When I started my first company, I started asking the question “What is marketing?” Why? Because I needed clients.
My approach to answering this question was to read dozens of books. I interviewed marketing consultants from agencies, engaged business coaches, hired an experienced salesperson, and I learned everything I could from mentors.
The more people I asked, the more confused I became. Everyone had a different answer.
Answers Referenced Tactics
I found people’s responses reflected the type of business they were in and the tactics they used. The tendency was to describe marketing as tactics like trade shows, social media, websites, networking or whatever.
The problem is, tactics don’t address the “What is marketing question?”. The tactics actually distract you from understanding marketing.
If the marketing insiders can’t agree on what marketing is, how is a small business owner supposed to figure it out?
Therein lies the problem. Most of us don’t figure it out. We either avoid it, or we fixate on tactics we hope will generate business, somehow. We end up searching for the proverbial magic bullet or simply chasing the next shiny thing. Then we engage in what amounts to “Random Acts of Marketing .”
So What Is Marketing?
The Oxford Dictionary  defines marketing as “the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising.”
The Business Dictionary  defines marketing as “the management process through which goods and services move from concept to the customer.” They go on to describe the classic 4 P’s of marketing being Product, Price, Place and Promotional Strategy.
The American Marketing Association  defines marketing as, “the activity, set of instructions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”
The Wikipedia definition  is not bad. They say “marketing is the study and management of exchange relationships. Marketing is the business process of creating relationships with and satisfying customers. With its focus on the customer, marketing is one of the premier components of business management.”
The range of definitions is vast. Heidi Cohen published an article where she compiled 72 different definitions of marketing;  which speaks to the difficulty in defining it.
Operationally Defining Marketing
If the experts can’t agree, the next best thing is to operationally define what marketing means to your business.
Let’s start with some core ideas. The first is, marketing is not about you. It’s about facilitating the needs of your customers as they journey through your business .
Start with the old marketing maxim, “What’s in it for me?”. I would however, encourage you to take this idea and extend it beyond the first sale. Look at the “What’s in it for me?” idea over the lifetime of you and your client’s relationship, with the intent to maximize lifetime value.
The second idea is to look at marketing as a process and an investment strategy, rather than a series of independent “to do” activities. Think, “I’m building a relationship assembly line”. A machine that systematically produces and nurtures profitable customer relationships.
If you’re building a marketing machine, how will it work? What is the sequence of steps? How will each sub-process chain together to create the outcomes you need? Then determine how your system will earn a decent return on investment by defining performance criteria.
This systems-thinking, process-mapping, and focus on key performance indicators will guide how you approach marketing and keep you from falling into the “random acts of marketing” trap.
Making The Shift To Systems Thinking
When I first started to get my head around marketing, I visualized a manufacturing assembly line. Then an oil refinery. I live in Calgary, Alberta so I ran with what I knew. An oil refinery is where crude oil gets refined into useful products like diesel, gasoline, kerosene, naphthalene, etc. I asked myself, how would my marketing refinery work? Then I wondered, how does the oil and gas industry work?
The oil and gas industry gets split into upstream, midstream and downstream segments. Upstream is about the exploration and extraction of raw materials (mining for clients). The mid-stream is about refining the raw materials into usable products (qualifying and segmenting customers). The downstream is about bringing the product to market (maximizing customer lifetime value). It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s workable.
Your marketing system needs to take all three of these stages into account to realize its full potential. No single act of marketing has a chance of doing much good, outside of the system as a whole.
Defining Your Marketing System
Think of marketing as choreographing your customer’s experience as they move through your business. Your marketing system  must reliably and cost-effectively reach, enroll, develop and retain clients at scale. The two key outcomes of your marketing system are client relationships and earnings growth.
This notion of experience choreography (to earn profitable short and long-term relationships) speaks to the full scope of marketing. It also helps explain why it’s so challenging to answer the “what is marketing?” question.
Think about how many different skills are involved in developing an oil refinery. Marketing is no different. Marketing requires systems thinking  and leadership to design, develop and operate it effectively.
Breaking Down The Marketing Process
- Design: Develop your brand, positioning, purpose and process.
- Attention: An external process to make people aware of you.
- Engagement: Get people to interact with your content or information.
- Enrollment: Attempt to inspire people and incite action.
- Purchase: Facilitate a buyer’s purchase and support process.
- Reputation: The experience you design translates into customer satisfaction.
- Sharing: Delighted customers share their experience and offer referrals.
- Retention: Communicate with customers to entice them back.
- Recognition: Thank people to show appreciation and build relationships.
- Recovery: When mistakes happen, you work to restore trust in the relationship.
There’s more to it than this, but you get the idea. Marketing is a process that can span years.
Choreographing a long-term customer experience is a complex, transdisciplinary  undertaking.
Marketing Is Not A Tactic
Hopefully, you’re starting to see that marketing is not any single activity. Marketing is the system you build to select and guide clients through your business, at a profit. When you put marketing in this context, you can relate everything you do in marketing to improving some segment of your customer’s journey.
My Answer To “What Is Marketing?”
Over the years, there’s one definition of marketing that I’ve adopted: “Marketing is everything you do to grow your business.” I like this definition because it’s broad, inclusive and outcome-oriented.
Where To From Here?
I fully acknowledge this systems view of marketing can seem too large to take on. It can seem intimidating like “eating an elephant”.
However, as the old saying goes, you eat an elephant one bite at a time, and so it is with marketing. People also say a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, and so does marketing.
A Marketer’s Lament
One of the most regretable things I see is 20, 30 or 100+-year-old companies that never moved past their random acts of marketing. Sure they developed goodwill and brand equity over time however, they’ve often developed few systems, processes, controls or intention behind their marketing. Their strategy often amounts to hoping for the best while controlling costs.
Despite whatever success they achieved, what if they had started their 1,000-mile journey and made consistent progress over the years? What could have been?
If you’re a start-up or a small business owner who’s willing to take small incremental steps  towards a larger goal, you have a huge opportunity and the potential for a giant competitive advantage.
To start, envision your system and make sure that every small step aligns with your vision. You’ll be amazed at how much progress you can make in short order.
This argument might sound like advocating for the tortoise over the hare, but you don’t need to go slowly. The point is to have a system and to work your system.
Taking Constructive Action
If this explanation of marketing makes sense, we’ve prepared a series of 18 free marketing eBooks  to help you get started. The eBooks are not how-to manuals on Facebook or some sales pitch in disguise. We are making these marketing eBooks available in the spirit of, “I wish I had this information when I first started”. Hopefully you’ll take advantage of them. If you like the Free eBooks, you may also enjoy Mastering Marketing . We wrote it to help small business owners wrap their heads around marketing program development.