By Harley Rolfe
A baffling aspect of marketing is the absence of specific language or terminology to discuss it. Even sports have a technical language all their own. But marketers use common language--just plain, everyday words and terms--to express their work.
Language is supposed to facilitate communication, but because we marketers borrow common words and attach special meanings to them, we confuse many people who are new to the marketing game. The term "marketing" is itself problematic. We have all heard and used the term--it's what we do at the supermarket. Sales? That's what we did as Boy Scouts, selling grass seed door to door. Media? Well, it has something to do with those ads we see on TV or in the newspapers. Market research? That's what big companies do. Positioning? Not sure what that is. Segments? Niches? No idea. These are common words, but what do they mean in a marketing context? All of these terms and practices should be an integral part of self-storage strategic-operative thinking.
Engineers, lawyers, doctors and computer nerds don't make the error of using common language to discuss their trades. To hear them talk is like listening to a foreign language. But they know precisely what they mean and communication among them is unambiguous. Because of that, we laypeople rarely make the mistake of thinking we know how to perform those specialties. Their lexicon serves them well.
Lawyers sometimes step over the line into common-language use, but they at least have a label for it. The terms they have adopted are called "words of art." Because most professional language is technical, we common folk are careful when we encounter their words and don't trip over their common use. Within the marketing arena, however, all technical ideas are expressed using common language.
Beyond the use of special language/ terms, many other professions also insist on adherence to a specific process to earn the right to cite accomplishment. They must demonstrate that they have observed a certain method and met a certain procedural standard. These procedures have developed over the years to ensure the highest probability of success and accuracy. In law, for example, certain steps are followed in settling disputes. Only then will a judge sanctify the result and render it enforceable. In science, the expression "scientific method" defines a careful process needed for acceptability in that professional community.
Marketing is a Process, Too
The first thing one should ask when inquiring about a marketing program is about the studies or research that form its foundation. Program effectiveness cannot exceed the quality of its groundwork. How can one take dead aim at a specific audience unless there is definite knowledge of its demographics, size, growth, use patterns, etc.? That's the first step in the marketing process.
But newcomers may be justifiably confused and disrespectful of the need for discipline and procedure in the conduct of marketing activities. Given the familiar language, it all seems like commonsense. Common-use terms trivialize and seem to obviate the need for careful process.
You may think I'm overstating here. I run into this reaction whenever I suggest that a given self-storage operation may not be engaged in marketing. The reaction is often, "Oh, yes we are (you self-important bozo)! We've advertised in the Yellow Pages from day one!" Then I'm stuck. I know that use of media is only a small part of the effectiveness of any marketing program. But I can't protest my point. If an operator says he's marketing, who am I to say otherwise? He's the only one bearing the consequences. Still, I know the chances for a good result based on such minimal effort are slim to none. And "marketing" will take the rap for being both impotent and probably costly.
It's natural. Media is what folks encounter in their day-to-day lives. When they think about marketing, that's what they're thinking of. When they encounter a personal business situation that seems to call for marketing, they skip process and go directly to media. They seem eager to spend the big media bucks, but neglect the small process bucks necessary to guarantee impact.
Universal use of the Yellow Pages doesn't help. It's virtually a knee-jerk action--and it's costly. Advertising in the Yellow Pages contributes to owners' feeling that they are engaged in marketing. But marketers don't start their program with media--they end with it, and only after they've done the preceding stuff. Only after they identify the audience and the appropriate message do they consider the use of media, which may be the most expensive, but isn't the most important factor in obtaining results. Without the process, media is likely to fail in its job of distinguishing a facility from the rest of the pack.
So what is the telltale sign that a marketing program is at work? When a facility recognizes, measures and individually appeals to the various segments of its market, it is clear that management is on course. Segments are the building blocks for a marketing program. Each has its own common interests. Each should be approached according to its needs. Each approach will likely be different than that used with other groups. Once segments are identified, the rest of the process comes naturally.
Many think that since the self-storage offering is pretty simple (a bunch of empty space), that the market is simple as well. This is not the case. The needs and interests of a person moving his household goods in no way resembles that of a lawyer storing his case files. There is a myriad of separate uses of self-storage, and those uses are the segments. Taken together, they are the "market." Marketers address the market only as segments and never as a whole. The plan, then, is to address each one by fashioning a unique approach that recognizes its individual needs. That's the process.
A Bunch of Lucky Stiffs
Self-storage operators should be thankful they have segments to work with. Pity the agriculturist whose only sales channel is controlled by "exchanges," the primary role of which is to make all suppliers adhere to straight price competition. Farmers and ranchers have no choice. They must take whatever the market gives them. Self-storage operators have a choice, and it's the key to independence.
Many operators are faced with a marketplace that is not responding the way it once did. The ambiguous marketing lexicon may deceive operators into believing that because they engage in marketing-like activities, that they are practicing the real thing. Thus, they come to believe they are realizing all the fruits of marketing when they are really only dabbling.
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Harley Rolfe is a semi-retired marketing specialist whose career includes executive-level marketing positions with General Electric and AT&T. He also owned lodging and office facilities for more than 20 years. Mr. Rolfe holds a bachelor's degree in economics from Wabash College and a master's degree in business administration from the University of Indiana. He can be reached at his home in Nampa, Idaho, at (208) 463-9039. Further information can also be found in Mr. Harley's book, Hard-Nosed Marketing for Self-Storage.