Marketing Unbound Hong Kong, The Economist Group’s first-ever marketing-focused event in Asia, explored topics ranging from China’s consumer trends to futurology. Attendees hailed from fashion, finance, professional sports and many other corners. The event was dedicated to a profession that entices fickle customers, so attention-grabbers appropriately included free smoothies, art giveaways and—wait for it—insect waffles.
A fundamental question underpinned the day: what is marketing? That deceptively simple query permeated discussions about marketing’s role within companies. There was a palpable sense that marketing faces an increasingly vague future, that there are simply too many ways and too many tools to reach customers these days, that it may be time to rethink the notion that one function can control them all.
The speaker who probably came closest to answering this quandary was Ipsita Dasgupta, executive vice-president and head of Asia-Pacific and Russia/CIS for Glenmark Pharmaceuticals. During her fireside chat, aptly titled “Death of a marketer”, Ms Dasgupta described the marketer as an agent of change amid an otherwise static corporate landscape. “Marketers need to tell the board what they don’t want to hear,” she said. “They always need to be challenging the status quo.”
Her comments pointed to the second overarching theme of the day: despite the massive changes affecting marketing, the function nevertheless remains an indispensable part of the corporate world. The closing discussion boldly asked, are marketers best suited to be the CEOs of the future? The debate, waged on the yes side by Vivek Kumar, a director of the Future Leaders Programme at Singapore’s National Trades Union Congress, and on the opposing front by Ruth Rowan, group executive of marketing for Dimension Data, highlighted the manifold nature of the marketing role. Ms Rowan argued that marketers lack sufficient understanding of profit and loss, of risk and of business in general. Yet they create intangible assets, which, as Mr Kumar noted, comprise far more of a company’s overall value than they did in the past. They understand that most capricious of stakeholders—the customer. They liaise with every other department in the company.
Yet this broad remit means the marketing role is more nebulous than ever. Much of this is due to technology and a relatively rapid proliferation of the ways that marketers speak to and gain insights about their customers, from social channels to big data. In the past, marketers owned the avenues through which they communicated with customers, such as advertising. Today, they own very few of these networks, which are increasingly controlled by media and tech firms. They are nevertheless still in heavy competition to deliver leads to hungry sales teams. Several of the event’s panels addressed these trends, underscoring the idea that just as marketing is being disrupted on a global scale, marketers themselves are their own most ferocious disruptors.
These challenges also have a cultural basis: new markets further complicate the marketing mission. Tricia Weener from HSBC, speaking on a panel discussion about global marketing in Asia, noted that the success of campaigns can hinge on factors as trivial as the translation of a three-word slogan. The need to overcome cultural differences means that firms like Wrigley, a chewing gum maker, must leverage the universal emotions and desires that drive consumers the world over, according to Nicole McMillan, who heads Wrigley’s marketing efforts in Asia. Simply carpet-bombing the world with the same green package and logo doesn’t cut it anymore: reaching foreign shoppers requires original tactics, from innovative techniques of measuring consumer engagement, such as facial coding, to insights from comedians about the use of humour in different countries.
The event wrapped up with some of its own clever marketing: waffles made of insect flour and topped with crickets, served to guests courtesy of The Economist Group. This tactic embodied the notion of marketing as not simply selling a brand, but exploring a cause—in this case, using insect meat to feed a hungry world. It is a straightforward idea, even if the idea of marketing itself remains less straightforward than ever.
||This piece was written by Michael Gold, an editor for The Economist Intelligence Unit thought leadership division in Asia.|
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