Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

The Struggle To Keep Up-To-Date

As new theories and knowledge come on stream, marketers will have to make concerted efforts to expose themselves to new learning streams, writes Sheikh Adil Hussain.
Published 26 Feb, 2024 10:45am

In the quiet of the office, the clock relentlessly marches towards 7:30 p.m., serving as a reminder of time slipping away. Each day unfolds in a similar fashion, propelled by the urgencies of deadlines, the buzz of meetings, and fleeting interactions – a brief applause for a short-term victory before plunging back into more of the same. It is in this fleeting moment that the average mid-level professional finds himself wrestling with a silent fear – the fear of obsolescence.

It is extremely easy to say ‘They don’t make ‘em like they used to’ and apply it to almost anything. Home appliances and cars are probably the first examples that come to mind, but the phrase is equally applicable to children, students, young people and, in general, anyone we don’t like or understand. So, to say that today’s graduates in general and business school graduates in particular do not have what it takes would be in the same vein, but not completely baseless.

The eternal debate in education has been between the importance of theory versus practicality, and how one is better than the other. Proponents of immersing oneself in theoretical and historical knowledge of a subject wax lyrical about building a strong base, having a solid grip of the fundamentals, and almost rote memorising the great contributors and their work in their chosen field.

This would enable students to appreciate the fine differences and in time, advances in concepts as they discover practical situations to apply the theory to. The main criticism being that theory evolves and changes with time. Many are disproven only to be taken over by others which may or may not last the test of time. The other side relies on case studies as a primary means of dissipating knowledge. They encourage discourse and critical thinking on the part of the students to apply knowledge (their own and acquired from others) to the situations being presented. They promote frequent interactions with industry veterans to encourage conversations which would enrich their knowledge simply by interacting. Again, the main criticism being that practical truths without any framework make it difficult to codify and reapply in real life. The answer as usual lies somewhere in the middle, making use of the best of both approaches and equipping young minds with as many ways to approach problem resolution as possible.

Having taught brand management at one of the premier business schools of the country and attended a few course outline review forums of other business schools in the country, I can safely say, we are in trouble. By we, I primarily refer to marketers.

Marketing is basic enough. There are essentially only two ways to grow sales of a particular brand/product. One is by getting more people to buy (penetration) and the other is by getting people who are already buying (your brand), to buy more (consumption). Everything else is a variant of these two ways (yes, even market share gains). Marketing is the process of getting these two things done.

The traditional fathers of marketing, including Philip Kotler, Kevin Lane Keller and David Aaker tried to provide frameworks to do this. They applied the four Ps, the Brand Funnel and many other theories to the Segmentation, Targeting and Positioning (STP) model propagating segmentation, USPs and the marketing mix. Strategy gurus, Igor Ansoff, Peter Drucker and Michael Porter complicated matters when their frameworks, (2x2 matrices, SWOTs and the Political, Economic, Sociological, Technological, Legal and Environmental factors – PESTLE), started to be applied at the corporate level and mixed with brand growth strategies. Where to play and how to win became the quintessential questions to be answered.

However, at its core, marketing remains simple because we are selling to humans. This is where human or consumer behaviour and psychology come into play. Martin Lindstrom’s book Buyology purported that people buy based on gut and not rational thought.

Neuromarketing came to the fore in the early 2000s, when researchers had access to neural imaging technology. Focusing on what our biological responses are when confronted with stimuli became a huge deal and researchers rushed to study this phenomenon in more detail. This school of thought relied on the work of psychologists like Carl Jung, using his definition of archetypes and how people relate to stories of brands replicating certain characters, as well as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s theory of colours and their impact on people’s emotions, which was used extensively in need scope studies to segment consumers based on motivations and attitudes, as well as defining positioning statements vis-à-vis competition.

