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When it comes to assessing marketing's effectiveness in creating the type of customer relationships that help fuel business growth, consider this: Maybe marketers should stop thinking so much like traditional marketers.

It's not an altogether novel thought. Senior-level marketers participating in a study late last year by Prophet and IDG Research of marketing's influence on business growth ranked customer-focused issues as "most critical" to helping their companies achieve future growth goals. "Customer service and delivery" and "customer experience" together were ranked as most critical by 31% of respondents, while advertising and promotions eked out a paltry 1% each.

Here's what's so ironic: While senior marketing executives realize the criticality of getting closer to the customer in terms that are meaningful to them, a significant percentage of respondents stated that they played absolutely no role in levers that are closest to the customer, notably customer experience (18%), customer service (33%), pricing (43%) and sales force strength (45%).

These days, getting closer to customers has less to do with the traditional marketing mix and more to do with delivering the brand experience in a way that is meaningful to customers and on the mark with what you wish your brand to stand for-whether delivered via operations, sales or information technology.

Given the number of customer touch points to be cultivated, mastered and controlled, the issue is how best to allocate resources in order to create lasting and profitable relationships with customers. Increasingly, the big question is: Do we sink $100 million into a national advertising campaign that may reach people kind of close to our brand, or do we spend some to enhance sales?

Savvy marketers understand that this often means making difficult tradeoffs between traditional marketing spending and initiatives that don't fit quite so neatly within the marketer's typical sphere of influence. In a major rebranding initiative for the Radisson Hotels & Resorts, for example, Yvonne LaPenotiere, president of Carlson Hotels Worldwide, Radisson's parent, knew perfection of a key customer touch point-the bed-was critical. Research into Radisson's brand revealed that customers place high value on the quality of their stay, particularly the ability to get a good night's sleep. It prompted her decision to divert several million dollars from her advertising budget to buy Sleep Number beds for a test market, signaling internally and externally that Radisson was committed to enhancing the guest experience. Advertising couldn't have bought the 60% increase in customer satisfaction that the beds did.

Likewise, Philips opted to scale back its advertising investment in lighting in 2002 to instead focus on providing trained specialists at retail locations who mingle with shoppers and can offer friendly, non-pressuring advice on how to use lighting as a design element. A substantial increase in test market sales warranted the worldwide rollout of the approach in 2004.

Marketing has a distinct role to play in an environment where the customer relationship is a prized business asset. It is the source and keeper of customer intelligence. It is the arbiter of customer relevance. It can and should be exerting strong influence over the customer experience.

But successfully performing this role hinges on the ability to think outside of traditional marketing bounds. Marketers must do a better job of using their customer intelligence as an influencer of strategies and activities at all the touch points where the customer's relationship with the brand is grown and solidified: Will advertising do the trick or would an operational change (like improved dressing rooms in retail stores) be money better spent? Will an event sponsorship suffice or would a branded feature (like Radisson's Sleep Number beds) be a more direct route to customers' hearts and minds? Will promotions have the same effect as an investment in enhanced sales training on customers' hot-buttons with products?

Thinking about issues outside marketing's strictest purviews will go a long way toward lessening the degrees of separation, not just between the brand and the customer, but between marketing and others in the organization. And that's how, over the long term, marketing will be able to expand its influence.

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