As someone who has worked in just about every type of environment from bloated and bureaucratic orgs to scaling startups, I feel adequately qualified to take a stab at resetting a few narratives that look to be drifting a smidge.

In this piece I want to study some the narratives where the ideas of Marketing, Growth and growth intersect. I’m unabashedly a fan of the new and bourgeoning career discipline of Growth, so I’m going to start there. It’s being studied, defined and characterized, leading to an awesome evolution of a role suited to many types of companies, particularly those on a steeper upward trajectory. At the core of the principle is the idea of acquiring individual customers (faster than losing them), engaging them and then ultimately creating monetary value out of the relationship. Growth is about driving growth, both in numbers of customers and in lifetime value.

Growth = growth exclusively is not true.

The problem I’m seeing, though, is perhaps a little confusion between Growth, the business driving discipline, and pure business growth of metrics. No, the terms Growth and growth are not interchangeable, for to believe that they are would be to assume that only a subset of business sheeple out there are focused on business results. And, to align with the vibe of the age of outrage we currently live in, I would on behalf of my contemporaries find that kind of thinking a little insulting.

Right from the beginning of this blog, my first articles point to (improved) business results and growth of key metrics as being central to what Marketing is, while I list a bias toward business results at the top of my list of requirements of a successful marketer, both today and tomorrow. This has always been the case and always will be.

I kinda chuckle at what I sometimes read from bloggers who haven’t worked in a big company, who characterize its Marketing teams as caring little about growing the business, instead favoring expense accounts and cushy jobs. To me that’s as insightful as suggesting that startups are just about foosball tables and catered lunches. Both perspectives are worthy of an eye-roll for the troubling lack of insight.

For those who still do feel that the more traditional marketers aren’t growth focused, I’ll set the record straight about why it may appear that way from the outside looking in near the end of this piece. For now let me assure all that the Growth discipline has not cornered the market on growth. It’s the context for business decisions among all of us out there in the trenches.

Growth and marketing.

The confusion between these two terms is even more messed up. I’m more commonly hearing that Growth is in the process of replacing Marketing, and I suspect for many larger companies it will …but not for the reasons you think. More to come on that, too.

For the most part, I come across these sorts of narratives that position Marketing more like old school product advertising / promotion…and Growth lies at the intersection of Product and Marketing. Oi.

The linked article compares Marketing and Growth by first qualifying, “If you were to think of Marketing and Product as two different functions….”

To which I say ‘stop right there. They are not’.

Let’s kick it old school for just a second. I’m going to strip away all fancy definitions of Marketing so we don’t lose the DNA of what it is. At its core, Marketing is about deploying your 5 Ps (I always include Positioning/Branding) strategically to cause the desired business outcomes through customers. That’s it.

And if you look at Marketing this way – as I believe you should — you’d clearly see that just about everything we do to drive a business exists somewhere within the domain of Marketing. ‘Product’ isn’t separate – it’s one of the Ps. Growth links customers through products and channels. Still more Ps. It’s all Ps. It’s all Marketing. I think we tend to separate it because some companies structure themselves by splitting Product and Marketing, which leads us to believe they are distinct activities. Not so.

Growth lies within Marketing.

Once we fully embrace the scope of Marketing, Growth is seen as the discipline of Marketing that occurs under particular circumstances, which tend to include many of the following:

  • Company and/or product are early in lifecycle
  • Low product/brand awareness
  • A bias toward high potential LTV of one customer (or low cost of delivery, driving potential for high customer profitability)
  • The product itself is either digital or is sold digitally through channels it controls
  • As a result, the company owns most of the sales and customer data
  • The company may be well-backed to cause rapid growth but is more likely in a preceding phase of perfecting customer relationships on more limited funds

Growth is in fact a subset of Marketing. Growth marketers are focused on acquiring, building engagement and monetizing customers sometimes one at a time. And the goal is to maximize ROI on what spending money they got. If they do it well, growth happens quickly and companies begin to scale rapidly, causing a host of challenges that are largely internal, as everyone scrambles to keep up with demand while building and expanding company infrastructure.

Unique circumstances means unique challenges.

One of the more favorable circumstances of Growth is the relatively open market for customers. If you are solving new problems or solving them much better than others with your product invention, you get the luxury of working through a seemingly-endless supply of customers. You get to introduce yourselves to them at your pace and in contained groups as you build relationships. Screw one up, well you move on to the next batch. Your closest competition isn’t bothering you much because you have little awareness or market share, which means you’re not much of a threat. This allows you to focus on the task at hand.

But eventually, and if your company is successful, your landscape changes; and with it will come the necessity to change your approach to Marketing. At some point you have spoken to all the customers in your target. And then the ones who don’t transact with probably don’t like you. Established competition wakes up and sets you in their sights; they either launch similar products (Slack and Casper are going through this) or they reallocate half their Marketing budget to emptying your funnel.

