Is Marketing 101 Dead?

Devangshu Dutta

June 2, 2008

When we began studying the basic fundamentals of marketing, our professor introduced us to the 4-P framework covering Product, Price, Place and Promotion created by “the Great P” of Marketing, Philip Kotler, whose textbooks are classics among marketing management studies.

In time, others modified it to 5-P, 6-P and 7-P, but the basic framework stands best on the original four legs defined by Kotler.

The principle is that to design an effective marketing strategy you need to:

  • clearly define the product or service (covering the core as well as augmented product) to sell to the target customer
  • identify the price (point or range)
  • define where it will be sold and
  • define what will be communicated, and how the product offer will be promoted.

If you are truly disciplined, you may then extend any of these into spider-webs of clearer attribute definition. For instance, when you get involved with defining the product it can start from “breakfast” and then be further defined by attributes such as taste (e.g. sweetened or unsweetened), texture (e.g. crunchy or wet), fullness (e.g. light or filling), and go further into the benefits (e.g. helpful in losing weight, or in gaining body mass) etc.

Given that the basic framework is straight-forward and simple to apply, when we ask the question “what is your marketing strategy”, it is surprising to get the answer: “advertising”. It gets somewhat more distressing when we interrogate further, when we examine what the advertising is focussed on: “cheaper prices than competition”.

Okay, let’s grant a couple of reality checks here. One is that most retailers and consumer goods companies in the current stage of the market’s growth want to grab the maximum possible market share in the minimum possible time. Two, if you want to get the attention of a lot of customers very quickly, shouting out a great price offer is one of the easiest ways to do it.

Which brings us to the basic issue: in the current market scenario, if you are a retailer or if you have a brand that you want to scale up fast, advertising extensively about the “great value” is highly likely to quickly give you the footfall and conversions you need.

But the question is, when does it stop being a good tactic and just becomes lazy marketing? And once it’s in that territory, when does it become dangerously weak even as a sustained tactic?

Imagine a scenario with me: the CEO strides into a marketing strategy meeting and says, “I want you to stop advertising the way you do. In fact, I want you to stop advertising, period. But I don’t want sales to drop and I don’t want our brand image to suffer.”

Shock, horror, dismay at the thought of “where is this company going”? Resignations, even, on the CEO’s table?

But just stay with that thought for a minute, and then look at Kotler’s framework again.

Let’s look at “product” holistically because, in the noise of high-decibel advertising about low prices, typically the definition of the “product” is the first to slip from attention. How the customer relates to the store, what her experience is as she walks through from the entrance to the check-out and beyond is part and parcel of the “product”. What does she think the store is about? Does her perception of the store’s “product” (the entire experience of shopping) match with the retailer’s own perception? Does the retailer even have a clear perception of his product?

Secondly, “place”. Sure, in-store product placement is frequently governed by the marketing function. But how many retailers have marketing involved in selecting the store location? A great store location is the best live, “walk-in advertisement” that a retailer can have. If a fashion brand like Zara can eschew advertising (founder Amancio Ortega has been quoted as saying that “advertising” is a distraction), and instead focus on its stores to create the traffic and the awareness about the brands, surely the store location should receive some attention from the marketing heads of food and grocery companies.

Let’s also reconsider how much connection there is between the marketing strategy and the store layout itself (in many cases it is not enough). Whether the customer likes wide aisles and a “clean” experience or prefers a chaotic environment, the store must make a statement that is in sync with the overall business strategy and the target customer.  Good retailers understand this intuitively, but it is important also to express it overtly within the organisation and get the marketing team involved in the planning and execution. Further, once the customer is actually in the store, clear price ticketing, intuitive adjacencies and clean signage can make a tremendous difference in converting walk-ins to purchases.

Let’s leave price alone for this inquiry because, whether high or low, it gets a lot of attention anyway, and let’s move to promotion.

If we define marketing’s role as getting customers into the store and getting them to buy, then the surely promotion is the driver of the marketing engine. But does promotion necessarily have to mean advertising?

We’ve discussed Zara’s example of using the stores as the medium of promotion. Another thing that works for Zara is word of mouth publicity, as well as the humongous amount of publicity the company gets due to its business model. (Other interesting companies, such as Pantaloon, Reliance, Wal-Mart, The Body Shop etc. also enjoy promotion through publicity.)

Pizza companies use cost-effective menu flyers dropped at the customer’s door and “box toppers” to drive the next purchase (yes, of course, they also advertise hugely, but during their lean years when they have had to reduce advertising, it is the flyers and box-toppers that have kept them going.) Direct selling companies can also offer some learnings about creating and sustaining interest, as do entrepreneurial start-ups. As a matter of fact, think of the last time you saw an advertisement of the most popular “unbranded” take-away in your area. Ever?

