The Problem with Funnels

A client forwarded me an article by Bill Lee in Harvard Business Review asking me if I read it. It was called, “Marketing is Dead.” I replied that I saw it, but didn’t read it because after reading the first paragraph, I couldn’t see his point that marketing was dead. The article sounded like marketing for Bill Lee. I mean, anyone who titles a piece “Marketing is Dead” is obviously a marketer.

Sergio Zyman, the former top marketing guru of Coca-Cola, wrote a book in 1999 called The End of Marketing as We Know It. Despite its title, Zyman didn’t say marketing was dead; it’s just changing. As he said:

“The sole purpose of marketing is to get more people to buy more of your product, more often, for more money. You don’t make any money until you sell the stuff, and you can’t sell the stuff until you’ve gotten people to want it.”

Maybe what Lee meant is that no one is buying anything anymore.

Nevertheless, I felt an obligation to re-examine my judgment on passing on the article, so I read Lee’s piece.

It didn’t change my mind. Marketing is not dead; it’s experience disruption (what isn’t), but it is far from dead. Lee was marketing himself. But I’m glad I read it because it reveals how flawed such thinking is. You should read the article and judge for yourself.

Here is some of my reasoning why marketing is alive and well and why his piece is, well, just marketing.

Lee starts out with the bold statement that marketing is dead, and then says the evidence is clear. His first proof is that buyers are no longer paying much attention, and he offers evidence in the form of a McKinsey Consumer Decision Journey video concluding that “buyers are checking out product and service information in their own way.”

Really? Does that mean marketing is dead? Or, that consumers are just doing what they have always done — checking out information in their own way?

The McKinsey video offers these points (ask yourself if you knew these things already when you read them):

  • Ongoing exposure is important. People see, hear about brand. Then, a trigger is pulled and they start the decision journey.
  • Initial consideration is given, and since consumers find it difficult to get through everything, they move into a stage McKinsey calls “active evaluation.”
  • As the number of brands increases, it has an opposite of a funnel effect. That is, a funnel is not descriptive of how people go through a decision-making process.
  • Then closure happens – the moment of purchase. And they make the decision in the store.

I kept thinking to myself, “Duh.” There are more duhs, and I encourage you to watch the video and judge for yourself. People think about things before they buy them? That is insight? Please. Also, everything that they just described is, in fact, a funnel, leading to the final purchase. When you have too many choices, your funnel clogs! There are even theories now that too many choices confuse consumers (again, Duh).

Show Me Your Funnel

The funnel analogy they use has been around a long time to describe the sales process (we use a bull’s eye), but the problem with funnels or any other illustration is that they are, like words, only representations. As “illustrations,” they represent reality. They are NOT reality.

But, the funnel illustration represents EXACTLY how people think about products, despite what McKinsey or Lee implies. If you’ve used a funnel, sometimes the material you’re moving gets stuck as I said; it needs air to keep moving, or a good shaking.

Besides, the funnel has two ends: one wide, one narrow. And while it is conventional wisdom that you use a funnel to take a lot of stuff and pour it into a narrow opening, there’s no law that says you can’t use it in reverse. That is, change the size of the openings. Or, have two funnels. It isn’t a question of a funnel. It is a question of flow, and information flows in many directions all at the same time. The funnel is, well, just a funnel.

Lee’s second proof that marketing is dead is a study done in 2011 by Fournaise. Its Marketing 2011 Global Marketing Effectiveness Program interviewed more than 600 large corporation and SMB CEOs and decision-makers in the U.S., Europe, Asia and Australia. They found that “73% of CEOs think Marketers lack business credibility and are not the business growth generators they should be.” They give evidence in the study that these marketers “are still too far from being able to demonstrate how the cross-channel marketing strategies and campaigns they deploy grow their organisations’ top line in terms of more customer demand, more sales, more prospects, more conversions or more market share.”

So does that mean marketing is dead? Or does it mean that marketers aren’t doing their job as marketers, and the CEOs are a little ticked off?

Funnel Issues

Two other issues among the many in the Fournaise research stand out in Lee’s arguments about marketing being dead:

(1) “They (marketers) keep on talking about brand, brand values, brand equity and other similar parameters that their top management has great difficulties linking back to results that really matter: revenue, sales, EBIT or even market valuation (77%).”