At that point, the game changes bigly. Growing your customer base (at. all.) requires entirely new dimensions of genius to overcome customer perception and fend off incessant attacks. Growth for the year might mean losing 5% of your customers instead of 10%. These new definitions of #winning emerge with harsh reality as you scramble to launch a new product or reinvent the one you’ve got.

These situations aren’t fun. They are characterized by newfound pressure to innovate and a shorter cycle of eyeing and reacting to results. This is what it’s like working for massive orgs in mature industries. They don’t grow a measly 2% because that’s all the ambition they have. They grow 2% because of the profound amount of resources and thinking required to acquire a handful more customers as you simultaneously focus intently on preserving the ones you have.

Let’s change gears a bit by considering some other elements of the Growth process, namely digital. Please understand, it’s a Marketing game-changer to own all the customer and sales data. Consider selling an offline product through Walmart, which doesn’t let you see the sales data. Try A/B testing that shit. You can’t. Selling digitally and controlling all data/channels would be heaven to most traditional marketers. In that environment you can spark up a whole lab of experiments and analyze the begeezus out of every cent you spend. Certainty and clarity of result become precious new benefits you can depend on.

One caution on that, though. Having data is a luxury, but it can also cause unhealthy inertia. I have read about and seen some awful habits incubated in the abundance of data…and that is the over-reliance on digital tactics because they can be metricked with specificity. The fact you can generate immediate validation of success does not mean that initiative is the best among alternatives. You have to, as a marketer, know when to deploy TV advertising, media relations or sponsorships as a part of your spend, because they still have a role. The fact you can’t attach a digital ankle bracelet to the affected customers through those tactics shouldn’t deter you. Besides, these more conventional Marketing approaches can still be measured…just not always to the customer level (it’s called a Marketing Mix analysis, btw).

Growth marketers vs Marketers.

A Growth marketer can scale up your company by focusing on all the key activities of growing and engaging your base of consumers. They introduce you to them, gain traction, expand and then optimize relationships, testing and learning along the way.

I don’t see Marketers as they are now referred as being necessarily old school at all. I see a real marketer as one who can wield the 5Ps in just the most thoughtful ways to cause business outcomes under any circumstances. Offline / online. Early stage / mature stage. Traditional tactics / contemporary tactics. Mass market / 1:1. Each unique set of circumstances requires a distinct strategy, a rationalized engagement of the chosen tools under the domain of the 5Ps, and high return on Marketing investment.

I see many-a-Growth marketers bail when business slows; I’m not convinced all have the skills to adapt to a maturing business where what you’re doing just doesn’t work any more. As a result, many choose to specialize, favoring the thrill of rapid growth over the new and different challenges. In fairness, I similarly see many classic marketers struggle when uprooted and placed in a more entrepreneurial setting, with little performance history, brand identity, supportive infrastructure or clear path forward.

I’m not here to criticize or celebrate either type, other than to acknowledge that some marketers are comfortable in specializing in certain Marketing disciplines or aspects of the profession. Growth marketers specialize in the type of Marketing I outlined. But to me, a Marketer, plain and true, can do it all.

So why has Growth become so fashionable?

Two reasons. The first is more obvious. What has made the Growth discipline so popular is the explosion of startups, causing more companies to seek specialists in driving business results under these conditions.

The second is more about politics and branding. Established companies like Coke are replacing CMOs with Growth Marketers (CGOs). On the surface the company is reinventing itself and I can’t say  that’s entirely untrue. But when you look deeper into the dynamics, you can see the appeal of this move:

  • Companies losing customers want to signal to the board and shareholders a commitment to regaining them. It’s also a catchier term that speaks to business results more than just a function.
  • Older, traditional marketers are being replaced by younger upstarts predisposed to Marketing through digital, social and mobile channels
  • I like this one. Companies are breaking down silos and merging departments such as sales and product that should all be more closely collaborating. In my post awhile back on the Org Chart of the Future, I championed this direction for the sake of not only agility but seamless collaboration. That’s what Coke is hoping for.

I will offer that Coke won’t change a whole lot. It might get a bit cooler. It might develop a deeper online and social media presence. It might converse with the younger set more. But make no mistake – the core narrative along with the product itself will continue to drive the brand. No 1:1 Marketing is going to impede the proliferation of choices in the soft drink market. Only broad-scope initiatives and Marketing themes can overcome them. For the most part, the act of installing a CGO into an established company amounts to changing the air with something more fresh. It may in fact help, but it’s mostly a seductive, updated veneer.

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I hate to be the bearer of bad news, folks, but Marketing is Marketing. And marketers are those who have command over the entire domain.

The thought processes have not at all changed, just the pace, the focus and the number of tools in the toolbox. And through it all we’re one in the same. I don’t concern myself with considering if we’re specialists or generalists, classic or contemporary – we’re all out there fighting with the same weapons, conversing with our customers and generating the growth we are charged to cause…in whatever way we need to define it, and however we need to go about it.

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