All the above is great to know, but how much of it is being taught formally and how much of it is being learnt on the job? You need someone with on-ground experience of having applied these tools/thinking to really build brands with their own hands, or at least someone who has had a front seat to someone actually doing it in front of them. Only then do the hacks come in, and the distinction between what really counts and what just looks good on paper becomes apparent. This sadly is missing. Add to this the fact that most of the curricula are outdated and struggling to keep up with the ever-changing landscape.

Well into a decade after the turn of the century, business schools were set. They were charging high fees and churning out graduates like a factory. What they did not anticipate was the digital age.

Once social media and the internet blew up, the great scramble was on. Suddenly, digital marketing was a thing and all the B-schools, right from the Ivy League to the lower tiers, started to include anything they could get their hands on which resembled anything close to digital in their curricula.

Outside the universities, in the corporate world, this took on another shape, the impacts of which are superbly captured in an article on the website,, entitled: Weaponizing the Wanamaker Paradox. Paul Worthington, the consultant who wrote this article in his newsletter Off Kilter, says: “Around 20 years ago, marketing underwent a significant transformation driven by the Wanamaker Paradox, leading to a shift in advertising budgets from traditional to digital channels and the emphasis on digital platforms, AdTech, MarTech and data brokers aimed to combat waste in marketing increased. However, this resulted in a shift from a big number game, like focusing on enterprise value, brands and growth, to a little numbers game centred on bottom-line efficiency and metrics like impressions and ROI. The consequence is a departure from strategic goals and an obsession with operational efficiency in the marketing landscape.”

This is just the beginning of an excellent piece that goes on to describe how a focus on digital marketing and the ‘small numbers’ associated with it has led to myopic thinking, faulty understanding of basic concepts (efficiency and effectiveness), not understanding how brand building works over a long period of time, and how the function was picked apart into smaller things encapsulated by job titles like ‘Growth Hacker’.

As noted earlier, the problem with knowledge based on theory alone is that theories can be disproven. Enter Professor Byron Sharp of the Ehrenberg Bass Institute. This academic, along with Jenni Romaniuk, published a book called How Brands Grow? in 2010 and threw the marketing world into a tailspin.

Based on empirical research across categories and markets, the duo busted myths like heavy users leading to brand growth and hyper-segmentation. They put forward the case for increasing mental and physical availability as a way of continuously getting many light users into your brand franchise to achieve sustainable brand growth. They harp about the difference between differentiation and distinction, and how the latter is more important since that is what consumers subliminally remember. Therefore, marketers should look to build memorable distinctive brand assets and expose as many consumers to them as many times as possible.

Many new-age academics and researchers are doing wonders in marketing, yet locally I do not see our young graduates, students or even professors even knowing who these people are, let alone teaching/discussing their work. If budding marketers are not reading the works of Byron Sharp, Jenni Romaniuk, Mark Ritson, Scott Galloway, Les Binet, Peter Fields, Rory Sutherland, Bob Hoffmann, and the eccentric Gary Vaynerchuk, they are missing out. It is good to know where we came from, and knowing what Kotler and the oldies said helps, but if we don’t continuously evolve, we will be outdated.

If we are not keeping up with papers, books, and research papers that have been coming out since 2010, how can we expect to respond to the advent of AI? Just a few months ago, we were wrapping our heads around knowing how to write good prompts – and poof, just like that we have prompt generators. Until recently, we were thinking of integrating coding languages into MBA curricula, lest we find out that OpenAI announces a store full of AI apps that can be created by just speaking your thoughts.

How then do you teach for this? How do we continuously adapt? People have even started to question the purpose of brick-and-mortar universities. Does the cost even justify the output anymore? Is the name tag enough? Knowledge vs education, the philosophical question rears its head again. As always, the answer is not going to be simple. We will need to see how this plays out.

Having said this, a few qualities always help. A willingness to learn, the acknowledgement that we will have to adapt and upskill continuously, and above all, a lot of humility. To loosely quote a colleague and a dear friend Munib Rizavi: “In a world full of answers, it’s the people with the right questions who will win”.

Sheikh Adil Hussain is Marketing Director – Hair Care, Unilever Pakistan.