“What is Marketing?” Mark Ritson asked me when I took his course at London Business School ten years ago.

Ironically, marketing has an image problem and dispelling these myths is the enabler to great marketing decisions.

Being at the heart of two tech organisations I can now share six tips from my experience on how to become a marketing oriented technology company. This will come in two parts with these three tips now to start you off…

What is marketing? 

1. Marketing is about listening to customers.

It is about identifying how your product can fulfill their needs. Feedback is a gift and marketers must accept that gift non-judgmentally. A good marketer can ask the right questions, interpret what the answers really mean and then feed that back into product and communications. 

2. Marketing is not about dressing mutton as lamb.

You should not claim your product is more than it is, overstate your product capabilities, mislead prospects or muddy the water. There is no place for manipulation in marketing.

3. Marketing is about communicating clearly and simply how your product delivers a specific benefit that your target market really wants or need.

A target market is defined as a set of people who talk to / may reference each other in buying your product. Marketing needs to adjust its message to communicate with each target market even if they look identical.

This question of how to define Marketing as opposed to sales, specifically in a technology company, remains one of my favourite questions. My six tips on how to become a marketing oriented technology company come from being at the heart of two technology companies. 

Here are the first three:

1. Research problems not solutions

Coming from a consumer goods marketing background, Mark preached the virtues of only building products that consumers tell you they want based on solid research.

However, when it comes to high tech products the customers don’t really know what is possible or how the technology landscape will by the time it’s shipped. In fact the latest best practice in software development, bestowed by Eric Ries in his book The Lean Startup, is to focus on validated learning.

As any social networking entrepreneur will tell you, talk is cheap but only when someone is actually using your product regularly and buying into the upgrades do you have a success on your hands.

Customers do not know what they want when it comes to technology because they have no sense of what is possible and never think outside of the box.

Steve Jobs put it like this:

if you do build what they want the chances are they’ll want something else by the time you deliver it.

Jobs also declared that he was more proud of the products he decided not to do than the ones he produced. There are limitless problems that could be solved by technology and the real marketing challenge for high tech entrepreneurs is resisting the temptation to overstretch.

Sorting the wood from the trees is a vital business skill at every level of the organization and to encourage this I ask all my reports to give me a list of things they have decided not to do on a weekly basis.

The Lean Startup is all about short development cycles and building in customer feedback, in a fast moving market the ground can completely shift overnight. I’ve had first-hand experience of this when we took 18 months innovating new product to accelerate page loading only to see changes in the browser market partially solve it.

As is often the case in life by solving one problem they had created another and identifying that need is what marketing is for. 

2. Your people are your brand

Branding is the foundation of marketing, and branding has become ever more complex as marketers realise that we relate to brands in the same way we do to people.

Mark wrote an article earlier this year about how Facebook is trying to sell marketers the dream of brands being like people. In the article he highlights his concern that inserting your brand into user’s newsfeeds is likely just to annoy them and raises concern about what impact this will have on Facebook’s brand.

I switched off my Facebook account off a year ago and my life is richer for it, it will be interesting to watch if their engagement figures start to mimic their stock price. 

It doesn’t matter how much United Airlines spends on marketing, if you get on the plane and the flight attendant attacks you for putting a friendly hand on his shoulder then you will avoid them in future, whereas when your Jet Blue crew gets a four year old to take all the drinks orders and presents her with a signed certificate from the captain then you’ll prefer them for the rest of your life (or until they squeeze margins so hard that their cabin crew become miserable).

What that means is that whilst your brand may not be a person, your people are your brand. Your brand is really just brokering the ideas and execution by great talent with the needs and desires of enlightened customers. 

3. Set easy to understand expectations

We use brands to set our expectations for a product or service. This is what made Amazon’s under-promise and over-deliver on shipping such a huge success.

While good advertising can set the foundations and get you that first date, brands are really built in our minds based on our personal experience and once courtship commences then all marketing can do is keep expectations and reality aligned to keep things on track.

Whilst in our minds eye we like to see ourselves as rational, all the evidence points to our decision making being driven mostly by the desire to avoid emotional pain. Even when we’re buying anonymously online we are looking for social proof to make emotional decisions in the form of recommendations and reviews.

Our buying decisions boil down to weighing up the pain of having no money left versus the expected emotional pain from poor service or having / not having the product.

In the B2B technology world I’ve heard people say that marketing is not important. However, in a world of high stakes and fast moving technology, where the buyer does not stand a cat in hell’s chance of understanding the real difference between competing products and just one bad decision could cost you your career, the opposite is true.

In this environment relationships and reputation are everything as buyers seek safety by sticking with the crowd because “no-one ever got fired for hiring IBM.” Having made an emotional decision to buy, people then send out Request For Proposals (RFPs) to rationalize it with their co-workers and themselves.