attains its economic objectives.

Godin (2018) qualifies this: 

It’s easier to make products and services for the customers you seek to serve than it is to find customers for your products and services.

The Future of Marketing?

A number of thought leaders are looking to the future. Rajamannar (2021) suggests that the traditional tactical functions of marketing - product, price, place, and promotion - are frequently managed by other departments. 

Today, there are any number of companies in which marketing does not manage product, does not manage pricing, does not manage place (distribution). It just barely hangs on to promotions, which is advertising and promotions at best.

With all of these functions removed, what does marketing do? Traditional marketers have been swiftly replaced by a new generation of technologists who immersed themselves in marketing and identified vast, untapped, and underutilised opportunities. Full digital marketing was born and began establishing the pace, procedures, and techniques entirely independently of classical marketers. A chasm emerged between two distinct types of marketers.

Around a decade ago, Ashley Friedlein (of Econsultancy) introduced the Modern Marketing Manifesto and this was followed by the launch of the Modern Marketing Model. This comprises 10 elements broken down into four distinct stages: Strategy, Analysis, Planning, and Execution. This unifying framework identifies that there are new requirements for marketing competencies and capabilities around areas such as data and analytics, customer experience, content, multichannel, and personalisation, which were neither properly comprehended nor being met.

So we can see from this, that the dominion of marketing remains vast, but we still have some way to go before we fully reconcile digital and classic marketing, and before businesses fully embrace modernity.  Or do we take a step back, and simply refer to Godin (2018)?

Marketing is the generous act of helping someone solve a problem. Their problem. 

Maybe it is just that.

  • 1 - Chernev, A., 2018. Strategic Marketing Management.
  • 2 - Godin, S., 2018. This is Marketing.
  • 3 - Foxhall, G., 2015. Strategic Marketing Management.
  • 4 - Kotler, P., Lane, K., Brady, M., Goodman, M., Hansen, T., 2019. Marketing Management.
  • 5 - Rajamannar, R., 2021. Quantum Marketing.
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Posted by Steve King
This article was written by Steve King
I am a marketing and analytics professional with over 15 years experience in strategic marketing development. I am passionate about working with organisations that want to improve their marketing effectiveness and get more from their data; who wish to use its potential to describe what has happened, prescript operational activity and predict business outcomes.