Why Marketing Models Don’t Work for Marketing Students

Here’s a confession: I work in marketing, I teach marketing, and I don’t like marketing models.

My dislike is partly personal – I don’t like making things reductive when they (like marketing) are very complex – and partly professional: people’s heads are turned when a pretty diagram waltzes in the room, whether the content of that diagram is any good or not. And I am all about the content.

For marketing education, these models serve a strong purpose: to show, succinctly, the various different ways you can approach marketing through analysing different data. But can they be more of a hindrance than a help?

 

What is a marketing model?

A marketing model is a framework that describes actions for the marketer to take, or data for them to analyse, in preparation for doing the marketing strategy. It doesn’t tell you how to do marketing. Often they’ll include diagrams, or a memorable number or acronym.

There are a lot of them about. One of Smart Insights key documents explains 15 “classic planning tools to inform strategy” including the seven Ps, AIDA, push-and-pull, the Ansoff Matrix and PESTLE analysis. Fifteen models to inform your strategy is quite a lot of models. And new ones are being created all the time as marketers and agencies look to differentiate themselves from the competition.

I’ve used a number of marketing models before and they do ‘work’. But that’s part of the problem. As Smart Insights say, these are tools to “inform strategy”. They’re not tools to tell you what the strategy is. In marketing education, I think this can be a sticky subject.

Answering the question of whether marketing models are useful for students or not first means looking at their strengths and weaknesses.

 

The strengths of marketing models

Marketing models do work effectively when they’re used in the right way. Their key strength is they’re a lens through which to view things: they alter your perception, help you focus and highlight clues through pointing to areas you might not have noticed before.

Because many of the marketing models have developed over a number of years (some dating back to the 1940s), they’re pretty well-defined, which make them useful for students just starting out. There are also plenty of models to choose from when planning a marketing strategy. While this could be seen as a weakness – too many choices! – I think it has two strengths.

First, students can find the model which makes most sense to them, whether it’s a diagram or acronym.

Second, the best students will use multiple models and cross-check their information, looking at the data from a range of viewpoints. For example, a SWOT analysis and a PESTLE analysis work very effectively together, as the first looks at specific, often internal criteria, while the second looks at wider-ranging external criteria.

Marketing models are also widely understood (if only by people who work in marketing). That means the models are a good shorthand for students going into industry, helping them understand what their new team are discussing and giving them a way to present their own ideas. However, it’s useful to remember every business will have their own unique way of interpreting any model.

Finally, and most simply, a good marketing model is like a ready-made checklist. That means once you’ve completed it, you know you haven’t got any gaps. For marketing newbies, this is really helpful.

 

The weaknesses of marketing models

While marketing models do provide a clear framework for students, a critical weakness is their rigidity. Because they present a limited number of criteria to explore, there’s the risk of basing strategy on data that’s incomplete or reduced to a table-friendly format. Part of marketing is the incalculable weirdness of human reactions, and marketing models don’t necessarily allow for that.

Marketing models also rely on a lot of personal interpretation to be completed. While ‘objective’ numeric data is an important part of using a marketing model, often the models are completed (unsurprisingly) by marketers or marketing students who assume certain things which may or may not be correct based on personal interpretation and experience, rather than evidence.

This is especially apparent in marketing models where the internal operations of a business need to be included but operational teams aren’t always consulted. How do marketers find out the SWOTs of a business if they don’t have evidence from internal comms, financial and HR teams? Personal experience has a valid place in marketing strategy but often marketers can hide behind the apparent ‘objectivity’ of a model rather than address different teams in the business (and potentially expose their own knowledge gaps).

Marketing models are also subject to cultural bias. Part of this is personal interpretation, but the models themselves are also culturally biased: they’ve generally been created by Western marketers or academics rooted in a traditional capitalist economy. What about marketing models rooted in newly emerging economies, like politically-Communist-economically-capitalist China? Or Islamic countries where economy and religion may be intertwined? While a good marketer will be aware of their own cultural bias when working through a marketing model, it’s important to remember the model itself has a bias which may affect the outcome.

Marketing models aren’t designed to tell you what your marketing strategy is – they’re tools to help you analyse the data that’ll inform your strategy. Is this a weakness? Yes and no. No, because marketing models aren’t designed to tell you what the strategy is. But yes, because they’re widely reported and perceived to be a ‘silver bullet’ solution. I said at the beginning how much people like a shiny diagram. Unfortunately for marketing students it’s easy to see all the strengths of marketing models without realising that core ‘weakness’: it doesn’t do the work for you.

This is the stickiest part of the conversation for marketing education. Our curricula often place marketing models at the very start, as a grounding for later work. That’s fine, but by putting so much emphasis on them, students might start to see them – just as clients might do – as ‘the answer’. This is especially true if those students have been educated in a system which encourages a binary approach to problem-solving: an answer is either right, or it’s wrong, like in maths; or something does work or it doesn’t work, like in science or technology.

