Digital disruption: the rebirth of marketing?

Marketing is probably one of the most devalued and derided words of our time. So much so that it’s seldom seen in the blogosphere without some kind of expletive attached. Ranting aside, you’ll consistently see some of the best and most interesting thinkers in the digital space declaring that they aren’t interested in, or “don’t do” marketing.

It’s a statement that shows the steady devaluation of a term that once meant much more.

Once upon a time, marketing was about the fabled “4 Ps”:  Product, Price, Place and Promotion. People have introduced new “Ps” as time has gone on-people, processes, pleasure to name a few but the original four are a good place to start. Marketing was the science of assessing a marketplace and understanding which combination of these levers could most compellingly drive a brand or product forward.

The trouble is that marketing became preoccupied-and defined-by the fourth and perhaps least exciting P-Promotion. One of the most exciting aspects of the digital world  is that for by taking the cost and infrastructure implications out of changing product, place and price it gives marketers back the opportunity to influence businesses in a much more profound and exciting way. It’s an opportunity for marketers to transform businesses and for businesses to experiment again with genuinely radical thinking.

With that in mind, it’s truly extraordinary that anyone still thinks the most interesting use of digital is as another place to put promotional messages. And it’s no coincidence that the most exciting digital initiatives are coming from smart people thinking about how they can change product, price and place then use promotion to, as the always excellent John Willshire puts it, tell the stories of the things they’ve done.

Think about how you can impact product, price and place-then promote the things you've done

I’ve talked about the enabling-and disruptive- power of digital. The simple act of digitizing products in itself of course radically disruptive, moving industries wholesale from an age of scarcity to an age of abundance by dramatically reducing barriers to creating, copying, selling and sharing content. However, if there’s a particular thread that is most potently disruptive to the status quo, for me that thread is social media. It’s the power of the social web that helps us create new products and utilities like British Airways’ Metrotwin, create social distribution models like ASOS Marketplace or AirBNB or create group-funded projects or group fuelled discounts like Groupon or Kickstarter. So if we really need another P (and it’s a big if…) for me that P is Peer to Peer.

So my startpoint for rekindling some excitement around marketing-and for doing exciting, effective digital marketing- is this.

  • Start with a business problem.
  • Think about how changing product, price and place could impact that problem
  • Think about how digital-and in particular the power of peer to peer- can help you change these dynamics
  • Last of all, promote the interesting things you’re doing.
Think about how peer to peer can transform the dynamics of a business


  • Think about how your product can become a social object: Nike plus and Fiat Eco drive are the seminal examples here (proving it’s not easy) but think about how building a data stream and/or a community around an analogue product can add value, drive frequency or build evangelism
  • Ask yourself how software can help you sell hardware (the app store is the greatest example of this) or how hardware can help you sell software (Chromebook is the latest, and perhaps most profoundly disruptive example of this)…stepping beyond the world of tech, how can products help you sell services and vice versa?
  • Ask yourself whether your product can be used in a radically new way-can the usage pattern shift, for example, from one to one to one to many? Made by Many’s lovely Hollergram app is a prime example of a piece of software that repurposes a product, from narrowcast to broadcast


  • How can digital transform your brand’s distribution network? How can open APIs decentralize your distribution on-line as well as off?
  • How can social media make your customers your retail channel? How can we make advocates our new affiliates?
  • How can you, in turn, become a retail channel for your customers?
  • How can augmented reality or Google Streetview transform the distribution model for test drives, house viewings, major appliances or even clothing and jewellery by removing the need to be physically present to try?


  • How can digital disrupt pricing models for your brand or your category?
  • Can you develop dynamic pricing models reflecting real time supply and demand? San Francisco’s dynamic parking system is a lovely example of this in action as is Uniqlo’s Lucky Counter
  • Can you change the financial relationship you have with your consumers, embracing crowdfunding and making them partners or investors rather than simply customers?
  • Can you use good community behaviours to bring down service costs such as home insurance, car or health insurance or lower credit premiums?
If you can, then you’ll really have something to promote. The chances are, of course, that you won’t have to….

12 thoughts on “Digital disruption: the rebirth of marketing?

  1. Pats,

    Great post.

    For me the most important point is to always start with a problem and find the solution. That’s what marketing does well. However, in the past few decades we’ve developed a “shiny object” syndrome and just build promotional tools because they are “fun and sexy.” The mobile industry is a great example of this. In the West, we utilize mobile phones (actually smart phones) as a promotional opportunity. In Africa, mobile phones (featured and smart phones) are used to provide real solutions: making payments, making money transfers, even by people who don’t have bank accounts, tracking farm supplies, providing mentorship for small business owners, etc.

  2. Thanks Andreana. Definitely agree about the “shiny object syndrome” versus offering genuine utility-I love what’s happening with mobile in developing countries and small businesses.

  3. Marketing has never been more important. Money is tight, competition is fierce and the public’s trust is at an all time low. The 4Ps process is the Cilla Black of marketing strategy – we have an inexplicable fondness for it, but it’s way past its ‘sell by’ date. It’s time to replace this dusty old marketing roadmap with a model that embraces advances in technology, our different attitude to authority, capitalism and consumerism, and the hard reality of organisational survival.

  4. Amazing post, and nice coment from Andreana. Using africa to show that we use mobile in the most stupid way is always welcome.

  5. this is a very interesting post, but i must disrespectfully disagree with you. the reason marketing is now so devalued is not because it became obsessed with promotion — it became obsessed with price. and, as any good marketer knows, when marketing reverts to sales, all you do is commoditize your goods and services. branding and “real” marketing requires investment spending, not a preoccupation with the next quarters numbers and fear of being chided by wall street. we are in a sad state of affairs, and unless business wakes up — we will continue to live in the land of price and commodities.

    why do we love great brands like apple and nike? because they are brands that we identify with and have relationships with — they aren’t butter and eggs.

    wake up people!

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