The fading relevance of the marketing competence

by Ivar Slavenburg

In my article “Complex Systems and Design” I gave an overview of the changing world we live in as described by the author Irving Wladawsky-Berger. In the article, I mention a couple of the observations Wladawsky-Berger makes when it comes to the changes that are occurring:

  1. We move from a product and services based world to an experience based world;
  2. To survive in an experienced based world, organizations need to look much more holistically to the way they derive their strategy and manage their operations, as the market they operate in is more and more behaving itself as a complex system;
  3. This change has consequences for the way operations within the organization are run. It needs to become much more flexible and scalable;
  4. Roles within operations will change significantly, up to even becoming obsolete, e.g. IT;
  5. To make sense of this all new methods need to be found and the most clear candidate to supply these methods is the Design competence.

Wladawsky-Berger is not alone in his assessment. When it comes to innovation, the link with Design is very often made: Design is considered a key competence to drive the understanding of how new experiences should work. By observing and studying the way people interact with complex systems, it can drive creative solutions for existing and still to be discovered problems.

The relationship between the Design- and Marketing competence

This raises questions. Isn’t the way the company interacts with its customers the domain of the Marketing competence? Isn’t that the competence that drives both existing and new business? Will the Design competence replace the role of the Marketing competence within organizations? Is the Marketing competence also becoming obsolete, just like IT? The answer is that, unless Marketing is adapting its methods, it is indeed running that risk.

Let me first note that I deliberately use the words Marketing competence, as this shouldn’t be mixed up with the marketing function or department. One level deeper, the Marketing competence can be split up in different competences again, e.g. into the more operational Marketing competences, including Branding and Market research. There are many definitions to be found for both. In her article "Does your Organisation Really Need a Market Research Department? And in the Future?" (Denyse Drummond-Dunn, 2013), Denyse Drummond-Dunn, simply refers to Wikipedia and defines Market Research as „any organized effort to gather information about markets or customers. It is a very important component of business strategy” and Marketing as “the process of communicating the value of a product or service to customers, for the purpose of selling the product or service. It is a critical business function for attracting customers”. She highlights the notion following from these definitions that Market Research is very important, but Marketing is apparently even critical!

The relevance of marketing data

According to Drummond-Dunn, Market Research currently doesn’t supply the information CEO’s want, which is driving the perceived value of the competence down. The other Marketing competences are considered more important, as they deal directly with the perceived values of a brand or its products and services. Since all Marketing competences should be based, at least partially, on proper Market research, they are all running the risk of being dragged down by the lower value of the latter. As such, Marketing is perceived more and more as an art, than a real competence.

Adding insult to injury, though Marketing should be about the markets and customers, a study of the way Chief Marketing Officers (CMO’s) are dealing with this complex system reveals that they are often in the dark about what is going on. In his article "Why Marketing Innovation Fails" (Michael Brenner, 2013), Michael Brenner summarizes the results of a Forrester research paper based on in-depth interviews with 45 marketing executives, almost half from companies with more than $1 billion in revenue and concludes that CMO’s hardly:

  • invest in innovative marketing concepts, or
  • track their results
  • look for new ideas, both inside or outside the company,
  • invest in talent development.

It doesn’t need a lot of explanation that when you manage your competence so badly, there is no future in it.

In his article "CEOs look toward disruptive technology more than CMOs" (Scott Brinker, 2013) Scott Brinker asks himself why this is happening and can’t avoid the conclusion that it almost seems like CMO’s are searching for a scapegoat. CMO’s are supposed to be aware of what is going on in the market place and their customers, but  it can be doubted that they really are, as they lack the methods, techniques and systems to do so properly. By downplaying that problem and focus on developments in the market outside their control, CMO’s can, for the short term at least, continue their traditional ways.

The Marketing competence is to much about the past

Marketing, as once defined by Kotler, has become to much linked with the traditional product and services model. It deals to much with what’s already there, with what has been developed yesterday. Clearly, Marketing is also no longer the only competence with proper knowledge about customer behavior and the way to research it. With the pace at which markets develop, you have to think about the day after tomorrow today. More and more, Design is stepping into the gap that is appearing in the competences of organizations and Marketing doesn’t seem capable, or willing, to fill.

Fortunately, young entrepreneurs still see the added value of Marketing. In his article "12 Signs It's Time to Hire a CMO" (Scott Gerber, 2013), Scott Gerber cites even 12 reasons why they think a Marketeer is required to be successful. So there is some time left. Nevertheless, to survive, the competence needs to adapt itself to play a role in the experience based world and become relevant for the functioning of an organisation in a complex system again. In a follow up blog, I will highlight some of the ideas to do just that.

Further Reading

  1. Denyse Drummond-Dunn (2013), Does your Organisation Really Need a Market Research Department? And in the Future?. Retrieved from
  2. Michael Brenner (2013), Why Marketing Innovation Fails. Retrieved from
  3. Scott Brinker (2013), CEOs look toward disruptive technology more than CMOs. Retrieved from
  4. Scott Gerber (2013), 12 Signs It's Time to Hire a CMO. Retrieved from