Word-of-Mouth and Referral Marketing Blog

What IS Marketing, Anyway? A Working Definition

marketing definition

“Marketing” is a word we throw around a lot without thinking twice. But what exactly are we talking about when we talk about marketing?

Here are some common ideas:

  1. Marketing is everything. It involves everything about the way a business is run, which means everybody is a marketer. This is true, but it can be an unhelpful model when you’re trying to make sense of it from scratch.
  2. Marketing is manipulation. Smoke and mirrors. It’s meant to mislead customers into buying things they wouldn’t otherwise, and into paying more, too. This can be true, but terms like manipulation and mislead have negative connotations, and that makes it hard to have a proper conversation about marketing.
  3. Marketing is superficial. Bells and whistles. Pretty packaging, stylish websites and professional looking logos. It’s like the spray tan on a professional bodybuilder. (See: Spray Tan Fallacy.)
  4. Marketing is fearmongering. This means inventing problems where there aren’t any. Tapping into human fears, weakness, anxiety and vulnerability to make sales. See: Manipulation, above.
  5. Marketing is advertising. You just need people to look at you. The more people look at you, the better. Good marketing, by this logic, is buying a Super Bowl ad. This typically gets the causality backwards – a great product earns lots of revenue, which is what pays for the ad. Buying expensive ads isn’t a solution to a weak product.

I don’t actually like most of these “standard definitions” of marketing. I find them convoluted, loaded, and hard to have productive conversations about.

Here’s my favorite definition, because it’s so useful:

Marketing is the deliberate communication of value, intended to influence consumer decisions.”

Whenever it’s unclear what somebody is saying when talking about marketing, just substitute “marketing” with the communication of value.

  • “We need better marketing” means we need to communicate value better.
  • “They’ve got a great marketing team” means they’ve got a team that’s great at communicating value. (Implicitly, it also means that they’ve got value that can be communicated.)
  • “Apple only got successful because of marketing” means Apple only got successful because they’re great at communicating value. Notice how the “only” ceases to be dismissive or insulting.
  • “No amount of marketing is going to save this” means there’s absolutely no value here/it’s a sunken ship/attempting this resurrection might actually kill you…so good luck trying.

Swapping in the idea of “value communication” nicely removes the baggage around the term “marketing”. It focuses on the end-goal, which is to have your customers understand how you and your product are useful to them.

How do you do that? How do you influence the market’s perception of your value in a deliberate, proactive and positive way? That’s the million dollar question.

Being deliberate requires deep understanding.

Here are just some of the questions you need to be able to answer, and answer with great clarity and conviction:

  1. What exactly are you selling?
  2. What’s so good or unique about it?
  3. Why should anybody buy it?
  4. How will it make them feel?
  5. What need are you fulfilling?
  6. What problem are you solving?

You can’t be vague about this. You have to be ruthless and relentless in figuring this out. Every great marketer is able to answer all of these questions about their products and more, confidently.

It’s possible that there’s no value in what you’re selling.

After sitting down to answer the above questions, you may find that you’re selling “nothing special”, or that the problem you’re solving isn’t one that anybody really struggles with. No amount of marketing will save you at this point. Even the fanciest and most articulate communicator will be worthless without anything useful to articulate.

Great marketers don’t turn lousy products into good ones, they simply seek out good products to market. So make sure you’re building something good, something valuable, something that genuinely solves a problem.

You don’t need a Steve Jobs to market your product. You need a product that a Steve Jobs will want to talk about.

Further Reading:

– TronvigGroup.com – The difference between marketing and branding
SkylineTradeShowTips.com – What is marketing? How 10 experts define it


Visakan Veerasamy

Visa is ReferralCandy's former Blog Editor [2013–2018]. He also co-founded Statement.sg, a fashion ecommerce label selling witty t-shirts. He's mildly Internet-famous for his elaborate Twitter threads. He hopes to enjoy a glass of scotch onboard a commercial space flight someday.

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