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How To Balance Push And Pull Marketing

2015 May 13

For decades, marketers plied their craft according to a simple formula:   Advertising creates awareness which in turn produces sales.  This was not, as many would argue, a mistaken belief.  Virtually all of the great brands of the 20th century were built using that model and many still prosper with it today.

However, it has become incomplete.  A variety of trends, including community marketing, digital technology, social media and mass personalization—just to name a few—have conspired against the traditional view that message and media are sufficient to create sales.

So today’s marketers have a serious challenge.  If the old model is broken, what should replace it?  Unfortunately, there is no easy answer.  Media budgets continue to play an important role in successful marketing programs, just as many of the trendy new tactics often fall short.  What we need is not a new model, but a more strategic way of thinking.

The Problem With Push

Push marketing, although until recently nobody ever called it that, has prospered for decades because it is based on a premise that is both simple and true:  If you want to sell something, you have to tell people about your product.  That, in essence, is what the big ad agencies get paid to do—craft messages and get them in front of the right audience.’

Yet push strategies ran into two problems.  The first was that cable TV and the Internet fragmented audiences significantly, narrowing targets and raising costs.  So many marketers found themselves priced out of the market, unable to reach significant numbers of viable prospects for a reasonable budget outlay.

The second problem is, if anything, even more challenging.  The idea of push marketing has always been to provoke a response, such as a phone call or a trip to a store.  But in a digital world, prospects will often engage in searching behavior on the Internet.  That activity can be tracked by competitors, who will retarget those customers with competing offers.

Clearly, marketing has changed forever.  Even when push marketing achieves its core objective—awareness—it generates leads for competitors almost as effectively as for the brand paying the media bills.  That’s no way to build a sustainable advantage.  So, not surprisingly, many have begun to try alternative approaches.

The Rise Of Pull

As marketers recognized that simply pushing messages at customers was losing its effectiveness, many started to think in terms of pulling people in through engaging consumers with a value exchange strategy.

Often, pull strategies are content focused.  L’Oreal’s Destination Beauty channel on YouTube, for example, offers videos that help its customers use its products more effectively.  Marketo, a company that sells marketing automation software, has created Marketo University to train and certify its users on the latest digital marketing techniques.

Zappos has turned its call center into an effective marketing platform.  Rather than using it to cold call prospects or pushing its customer service representatives to speed through calls, the company recognized that the call center could win customers over with superior service.  Its call center employees have been known to go to extraordinary lengths to delight customers.

Yet pull marketing techniques are not a panacea.  In fact, they can sometime backfire wildly. One famous case is Pepsi’s Refresh Project, which replaced the company’s traditional TV ads on the Super Bowl with a $20 million social initiative.  The results were a disaster, as the company lost market share and fell to third place in its category, behind Coke and Diet Coke.

Focusing On Objectives

While there are strong and passionate advocates on both sides of the push/pull marketing divide, the choice between them is a false one.  Rather than focusing on one set of tactics to the exclusion of another, what we should really be doing is applying suitable strategies to address a measurable set of marketing objectives.

Marketers have three core challenges: to make consumers aware of their products and services, to generate sales and to inspire consumers to become brand advocates.  Clearly, tactics will vary according to the particular challenges each brand faces.

The chart below shows the three core objectives of awareness, sales and advocacy, each of which is measurable by standard surveys. paired with strategies to address those needs.
Digital Strategy Framework
A brand that needs to build awareness would want to focus on push strategies to promote attention and evaluation of their products.  Promotions close to the point of purchase, in terms of both recency and proximity, help to drives sales. Pull strategies that encourage value exchange and build a community around the brand lead to advocacy.

Clearly, as competitive as the marketplace has become, no marketer cannot afford to take a “one size fits all” approach.  Brands must look at their competitive position and focus their efforts where they are most needed.

Putting The Brand’s Mission First

All too often, push and pull marketing strategies are seen as if they were on opposites sides of a great divide, with proponents of each lining up to defend their champion.  In actuality, the best marketers are the ones that are able to integrate them successfully.

Tesco regularly uses push marketing tactics to announce promotions, yet its virtual stores targeting commuters in South Korea are a great example of pull marketing at its best.  Both support its mission of offering high quality merchandise at competitive prices.

In a similar vein, L’Oreal’s Destination Beauty channel on YouTube succeeded because it supported the company’s longstanding dedication to helping women to look and feel beautiful.  Pepsi Refresh failed, in part, because it conflicted with its longstanding positioning as a young, carefree brand.

In the final analysis, it is the mission that must drive the strategy, not a preference for one set of tactics over another.  Smart marketing integrates push and pull strategies into a coherent whole.

– Greg


This article previously appeared in the Raconteur “Brand and Reputation” supplement in the Times of London

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