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A Marketer is a Terrible Thing to Waste (P.1)

A Marketer is a Terrible Thing to Waste (P.1)

Beth Comstock / BusinessWeek

Beth Comstock, chief marketing officer and senior VP at GE, explains how marketers can help rebuild the economy.

At many companies, marketing has long been the fair-weather friend— highly visible when times are good, starved of attention and resources when things are tough.

As a result of the economic downturn, marketing budgets are being slashed and the stewards of many of the world’s largest and most prestigious brands have been forced into hibernation mode—waiting for the economy to turn around and the dollars to return to their function area.

But at GE, where I work, we’re trying to increase the volume on marketing, even in the face of these tough times.

It wasn’t always this way at my company.

When we sought to reinvigorate marketing six years ago, we did so with the belief that marketing was a missing ingredient in our journey for more growth.

For decades we were so confident in our technology and the integrity of our products that we believed they could virtually market themselves. Then there was a collective awakening that we might have been leaving money on the table, and that seasoned marketers could push GE to go more places, organize technologies to accomplish new feats, and help point us in the direction to more sales. So we decided to harness the power of marketing to drive one key metric—organic revenue growth—to measure our success. (Clearly, marketing is not solely responsible for growth—sales, engineering, and product development play pivotal roles as well.)

In fact, once marketing was recognized and embraced as a potential growth driver at GE, we marketers were only too happy to hang our hats on good fortune—confident we could deliver for the company 8% or 10% growth year over year, more than double our historic rate.

But you know how this story ends; you’ve lived it, too. When you set yourself up to be the one who gets a halo when a business grows, what happens when the business slows?

My thesis is that in tough times marketers are more under fire than are those in other business functions. Marketing budgets and resources can be an easy target because they tend to be more flexible—they’re not tied to fixed costs or capital expenditures. Some may even see marketing budgets as a good-times luxury.

The reality, though, is that marketing serves as a hedge against economic crises. Good marketing minimizes negative impact and even slingshots the best ideas, innovations, and products forward.

The marketer is the one who understands implicitly that the question isn’t just “How do we make our year?” (or our quarter, or this month), but also, “How will we thrive in 2015?”

Marketers are for all seasons. We heed a crisis as a cue to leverage the moment while at the same time transcending it. We’re ambidextrous, with one hand optimizing today and the other hand building tomorrow. As Paul Romer, the Stanford economist, has said: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

In the current economic environment, those of us in marketing at GE have found that this framework—optimize today, build tomorrow—is incredibly useful to focus our efforts and to remind our colleagues of the vital role marketing plays in good times and bad. For most of GE’s businesses, our ambidextrous strategy unfolds as follows: 60% to 70% of our marketing efforts support today’s initiatives, with the remaining focus on building tomorrow’s initiatives. We think that’s a realistic alignment of energy and resources.

There are three core strategies we have adopted to help us Optimize Today:

  • Understand the needs of customers like never before,
  • Gain share, and
  • Reexamine value and how to measure success.