That’s really the crux of my dislike of marketing models. In themselves, the models are fine. But when they’re taught to students who are used to a yes/no, right/wrong education, they become useless. If students’ minds are suitably liberated to start with, marketing models are a good way to tame their ideas to make sure every strategic consideration is covered. But for students brought up on a conservative, binary education, the models’ rigidity only reflects their nature, rather than broadening it.

 

Using marketing models properly

Marketing models can work for marketing students. However, they need to overcome the weaknesses of marketing models and maximise the strengths (just like they’re doing with their own abilities).

To use a marketing model properly, I’d suggest thinking of it like a lens, not like an equation. It’s a way of looking at things, not a tactic for solving problems.

Imagine a magnifying glass. When you look through it, things look different – clearer, distorted, brighter colours. The glass helps you see things, but it doesn’t tell you what those things are, nor canit interpret the relationships between things for you. Sherlock Holmes used a magnifying glass to see things differently, but it wasn’t the magnifying glass that solved the murder. It was simply a tool Sherlock used to help him come up with the answer.

Here are some more tips to help you use marketing models properly.

#1: Practise creativity

Marketing models won’t solve murders. They won’t give you ideas, either. To use models properly, you need to inject a little bit of creativity to the data that’s there on the page. Sometimes the marketing model’s structure will help you make links between things you couldn’t see before: for example, in a SWOT analysis you might find your brand’s biggest operational weakness is closely related to an internal threat, giving you an opportunity to address two problems at once. However, it’s up to you to come up with the ideas that address that problem.

Creativity is a skill that needs to be practised and developed, and without it you won’t be able to write a marketing strategy no matter how many models you fill out. Here are some of my favourite ways to practise creativity:

  1. Daydream solutions: just gaze into space, think of a ‘what if’ situation, and find solutions. Try and make it fairly dramatic (“what if there was no more water?”) as it’ll encourage you to think of more extreme answers.
  2. Read widely: the more you read, the more ideas you’ll absorb. Choose books and magazines you wouldn’t normally buy. Read newspapers you don’t agree with. Pick a book just for its jacket.
  3. Improve things: pick a recent marketing campaign, and try and improve it. Think about it, write it down or draw it. Why doesn’t it work now? What would work better? What are you assuming?

#2: Reflect on its accuracy

Marketing models can be limited, rigid and full of cultural and personal bias. So reflecting on the accuracy of the data and your own interpretation of it is a really good way to use marketing models properly.

Reflection is another skill which needs to be developed and practised, and is particularly difficult in a society where pausing is equated to a lack of progress. However, reflecting on what you’ve done is the only way to improve next time. Like Einstein said, insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

A simple way to practise reflection in your work is to use the old Road Safety messages as a guide:

  • Stop: stop what you’re doing and walk around a bit to clear your head
  • Look: take a close look at the data you’ve collected and the answers you’ve filled in. Is everything there? Are you missing anything? Does any of it look ‘wrong’?
  • Listen: ask questions – of yourself and others – and listen to the responses. Is any of your data biased? Did you interpret something incorrectly?
  • Think: set aside some time to think about how you did the work. Why did you choose that model? Why did you give the answers you gave? Did you rush?

#3: Design it yourself

One important final point to remember is that while marketing models can work for marketing students, they won’t work for everyone. Each of us has a unique way of working which shouldn’t be forced into the same mould. If you can’t work with diagrams, try something else. If checklists drive you mad, don’t use them.

However, as I mentioned, marketing models often give you specific criteria which are useful to analyse before you create your marketing strategy. Some of those criteria must be included: for example, if you don’t think about how you’re going to attract new customers and move them towards making a purchase (as in the AIDA model), your marketing strategy isn’t going to generate any financially-proven results.

So if you can’t work with a certain model, don’t throw the content away too. Use the criteria in a new form – design it yourself if you need to. AIDA is typically represented as a funnel (to show there are fewer customers at point of purchase than point of attraction) but there’s no reason you couldn’t draw it as a table, a path, a coloured line, a series of bubbles…as long as you stick to the key content.

 

Conclusion

Marketing models can work for marketing students, but it’s important for students – and educators – to be aware of the strengths and weakness of these tools.

STRENGTHS WEAKNESSES
A lens to alter your perception Too rigid
Well-defined over a number of years Open to personal bias
Lots of options so you can choose one which works for you Open to cultural bias and designed from a point of Western cultural bias
Good shorthand for key concepts in the industry Perceived as a ‘silver bullet’ solution
A useful checklist Reflects rather than broadens students’ minds
 Doesn’t do the work for you Doesn’t do the work for you

Rather than see a marketing model as an equation that comes up with a solution, seeing it as a lens through which to view the world will help students use the model more effectively.

Alongside viewing it as a lens, students can practice creativity, reflect on the accuracy of their work, and design their own models to help them use marketing models in the most effective way.

Educators should be especially aware of the difficulties inherent in teaching marketing models when students are emerging from educational practices which prioritise binary solutions over more flexible, subjective interpretation. Reliance on models or rigid frameworks in these instances can reinforce, rather than broaden, a student’s existing conservative mindset, which could result in poor creative executions. The solution could be to emphasise creative marketing in more radical ways.

Featured image by Steven Depolo via Creative Commons.