In business school, I, like many countless other marketers, learned the “marketing framework to rule them all” – the Four P’s. If you’re unfamiliar, the P’s are:

  • Product. The thing you’re selling. The definition of “product” stretches to include services, if you’re wondering.
  • Price. This is mostly obvious, but there is actually quite a bit of strategery that goes into purposefully pricing your product.
  • Place. Better thought of as “distribution” – how will you go to market?
  • Promotion. Coupons! Just kidding. This “P” considers the ways in which you can advertise, message, and create demand for your product. And also coupons.

This construct made immediate sense to me back then. You create a product, slap a price on it, message it, and viola! – business! The past couple of decades of experience have weathered me with reality and helped me understand the nuance of the Four P’s.

I’ve also come to believe that the most important “P” is actually missing. At best, it’s assumed, at worst, it’s not considered. It’s the P that I’ve come to value the most. That P stands for PEOPLE.

So hold that thought and we’ll come back to it.

Have you heard that perspectives toward “individualism and collectivism” are different in the “west” (namely the US and western Europe) as compared to the “east”? In the west we tend to highly value individualism whereas collectivism is more highly valued in the east. According to research, this high valuation of individualism comes with a slice of overconfidence.

Western societies tend to value personal success over group achievement, which in turn is also associated with the need for greater self-esteem and the pursuit of personal happiness. But this thirst for self-validation also manifests in overconfidence…When asked about their competence, for instance, 94% of American professors claimed they were “better than average”.

– David Robson

So what does this psychological mumbo-jumbo have to do with marketing?

IMO, everything.


Most marketing sucks.

Consider digital display (banner) ads. These little buggers have been getting in our way and interrupting our online experiences for over two decades now. Can they be done well? Sure, they can. But most of them aren’t targeted to our likes and preferences and are highly irrelevant. That’s why ad blocking technology is so popular and on the rise.

Or how about those incessant mass emails we all get every morning. For some reason, Banana Republic thinks it’s a good idea to send me six emails a day.

And those time share presentations! Because who doesn’t like being psychologically bullied for three hours in exchange for a free meal or a $100 hotel resort credit?

When we’re (over) confident that we know what’s best for others, even if it goes against how we would want to be treated ourselves, we fail as marketers. This lack of “other-orientedness” shows up in low engagement, messages that don’t resonate with the intended audience, and low conversion rates.

But all is not lost.

People still love (some) brands and presumably the marketing that goes with them. If you look at the list of top brands for millennials (sorry, I had to), you see some brands at the top like Apple, Nike, Target, Starbucks and others.

Now think about the products/services you love. Likely you share some with the list noted above. Here in the US, most people say they really love brands like Apple, Nike, and Whole Foods. Brands known for creating exceptional products and memorable marketing. Know what else they have in common? They have a strong focus on solving problems and creating meaning for PEOPLE. Apple wasn’t the first to create a mobile digital music player, but they were the first to make the process of consuming digital music frictionless because they connected the player with the “store”. Whole Foods brought healthy and organic foods to the masses at prices they could afford (most of the time?). And our friends at Nike are masters of making meaning. Just consider their most recent 30-year anniversary “just do it” campaign work. Amazingly powerful stuff that resonates with their target audience in a way that goes beyond solving problems…it provides people with an opportunity to associate with a cause greater than themselves.

So now let’s go back to where we started. These brands and those we love focus on PEOPLE. And not just the product managers or research teams…even the marketers focus on people. I know. It’s crazy.

It’s all about PEOPLE. Making the shift toward human-centered marketing may seem small, but it’s not easy because the marketing water most of us grew up swimming in was inherited from the industrial age of “make it and message it”. It is “production-centric” as opposed to being customer (human)-centric. As marketers, we struggle with this production-centric culture, siloed organization structures (“I can’t ask customers what their problems are because that’s what the research team does.“), and the good ol’ status quo (because, honestly it’s easier to not change than it is to change).

So what is a progressive marketer that wants to become more human-centric to do? I offer up three principles that will help shift you into a Human Centered Marketer (HCM) mindset:

  1. Start by understanding customer needs. Start where good designers, researchers, and anthropologists start…with humans. The trap is to describe customers superficially (demographics only as an example), because that’s easier. But to be human-centered, you have to come to an understanding of what makes your customers tick – what do they value and what are they trying to accomplish in their life? As my pal Peter Drucker once said, “The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.”
  2. Ideate ways to create value for, not interrupt, your customers. The old-school paradigm of marketing is “interruption”…craft a message so disruptive that customers HAVE to pay attention. And this is because the message was placed in the middle of something they were trying to do (research on the internet) or content they were consuming (TV programming). The HCM approach seeks to add value in every situation. Why not suggest new recipes if you’re in the business of selling a food product, or perhaps suggest a next likely product based on what other customers already purchased? These marketing tactics are goal-oriented, personalized, and much more likely to convert.
  3. Build relationships, not just transactions. Historically, the role of marketing stops when the customer makes a purchase. “We’ve done our job…on to the next one!” No longer. Competition is fierce and brand differentiation at the product/service level can be small. Once a transaction does occur, you simply need to see this as the beginning of a relationship as opposed to the end of your responsibility. Brands that focus on building relationships over time lower their cost-to-service-a-customer metric and are more effective at capitalizing on positive word-of-mouth.

Let those three principles sink in and consider some eastern wisdom as you do:

“When you know how to listen everybody is the guru.”

– Ram Dass

You, too, can hop on the path of human-centered marketing enlightenment. Be a relentless advocate for people. Find like-minded people in your organization and get quick wins (Do crazy things like partner with product or even sales!) And as Ram mentions above, adopt a posture of listening. Listening begets insight which begets valuable action…something that all of us marketers want and need.