What is Marketing, Really?


8 min read

‘What is marketing?’ – this was the very first question we, marketing students, were asked in our first ‘Principles of Marketing’ lecture at University back in 2012. Surprisingly, the majority of the future marketing graduates appeared to be confused. Everyone was sitting quietly and waiting for a lecturer to continue talking. And I was one of them. I had an idea of what it was all about, but there was no clear picture in my head just yet.

After I’ve graduated and learned the scope of the marketing discipline, I began to notice that people tend to confuse marketing with many other things, such as sales or advertising, which actually are just tiny parts of this broad discipline. I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard people using the word ‘marketing’ as a synonym for ‘selling’. Even worse, the majority of people I’ve met focus on the idea that marketing is highly manipulative, irritating, self-serving or creating unnecessary needs, which, by promoting consumerism, affects people’s happiness negatively.

All right! Some people might use the so-called “black magic” to make people love the things they are marketed to but the purpose of marketing is not really to fool people, but rather to present products/services in an attractive way, so they would appeal to their target audience. In its essence, marketing is not supposed to be an equivalent to irritating behaviours either – it’s not about bugging people by cold-calling or cold-emailing uninterested parties. It’s also not about showing countless pop-up ads on websites…

You see, marketing is more about understanding the society and the environment we live in. It’s not about pushing products to everybody who has money to buy something. The opposite is true! Good marketers invest money and time to find a product-market fit – those people who want the type of product the company offers and are willing to pay for it. Once they find it, marketers focus on learning how they can serve them better and how they should communicate with them appropriately. Believe me, it’s usually far from ‘everybody’.

It’s not an easy task, however. Marketers are responsible for many areas, such as research, target market identification, communications, public relations, advertising, etc. and all of these need to be done within the budget and resources that the company provides. That means that marketers need to be highly strategic as they need to decide what tactics and programs they will use each year to achieve set goals, be it raising awareness or increasing sales.

I personally find marketing to be an extremely exciting discipline which involves many different areas that work together to achieve one common goal. Bigger companies tend to have in-house teams with many highly skilled individuals who work in different areas of marketing (e.g. research, advertising, communications, PR) or hire marketing/creative/PR/advertising agencies. Smaller companies tend to have fewer (one or two) people responsible for marketing, who do a little bit of everything.

You can even view marketing as a big mountain. We start at the beginning by researching the market and the environment. We climb higher as we analyse the data and gain more understanding about the people we want to serve and the environment, where we need to operate in. Then, every time we make another decision (be it a pricing strategy, positioning, unique selling proposition), we climb higher and higher. We are getting closer and closer to the top as we develop promotional activities to reach and impress our audience. And then, when they fall in love with what we offer and are willing to pay for it, we have finally reached the top.

Marketing Definition

The importance of marketing has greatly increased right after the Second World War, when people started earning higher wages and companies started competing with each other by offering similar products to solve the same problems. As companies had to find new ways to appeal to people in order to survive, marketing has become a much more complex discipline than mere buying and selling that it was before.

Thus, for the first time in history, Philip Kotler introduced marketing as a field of study in universities in 1962. He argued that the economy was greatly influenced not only by the price of products and services but also by marketing activities.

According to him, marketing is "the science and art of exploring, creating, and delivering value to satisfy the needs of a target market at a profit. Marketing identifies unfulfilled needs and desires. It defines measures and quantifies the size of the identified market and the profit potential. It pinpoints which segments the company is capable of serving best and it designs and promotes the appropriate products and services."

In simpler words, marketing begins by undertaking research (before a company has fully developed a product or service). That research (usually customer research and environmental audit) allows marketers to assess and measure whether there is a need for a new product/service, how big the demand would be and how much profit an organisation could potentially get if they delivered that product/service.

Once they choose what product/service they should go for, marketers then focus on customer profiling (researching and understanding their target customers), branding, competitive advantage, unique selling proposition and the Marketing Mix (pricing strategies, distribution channels, promotional activities and product features/attributes, processes, people, physical evidence).

A perfect Marketing Mix will not only ensure that the company will manage to get the highest return on investment possible, but it will also establish a strong brand positioning. These are usually very strategic, well-planned and organised activities. They can be altered depending on the changing environment and consumer needs and expectations.

”Good marketers research their audience so well and understand their customers so deeply that products almost sell themselves.”

After marketers introduce the offering (product/service) to the public, the performance needs to be evaluated, they need to address shifting demands and issues, see what’s working and what’s not, and adjust accordingly. They will also be responsible for building, maintaining and managing profitable customer relationships by making sure that they receive superior customer value and satisfaction. Yup, marketers are not only working on finding and attracting customers but also on keeping them.

Great, as I explained what marketing is and what it does, let’s address the most common misconceptions about it:

Marketing is not just promotions

It is quite common to think that marketing is merely telling people about the existence of certain products/services. However, promotion is just a part of the marketing mix, which is a part of an overall marketing strategy.

