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Examining Marketing Myopia

In 1975, Theodore Levitt wrote an incredible article titled ‘Marketing Myopia’ that caused a paradigm shift in the business world. His theory was not new or original and was based on the philosophy of great management gurus like Peter Drucker, J.B. McKitterick, Wroe Alderson, John Howard and Neil Borden. However, his writing style, arguments and examples were put so finely in the article that it caused a bit of a minor industrial revolution.

I wanted to go back to his article written 35 years ago and point out the relevancy of his thought process as it applies to the current economic scene.

Bluff Manufacturing is in the business of producing high-quality material handling and safety products. Bluff’s team of distinguished engineers and researchers are well trained and constantly innovate to manufacture world-class products. But Bluff realizes that success does not come from innovating and improving products, and increasing manufacturing efficiency alone. In fact, these are minor factors that contribute to the success of an organization. The real success factor lies in marketing; not just the promotional aspect of marketing (which is geared toward pushing the products we manufacture), but also and more importantly, the consumer and competitor research side of marketing.

No amount of innovating and creating fantastic, mind-blowing products can satisfy and retain a market if the manufacturer has not truly understood the mind of the consumer. If the consumer does not need or want your product, it is absolutely no good, no matter the bells and whistles or promotions or pricing or manufacturing efficiency. Even if a market does exist for a product, manufacturers often get complacent believing in the myth that there will always be a market for their product. Fuelled by this thought, management focuses on increasing manufacturing efficiency instead of keeping their eyes and ears open to changing and shifting needs of consumers and competitors’ offerings.

Levitt states that great industrialists have found themselves in economic shambles by believing that the holy grail of industrialism means there is always a market for your product and that the market will consist of a rapidly growing affluent population. That is the stuff of myths and legends; a mere fantasy. A company producing a highly successful and fast selling product can go bust tomorrow because it wasn’t paying attention to the market and to its competitors. What is considered a revolutionary product today can become obsolete tomorrow. There are always great business minds that are hungry for market share. With technological advances and research, competitors can offer a better and possibly a completely different product to replace an existing one. In his article, Levitt points out the oil, electronics and automobile industries as examples in proving his point but this business theory is applicable to every industry.

Levitt was not trying to paint a grim picture. He was merely cautioning executives to stay on top of their game and pay great attention to the shifting needs of consumers. Innovate by all means, he proposes, but innovate in creating products that truly satisfy consumers. Through research (both customer and competitor), Levitt proposes that companies find out what the customer wants, what new products the competitor is building, what new technological advancements are brewing, what new markets are growing, and to re-invent and reproduce accordingly. Always stay one step ahead. Stop being product-focused and stay consumer-focused.

As marketers, we all occasionally suffer from this myopia. We’re proud of the products our companies build and naturally, we can’t wait to brag about them. However, as marketers, our biggest priority lies in finding out what the customer really needs and providing this information to the R&D teams to develop the products. Once the product is finished and ready to be distributed, we have to enable marketing and sales to work together. Merely selling or pushing a product in exchange for the customers money will not hold anymore. Marketing points out the customer’s pain points and offers a value proposition and a unique solution that cannot be offered by competitors. This strategy helps build brand loyalty and helps companies stay ahead of the curve.