It may be time for us to dust off the notes from the Marketing 101 class, and re-examine what we do.

The Dis-Economy of Scale

Devangshu Dutta

May 1, 2008

We touched upon food price inflation last month and – no surprises – it is still hogging the headlines. It is, after all, an emotive topic. We are terribly concerned not just as food and grocery professionals, but also as consumers and general public. After all, food and grocery are typically half of our monthly spend, give or take a few percentage points.

Inflation often brings with it swift (sometimes knee-jerkingly quick) reactions – price controls, export controls, subsidies to farmers and food producers, and various others. Some of these measures work but only in the short term, while others may have no immediate visible impact on the market at all but may be truly insidious because of that.

However, a significant set of questions has not really been touched yet: how the food supply chain is structured, how it is driving consumption, what impact that might have on food prices and several broader cost implications.

Thousands of years ago, when hunter-gatherer human beings stumbled upon agriculture, it was a breakthrough similar to the discovery of controlled fire. Hunter-gatherers were dependent on the natural availability of food, while agriculture created the opportunity to have some control over food supplies and reduce the natural feast-famine cycle. Thereafter, farming, processing and storage techniques kept evolving incrementally to ensure that more food could be produced for each unit of land and effort, and stored for longer – all moving towards ensuring “food security”. This led to the age of empire-building, where monarchs grew their wealth (essentially food territory) with the help of military-imperial complexes, and the greater wealth in turn supported the military-imperial complex.

This remained the trend for a few thousand years, until the age of industrialisation and the age of petroleum. Through the industrialisation and the world wars, the military-imperial complex gave way to a military-industrial complex, which essentially became the military-industrial-petroleum-agricultural complex. Suddenly, there were not just machines to plant, reap, thresh, sort, clean and process, but also petroleum-based substances to dramatically increase output and to keep the produce fresher for longer.

As US farms and then European farms industrialised, the parameters that began to be applied were the same as in any factory – how to produce more while spending less – and every year the target was to grow more for less. Underlying this was the principle of “efficiency from larger scale”. The same philosophy played out further down in the supply chain – from processing to extend the shelf-life of the product as it was (such as chilling, cleaning, sorting) to processing and packing in order to change the nature of the product itself and gain additional value (such as tomatoes to paste or potatoes to chips).

Standardisation became a vital link in industrialisation – if you can standardise produce, you can cut down human handling – while you may lose product variety (including flavour and colour) you gain in terms of driving down the cost of production. By reducing unpredictability you can also concentrate on building the scale of business, because it becomes more repetitive.

The interesting side-effect of this is that, gradually, we are converting ourselves (and people in many industrialised economies already have) into petroleum-burning machines rather than those running on solar energy, because increasingly the agricultural supply chain is dependent on non-renewable petroleum and its products, rather than by the natural energy of the sun being converted into food by the plants.

And the important thing to keep in mind is that, in this switch-over, the energy efficiency is actually going down rather than up – we are using more calories of fuel source to produce each calorie of food energy.

The issue is more acute now than ever before, because now the growth markets of choice for industrial agriculture companies are China and India. If these two countries move through the exactly same path as have the western economies in terms of agriculture and food processing, given the population base itself, clearly the impact will be 5-7 times (or more) on the demand for petroleum as well as the fall-out on the ecosystem.

You may ask, why should retailers worry about this?

Firstly, pure cost considerations – clearly, the costs of petroleum are not coming down, and explosive demand through industrialised agriculture will only serve to push them up. How far can you push the food bill every month, before people start buying less? What impact would that have on large retail supply chains and farmers whose processes are increasingly built around products of industrial agriculture?

Secondly, what consumers are already beginning to express in western markets will possibly happen in India in the next few years as well: concern about where and how the product has been produced, what has been the fall-out on the environment and on the overall health of people involved with that supply chain as well as the health of consumers.

Carbon footprint, food miles & locavores (people who only consume food that is produced within 100 miles of where they live) are terms that retailers are increasingly hearing.

And an alternative set of questions is also being raised. Is it ok to burn non-sustainable fossil fuel if you get “carbon credits” by planting trees somewhere else – have all the carbon costs been accounted for from the start to the finish of the production process? Is it better to reduce the food miles and have food produced locally in a high-cost economy’s industrial agricultural model, or to have naturally grown foods from a more primitive farm in Africa or Asia where the environmental impact is only the “carbon debit” of the air-freight. And, even if the produce is carbon-friendly, what about the nitrogen footprint (from the fixation of nitrogen into fertilisers) and the methane footprint (from large scale animal farming)?

