Thinking Like a Marketer

Harley Rolfe Comments
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Don't marketers think like most people? Not necessarily. In the next several columns, I'll present some of the more elusive concepts of marketing. They may seem a bit unusual. You be the judge.

I think of this column's comments on the basic principles of my craft as Marketing 101. I usually stop short of covering more advanced concepts. Why? They make some people nervous. But they are essential to a complete understanding of effective marketing. So I'll finally take the plunge and explain some approaches that go beyond the basics.

Sometimes readers want me to be more down-to-earth. They want suggestions for things to do or actions to take rather than the principles I offer. I agree the most entertaining part of marketing is conceiving and launching programs. Nothing is more exciting--but it is only the final step. Because of the cost of media and the importance of success, it is critical each program be founded on solid ground. Business giants in tough, even brutal markets have honed the concepts I present. General Electric, Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola are among them.

Too Big?

Because these companies are so big, people may feel their marketing tactics can't apply to small organizations. On the contrary, these approaches are universal and can apply to the process of marketing any business. It's just that large organizations could afford skillful people to identify and codify the tactics. Actually, they had no choice. As manufacturing activity grew from a local to a national scale, media campaigns became very costly.

Something had to change. The larger companies discovered and codified basic marketing maxims. Then the new systems gravitated to business schools to take their place beside other courses of study. It is only in the last 60 to 75 years that marketing has been established as a business discipline taking its place alongside accounting, engineering, law, etc.

Identifying principles allows an operator to predict outcomes. Anytime you can predict, your activities are more valuable. So I tend to stick with principles, knowing they are the foundation of success. For this and the next several columns, we're moving on to Marketing 102.

Here Goes

What the tenant buys is not what he wants. This realization summarizes the difference between how marketers think and how the usual supplier thinks. It is a question of means and ends. A storage unit is the means by which a tenant achieves some end. No product or service is of great interest to him until it is connected with one of his goals.

When you sell storage, you have to appeal to the interests of the prospect. The most effective seller is the one who identifies the tenant's end and proposes the best method of achieving it. While the average self-storage operator dwells on the properties of the units he offers (Are they clean, well-located, climate-controlled, competitively priced, etc?), the marketer focuses on what prompts the prospect's interest in self-storage in the first place (moving to a new home, going overseas for two years, storing records, etc.). The effective marketer weaves the qualities of the product into the prospect's desired end; but first he must find out what it is.

Mind Games? Doubletalk?

We know each product has qualities or features, including size, weight, color, shape, etc. Intangible products, such as insurance or securities, have their characteristics, too. Those qualities create benefits. But where? How?

Benefits are created by the mind. That's where the black arts of media and sales enter the picture. All this talk about perception is what drives some people up the wall, but it's true. Politicians understand. They use polls and focus groups to gather information. We marketers use interviews and various kinds of research to get an idea of the situation we're facing.

Value exists or is created only in the mind. The marketer is the one who has the job of making prospects' minds react correctly to a company's offerings. He deals with creating a desirable perception of the product. When that happens, the prospect is induced to exchange something of value to get it. Marketers master the junction of ends and means by having excellent knowledge of the prospect's situation. That's why I hound you to identify the segments you serve. They have problems you solve. You need to know what they are. That's how you build programs.

Clever, Very Clever

In the absence of firm knowledge of user objectives, some media professionals resort to the absurd. They try to link their product to some universal appeal, such as better romantic success: "Use my double-insulated belt-sander and watch your social life soar!" Is this nutty? Of course. But it's illustrative of a principle. These marketers understand the power of the concept. Substitute soap, cars, cosmetic goo, clothing, travel--they all use romantic appeal as a promise stemming from their use. Some do it very well.

One of the best campaigns I've seen recently is the commercial that suggests a life of elegance and class is yours when wearing the Ralph Lauren clothing line. It says nothing about the quality of the clothing. As a matter of fact, there's no specific mention of clothing at all--just the insinuation that Ralph helps you enter the charmed circle of favored people. And a lot of people buy into this.

My point is the marketers behind the campaign are skilled in attributing values to clothing that have nothing to do with the actual qualities or features of the product. They make the brand synonymous with elegance, but it's not what they actually supply. Now the brand is established, they could attach it to can openers if they wished. What Ralph Lauren gets paid for is not what the customer is buying.

Our task in self-storage is to understand and apply this sort of thinking. While we may not be able to achieve the extreme effects of Ralph Lauren, we benefit by studying its excellent example of the creation of value--not by product design, but by the use of media. We can apply a similar technique, capitalizing more on the prospect's needs and desires than what we actually offer. Direct your attention to the only point where value can be created--the mind. That's thinking like a marketer.

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. Rolfe's book, Hard-Nosed Marketing for Self-Storage.

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