Let’s End the Debate: Everything Is Marketing

In the traditional marketing universe there’s rarely any gray areas when it comes to what is and isn’t marketing. An ad? Marketing. A promotional email? Marketing. A coupon? Marketing. Clear cut and straightforward, right? But what about branded content that delivers high-value information? What about a message that doesn’t have a typical marketing goal, such as an acquisition or retention message? Or what about a digital experience that’s 100-percent consumer-centric—there’s no real tangible benefit for the brand at the other end, right? Is that “marketing,” too?

I hear this debated a lot. And I agree, the lines are definitely starting to blur. Quality content marketing and always-on personalization really turned a lot of tactics, and even brands, upside down. Now we’re immersed in digital experiences 24/7, so there’s really something to be said for creating powerful moments that don’t have a traditional payoff for the brand—but of course it makes the marketer scratch his head and wonder about how to classify these tactics. Layer in the Internet of Things, and you’ve really got to squint and tilt your head sometimes to spot the “real” marketing.

The notion of where the marketing/not marketing line falls was kicked around a lot at the Adobe Summit in March. Coming out of it, I dug into the topic a bit in an earlier post on how consumers don’t want to be marketed to anymore. Granted, that doesn’t necessarily mean a brand can’t or shouldn’t engage with consumers—it just means the rules of engagement have changed, as has how we define “marketing.” Today, a big piece of the puzzle is connecting the right consumers to positive impressions of your brand. Not hard-core selling, not clear-cut acquisition, not tactical conversion—experience delivery, plain and simple. The goal, then, becomes leaving audiences with a thumbs-up feeling about your brand so they feel well aligned, well regarded, and understood. This is a brand for me—they know me, they get me, and they want me to be happy. I’d argue anything that falls under that umbrella is marketing.

It’s an interesting notion because in a lot of ways it means virtually everyone’s a marketer and almost every_thing_ is marketing, now. We’re still deep in a relationship era of marketing; consumers aren’t seeing the fine lines between branded and non-branded experiences—they just see experiences. They don’t differentiate in-store and online, or mobile and desktop, either—for them, it’s all just part of the journey that surrounds your brand. It’s simple and incredibly powerful, and lots of brands are doing it very well. Look at The New York Times’ new native advertising platforms—aka branded, paid advertiser content—which is stacking up extremely well versus the title’s own powerhouse editorial. Starwood Preferred Guest has a new app for Apple Watch and iPhone that allows users to check in, get their room numbers, and open their rooms without ever having to hit the front desk—wave your Watch in front of the door and you’re in. Marriott’s doing it, too, with its new all-in-one Apple Watch app, which enables check in and keyless entry with a quick click. Are they marketing? Yes. These brands are engaging the end user, creating positive affinity and favorability, and connecting with the critical audiences of active and prospective consumers. Marketing, marketing, marketing.

This shift, for sure, couldn’t come at a better time. Like I said, consumers don’t want to be marketed to because they want more. And we as brands and marketers should, too. We should want to build relationships and long-term allegiance, but that only happens when we ditch the ancient notions of marketing. Not convincing enough? How about this: we have to move on. 84 percent of millennials say they _don’t like “_traditional advertising” and, beyond that, don’t trust it. Four out of five smartphone users don’t like mobile banner ads.

“Apps will trump traditional ads in part because consumers don’t perceive them as advertising—they value them for their functionality and thus don’t find them intrusive,” explains a recent Harvard Business Review post. What’s more, 82 percent of mobile minutes are spent with apps, versus just 18 percent for mobile Web browsers. So in this scenario, not only do consumers like app experiences better, but marketers have a greater number of opportunities to reach them within those branded touch points.

Another great example of the marketing/not marketing debate? User-generated content. Is that marketing? What about if it happens within my brand platform or experience? Adobe Creative Cloud tapped into students who use the solution for really fun, inspiring tutorials they developed themselves—powerful, huh? And engaging, useful, and high value. So is it marketing? What about blogging? Is it marketing if there’s no overt sales message? It seems to be: companies with active blogs get nearly twice the number of leads as those that don’t, and two-thirds of consumers will read content from a brand they’re interested in. But at the same time 86 percent skip TV commercials and more than nine in 10 have unsubscribed from a branded e-newsletter. Another point for non-marketing marketing!

If it wasn’t clear enough, here’s my take: it’s all unequivocally marketing—and it’s hands down what brands need to be doing right now. You need to get in this more-modern mix and integrate organic, pull-focused experience delivery into your strategy, starting right now. Stay the old-school course, and you’ll alienate more consumers than you’ll draw in, without a doubt. Why? Because they don’t want to be marketed to, they want to be engaged. They don’t want messages forced on them; they want to architect their own touch points. And it’s all marketing. If it happens within your platforms, your branded experiences, or even the aisles of your store, it’s all feeding into consumers’ overarching perceptions of your brand and your products—it’s the definition of marketing.

All this opens up a lot of doors and means that, ultimately, just about everyone’s a marketer to some extent. But on the flip side, it means marketers have to be even more conscientious about the touch points they’re tossing out into the universe and ensure everything aligns and everything’s on-brand—think creative content and messaging, offers, targets, and general tone, from start to finish, top to bottom, digital to in-market. But the end result is unbelievably powerful—fully immersive, fully experiential, fully complementary branded journeys that drive unparalleled organic engagement and, ultimately, long-term affinity that doesn’t require all the traditional heavy lifting.