This one page is surely not enough to present any in-depth analysis, but I hope it will serve to kick-start the process of questioning how India (and China) should take the lead in creating an alternative and more sustainable model for food security for large populations. There is a lot of research being done, and much yet to be done, to quantify the true cost of blindly pushing for scale in the food chain. Truly “progressive grocers” need to take an active role in supporting this.

Could Lower Prices Cost More?

Devangshu Dutta

April 4, 2008

April has opened eventfully around the world, when it comes to food prices.

A leading Indian business daily opened the first week of April 2008 with a story saying that chain-stores may be as much as 15-40% cheaper than street vendors for staple vegetables and fruits. When we put this against the backdrop of concerns at skyrocketing global prices of rice and fuel, as consumers we may have a reason to thank the chains for helping to balance our monthly budgets.

But is this really a victory for proponents of organized retail, or a blow against retail chains?

The same article went on to state that chain stores were offsetting the hit they were taking on food by selling other products that offered them more margin, “an option not available to hawkers”, and also quoted leading Indian retailers.

The very same day, media in Hong Kong were covering a survey that stated that supermarket prices in the city were on average 12% higher than independent grocers, with some branded products being sold for as much as 20% higher. The Democratic Alliance for Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, which carried out the survey, cautioned consumers that they should not be misled by supermarket ads for big discounts and advised them to compare prices frequently between chains and independent retailers.

(The study did not compare price differences now to what they might have been 20-25 years ago, when the market was not so consolidated. Such a study may provide some other interesting insights.)

During the same week, the government of Ivory Coast in Africa also responded to protests by women and youth in Abidjan against rising living costs with an emergency meeting and lower import duties on key food items.

Obviously inflation, especially in food prices, is a global concern right now, so this simultaneous appearance of news across countries is hardly a coincidence.

They, however, do raise concerns about how the chain of food supply and retail is structured, and also some important questions about competitive strategy.

Let’s deal with competitive strategy first. Obviously, the terms “loss leader” or “key value item” have been coined in the last few decades, but the strategy itself has been well-known and widely used since the time humans started trading thousands of years ago. 

The foundation of the strategy is built on items that are a staple, usually widely compared by consumers or used as a benchmark when comparing different merchants.  A merchant may place a very low margin on such a product, or sell it at cost (or even at a loss).

The concept is simple: attract a customer into the store with an irresistible offer, but make sure that consumer also buys other products that provide enough profit to the retailer. 

As a consumer you may feel outraged that someone is “cheating” you, but in our “sensible” and rationally-aware moments we as customers know that this happens frequently, and know how to avoid it. However, we are not always rational – if shopping were purely a rational exercise then automated comparative software would be fulfilling all our shopping needs by now.

Stepping beyond the retailer-consumer relationship, there is also question whether this can be classified as free or fair competition when cash-rich organizations with a wide basket of goods, take the strategy to the doorstep of the small individual trader whose product offering is much narrower and usually concentrated on the staple goods that are being discounted.

There is no really easy or quick answer to this question. 

On the one hand, large retailers such as Wal-Mart, Carrefour, Tesco, Metro and others, have been widely credited for achieving cost-efficiencies from scale, and then passing on these efficiencies to the consumer in the form of lower prices (and, apparently, higher standards of living).  That is a good thing and definitely of benefit to the population at large, especially in inflationary times such as these. Rather than keeping prices high due to inefficient sourcing, wasteful and expensive handling, and non-value-adding costs in the supply chain, it is surely a good to push for lower costs.

On the other hand, there is no simple way to draw a line when competitive benefit to the consumer becomes predatory pricing within the trade. 

If a retailer took price reduction as a “strategic investment” to grow a market (as happens in markets and product categories around the world), when do you start calling it “unfair”? And should you even attempt to label it unfair? What is the cost to the market, when it could eventually concentrate and consolidate market share in few hands? Is the cost to society more in supporting small inefficient retailers, or more if these retailers lose their independence and become employees? (If you’re looking to me for the answers…sorry, I don’t have them yet!)

Value judgements are almost always subjective rather than objective. ‘Large versus small’ conflicts are frequently emotive rather than rational. And even though there are no easy answers, I believe we should think about these questions, as businesspeople, as consumers and as social individuals.

There are some rather interesting (and by no means conclusive) studies, opinion papers and books that have looked at the structure and economics of the food supply chain, but constraints of space force me to postpone that aspect to another column. The questions and competitive strategy will not be disappearing quickly, so I’m sure these will still be relevant then. 

Meanwhile, I’m sure we have enough food for thought!