Promotion may involve public relations (PR), personal selling, sales promotions (samples, coupons and trials), emails, advertising, trade shows, exhibitions, workshops, events, sponsorships, blogging, social media, commercials, radio broadcasting, word-of-mouth, contests, etc.

The main purpose of the promotion is to spread the word about the brand, company or its products/services. The promotional mix will depend on the target market, product/service, budget, sometimes even the brand. Before promotion can take place, a lot of the marketing activities were already executed, such as research, analysis, segmentation, and decision-making on pricing, distribution, branding, competitive advantage, unique selling proposition, etc.

So no, marketing is not just promotions. It’s much more than that.

Marketing is not the same as advertising

One of the most frequent misconceptions that I’ve heard was that marketing and advertising is one and the same. Advertising is just a very small piece of the whole cake that marketing is. It is a part of the promotion, which is a part of the marketing mix, which is a part of an overall marketing strategy. Marketers may use it or may not, it will depend on how much they can spend and what results they need to achieve.

Advertising is responsible for paid, public and non-personal announcements of a persuasive nature directed at the target audience. In order to ensure that the message reaches as many potential customers from the target market as possible, they will research and decide which mediums and channels should be used, what should be the ad frequency, timing, design, tone, etc.

Advertising typically includes ads in newspapers, magazines, mailboxes, television, billboards, radio, the Internet (social media, emails, search and display ads (pay-per-click), posters and flyers (print or digital), etc.

The nature and the type of advertisements depend on the target market, the medium used, and the products that the company offers. Some of them will be more visual, while others will contain more copy. Just to let you know, it’s rare that marketers would be directly involved in creative advertising (such as creating posters for print or filming commercials). Marketers usually focus on data, strategies and tactics, thus it is very likely that the company will hire an agency or ask someone in-house to do all the creative stuff they need to have done for a particular marketing campaign. There are expectations, of course. Very small companies may not have money to hire anyone and thus decide to do everything themselves, or some marketers may have a highly varied skill-set and confidence to do things on their own. Either way, marketers will still be responsible for what is being put out so they will need to approve all the work and guide the direction of creative work as required.

Marketing is not selling

Let’s get back to the very beginning. Marketing starts by identifying what customers want and need. That is, every business should start with marketing (market research) and then continue with product development, customer profiling, brand identity, unique selling proposition, the marketing mix, relationship management, etc.

Selling is just a part of the marketing mix and it stands in a ‘promotion’ element.

According to Philip Kotler, selling in itself is considered to be the opposite of marketing: “Marketing is not the art of finding clever ways to dispose of what you make. Marketing is the art of creating genuine customer value. It is the art of helping your customers become better off. The marketer’s watchwords are quality, service, and value.”

Some selling might be done in the early stages of the company’s existence in order to identify the demand better (see whether people are willing to pay for what the company is willing to offer). However, marketing theory suggests that selling has to take place (ideally) when a target market is knowledgeable about the brand and its products and thus is ready to buy. Marketers give all their energy, expertise and skills to make the product appealing and make people aware of its existence, but they will not sell it themselves. Their tactics, programs, and efforts will direct their target audience to salespeople, where the selling then takes place. In other words, marketers focus on lead generation and relationship building (warming up the leads (people)), but they are not doing direct sales themselves.

That is, marketers make sure that they know what their audience wants, what interests them, how to reach them and how to tell them about the values and benefits that the product/service offers while salespeople are responsible for closing the sales. So, although both parties work towards the same goal (more customers, thus, profits), they both are involved in different activities and use different skill-sets to achieve it. According to an article published on HBR, marketers tend to be more analytical and data-oriented. They are always thinking about the brand’s competitive advantage and they will always plan the next big project. Salespeople, on the other hand, prefer talking to people face-to-face and building relationships this way.

”Marketing is not only much broader than selling; it is not a specialised activity at all. It encompasses the entire business. It is the whole business seen from the point of view of its final result, that is, from the customer’s point of view.”

Marketing is not exactly branding either

Branding focuses on telling the world what the company is, why it exists, what it does and how it is different from their competitors. It involves creating a unique selling proposition, competitive advantage, logo, colour palette, the tone of voice, communication strategies, customer care, etc.

A company’s brand is pretty much the same as a human personality. It’s what the company is at its core and involves everything it says, does, thinks, believes, values, stands for and what it pursues. It doesn’t change and remains the same from the moment it launches till the end.

Marketing, on the other hand, will change and vary all the time. Marketers may select different tactics or develop different campaigns to reach the customers but the company’s brand will dictate how they should communicate with the audience and how the products/services should be presented.

”A strong brand builds loyalty, advocacy and trust, and is frequently the main reason why customers prefer some brands’ products over those of the competitors.”