Too often I meet professionals from public sector organizations who tell me that they are not involved in marketing or point out to me that marketing is all about “promotion”. The fact is, if you are involved with delivering programs or services to customers, improving public health, safety or the environment, increasing compliance with laws, improving customer satisfaction, decreasing service delivery costs, increasing revenue or engaging citizens or stakeholders, you’re likely involved in marketing.
Simply stated, marketing is a process for working smarter. It provides an organized approach to adopting a customer-centered focus, determining who is most likely to respond to your offerings and communicating with them in compelling language that moves them to action, defining the environment and other factors that will impact your success, delivering a program or service at the right time, place and price and monitoring efforts so that continuous improvements can be made. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’re doing one or any combination of these functions.
The recent economic crisis means that we all have to work smarter. We need to focus on the things that really matter and spend our dollars wisely. Marketing provides a systematic approach to meeting these challenges. Yet, I recently read about a public sector organization that was undergoing budget cuts and one of the expenses thrown to the wolves was the marketing budget. I thought to myself, how could you get it so wrong; this is the exact time to put resources into processes and activities that will generate better results for less money!
So, in defining what marketing applies to the public sector, let’s put some common myths to rest:
Myth # 1 – Marketing is for business
It is true that the marketing discipline came from the business world. However, in recent years, more and more public sector organizations are discovering that many of the same principles can apply to a public sector environment. If you replace the word “profit” with “impact” or “take-up on programs or services”, most of the traditional functions of marketing apply to a government setting. If you look at any successful public sector organization, you will see that they have a strong sense of who their constituents (customers) are, offer a unique product or service, possess a highly recognizable and respected brand and are dedicated to setting objectives and measuring performance for accountability purposes and continuous improvement. This mindset provides the basis for marketing.
Myth # 2 – Marketing is another word for advertising or promotion
While promotion is a legitimate function of marketing, it’s one of the final elements you consider when you are developing a marketing strategy. How can you possibly do an effective job at promotion when you haven’t identified your audience, customized your product offering (right product at the right time, place and price) to meet the needs of your audience, determined what mediums are most likely to reach your audience and how you will measure if your investment is working? From a promotion perspective, marketing forces you to stop being “all things to all people” by examining how you can reach your primary audiences on their terms and where they are more receptive to external messages.
Myth # 3 – Marketing is manipulative
Compelling yes, manipulative no. The point behind effective marketing communications is to highlight the benefits of a certain product, program or service to a specific target audience. If I’m looking to buy an automobile that can accommodate the needs of a large family and you present me with a message that speaks to high octane performance, it won’t resonate with me. However, if you speak to my need for lots of cargo space and superior crash safety ratings, my interest rate rises. And who can tell me that social marketing campaigns aimed at getting Canadians to drive more fuel efficient autos, stop smoking, visit parks more often or become more active aren’t aimed at changing behaviour?
Myth # 4 – Marketing costs lots of money
Marketing doesn’t cost money as much as it costs brainpower. It requires you to take an intelligent, organized approach towards your core business. It forces you to identify your strengths and weaknesses as an organization, prioritize and consistently deliver value to your audiences. It also encourages you to look beyond advertising to more effective ways of communicating with your audience through partnerships, social media, face-to-face marketing and other low-cost mediums. What costs a lot of money are big, expensive ad campaigns that are directed at no one in particular, and that is bad marketing.
Myth # 5 – Marketing is based on a sinister corporate agenda
It’s true – a business needs a plan to make money, otherwise they no longer exist. Just look at the mess in the auto industry and it’s quite evident that the Big Three automakers didn’t have a well-thought strategy for staying relevant to the marketplace. However, any successful organization will tell you that good marketing starts and ends with the customer. Today’s consumer has all the power. For the most part, they don’t need you or any of the programs or services you have to offer or they probably have several options for receiving similar value or even substituting your offering with some alternative. Good marketing starts with understanding the needs of the customer (e.g. citizen, stakeholder) and designing programs or services that meet their needs.
The bottom line is that whether you like the word or not, the marketing function is one that contributes to the success of any organization. So, let’s replace the word “marketing” with “spaarg” (Smart Process for Achieving Accountable Results in Government) and get on with the job at hand!