The Relationship Between Marketing and Business Risk; Do One and Reduce the Other

Have you ever noticed how often the group of people who create ads, run promotions, and manage sponsorships are called the marketing department? That’s always struck me as kind of odd. I think marketing is the process of figuring out who your customer is, or can be, and why they buy your product. Advertising and promotion are the tactics you use to reach and attract those customers after you’ve reached some decisions about your customer based on your marketing.

I suppose it’s so obvious it shouldn’t have to be said, but if your advertising and promotion isn’t based on solid marketing you can spend a lot of money and damage the only real asset you have in this business- your image. We’ve all seen retailers and brands do it.
The thesis of this article is that good marketing reduces business risk and the perception of business risk, perhaps helping you to think in a way that facilitates recognizing new customers and markets.  It’s critical if you’re shop or brand is going to stand out in a crowded and highly competitive market.
The Status Quo and Its Downside  
 Right now, in this industry, everybody pretty much does the same advertising and promotion stuff. You all know what’s on the list of the ways we compete and I won’t bother repeating it here. I recognize that sometimes somebody’s ad is cooler than somebody else’s, or a particular team rider breaks out from the crowd for some period of time. But at the end of the day if we’re all doing the same stuff, and our products are more or less all the same, how do you, as a shop or a brand, break out from the crowd?
Answer- you don’t. If you’re doing the same as everybody else, and your product is no better, the best you can do is to be as good as they are. The exception, of course, is that you can do more of what all the others are doing. It may not be better or different, but it has an impact. But to do more, you have to have more- dollars that is. Then it’s only the big guys who win.
It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that the big are getting bigger and controlling more and more of the market. I’m suggesting that’s inevitable- in any industry- if, lacking solid marketing, the only basis for doing better over the long term is to spend more on advertising and promotion and cut prices. That tendency is exacerbated by the fact that it’s the larger businesses that are most likely to really do good marketing.
The Perception of Risk
I suppose this article had its genesis over a year ago when I talked to Santa Monica based ZJ Boarding House co-owner Todd Roberts at ASR. In the course of talking about a whole bunch of stuff, we got around to the ongoing travails of smaller retailers and what they needed to do. Todd said, “Jeff, you can’t be afraid to take some risks.”
I thought he was right. Still do. But at the time, I didn’t know where to go with it. It didn’t seem useful to say, “Take more risks!” unless I could explain why the risk was worth the potential payback and how it could be controlled.
Still, it seemed an important point, so I put it in whatever the part of my brain it is that holds ideas to be thought about and addressed later. It recently popped out more fully formed.
In helping businesses in this industry manage transitions, I’ve known for a long time that we all, including me, like to do what we’re comfortable with and have done successfully in the past. It’s human nature. So we go with the flow in running our businesses, following the annual schedule for developing ads, sponsoring events, attending trade shows and all the other stuff. It feels low risk, doesn’t it? That’s because it’s what we’ve always done.
Conversely, from time to time, really new ideas for advertising and promotion come across our desks. But they don’t fit our frame of reference. There isn’t a place for them in the annual advertising and promotion schedule. Other companies aren’t doing them. Doing the new things seems risky. Doing the same old stuff doesn’t.
Granted, it’s also a matter of available funds. It’s much less risky to do something new when you don’t have to cut out something old to try it. Another advantage to bigger companies with strong balance sheets.
We tend to perceive low risk in doing what we’ve always done. We perceive higher risk in doing new things. I think it’s the other way around. Industry conditions and the difficult competitive environment require that you do some of these new things if you are going to succeed. If you don’t, you have no opportunity to be better than anybody else.
And that gets us to marketing as a competitive tool, a money saver, and a way to fix your perceptual problems.
Doing Marketing
Sometimes I just have good karma. I’d been working on a talk I had agreed to give on how we compete as an industry and how we can do it better. Before I finished preparing, I flew off to ASR. I walked into the room late, but managed to hear most of Mikke Pierson’s (the other co-owner of ZJ Boarding House) talk on how to utilize your data base effectively. I know this article is turning into a damned ZJ Boarding House promotional piece, but sometimes you just have to go with the flow.
So here I am, thinking about how the industry competes, why brands and shops need to take some risks, and why they often seem reluctant to do it. Having managed to put off my article deadline until after ASR, I was getting desperate for a good way to tie this all together in the real world.
And Mikke saved my ass.
To make a longer story short, he said, “We spent $4,000 with Customers First to clean up our mailing list and plot our customers on a map so we knew where they were coming from. We did our usual promotional mailing at a cost of $16,000 and it generated $135,000 worth of business. The cost of doing the mailing was a whole lot lower because we knew who we were mailing to and why. We didn’t have to pay the post office for returns, and we didn’t waste money on duplicates, people who weren’t interested, or who were too far away to come to the store.”
The $4,000 spent with Customers First is real marketing. And I want you to notice the following things.
  • It wasn’t some esoteric, company wide, long term, epic undertaking that produced a ream of data that nobody knew what to do with. It was practical, cheap, quick, and the return was immediate and measurable.
  • It reduced risk. They knew much better who they were doing a mailing to and why. Maybe just as importantly, it also reduced the perception of risk.
  • It generated additional sales- quickly.
  • It didn’t cost them money- it saved them money.
  • It wasn’t some change of direction, risk the company strategy. It was a fairly minimal, common sense sort of thing. If it hadn’t worked out they would have been out $4,000 and a little time and would have learned something.
  • It focused on their customers- not on their competitors and not on the industry.
What I said I was trying to do at the start of this article was demonstrate the relationship between marketing and business risk. The relationship is both perceptual and practical. Good marketing reduces your business risk. It also reduces the perceived risk because your actions and decisions are based on good data. That means you are more willing to try some new things.
And I don’t think you have much choice. Focus on your end customer and why they buy from you. Think of a dozen questions you’d like to have answers for and how those answers would make it easier to reach those customers. Answer just one and see what you can do with the information. The risk of not trying is just too big. Like Walt Disney said, “You don’t build it for yourself. You know what the people want and you build it for them.”