Three Things My Parents Taught Me About Marketing

Don’t believe the hype. Marketing isn’t complicated. It isn’t stressful. It isn’t expensive.

Or at least it doesn’t have to be those things.

How do I know that? My parents told me.

Allow me to explain.

Meet my parents

Meet Bob and Joan Donnelly. They’re both retired, my mom from teaching and my father from working on the shop floor at GE. Somehow they managed to raise three kids, work full-time and still have enough energy left to spend their golden years cruising all around the world. Both of them are hard-working, honest, salt-of-the-earth people. What you see is what you get.

If my parents are anything like your parents, they probably taught you some valuable life lessons. And if you’re anything like me, they summarized those life lessons in some pithy sayings that you heard over and over and over and over again…until they got lodged deeply in your brain.

As I think about modern marketing and try to separate the signal from the noise (and there’s a lot of noise), I often reflect on some of the advice they passed on to me.

For example….

“Keep it simple, stupid” (KISS)

This one is from my dad, and I refer back to it whenever I get too stuck in my head, when my desk is covered with ideas scribbled on paper, and even when I’m trying to choose from the dizzying array of laundry detergent at the grocery store.

When it comes to marketing, it reminds me to always go back to basics. Strip away the jargon, strip away the glitzy products, strip away the open-plan offices, and you get back to the essence of marketing: telling people about stuff so they buy it.

That’s it. At the end of the day, marketing is about telling people about your products and services so they buy them. (The fun is in the how!) 

And that feeds into the next bit of wisdom from my parents…

“It’s not about you”

Ah, yes. We marketers love awards. We love talking to one another at conferences about our newest shiny objects, preferably using the newest in-group terminology. We even love (in a way) whinging and moaning about “Sales” and “Senior Management” and everyone else who’s getting in the way of us being awesome. (Well, more awesome, to be exact.)

Us. Us. Us. Me. Me. Me.

But where’s the Them — as in, Customers?

Sure, we pay lip service to customer needs and say we’re the “voice of the customer” and all that malarkey. But if we’re honest, the busyness of marketing — we need our policies and procedures! — sometimes means customers get lost in the shuffle, lost in all the excitement, lost in all the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

What would my parents say if they were listening to all of this? Simple: Stop talking and start listening. Because it’s not about you.

On that note, one of the most profound marketing books I’ve read recently is Perry Marshall’s 80/20 Sales and Marketing. And it can be boiled down into one thought: Listen to your best customers and learn from them how to grow your business. And if you think about it, he’s right! Who else should you be listening to? The vendor selling the newest marketing snake oil?

Do we really talk to our best customers? Do we enter into their world? Probably not often, and definitely not consistently. (Who needs to talk to customers when we have Google Analytics, right?) Instead, we’re wrapped up in a warm, fuzzy blanket of self-importance called ME.

“If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail”

This one is about process. Marketers tend to get stressed out and in permanent “fire drill” mode because they have weak systems and processes. (No, the problem usually isn’t the VP of Sales pushing us around like the school bully who always stole your lunch money.)

Notice I said process, not plan. I’m a fan of having marketing goals, but I think a 12-month marketing plan, with every detail worked out to the nth degree, is a relic that needs to be put in a museum where it belongs.

But you do need a process for how the team should operate to drive the business forward — that “tells people about stuff so they buy it” — and yet is also flexible enough to accommodate urgent requests from “Senior Management” and insights from your customers. To create said process, you don’t need anything more than a whiteboard, a dry-erase marker and a strong cup of coffee. Try it and see. Your eyes will be opened.

The cash value of my parents (in a marketing content)

I call it the “So what?” question. (This one is from me, not my parents.) It’s a take-off on what the American philosopher William James called the cash value of an idea — that is, what the idea is worth in the real world.

So let’s recap three things my parents can teach us about marketing:

  1. Don’t overthink it
  2. Learn from your best customers
  3. Map out (and refine) your marketing processes

I’d say that applying these lessons to our marketing teams would result in metaphorical and very literal cash value.

Note: This is not a photo of my actual parents.


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