No kidding! Talking about brand and brand values is useless unless you do something about it. Besides, a company doesn’t define its brand — its customers define it. One of our blogs — Brands in Crisis — discusses this clearly, as does our blog on Leadership. People talk about social media bringing this new dimension to marketing – that people are in control. Yet, people have ALWAYS been in control! Since when did Tide customers do what Tide wanted – or did Tide just give customers what they want: cleaner clothes?

(2) “They (marketers) focus too much on the latest marketing trends such as social media, because they believe they represent the new marketing frontiers – but can rarely demonstrate how these trends will help them generate more business for the company (74%).”

Trends have never worked, but marketing basics – the stuff Zyman talks about – always work! Social media isn’t a trend; it’s a movement that is here to stay. It’s just that few have figured out how to make money from it. Oops…tell that to Facebook!

Lee’s third proof is when he says, “in today’s increasingly social media-infused environment, traditional marketing and sales not only doesn’t work so well, it doesn’t make sense.” That, “traditional marketing isn’t really working anywhere.” Where’s the proof besides him saying that? Should we take his word and stop marketing?

But it’s when he writes the following that something in his logic seems to have gone haywire:

“For instance, when you contemplate a major purchase, such as a new roof, a flat screen TV, or a good surgeon, you’re not likely to go looking for a salesperson to talk to, or to read through a bunch of corporate website content. Instead, you’ll probably ask neighbors or friends — your peer network — what or whom they’re using.”

Seriously? Looking at websites is EXACTLY what you do to find the best surgeons and discreetly research medical conditions. Yes, you make phone calls, post on Facebook or text a friend, but does your neighbor understand a surgeon’s specialties or know if there have been any complaints or pending lawsuits? Even with furniture, why would you buy what your neighbor has? Or even where they buy it? “Differentiation is critical; sameness has no value,” wrote Zyman. And marketing – true marketing – is all about differentiation.

Differentiation IS Marketing

Consider this piece of advice from Mr. Lee:

“Companies should position their social media efforts to replicate as much as possible this community-oriented buying experience. In turn, social media firms, such as Facebook, should become expert at enabling this. They can do this by expanding the buyer’s network of peers who can provide trustworthy information and advice based on their own experience with the product or service.”

Now Lee is telling Facebook what to do! He forgets, however, that Facebook is social, and social, from everything I have read and seen, isn’t about selling! Or buying! It’s about being social. Or is it?

And if you happen to talk about furniture, fine. But that’s not what happens on Facebook.

The reason Lee thinks marketing is dead is because he doesn’t really understand marketing – or, as I concluded, the piece he wrote is really a splendid example of self-marketing. Marketing never changes, but the tactics marketing uses change. What a great tactic to get Harvard Business Review to publish your marketing piece! In the end, Lee is simply doing differentiation and using Harvard Business Review to do it. Hats off to Lee! Shame on Harvard Business Review for falling for it (unless they got paid!).


CEOs are dis-satisfied with their marketers because they have a right to be. Defining a brand value has nothing to do with selling a brand. You can sit in a board room and define your brand until you are blue in the face. Your CUSTOMERS define your brand – not you – just as your customers have always bought your brand, not you.

I was at a client’s leadership meeting this week where 22 managers gathered from the company’s 22 offices to discuss their objectives. One of the presenters said it best: “Just listen to your customers. Talk to them. You’ll find everything you need to know. Then, give them what they want.”

In his article, Lee is talking to his customers and prospects – but not listening. Lee’s article is really superior marketing, because it just might compel you to ring him up and hire him. After all, if marketing is dead, what should I be doing?

I cancelled my Harvard Business Review subscription several years ago after being a subscriber for 15 years because many of the pieces were, in my opinion, marketing pieces. You know what happened when I cancelled subscription? Nothing. Nobody called me to ask why. When someone finally did call to see if I wanted to renew after a few months, I said, “No, would you like to know why?” The caller said, “Not really,” and hung up. 15 years. Gone in a flash. What am I? Chopped liver?

Actually, when people or companies stop listening to their customers, you won’t need a funnel. There will be nothing to pour either way.

Marketing isn’t dead. It’s alive and well, but kinda in a state of change right now. But then, wasn’t it always?

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